The impostor syndrome

The impostor syndrome

Tina has always been a creative person. Drawing, painting, music, singing…you name it, she’s tried it all and she was quite good at it. But she was the most creative in solving problems.

It could be a broken broom, lost item, or life challenges her friends shared with her, she could always find options for them. 

When she entered the grown up world, she became a teacher. That was just another way of being a problem solver. But years in school made her feel flat. She wanted more structured work and she wanted to go back to the core of creativity. She became a designer. Learning from anyone she could, she grew fast as a designer and even got a bit of  recognition from people in the industry.

One day she got an order to create a design for a nice cake lady. Tina was her friend and yet the lady offered to pay. “No way!” Said Tina “Take me for lunch instead.” The deadline was in 2 weeks. 

Monday started off amazingly – the excitement was making her fingers itch. She sat down and stared at her empty Sketch file. Her mind was overflown with thoughts: “Shit! How do I do this? I’ve never done a webpage for a cake master. Really, Tina, you’re a fraud, why did you say yes! I can’t do this.” She stood up and left the screen blank for the next couple of days.

Being a great problem solver as she was, she eventually got back to work, did research, talked to the friend a bit more to get more specific requirements, and in the end created design for a beautiful simple website. It was modern and light.

Ready to send an email with designs, she felt nauseates. All the voices came back. All doubts were creeping from the back of her mind. But she did it. She wrote an email, attached an apology – just in case she completely failed the design, took a deep breath and pressed Send. 

She waited nervously. 

Her friend replied. She was over the moon happy with her design. In the end they got together and the friend did buy Tina lunch, but she also gave her an envelope with a little “tip”. Relief spread over Tina’s body and with a smile on her face she thought: “Wow, I was really lucky! This wasn’t so bad.”

“Sh**! I’ll have to do this again.”

How many of you could see yourself in Tina’s story? Her story is made up, but I cannot deny that I’ve felt like this many times in my life.

Tina believed her success was due to luck. She could not accept that it was due to her countless hours of studying, her experience and just because of who she was as a person and designer.

We could say she is a classic case of a person with impostor syndrome.

What is Impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome or an impostor phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon which makes people believe that their success is the product of luck rather than skill.

Though all people are susceptible to it, the most vulnerable group is successful women.

The syndrome was first defined and explained by American Psychologists Pauline Clance and Susanne Imes in the 1978 journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, & Practice:

“The term “impostor phenomenon” is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women…. Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Clance, Imes: 1978

How do you recognize the imposter syndrome?

First you need to be honest with yourself and take a good look back. Are there any successes in your past? If yes, how do you fell about them?

A few common thoughts that are good indicators that you might suffer from the impostor syndrome in different contexts:

Getting a job … “What if my boss finds out that I’m a fraud?!”

Making a mistake … “I’ve ruined it all! Someone will be angry at me!”

High stakes project … “F***! S***! This will be a disaster.”

Winning an award … “Anyone could get it.” “Pure luck. LOL”

Uncontrollable situation … Just pure overthinking at it’s best.

Given an opportunity … “Hmmm, why me? There must be a catch.”

Sounds familiar?

Looking at your own feelings of self worth is a good next step. How do you see yourself in life?

Still not sure?

You can take an Impostor syndrome test. Take the results with a grain of salt, but still they should give you some insight.

Do not confuse the impostor syndrome with actually knowing that you are not there yet

I am always a bit weary when students tells me that they have imposter syndrome. I’ll be brutally honest now, but it comes from a very good place, if you’re just starting out, and you feel overwhelmed, you feel like you don’t have enough knowledge, like you’ll fail, make a fool of yourself, never be good enough, your work is shit … you are probably right. But guess what, knowing all this, I’d hire you and teach you. I would believe that you will achieve great things in the future. Why? Because you’re realistic!

Students that think they know it all, scare me. They do, really. But not because of their greatness, but because I take pride in helping people get a good job, change career, reach for their dreams and seeing students with a huge ego is scary. I am realistic to know that I might fail in helping them achieve all that.

So if you feel like you’re not there and you’ve just started…good job! Go and watch this short movie The Gap.

You think you have the bugger? What now?

First and foremost, do not let it freeze you! Make a step. And then another, and another, and so on and on… For me, the most tragic stories are the ones where I see potential in people, but these people cannot go past their own history, self doubt, or self-destruction. So, let’s go into a couple of steps that will help you break free.

9+1 steps to break free of the impostor syndrome:

1. Admit to yourself that you have an imposter syndrome.

2. Look back. Write down all your past successes. Do not asses them. Just write them down and look at how many there are.

3. Ever got positive feedback? Write it down and have it on a wall where you can see it all the time. Always answer with a THANK YOU to positive feedback.

4. Got constructive criticism with ideas on how to make your work better? Great! Write it down as well and learn from it.

5. Avoid explaining your success as pure luck or a combination of being in the right place at right time. Sure, sometimes luck helps, BUT what have you done for the success? Keep a diary of small victories and successes.

6. Get a support system. Find a group of people that can understand your struggles and share your success and failures with them. Learn from one another.

7. Write down a reminder: Do not compare with seniors/leads in the industry! Compare to yourself. See your progress.

8. You have a gift! Share it with the world. You think your design skills, your problem solving skills, your coaching skills, you xy skills, are extremely common? They.Are.Not. Share your work.

9. You failed? One failure is not the end of the world. Learn from it! Remember that you know exactly where you want to be and make a step by step plan.

9 is the number of transformation. +1 makes it a 10, which is your win. +1 today is knowledge that it is okay if you reach out  for help when you need it. You do not need to do this on your own. Having a support system is so important, but sometimes it’s just not enough. Sometimes you just need a bit of professional help and that is perfectly OKAY!

Further reading:

Until next time, stay strong and shine,
Pia

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