Photo by Paula May on Unsplash

After many months of not seeing my family, I’m finally sat down to have dinner with them. I’m still trying to explain to my grandmother what the hell a Product Designer does. If you have a similar job, you probably know that’s no easy feat. There’s a good number of loud conversations going on at the same time — as you’d expect from any good Italian family, and I’m struggling to cut through the noise to speak to her. Judging by the look on her face I’m not doing a great job, but I can tell she’s proud.

It’s the 4th of May and it’s almost been a month since I lost my job, but I’m excited to be just one week away from a new adventure as the only Product Designer at a SaaS startup. Having worked in a 1000+ people workforce before, this was quite the jump. 

Grandma asks me a very innocent question after I’m done confusing her:

“That sounds really exciting, dear! Do you feel ready?”

I reply that I am most certainly excited and feel more ready than ever. I excuse myself and go take a break from the noise, take a nap, and wait for my inevitable death by food coma.

But to my surprise, I can’t drift asleep as easily as I thought. Grandma’s question keeps resounding in my head like a broken record. Am I excited? But more importantly, am I really ready?

All of a sudden, I was dealing with an acute case of Imposter Syndrome. Of course I wasn’t ready! Who was I kidding? I haven’t worked in a startup before, I don’t know a thing about it!

If you feel like you have conversations like this in your head far too often, this article is just for you. I’d like to share what works for me when Imposter Syndrome shows up and what I try to do (and not do) to deal with it. Let’s start with defining what Imposter Syndrome is first.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

The above is the textbook definition for it, according to Wikipedia. But in more practical terms, Imposter Syndrome is a consequence of:

  • Doubting your accomplishments, despite the evidence that says otherwise;
  • Not believing you deserve the success you have, or downplay it so much that you don’t think it’s a success altogether;
  • Believing that good things happen just because of luck and good timing.

While it’s not recognised as an actual disorder, Imposter Syndrome effects your psyche in all kinds of debilitating ways, causing anxiety, stress, shame and sometimes, even depression.

Why does it show up?

According to Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart, this is what is going on in your brain and body when feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome show up: 

The fear of “being found out” could be associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and that the “not deserving” would correlate with lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin which relates to mood, and low levels of dopamine which are connected to reward and motivation. Whether you are male or female, the lower your confidence, the lower your testosterone levels.

Basically, in what seems like a chain reaction, your body hormones and mood are highly imbalanced, so they create a nasty chemical cocktail of shame, stress and fear. 

In this short video, Dr. Swart does a great job of explaining what triggers Imposter Syndrome, as well as the one basic thing that could prevent it from showing up. 

How do you make it go away?

If you feel like you’re an imposter, but you’re not intentionally trying to be one, it means you’re not it. But obviously, that’s not enough for anyone to make it all disappear.

Most things that involve negative self-talk and how we perceive things can absolutely be managed and even reversed into a positive. Fantastic, isn’t it? The part most people don’t like to hear is that it’s hard work. But it makes sense, after all, nobody gets a six-pack after one day of working out. 

Here are a few of the do’s and don’ts to practice regularly to manage your Imposter Syndrome, and limit its frequency in showing up.

❌ Don’ts

Don’t compare yourself to others

Imposter Syndrome can be easily sparked by our tendency to compare ourselves to others. Comparison makes us feel inferior (or at times superior) than others. This way of thinking is toxic in every shape and form and there’s no way to benefit from it. You are different from anyone else, you have a different way of thinking and a different way of doing things. As Jordan Peterson says:

“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” 

— Jordan Peterson

Don’t obsess over attaining perfection

I’m a long time perfectionist and constantly judge how I do things, doesn’t matter what it is, I want it to be “ready” before anyone else can see it. If you keep judging your work and how you do things, when is it ever going to be good enough? You guessed it: never. You don’t have to be the best in the world, and no one is expecting you to be. It’s good to be striving for best, but it’s not to be confused with being a perfectionist. Be content with what your best looks like now, get things done, and strive to do it even better next time.

I have to say that I’ve always believed perfectionism is more of a disease than a quality. I do try to go with the flow but I can’t let go.

 — Rowan Atkinson

Don’t think you can do everything 

As a product designer, I feel that I’m always expected to do or know everything, with such a broad skill set, it kind of comes naturally. If you are on my same boat, do yourself a favour and stop now. It’s not healthy nor realistic to think that you can do everything, and better yet, you’re not supposed to either.

If you try to please all, you please none.

— Aesop

Don’t let it limit your courage to go after new opportunities

One of the worst things about Imposter Syndrome is that it limits your courage. To act on the things that get you excited, you need the courage to take action on them. Don’t let Imposter Syndrome hold you back when you want to try something new, take on a challenge, or simply want to enjoy what you’re doing without worries. Don’t let it limit your courage and influence your choices.

Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

— Winston Churchill

✅ Do’s

Draw the line 

Be honest with yourself and the people around you, so you don’t create false expectations about what you can really do. When someone asks you to do something that you haven’t done before — or are not familiar with — just say you can’t do it yet and propose an alternative of what you can do instead. This is a great way to self-eradicate the pressure of your own self-made expectations. You’re expected to help in the way that you say you can.

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible

 — Francis of Assisi

Count your wins 

Record any positive feedback and compliments you receive, take screenshots of them, write them down on your phone and stick them all in a folder somewhere. Whenever you feel like a failure, go back to reading those nice words for just one minute. You’ll be surprised how compliments and good feedback easily build up in the course of a week. Counting your wins will make you see things for what they are (i.e. you’re not shit after all).

There are two things people want more than sex and money… recognition and praise.

— Mary Kay Ash

Talk to your peeps

Talk to your mentor, your trusted colleague, your spouse, or your dog, and externalise what you’re thinking. Share how you feel, be real with the people you trust and value. Ask them to give you real feedback on your situation, ask what they think you could do, sit back and listen. Take the positive and treasure it, take the criticism and work on it to become a better person.

Communication — the human connection — is the key to personal and career success. 

— Paul J. Meyer

Learn CBT

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviours, and it teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems. It’s explained in this short video. Don’t think this is something weird because the word therapy is in it, this is one of the best, most proven methods to break down a problem and literally change how you feel about it.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts 

— Marcus Aurelius

Take good care of yourself

Think of everything that you should be doing but aren’t doing. What things come to mind? For me right now is taking time away to pursue my hobbies, doing more Brazilian jiu-jitsu and pushing myself to think better. Whether it’s eating healthy or being more knowledgeable, start with one thing that you know it’s good for you.

Work on yourself more than you do on your job.

— Jim Rohn

Conclusion

If you’ve got to this point in the article, it means that you care about bettering yourself and you’re through with Imposter Syndrome. If you experience it often, here’s what I know for sure: in your life, your job and business, you are most definitely a little better and a little smarter than you think you are. Remind yourself of this as much and as often as you can. 

I truly hope this helped you, if it did, please consider sharing it with others 🙏

Thanks for reading 🙂


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