Designers on spotting and overcoming imposter syndrome

Ever felt like you’re not good enough to do your job and all your success is just a coincidence? Explore what pro designers have to say about the imposter syndrome and ways to give it hot.

readymag blog_designers on the imposter syndrome

According to the Journal of General Internal Medicine, approximately 82% of students and employed people all over the world feel like they don’t own their success; they just feel lucky to achieve something, and feel that others will soon realize that they’re mere “imposters.” Creatives are among these self-doubters because creative professions involve a high dose of uncertainty, expectations, and publicity.

To navigate the topic of imposter syndrome and get some personal experiences and advice, we’ve invited Grace Ling and Varya Fomicheva, two female designers with quite different opinions on imposter syndrome, to reflect on the subject.

Meet the speakers:

Grace Ling is the founder of Design Buddies, a design community that helps designers improve their skills and land jobs. She’s also a UX Designer at Electronic Arts.

Varya Fomicheva is a designer at Readymag.

What is Imposter syndrome

The term is used to describe cases when skilled professionals, despite clear evidence of their success, are eaten by continuous doubts about their abilities and the fear of being exposed as fraud.

The concept was introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, clinical psychologists at Oberlin College in Ohio. They interviewed 150 female students and professionals and revealed that many competent women credited their success, including high salaries and promotions, to external factors. The researchers initially focused on women, but later documented that the syndrome is common for all humans in different professional settings and from different ethnic groups.

Later, Clance developed the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, which is still used to identify the syndrome despite being published in 1985. You can answer the test questions to find out if you’re in the risk zone or already have imposter syndrome.

How imposter syndrome can influence you

Varya Fomicheva recalls her own feelings when she realized that imposter syndrome was getting in her way: “I always thought that slightly lower self-esteem was good for my growth, so my self-criticizing never bothered me. I only realized I had a problem when I saw that my inner critic went beyond the limits of reason: I grew sure that the high evaluation of my work was somebody’s mistake, that I was being invited to participate in great projects by mistake, and that I’d been hired for my dream job by chance”.

Low self-esteem or an overwhelming feeling of failure can make you unable to boost your skills or do any work at all. You might:

  • Have trouble sharing ideas, thinking that your opinion isn’t valuable.
  • Refuse challenging projects out of fear of failure.
  • Procrastinate because you’re anxious.
  • Over-prepare and double-check.
  • Get extremely stressed, burn out, or develop depression.

Although imposter syndrome doesn’t seem like a joyful experience, some may find an additional boost to learn and progress through it.

Grace Ling shares her approach: “I think imposter syndrome means that you’re growing, and it only becomes negative when it stops you from taking action. I feel glad when I have this feeling: it means I’ve been given the opportunity to grow, so I embrace it and choose not to let it slow down my life. I put myself in rooms I don’t belong in and see what happens.”

Ways to combat the feeling

“Instead of looking at other people as competitors, focus on what you can learn from them.” — Grace Ling

While trying to cope with growing anxiety and low self-esteem, people might develop unhealthy coping mechanisms instead of finding the source and seeking help. While no one-size-fits-all cure exists, some wise advice and frameworks might help.

Grace Ling, who is in charge of a community with a vital audience of 150,000 creatives, comments that “imposter syndrome is shared among many designers, both beginners and experienced. I think everyone experiences imposter syndrome when they chase bigger goals.”

Ling also gives her advice on getting over the syndrome:

  • Stop worrying about being perfect. Life is all a fun, iterative experiment. Keep creating and doing, making mistakes, and learning from them. 
  • Instead of looking at other people as “competitors,” focus on what you can learn from them. Maybe even collaborate and create something cool together. Also, don’t compare yourself with others. You’ve done so many great things yourself. 
  • Try new things, add more skill sets, and don’t wait for anyone’s permission. As a designer, you can consider exploring visual design, psychology, business, marketing, front end, art, and more. These skills will complement your design craft and help you collaborate more effectively with your partners. Join communities, take on new projects, and keep learning. 
“In challenging times, I recall and list my success because there’s no way that absolutely all of my achievements were the result of coincidence.”—Varya Fomicheva

Varya Fomicheva supports Grace’s Ling thought: “No amount of success alone can cure imposter syndrome because there will always be someone greater than you and someone who doesn’t like you. You have to deal with how you feel about yourself.

I recommend talking about your feelings more often and discussing them with different people to remember that you’re not alone in your struggle. When you discover that a pro you’ve always looked up to also has imposter syndrome, you’ll feel more validation and support.

It’s impossible to stop comparing yourself to others, but you can compare yourself to yourself from the past more often to see your growth and development. In challenging times, I recall and list my success because there’s no way that absolutely all of my achievements were the result of coincidence.”

The Impostor Syndrome Institute also offers a few steps to regain the feeling of self-worth at work:

  • Separate your own views of your skills from the actual feedback you get. Things like formal evaluations, promotions, and awards are more objective than your feelings about being an imposter might be.
  • Take part in competitions: don’t let self-doubt stop you from showing your capabilities.
  • Find a mentor or someone in your workplace who supports you and believes in your potential.
  • Learn to enjoy your achievements and accept compliments; don’t dismiss or downplay them.

Want to read more personal stories and advice on career and life from celebrated designers? Give our freshly published editorial “Navigating career: Designers’ milestones” an eye.