11 min read
Imposter Syndrome is something that so many professionals aim to overcome. However, the expectation that at some point it goes away could not be further from the truth. The key to dealing with Imposter Syndrome in your career is to stop trying to overcome it and instead embrace it. Instead of something you fear, allow it to fuel you to get to that next level in your career.
In the 17 years of my career thus far, I’ve finally come to accept one key thing, I’ll never shake Imposter Syndrome. I feel it every single day—the nagging voice whispering about how I’m not good enough, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes I’m a phony.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve spoken at conferences and taught workshops all over the world, or that my work has been published on Inside Design, The New York Times, and several other sites. Heck, I’m even writing a book and I doubt myself sometimes! Even while writing this, I shut my computer at least three times because I started to doubt whether I should finish this article.
No amount of morning routines, gratitude journals, meditation, or inspirational quotes will make these thoughts of self-doubt and inadequacy magically disappear forever. Most of the time, Imposter Syndrome looks a lot like this for me:
I say “yes” to something, like speaking at a conference or a new client project. And then I procrastinate and get even more stressed out because I’m working against the clock, in addition to all the negative internal dialogue.
After some reflection, I realized I tend to procrastinate because I worry the work won’t be good enough. But when I finally do the thing I said “yes” to, I realize, “Hey, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.” And then I think, “Ugh, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time worrying about that and stressing myself out!”
In a field where industry professionals of all career stages share ideas, opinions, and work around a very public campfire of social posts, it’s hard to avoid comparing yourself to others—which can quickly lead to feelings of self-doubt and negativity.
As soon as you start to doubt yourself, it’s like a lightning strike in a dry canyon, and it quickly grows into a raging internal fire of fear, shame, uncertainty, and negativity as you become consumed in the underlying thought: “What if I’m found out?”
So what have I done to deal with Imposter Syndrome?
Instead of worrying about Imposter Syndrome, in my career I’ve decided to accept that it’s not something that I’ll ever overcome. There is no end-point, no proverbial “there.” Instead, it’s a constant challenge, and I have to make an intentional choice to accept it, observe it, and oblige it.
My challenge to you: Stop trying to eliminate Imposter Syndrome and instead reframe it. Stop treating it as a problem, and see it as something that can propel you to the next level in whatever you’re working on.
Aim to trade doubt for determination so that you can be a better version of yourself. Stop worrying that you’re not good enough, and realize that you’re not there yet. Consciously decide to reject feelings of inadequacy and channel those feelings into ambition.
If you want to reframe how you think about Imposter Syndrome, then keep reading. Here’s what this article will cover:
- The connection between Imposter Syndrome and “flow”
- What happens in your brain when you enter a storm of Imposter Syndrome
- 5 things you can to do embrace Imposter Syndrome
Before we go any further, I should note that I’m not a neuroscientist. However, I’ve done a lot of research to educate myself on the topic, and my goal is to help take some of these concepts and make them relatable to your career. To understand Imposter Syndrome, we have to take a step back and explore the relationship between work, fulfillment, and the wiring of our brains.
Winning the lottery will not make you happy
Before we get to Imposter Syndrome, we need to talk about winning the lottery. Stick with me here!
When people win the lottery, the natural first question they’re asked is, “Will you quit your job?”
According to a survey by CareerBuilder in 2014, it’s almost even: 49% of people said they would leave their job, and 51% said they would stay.
The next logical question is, “Why would 51% people stay in their jobs after winning the lottery?”
The survey revealed that:
- 77% said they’d be bored if they didn’t work
- 76% said their work gave them a sense of accomplishment and purpose
- 42% said they wanted the financial security apart from the winnings
- 23% said they would miss their co-workers
Even though so many people complain about their job, the truth is this: our jobs provide a sense of fulfillment. This is the paradox of work.
In the 1980s, researchers at the University of Chicago did an experience study to understand the paradox of work. For the week-long study, they gave 400 people pagers because, well, this was way before the iPhone. The pager went off seven times a day for a week. Every time the pager went off, the participants had to rate their experience at that moment. The point of the study was to gauge people’s happiness at various points throughout the day.
The study concluded that people were happier and more fulfilled at work than during leisure hours. But why?
As it turns out, it’s not our jobs that make us happy…
Instead, our jobs provide a structured environment for us to reach a state of flow, and that flow state is what actually brings us fulfillment.
The relationship between Imposter Syndrome and the state of “flow”
Have you ever been working on something while listening to music, and then you realized you had no idea what songs played in the last 20 minutes?
Ever sat down to write something, struggled for a bit, and then the next thing you know, you had three pages of text and you felt like only 10 minutes had gone by?
These are all examples of being in a state of flow, or what some might refer to as being in the zone. When you’re this state, it’s as though you lose a sense of time, have mental blinders on, and are able to shut out everything else except the task you’re working on.
Why does this happen? To understand, we need to cover some basic neuroscience.
There’s a part of your brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for self-monitoring. In other words, this part of your brain is the home of that nagging voice in your head, the constant narrative of self-doubt, and your inner self-critic.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a neuroscientist. But it seems to me that based on everything this part of the brain controls, it’s also where Imposter Syndrome may reside.
When you’re in a state of flow, your brain deactivates the part that controls Imposter Syndrome
In 2008, researchers at Johns Hopkins University did a study to understand what happens to people’s brains when they’re in a state of flow. The researchers recruited jazz musicians and used an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to see what happened when the musicians moved from a state of playing music they’d previously memorized to a state of playing freely and improvising.
The study concluded that when we’re in a flow state where we’re exercising creativity and improvisation, our brains turn off inhibition and turn up creativity.
In other words, the part of your brain that’s responsible for self-monitoring–the dorsolateral prefrontal cortext–is in effect deactivated. So when you’re in a flow state, you experience more liberation, less hesitation, higher creativity, and a decreased fear of risk.
This is exactly why so much of your greatest work is done when you’re in the zone or in a state of flow. Ideas can move fast and freely, without being detoured and denounced by that internal dialogue—because the internal dialogue is silenced.
This realization of just how powerful your brain is and the control it can have over your creativity, productivity, and the crippling negative self-talk that comes with Imposter Syndrome is crucial if you want to truly use Imposter Syndrome to your advantage rather than allow it to sabotage your career.
5 ways to embrace Imposter Syndrome in your career
In her TED Talk, Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
As curious folks who research, tinker, and create for a living, we’re bound to be wrong. By definition, our career path sets us up for frequent encounters with Imposter Syndrome. The blessing and curse of creating anything is that when you put it out into the world, people will react to it—whether you like it or not.
Before we ever finish our creation, we’re already playing out in our minds how people may react and receive it. Instead of letting it paralyze you to the point of inaction, you need to learn how to get ahead of it and instead channel that energy into developing yourself as a professional, in whatever your craft is.
As soon as that negative narrative starts running in your head, it’s like a sink-hole. It pulls you into procrastination and you begin to wallow and worry about the project you need to do.
The longer you stay in this state, the more negativity you expose yourself to. And when you expose yourself to more of this negativity, eventually you start to believe it.
But when you cross the starting line, you can finally:
- Stop wondering about the unknown and deal with reality
- Get into the flow state faster and decrease the volume on the negative thoughts
- See tangible progress which helps create momentum to keep going.
2. Stop comparing yourself to others
Take control of all the inputs that enter your brain. Stop scrolling through Twitter, reading Medium, or browsing design sites for hours on end. Though there is create content out there, if you’re not careful, you’ll sink into a comparison coma.
In your head, you think, “Everyone else knows way more than me!” and you start to doubt yourself and spiral into negativity. But the truth is that everyone else is thinking to themselves, “Everyone else knows way more than me!”
The problem is that we see ourselves from the inside and we see others from the outside. This happens because we rarely talk about it.
You have no idea what that person’s story is and how they go to where they are today. We all had a beginning. Always remember that what you see externally doesn’t tell the whole story.
3. Find a community
If you’re going to show up, create, take risks, and put ideas out there, then you also need a community. This is crucial because when you create you’ll face criticism from others, but also from yourself because we’re our own worst critic.
A community will be a crash pad for you and pick you up after you’re overcome by rejection from others or yourself. That’s why you must surround yourself with other people who are encouraging and authentic.
As soon as you find your “people,” things will get much easier. You’ll realize that all the things that you thought only happen to you, are actually things that everyone else deals with. But you can’t discover this when you’re trying to do it all alone.
If you’re looking for a community to join, check out my UX community. I’m continually blown away the honest conversations that happen there and how people support each other when, for example, they get ghosted by yet another job interview, and how they celebrate with each other when they finally do get their dream role.
4. Create a routine
Many creative people have specific routines they use to help train their minds to get into the flow state faster. I don’t have any specific science to back this up, but here are a few things that work for me:
- Know when you work best. For me, it’s either first thing in the morning or late at night. I structure my day to allow for my most challenging tasks to be done during these times.
- Have go-to playlists. I find that music helps me focus. Sometimes, I put the same song on repeat if I realize it’s helped me stay in the zone.
- Do something active. I love working out and I find that after a great workout ideas come easily. I think this is because when I’m working out, my subconscious is working on ideas.
- Know when to stop. If I feel myself wrestling with an idea or I can’t seem to make any progress, I give myself permission to stop. I go run errands or do mundane tasks instead of sitting there feeling like a fraud for hours on end.
5. Document your wins
In our constant struggle to reach the next level in whatever we’re doing, we often fail to pause to recognize our accomplishments. This is why it’s crucial to document your successes along the way.
One way to do this is to have what I call a Career Project Diary. The idea is that it’s a single document where you catalog all the projects you’ve worked on. Not only will this serve as a reminder of all the great work you’ve done, but it will also help you as you work on your UX portfolio or prepare for performance reviews.
The narrative you tell yourself drives Imposter Syndrome. The key is to rewrite that narrative.
In her work, Brené Brown talks a lot about the power of the stories we tell ourselves. She writes:
“The most difficult part of our stories is often what we bring to them—what we make up about who we are and how we are perceived by others. Yes, maybe we failed or screwed up a project, but what makes that story so painful is what we tell ourselves about our own self-worth and value.”
She goes on to explain the deep power that stories have on our brains. In this interview, she says that when we’re in the midst of a struggle, our brains instantly want to make sense of what’s going on. That’s why when something happens, your brain starts to go a mile a minute as it tries to rationalize why something happened or rapidly fast-forward to play out the worst-case scenario. But here’s the most important part: Brené says that “our brain chemically rewards us for that story, whether it’s accurate or not.”
So when you feel those first signs of Imposter Syndrome creeping in and the negative thoughts and feelings of fraud, your brain in effect feeds on that—even though it’s not true.