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How to Navigate Imposter Syndrome as a UX Designer

how to Jun 14, 2021
woman sitting at a desk looking worried

Since the term was coined in the 1970s, imposter syndrome has become part of the academic and professional lexicon around the globe. 

Imposter syndrome refers to feelings of inadequacy in the workplace. People experiencing imposter syndrome might feel like they have fooled their colleagues into believing they are competent or talented, and they fear a single mistake will reveal them as a phony. 

If you find yourself relating to this description, you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is a pretty common phenomenon—some reports have found that about 70% of all people have felt like an imposter at some point in their careers. 

Imposter syndrome is prevalent in the amorphous world of UX. When left unchecked, it can cause significant damage to your self-confidence and your UX career. 

At Avocademy, we want to help students embrace their achievements and feel empowered to learn UX design despite their mistakes. In this article, we’ll define the many types of imposter syndrome and provide tips for overcoming related setbacks (without feeling guac-ward!). 

If you’re ready to reject perfectionism and celebrate the learning process, keep reading.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

Like any syndrome, imposter syndrome is a collection of experiences rather than a single symptom. In general, “imposters” feel out of place in their work or school. They may think they do not deserve to be part of their team, or that their accomplishments are the result of luck, not talent and hard work. 

Here are just a few common symptoms of imposter syndrome: 

  • Feeling like a fraud
  • Doubting your abilities
  • Fretting over small mistakes 
  • Attributing successes to outside factors rather than individual merits
  • Downplaying or brushing off compliments
  • Feeling defeated by any criticism, even when it’s helpful
  • Hiding your true self from coworkers and superiors for fear of being “found out”
  • Never asking questions to avoid appearing incompetent
  • Sabotaging your success through procrastination
  • Avoiding challenges for fear of failure
  • Setting unrealistically high goals and berating yourself for falling short
  • Using self-minimizing language, such as “I’m not sure, but maybe we could try...” or similar phrases
  • Overachieving to the point of distress and poor health


Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

Anyone can experience imposter syndrome. Even superstars and world leaders like Lady Gaga and Sonia Sotomayor have admitted to feeling inadequate, despite their remarkable accomplishments. 

Imposter syndrome is prevalent among high achievers, but women and minorities are especially likely to feel it. As you can probably guess, American workplaces are biased towards white men. Anyone outside this description, including LGBTQ+ individuals, often struggle to have their achievements and ideas recognized by others in the workplace. When corporate culture puts your identity at a disadvantage, it’s even harder to trust and celebrate your talents. 

Imposter syndrome can occur at any point in a person’s career. However, promotions, new degrees, and career changes can exacerbate these feelings, especially when you’re showered with praise. Working in a competitive field surrounded by talented people can also create feelings of inadequacy. 


Why Is Imposter Syndrome Common in UX Design? 

Imposter syndrome thrives in environments with unclear expectations. How can you know you’re up to scratch without any formal measurement for success? 

Unfortunately, fuzzy boundaries are the daily reality for many UX professionals. Unlike some fields, there are few clear definitions for what exactly a UX designer does. Often, job duties vary based on the company, and the cyclic and repetitive design process makes it extra hard to benchmark success.

UX designers also touch many parts of the product development process but rarely own the whole project. As such, some struggle to take credit for products that took an entire team and many months to create.

To make matters even more confusing, UX designers come from many different educational and professional backgrounds. Some are engineering wizards, some are brilliant visual artists, and some have web development experience. Some UX designers get master’s degrees, and some skip college altogether. It’s easy to feel like a failure when your colleagues possess a completely different skillset from your own. 

For UX designers, the imposter syndrome struggle is real. 


The 5 Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Manage Them

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr. Valerie Young separates imposter syndrome into 5 categories. Each type has a different root cause and a different correction strategy.

Feeling like an imposter? Dr. Young’s definitions might provide more insight into your experience. Here is a quick summary of the 5 types of imposter syndrome:

1. The Perfectionist

Perfectionists want their work to be 100% right, 100% of the time. Any flaw or mistake leads to feelings of failure. They feel shame when they can’t achieve their own extremely lofty goals, and they care as much about perfecting their process as they do about perfecting their work. 

Signs of a Perfectionist Type:

  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Micromanaging
  • Anxious feelings and self-induced pressure

Positive Self-Talk for Perfectionists:

  • “Mistakes are part of the learning process”
  • “Perfection does not exist”
  •  “I have achieved X, Y, and Z, and even though they are not perfect, I am proud”

Tip: Push yourself to act before you’re ready—there will never be a perfect time to start.

2. The Super-Person

While the perfectionist fixates on how well they accomplish something, the super-person focuses on how much they can accomplish. This type bases their self-worth on the number of projects they can sustain simultaneously. They take on multiple work endeavors at once and crave external validation. They feel shame when they can’t make everyone happy or handle each task on their plate.

Signs of a Super-Person Type: 

  • Trying to out-perform others
  • Multitasking to prove their worth 
  • Saying yes to each request
  • Struggling to relax and not making time for leisure or hobbies

Positive Self-Talk for Super-People

  • “I don’t need others’ praise to feel proud of myself”
  • “I can put my own needs first before helping others”
  • “I don’t have to excel at everything”

Tip: Try to view constructive criticism as a learning opportunity and not a suggestion that you aren’t enough (because you are!)

3. The Natural Genius

The natural genius believes that everything should come easily to them. They feel shame if they don’t master a new skill on the first attempt. Natural genius types care about how and when they accomplish something—if it takes too long, they consider themselves not talented and sometimes abandon the endeavor. 

Signs of a Natural Genius Type: 

  • Getting good grades and praise without much effort
  • Avoiding mentor figures
  • Avoiding projects that require learning a new skill
  • Avoiding using skills that do not come easily

  Positive Self-Talk for Natural Genius Types:

  • Meaningful achievements require lifelong learning and work ethic— natural ability can only take me so far”
  • “Everyone starts as a beginner”
  • Tip: Identify skills you’d like to improve and view them as works-in-progress rather than insurmountable flaws

Tip: Break large projects into smaller chunks that seem less daunting

4. The Soloist

Soloists struggle to acknowledge their achievements if someone else is involved. They have a “lone wolf” mentality and rarely ask for help. If anyone assists them in any endeavor, they experience shame and feel unable to take credit. 

Signs of a Soloist Type:

  • Refusing or avoiding help from others
  • Disliking group projects, team environments, or mentor relationships
  • Giving others credit but rarely acknowledging their own contributions

Positive Self-Talk for Soloist Types:

  • “Everyone has something to offer, including me. We can all achieve more by working together.” 
  • Tip: Seek out group work, and observe how collaboration improves the results

Tip: Make a list of people you have learned from, and consider seeking a new mentor!

5. The Expert

The expert feels shame when they lack knowledge related to their field of work. They fear being exposed as inexperienced or uninformed. Expert types focus on what and how much they know, and like the perfectionist, even a small gap in their knowledge feels like a personal failure.

Signs of an Expert Type: 

  • Avoiding applying to jobs unless they meet every single requirement
  • Constantly seeking new training
  • Feeling stressed when someone calls them an expert because they fear they won’t live up to it

Tips and Positive Self-Talk for Expert Types:

  • “I trust what I know, but it’s okay if I don’t know everything. If I need to, I can always learn something new.”
  • “ I don’t need to compare myself to more experienced people.”
  • Tip: Mentor junior colleagues to share your expertise and see your relative learning progress
  • Tip: Learn as you go, rather than trying to stockpile skills you may never need


Tips for UX Designers Facing Imposter Syndrome

Each type of imposter syndrome has unique implications in a UX setting. A perfectionist or natural genius might struggle with the iterative design process and feel shame when a design fails during preliminary testing. A soloist might struggle to work on a team of UX designers, and an expert might feel like they can’t keep up with the rapidly evolving UX knowledge base.

Here are a few extra tips for navigating imposter syndrome in the amorphous and fast-paced UX industry:

  • Recognize that Imposter Syndrome Isn’t Just for Junior Designers

UX/UI design is a growing field, and there can be intense competition for entry-level roles. New designers who joined UX bootcamps or UX mentorship programs might feel nervous when they land their first UX role. We encourage newcomers to remember that senior UX designers can experience imposter syndrome just as much! In the tech world, and every other career, people figure things out as they go along. The best way to learn UX design is by doing it!

  • Remember Your Why

 When you start to feel like your work isn’t good enough, remember why you chose this career path. The great thing about UX design careers is that we work to help people. When you feel like a fraud, remember that empathy, and not just talent, makes you a UX designer. After all, failed designs pave the way for better products that meet your users’ needs. 

  • Clarify Expectations

One of the best ways to overcome self-doubt is to open up paths for communication. If you’re not sure how to succeed in your role, request one-on-one time with your manager. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can better meet their expectations and needs. With clearer goals, you’ll know how you can improve without pressuring yourself to be perfect. Feedback is your friend!

An Important Note about Imposter Syndrome

As mentioned above, imposter syndrome is particularly common among women and minorities because corporate culture favors white men. Imposter syndrome advice often focuses on how individuals can overcome their feelings and fails to recognize larger systems at play. 

As Tulshyan and Burey point out for the Harvard Business Review, the best way to combat self-doubt in the workplace is to create environments that value diverse leadership styles. 

If you’re practicing self-care and navigating imposter symptoms but still struggling to thrive in your role, it may be time to evaluate your work environment. After all, you can’t grow as a UX designer if your workplace is exclusionary or unhealthy. Here are a few red flags to watch out for:

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment 

  • You are overlooked for promotions, even when you have more experience and qualifications than your cohorts
  • Your ideas are ignored, but when colleagues present similar ideas they are immediately adopted
  • You feel excluded from workplace friend groups or key projects, even when you express interest and positivity
  • Your managers or coworkers make openly (or subtly) racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory comments

Imposter syndrome can make it hard to trust your experiences, but it’s important to listen to your gut when these problematic behaviors occur. If a workplace does not value your unique talents or discriminates against you, it’s time to report inappropriate behavior to HR and look for opportunities elsewhere.  

Find Your Mentor at Avocademy

Self-doubt can impact anyone. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or just joining the workforce, chatting with a mentor can help you find your path to success and self-confidence. Professional relationships are one of the best ways to grow your career. 

If you’re interested in learning more about UX/UI design or joining a UX mentorship program, schedule a free mentorship call today! We’re here to help you shine. 

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