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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
Positive Self-Talk for Perfectionists:
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:
Positive Self-Talk for Super-People
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:
Positive Self-Talk for Natural Genius Types:
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:
Positive Self-Talk for Soloist Types:
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:
Tips and Positive Self-Talk for Expert Types:
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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.