Imposter syndrome in user centred design, and how to beat it

I surveyed 100 user centred designers. Here’s what they said.

A woman curled up in a chair, looking unhappy. Her thoughts swirl above her in a dark mass of angry faces, broken hearts, question marks and scribbles.
Image by pikisuperstar
  • Context
  • What is imposter syndrome?
  • Survey results: some basic breakdowns (lots more charts on Flourish)
  • How to beat imposter syndrome: loads of advice from survey respondents
  • Conclusion

Context

A couple months back, a young member of the UX Glasgow meetup suggested we do an evening on imposter syndrome and mental health. It ended up being our most over-subscribed and well-attended event so far, which both warmed and broke my heart: it’s good to talk, to be open about our struggles, and wow there are a lot of folk struggling just now 🙁

Our guest speakers covered the mental health of design teams, ADHD and neurodiversity, happiness, self care, and how to breathe (slides and more on the event webpage), and I signed up to lead a discussion on imposter syndrome.

I thought I’d just do a prompt slide and encourage chat around ‘What works for you?’ but the more I read up, the more interested I got. I wondered if there was any link between imposter syndrome and the type of role you’re in, or where you are into your career. Then I learned about the ‘5 imposter types’ and just had to know more, so the night before the meetup I threw together a quick survey. As you do.

After many happy hours noodling with spreadsheets, breaking data-vis packages and trying to remember how to write, here’s what I’ve learned.

Google Sheets goes wonderfully wonky sometimes! I also broke Flourish.

[Disclaimer: I’m not doing statistics here: I’ve no idea if this was a representative sample so I’m not extrapolating anything, just reporting on what this particular group of 100 people said.]

What is imposter syndrome?

To me it’s a very specific kind of low self-esteem where you doubt your own abilities DESPITE your success. I won’t go into more detail as there are already many excellent and well-referenced pieces about it.

Instead, here’s how some of the 100 described imposter syndrome making them feel:

  • “like I’m going to be ‘found out’ by peers”
  • “Am I good enough to be doing this? Feeling out of my depth and conscious that I don’t have all the answers”
  • “Fear of being found out as being just little old me trying to do my best”
  • “even excellent praise is a fluke”
  • “feelings of being overwhelmed leading to inertia and not actually doing the work!”

For me, it can suck all the pleasure and sense of achievement out of a job well done. It’s awful.

Survey results

Q1: Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome?

  • Yes and I have it right now (75 people out of 100)
  • Yes in the past but not now (19 people)
  • Not sure (6 people)
  • No never (0 people)

94% of the user centred designers who answered my survey said they have imposter syndrome right now or had it in the past. The rest weren’t sure. No-one at all said they’ve never had it.

Of course the survey was explicitly ABOUT imposter syndrome, so people who don’t relate were unlikely to respond. And if you answered ‘No never’ then you didn’t get asked any more questions, meaning there’s a chance some people changed their answer so they could see the rest of the survey…

But I think the initial WOW of that 94% is still valid.

Splitting the responses by role level was interesting:

Chart created in Flourish

A third of students were not sure if they’ve experienced imposter syndrome, aah the innocence! It’s no surprise this group also had the least experience of beating it, with none saying they’d had it in the past but not now.

A very large majority of people in junior and mid level roles were currently experiencing imposter syndrome: 80% of the juniors and 83% of the mids.

More people in advanced roles had managed to beat imposter syndrome: 23% of seniors and a massive 60% of directors said they’d had it in the past but not now. So seniority might not stop us feeling like we’re going to get caught any minute, but there’s hope we can learn how to deal with it over time.

Q5: What type(s) of imposter are you, or were you?

This question was ‘Select all that apply’.

  • Perfectionist (58 people out of 100)
    You set impossibly high standards for yourself and beat yourself up when you don’t reach them.
  • Expert (52 people)
    You expect to know everything and feel ashamed when you don’t.
  • Superhero (43 people)
    You feel you should be able to excel at every role you take on in your life.
  • Natural Genius (17 people)
    You tell yourself that everything must be handled with ease, otherwise it’s not ‘natural talent’.
  • Soloist (12 people)
    You believe work must be accomplished alone, and refuse to take credit if you received any kind of assistance.

The ‘5 imposter types’ were identified by Dr Valerie Young, researcher, educator and author of the most well known book about imposter syndrome. I think they’re a really helpful way to understand how our minds can work against us.

The types describe our self-perception: they’re not how we want others to see us, they are what we think we should actually be!

(Yes, imposter syndrome can involve worrying about what others think of us, but there are extra layers to the insecurity because even if people say we’re doing great, we don’t believe them or we think we’ve duped them.)

My first thought on seeing the results above was that the low number of Soloists chimes nicely with the idea of user centred design being a team sport 🤗Whatever else what we believe about ourselves, we mostly know we’re meant to work together.

There’s definitely some overlap between the 5 types — I relate to 3 of them — so I made this question ‘select all that apply’. 63 out of 100 people ticked 2 or more types. No-one ticked all 5.

Here’s an idea of how the types overlapped:

Created in MetaChart — interactive version

Clearly we are a tribe of Perfectionist and Expert imposter types, with 83 out of 100 people ticking one or both of those. Add in the Superheroes and that’s 93 of us covered. Is there something about UCD that attracts Perfectionist Expert Superheroes? Or is the balance similar in other professions? I don’t know, but you can bet I’ll be looking into it further.

Want more charts?

I also asked about gender (sort of) and what fields of UCD people work in. You’ll find interactive breakdowns of all the questions in various combinations in my first ever Flourish story.

How to beat imposter syndrome

The survey ended with a free text field for people to share their tips and tricks on what helped them beat imposter syndrome, even temporarily. My heart goes out to the 9 who reported that nothing works, or that “I do X to get by but it’s not sustainable” 😬 I urge you to have a rummage through the suggestions below and see if there’s something you haven’t tried yet.

I’ve sorted the tips into 4 themes:

  • Recognise it in the first place
  • Deal with it in the moment
  • Deal with it medium term
  • Beat it for good

Recognise it in the first place

23 people mentioned their “OMG it’s not just me!” moments, or the power of understanding and putting a name to the problem.

Read about how imposter syndrome affects hugely successful people like Jacinda Ardern, David Tennent (video) and celebs galore.

And read about the experiences of other people in the UCD community like content designer Lauren Tormey, and software engineer Frances Maxwell.

  • “Realising it is very common, and that part of it is a general response to the way society and businesses/organisations are structured.”
  • “We’re all putting on brave faces but questioning ourselves behind them.”

With friends and trusted colleagues.

  • “I opened up to my colleagues … and found that all of them felt exactly the same. We were all comparing ourselves to each other and suffering in silence.”
  • “Hearing others who I admire and respect … people older than me … other people on my team … being open about their own challenges.”
  • “Sometimes it helps just to recognise that it’s impostor syndrome I’m experiencing.”
  • “The pressure I was putting on myself was ridiculous.”
  • “We are all just muddling our way through as best we can.”

Deal with it in the moment

16 people agreed that, as with any mental health problem, once you know what’s going on you must treat yourself gently. The only thing worse than beating yourself up, is beating yourself up for beating yourself up, so aim to develop your self compassion, honesty and self acceptance.

Learn how to deal with intense feelings of imposter syndrome when they arise.

Be realistic about what you can and can’t do.

  • “Being honest if you don’t know something and not trying to brazen it out.”
  • “Admit when you don’t know something, because then you get to learn it from somebody else.”
  • “Avoid the rabbit in headlights hiatus by just start doing it — to try to break the fear of self doubt.”
  • “Don’t give up when it gets uncomfortable.”

Deal with it medium term

33 people offered tips for living and working with imposter syndrome.

Build your self awareness so you can more quickly spot when your thoughts turn imposter syndrome-y.

  • “Work with the right people is a good start.”
  • “Working in much larger teams, in much larger companies, gave me a better perspective on what constitutes a rounded skill-set, that it takes a combination of people and their individual skill-sets and qualities to make a team highly effective.”
  • “What they tell you will surprise you! Easy format if tricky is to ask what should I stop, start & continue doing?”
  • “Even if the person doesn’t have any particular suggestions or feedback. It puts the focus on the work instead of my abilities.”
  • “I think the key to imposter syndrome is to always be learning, no matter how much of an expert you feel you’re ‘supposed’ to be.”
  • “Now I feel confident in that base understanding, I no longer feel like a fraud if I don’t know the latest methods or tools or jargon.”
  • “By sharing knowledge with someone in a different field, you realise what you are an expert in.”
  • “Keep it human, keep it real. Be kind.”

Are there elements of your imposter type that might, with care, be useful to you?

  • “A friend also said to me once it’s actually a strength to question your own abilities/biases.”
  • “My ability to put pressure on myself could be useful if I focused it positively, towards purpose.”
  • “Write down the daily small things/achievements.”
  • “Remind myself of my accomplishments, keep a gratitude diary and record 3 things achieved that day I can go back to when imposter feelings hit.”
  • “It’s great to remind yourself what you’ve done — updating your CV is a great hack for this and useful to do anyway.”
  • “Keep a file of positive feedback from others to remind myself no-one else sees me that way.”

Beat it for good

Some mental health problems are caused by chemical imbalances or external stressors. Others, including imposter syndrome, are caused by faulty core beliefs about ourselves and about the world, so the key is to change those core beliefs. Depending on how and when each belief was formed, this could take years of hard work and therapy, or it could be as easy as realising you had the wrong idea about something and updating that idea.

For example, this single image cured me of my Expert imposter type, by updating my idea about knowledge within teams. I’m so grateful to Andrew Millar for including it in his excellent talk on stress at IWMW 2018:

On the left, a small circle labelled ‘What I know’ sits inside a much larger one labelled ‘What I think others know’. On the right, the small circle of ‘What I know’ is surrounded by others of similar size, each individually labelled ‘What others know’ and ‘Also has imposter syndrome’.
Original image by David Whittaker, annotation about imposter syndrome by me

15 survey respondents had recommendations for ways to change your core beliefs:

I was glad to see this come up as it worked so well for me that I’m writing a separate blog post about it! Watch this space

  • “Try to accept praise for a job well done (not a very Scottish thing to do).”

This great idea generated lots of interest at the meetup.

  • “I chose to try dancing, and used it as a way to embrace being bad at something.”
  • “Understanding that trying it and fixing something is better than getting paralysed by overthinking or over-planning.”
  • “See your work as experiments: not everything works but it’s always interesting to learn why.”

Conclusion

Huge thanks to everyone who completed the survey! Whether or not that includes you, I hope you got something out of these results. Remember there are lots more charts and even some interactive stuff in my Flourish story.

My main takeaway is that, while imposter syndrome may be rife in UCD, there are loads of ways we can deal with it, both in the moment and for the long term. The most important thing is to be open about it, and to figure out what works for you.

If the lists of tips above are a bit overwhelming, I recommend starting with the 5 imposter types as a way to zoom in. Resume.io have a flowchart to help you identify your type(s) and some great type-specific tips.

Good luck
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User researcher, content wrangler, co-organiser of UX Glasgow meetup, fishkeeper, AFOL.