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

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

In this post

  • 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

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

What is imposter syndrome?

  • “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!”

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)

OMG it’s not just me!

OMG it’s not just beginners!

Chart created in Flourish

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

  • 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.

Imposter types in UCD

Created in MetaChart — interactive version

Want more charts?

How to beat imposter syndrome

  • 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

Learn about it

  • “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.”

Talk about your feelings

  • “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.”

Realise that no-one can be great at everything, or know everything.

  • “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

Build a toolkit of methods

Accept and confess to your ‘weaknesses’

  • “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.”

Feel the fear and do it anyway!

  • “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

Develop a habit of conscious self-reflection

Find a supportive team

  • “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.”

Ask for feedback

  • “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.”

Develop your skills and understanding

  • “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.”

Support others / learn by teaching

  • “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.”

Turn your weaknesses into strengths

  • “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.”

Focus on the positive

  • “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

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

Therapy or counselling

Self help resources

Learn to accept praise

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

Choose to fail

  • “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

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

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Kat Husbands

Kat Husbands

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

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