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

In this post

  • 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

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?

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 in the past but not now (19 people)
  • Not sure (6 people)
  • No never (0 people)

OMG it’s not just me!

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.

OMG it’s not just beginners!

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?

  • 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.)

Imposter types in UCD

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?

How to beat imposter syndrome

I’ve sorted the tips into 4 themes:

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

Recognise it in the first place

Learn about it

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.”

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.

  • “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!

  • “Don’t give up when it gets uncomfortable.”

Deal with it in the medium term

Develop a habit of conscious self-reflection

Find a supportive team

  • “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

  • “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

  • “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

  • “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

  • “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

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:

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

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.

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