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When impostor syndrome strikes: dealing with that voice in the back of your head

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you’ve infiltrated your craft or field, and that someone is going to eventually realize you don’t belong there. 

From talking with friends, I’ve learned this happens to all of us, no matter how long we have been in our career or how many years we have been working on a particular craft or art. At some point you look at yourself and say, “I’m a hack. I don’t belong here. I’m not as good as other people. I will never be as good as I want to be. I don’t have the training to be here. Eventually someone’s going to figure out I don’t belong and they’re going to kick me out.”

It’s hard to silence that voice when it strikes, but here’s what I do to deal with impostor syndrome. I’m sharing this in case this could be helpful to someone else.

Identify what’s bothering you 

When imposter syndrome (or any negative feeling) hits, it’s tempting to bury it so we don’t have to face it. Some people will pull out things they made in the past and say, “See? I am awesome. That voice is wrong.” If that works for you, great. Unfortunately that has never worked for me. Looking at past work doesn’t make me feel better in the present moment. It has the reverse effect and makes me feel like I’ll never be able to achieve that level again. 

Instead, I like to sit with the feeling for a couple of minutes. This can be uncomfortable. It’s your inner critic after all, and facing a critic is rarely pleasant. But this is necessary in my case to treat the cause. Make some tea, sit in a comfortable spot, and search that feeling for what’s actually bothering you. 

What happened just before the imposter syndrome struck? Something probably triggered it. What is the voice actually critiquing? 

  • Is there a skill you don’t feel confident performing? 
  • Are you struggling with something at work? 
  • Are you playing the comparison game with another creator? 

Maybe you don’t feel confident writing dialogue, or maybe someone made a snide comment about your photo composition.  You can be an expert in your field but not use proper terminology, and having a conversation with someone straight out of college might set you off. 

Try to identify what’s at the heart of the bad feeling. Once you’ve done that, thank the imposter syndrome and tell it you’re going to ignore it now.

Refresh your skills

I do this next step immediately so I don’t wallow. Depending on what I’ve identified as the Thing I Suck At Today (and sometimes there are multiple things), I seek out education. No matter how great you are at something, there’s always room to improve. 

Going back to the basics could be exactly what you need — either to learn something new, reinforce existing skills, or remind you how much you really do know. Pros in fields from medical to electrical have to keep their skills up-to-date to maintain their licenses. Reinforcing your foundations will enable you to stand up to feelings of self doubt. 

You don’t have to register for an online course. YouTube is a great source of information from creatives around the world. 

Get outside of your comfort zone 

The comfort zone is a dangerous place for creatives. When you stay in your lane and never stray from it, your field of vision narrows. Different styles or techniques start to feel like threats. 

Always doing things the same way stops your growth. Don’t be afraid to try new or difficult things. Failure sparks growth. Exposing yourself to new things will keep your work fresh. Subscribe to newsletters, follow relevant Twitter or Instagram accounts, join a group of creatives, take a class, or pick up a new hobby.

While I’ve never managed to silence that voice entirely, these steps help me to mute it. If you’re dealing with impostor syndrome, good luck! And if you have tips for how you handle yours, please share them. I’m always in the market for more.

2 thoughts on “When impostor syndrome strikes: dealing with that voice in the back of your head”

  1. Some great advice there. A few additional thoughts from someone in “big tech” for more years than I want to think about.

    1) This may seem weird, but the set of things that you don’t know will always be bigger than the set of things you know. That’s normal. Figure out how to make learning a natural part of your work because most jobs will require you to keep learning to stay relevant — the world is always changing.
    2) Ask yourself, “do I trust the judgment of the person who hired me?” If yes, try to relax — good managers (and good hiring processes) make sure that you’re the right person for the job. You weren’t hired because you know everything. You were hired because you possess the skills for this job. Sure, that may require continued learning :).
    3) Get in the habit of asking peers, your manager, or your team members how you could do better. They might give you something actionable that you can learn, or you might hear them tell you that you’re doing just what they need you to be doing. In either case, it’s better than that gnawing uncertainty.
    4) If possible, look for opportunities to teach others about your areas of expertise. This both builds your confidence and can uncover any blind spots if you’re asked questions that you can’t answer (something to learn!).

    1. I love your additions — thank you so much for your perspective on this! I always appreciate hearing how other people battle this, since it seems to hit us all in slightly different ways.

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