“Whether or not we’re meeting a challenge successfully, sometimes it comes across as, ‘Oh, I just got lucky that time,’ but in reality, we are perfectly qualified to be doing the job that we’re doing. I think we underestimate the ability that we each have.”
Coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne Imes, Impostor Syndrome refers to high-achievers who are unable to genuinely accept their accomplishments, attributing them instead to luck, coincidence or some other intangible. It’s a pressure that particularly bears down on the technology community.
In this interview, Senior UX Designer Kim Harris explores this surprisingly common syndrome, her personal experience with it, and helpful advice for conquering it.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor Syndrome usually refers to a scenario where someone maybe can't internalize their accomplishments, and they worry that someone will find them out as a fraud. Sometimes they attribute their successes to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or just pure manipulation.
Does this happen to a lot of people?
Actually, it is pretty common, but it's been around since probably the late ‘70s. It's often linked to people who are called high-achieving individuals, but I don't think it's biased toward the amount of successes you have. I think it's fairly common across whatever industry that you're in.
Is this something you've encountered yourself?
A few years ago, I decided to figure out what this little bit of anxiety was that I was feeling when dealing with new projects. Just a quick Google search led me to this whole topic of Impostor Syndrome. I've dealt with it more often than I'd like to admit. I'm fortunate to work at projekt202 where I get the ability to work with so many high-profile brands, but one of the issues that I run into is that once I celebrate a successful project, it's usually short-lived because I often have to mentally prepare myself to go back into a new client, and then prove myself all over again. Impostor Syndrome has a little bit of a hold on me when I start new projects, but at the same time, I've come to understand what it is and I've not let it hold me back.
I've found that both men and women are affected by this, but honestly I feel that in our society, it impacts minorities in general and not just gender or race. The overarching characterizations of minorities are often prejudiced at first sight. I think the issue here is that sometimes Impostor Syndrome is brought on by external forces, because we not only have to convince ourselves that we know what we're doing, but we actually have to convince others by working exponentially harder to prove our worth.
Even still, we're all responsible for the amount of effort that we put into our careers. The whole "woe is me" mentality really doesn't have any validity, but I also don't see our society changing significantly enough where it's no longer an issue. I just have to continue to work as hard as I know how and make sure I keep my own successes in front of me.
Do you think people of different personality types are more susceptible, such as introverts versus extroverts?
That's an interesting question because I don't consider myself either/or. I don't know that I'm necessarily an introvert or an extrovert. I feel like I can turn one on and the other off when I need to. I don't know that it spans different personalities. I know that we all have our own defense mechanisms and we handle our struggles in our own way. Sometimes that's an extrovert being more outgoing or it's an introvert kind of sinking back into their own world. I don't know that Impostor Syndrome necessarily picks one over the other.
Would you consider it Impostor Syndrome when someone meets a challenge, but suddenly has dread about the next challenge, even though he or she did such a good job on the previous one?
I feel like that's one of the facets of it. As a population in general, we tend to focus on so many of our failures and the things we're not good at, that when we actually have a success that people congratulate us for, we downplay it. Whether or not we're meeting a challenge successfully, sometimes it comes across as, "Oh, I just got lucky that time," but in reality we are perfectly qualified to be doing the job that we're doing. I think we underestimate the ability that we each have.
You've done a lot of research about this. Can you tell us about your research process?
There are lots of white papers on Impostor Syndrome, podcasts, and lots of successful people that have come out and said, "You know what? This is what I'm dealing with." Then, just to be able to turn around and talk to my colleagues and friends who I really considered being successful – whether it's financially or status – who also say that they've dealt with this. Being able to figure out that this is not an issue that I just have by myself. It's not an issue that a particular industry has. It's been kind of eye-opening to see and get really an understanding of it.
I don't know that I would generalize it and say that it affects all industries, but from my personal experience, it seems that the design industry seems to have a high percentage of it, because the work that we do is pretty subjective. Anyone can have an opinion about it. You can get 12 different opinions from 12 different people looking at the same design that you've put together, so it's kind of nerve wracking when you've got so many trends coming out, so many things that are constantly changing and you always have to question yourself, "Do I actually know what I'm doing?" or "Am I keeping up with what's current at the moment?"
After your Impostor Syndrome presentations, do people come up to you and say, "You and I, we feel the same way about things. What you're saying really describes who I am also?"
Yeah, it's surprising because some of my colleagues and some of my friends outside of work – once I said I was going to talk about this – the people that I thought were very successful are the ones that came up to me first and said, "Yeah, I deal with this also." It was surprising to know that it really doesn't matter what level you're in. People deal with it all the time.
What advice do you have for someone who might be dealing with Impostor Syndrome?
One of the main things that you can do is, if you can't convince yourself that you're actually successful or that you're actually qualified to do what you're doing, find someone who will encourage you that you are. I think that mentorship and menteeship is one of the most beautiful cycles that you can put yourself in and become a part of. Once you get to a point where you find someone who'll build you up, you can build yourself up, and then find others that you can build up as well.
Do you have any final takeaways to share?
I think as long as we own the syndrome, we don't let it own us. It's something we can live with and work with, while also realizing that it's just a backseat passenger.