Imposter Syndrome: Unpacking the Negative Voice in Your Head and Exposing It for What It Really Is
Imposter Syndrome is something that a lot of entrepreneurs and freelancers talk about, and if you’re at the beginning of your freelancing journey, chances are you’ve experienced it in one way or another. Defined, Imposter Syndrome is "a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’"
Dang, just reading that definition makes my heart beat a little bit faster.
When I pivoted from a 10+ year career as a fashion designer into a new career as a freelance graphic designer, I too had that very loud and persistent Imposter voice inside my head telling me I wasn't “legitimate” and that “real” graphic designers would look at my work and laugh at how amateur it was.
Imposter Syndrome can be crippling and can make us so self-conscious that we consider giving up on our goals altogether. But the important thing to remember is that Imposter Syndrome is a liar and a distorter of reality. It plays into our deepest rooted fears to try to throw us off course.
So let’s take a good hard look at Imposter Syndrome, unpack it a bit, and expose it for what it is. When we can see it in the light of day, we can learn to quiet its voice in our ears and keep it from holding us back from the success we deserve.
What your imposter is telling you: You don't have the right education.
The truth: In today's world, this matters less and less.
Let’s talk about what the “right” education supposed to look like. Does it mean having a university degree in the field in which you’re working? According to the US department of labor, the average person changes careers 3-7 times in their life. Are all of these people who are changing careers going back to university to get a degree to qualify them for their new line of work? Most are not.
University-level education in the field you’re pursuing is not a necessity. In, my experience, most practical skills are learned on the job, not in the classroom. What qualifies you is your desire to do the work consistently and strive to improve as you get further into your career.
And for any gaps in education, there is ONLINE LEARNING. The way people learn is rapidly changing, especially in a post-covid world. There is no end to affordable (and often free!) online education available in any given field.
University education is no longer the end-all, be-all, nor is it a guarantee of success in your field. From YouTube videos to platforms like Udemy or LinkedIn Learning, you’ll be amazed at how much knowledge there is to be gleaned from the comfort of your own laptop, and at an affordable price.
And the beauty of this kind of education is that you can continue to learn as you progress through your career, tacking on new skills and expertise which will increase the value of your services.
What your imposter is telling you: You don’t have enough skills.
The truth: You probably do.
What are the skills that are needed to do the kind of work you want to do? I’m talking about the essentials, not the long list of skills the best-of-the-best list on their CVs. There are skills that you need without question, and there are skills that would be nice to have that you may not have yet.
For example, to be a graphic designer the skills that are essential are:
Proficiency in at least one kind of creative software
An understanding of the principles of design
Basic knowledge of typography
An understanding of how to use grids
Skills that are nice for a graphic designer to have:
Proficiency in many kinds of creative software
Extensive knowledge of graphic design history
Extensive knowledge of the history of type and practical applications
Knowledge of print process
Proficiency in web hosting platforms
Knowledge of HTML and CSS
Knowledge of SEO best practices
Experience in social media design
Experience in email marketing
All you need to get started are the essential skills, and the rest will follow as you continue working and learning. And if you’re lacking one or two of the essential skills, see the above section about online learning. Once you’ve got the essentials nailed down, you can slowly start building out your arsenal of nice-to-have skills while you’re earning money with the skills you already have. Don’t let the skills you don’t yet have get in the way of using the skills you DO have to start earning.
What your imposter is telling you: You’re just a beginner.
The truth: So was everyone at some point.
You may be at the beginning of a career in a new field, and this is a time when you’re particularly vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome. It’s easy to feel like a fraud when you don’t have years and years of experience in a given line of work. But even the best in your field started at the beginning and worked to get to where they are now. You won’t be a beginner forever, and the only way to get out of Beginner Land is to do the work.
What your imposter is telling you: Look at the best in your field. You’re nowhere near their level.
The truth: You don’t have to be.
Comparison is the thief of joy. It can also be the thief of profit. If you’re comparing yourself with those in your field who are at the top of their game (and who have been doing it a long time), you may never get started.
Try to remember that even the best-of-the-best started from scratch at one point in time. They worked hard to get to where they are today, and you can too. There’s nothing that differentiates them from you except time, hard work, and experience. The only way to acquire those three assets is to start working, keep working, and strive to get better with each project or contract.
We all fall somewhere on the spectrum of beginner to expert, and the experts had to make their way through that spectrum just as you will. Most of us are
somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Does that mean that we can’t earn a living doing what we do, albeit imperfectly? It does not.
What your imposter is telling you: You don’t deserve to be paid for what you’re offering.
The truth: YES YOU DO.
When you got your first job out of school or university, did you have any prior experience? I’m willing to bet you didn’t. But whether you felt you deserved it or not, whoever hired you believed enough in your abilities to cut you a monthly check for your work.
Were you as good at your job on your first day as you were on the day that you left? Probably not. But that’s the way experience works. We get better the more we do, the more time we spend in a given industry. This does NOT mean we don’t have anything of value to offer at the beginning of our time in that industry.
In fact, you have something those who have been in the game a long time may not have: eagerness. You have the drive to dig in, do the work, and start improving your skills, and that’s something that clients will value.
Building a good relationship with your client and giving them a great experience is half the work of freelancing. The deliverable is an important part, but it’s not the ONLY part. Clients will see your zest for your work and your desire to make it the best you possibly can with the skillset that you have TODAY, and they will value you for it. And by value, I mean they will exchange their money for your skills, which is what you deserve.
All you need to be deserving of payment for the services you offer is to have a skill set that your clients don’t have and that they’re willing to pay for. You don’t have to be the very best in your industry, and more to the point, most people and businesses can’t afford to hire the very best in your industry. You just need to be a few steps ahead of your clients and be able to save them time or the effort of having to learn a new skill on their own. The more time you spend working to improve your skills, the more monetary value they will have.
Let me give you an example: I hire an accountant each year to prepare my US tax return (I live in the UK but am a US citizen, so I’m liable for taxes in both countries). I don’t have the time or patience to learn the US tax code and figure out the loopholes that exempt me from double taxation. So I hire someone who already knows the code and can easily prepare my return for me. Is he the best accountant in the world? I literally have no idea. All I know is that he has a skill that I don’t have, and I’m willing to give him my money to use his skill on my behalf.
What your imposter is telling you: You’re not a real ________.
The truth: YES YOU ARE.
When I was first shifting gears from fashion designer to graphic designer, this is a feeling that came up a lot. I wasn’t a real graphic designer. I didn’t have a graphic design degree or any formal training. I didn’t know how to design websites. I didn’t know the rules of designing with grids. I didn’t know much about typography.
Then I started thinking about what makes someone a real graphic designer. Simply put, a real graphic designer is someone who can complete graphic design work. Period. So I figured out what I deemed the essential skills of a graphic designer, and filled in the gaps of the skills I didn’t have by taking some online education.
And through all this, I learned that I could create graphic design. It wasn’t the best graphic design in the world, not by a long shot, though I would improve with every project I completed. I wasn’t capable of every type of graphic design work - I would learn different types and methods as I went along. But the knowledge that I had at that point put me in a position to offer something to clients that they didn’t already have - the ability to create graphic design.
What your imposter is telling you: Real ________s will look at your work and make fun of you.
The truth: They almost certainly won’t.
The fear of being exposed as a fraud or as “not good enough” is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome, and we’re all capable of conjuring images of the experts having a good laugh at our (self-perceived) feeble attempts to do what we do. But in truth, this is almost certainly not happening at all.
Think about it: have you ever laughed at the expense of someone who is just starting out in their line of work? Even if you recognized their need for improvement, have you ever made fun of them for it? Probably not, because you likely know what it’s like to start at the beginning, and so does anyone else who is experienced in any trade.
You may actually find that when you put yourself out there and start telling people what you’re up to, you get unsolicited offers of support! And if you do come across anyone who tries to demean your efforts (and you most likely won’t), know that their response has much more to do with them than with you or your abilities. Keep doing your best, keep learning, keep improving, because that’s all anyone can ask of you, and let the haters roll off your back.
But I’m willing to bet the most prominent hater you’ll come across is the Imposter voice inside your own head, and once you’ve exposed the Imposter for what it is, it will start to fade into the background. And if it starts to get loud from time to time, remind it (and yourself) that it’s not real. You have empirical evidence that you are skilled, capable, and worthy of success, which will start to make the Imposter voice quieter and quieter.