Impostor Syndrome is often associated with insecurity, particularly in professional settings.
However, it's a complex phenomenon that can significantly disrupt people's lives and contribute to other mental health issues.
This text delves into what Impostor Syndrome entails, its symptoms, and why it's prevalent among UX Designers.
Impostor Syndrome (IS) is a psychological condition that can cause individuals to doubt their abilities and constantly fear being exposed as frauds.
It was first identified by researchers Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. Their study examined 150 successful women who, despite their accomplishments, could not recognize their capabilities.
Although the initial research focused on women, subsequent studies have shown that IS can affect individuals of any gender and from various social backgrounds.
Later on, we will explore the primary causes of Impostor Syndrome. As a sneak peek, it's worth noting that the syndrome can be linked to upbringing and family dynamics, gender and race stereotypes, and cultural factors.
Let's focus on the common symptoms of IS and how it typically presents itself in individuals.
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Impostor syndrome is not solely a matter of insecurity
First and foremost, it's important to clarify that Impostor Syndrome goes beyond mere insecurity and is a deeper and more complex issue.
Feeling insecure when confronted with new challenges, a new job, or a promotion is natural. Such feelings of helplessness and uncertainty can be intense but typically subside with time as we become more confident and competent.
In contrast, Impostor Syndrome is characterized by persistent feelings of insecurity, even in the face of recognition and success from peers and superiors.
As a result, a cascade of thoughts can take hold, such as:
- I'm not capable, I only got this far through luck;
- I don't belong here; I'm not as competent as others;
- One day, they will discover that I'm a fraud, a fake;
- I have to do whatever it takes to prevent others from "uncovering" my flaws or limitations.
From this point on, individuals may place excessive pressure on themselves and work relentlessly to:
- Prove to themselves and others that they deserve their position;
- Bridge perceived gaps in their ability, skill, or intelligence.
The issue is that, despite their best efforts, people with IS struggle to overcome their feelings of insecurity and fraudulence.
This creates a vicious cycle: the fear of being exposed motivates them to work harder, and they achieve success but fail to recognize it, reinforcing their sense of fraudulence once again.
In addition to pervasive self-doubt, individuals with Impostor Syndrome may also exhibit the following symptoms:
- Attributing their success solely to luck or the help of others;
- Feeling the need to constantly prove themselves;
- Struggling to accept praise or positive feedback;
- Engaging in self-sabotage.
In particular, self-sabotage is a common feature of IS and reflects an unconscious attempt to reinforce feelings of inadequacy. For instance, individuals may set themselves unrealistic goals or deadlines, and when they inevitably fall short, it triggers a renewed cycle of Impostor Syndrome.
Types of Impostor Syndrome
Dr. Valerie Young went deeper into her studies of Impostor Syndrome. She classified it into 5 types, described in her 2011 book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It:
- Natural Genius;
The perfectionist type is the one who is never satisfied with their work and success and always believes they could have done more and better.
It is common for a person with this type of Impostor Syndrome to set very high goals and objectives that are impossible to achieve.
Also, no matter their success, they always pay more attention to their flaws and failures than their strengths and qualities. In this regard, this type of IS may avoid and be afraid of starting new things for the first time for fear of being unable to do them successfully.
The superhero or superheroine type is someone who feels the need to work excessively in order to feel successful and gain approval from others.
Individuals with this type of IS tend to become workaholics and set unrealistic expectations for themselves, so they put excessive effort into their work.
This type of IS gets too caught up in other people's validation of their work rather than being satisfied by the work itself. Usually, it takes feedback and constructive criticism personally rather than professionally.
Importantly, it doesn't matter how much effort the superhero or heroine puts into their work or how much recognition they achieve. This type never sees their own abilities and skills as worthy.
The Specialist type of Impostor Syndrome is never satisfied with their level of knowledge about a subject, despite being a super-skilled person with mastery in their field.
For that matter, the Specialist type of person seeks to learn and know everything about a given subject before considering themselves truly knowledgeable.
The great thing is that people of the Specialist type will never believe that their knowledge is good enough and will always think they are incompetent, even though they really understand the subject.
The Natural Genius type of Impostor Syndrome sets very high and ambitious goals for themselves, and they believe they must achieve them effortlessly and without any struggle.
When they fail right away – because we often fail on the first attempts – the Natural Genius type feels frustrated and like a fraud.
This type of IS is quite common when the person has never had difficulty or has always used little effort to learn something or achieve a goal in childhood. That way, they feel that it is "normal" always to get it right the first time.
So when they fail, they feel ashamed of themselves. Because of this, they find it very difficult to accept new challenges and avoid learning new things for fear of failure.
People who exhibit the Soloist type of Impostor Syndrome tend to view success as something that can only be achieved through individual effort. They often view doubts and requests for help as signs of incompetence and weakness.
Therefore, soloists tend to refuse help and believe that doing everything individually is a way of proving their own worth.
However, like all types of Impostor Syndrome, soloists' hard and lonely work is never recognized by themselves, even if their success is evidenced by others.
Why do we have Impostor Syndrome?
The causes of Impostor Syndrome can be diverse, depending on the experience and social context from person to person.
In this text, we will list some main causes of IS, such as:
- Family upbringing;
- Social phobia.
Education and family dynamics can play an important role in the manifestation of Impostor Syndrome.
In this sense, some situations in the family that can contribute to the onset of IS are:
- A lot of pressure from parents for their sons and daughters to perform well in school;
- Constant comparison and encouragement of competition between brothers and sisters;
- Overly controlling or overprotective parents;
- Overemphasizing their child's "natural intelligence"
- Criticizing their child's mistakes in a harsh and constant manner
Thus, we can understand that one of the bases and causes of Impostor Syndrome comes from family experiences and parents' education. Because of this, it is important to identify and treat certain traumas and conditions through professional help.
Individual personality traits can play a role in the development of Impostor Syndrome.
For example, individuals with low self-esteem or high perfectionism are more susceptible to experiencing IS.
Having the typical qualities of a successful UX designer doesn't guarantee developing Imposter Syndrome (IS). Other factors, such as cultural expectations, can also contribute to it. It's important to be aware of IS and seek support if you experience it.
Social phobia – or social anxiety – is a condition in which people have an irrational fear of social interactions.
As such, it is common for people with this condition to be very afraid of being judged by others, embarrassed, or humiliated.
Thus, the symptoms of social anxiety and impostor syndrome may overlap; therefore, the former may influence the latter's development.
However, it is not necessarily the case that those with IS also have social phobia or vice versa. But it is important to remember that one condition can help develop the other.
It's also about stereotypes, minorities, and oppression
Great! We have discussed some of the main causes and factors that can contribute to developing Impostor Syndrome throughout a person's life. However, it's important to note that these are not the only factors that should be considered and understood.
Societal factors heavily influence the development of Impostor Syndrome, particularly in minorities.
Stereotypes assigned to certain groups can be a significant factor in the development of IS. Take, for instance, people who experience racism, with their abilities and skills constantly belittled.
Imagine someone who feels inferior to others. They will automatically try to prove to others that they are not inferior, working much harder than others.
However, it's not always the case that all this hard work will be recognized by others or the person, potentially triggering the development of IS and causing them to enter the vicious cycle we mentioned earlier.
Overrated stereotyping is also a problem. Let's take the example of Asian people, who are often stereotyped as a "model minority" more educated, intelligent, and "wiser" than other groups.
A person who constantly lives with the assumption that they should be naturally smarter than others can definitely develop IS. In this case, the individual may never believe that their work and studies are enough to fit this model, regardless of how much success they achieve and the recognition they receive from others.
It's important to note that the weight of the stereotype is cumulative. Minorities may face additional layers of inferiority and discrimination associated with the stereotype of each group. This can make the development of IS much more likely.
Toxic environments benefit from IS
Besides stereotypes and social biases, toxic environments and company managers are other important factors to consider.
Impostor Syndrome can arise due to actions such as:
- Management by fear;
- Encouraging competition among employees;
- Focusing on mistakes and lack of praise or recognition;
- Treating employees only as tools.
In these environments, people are forced to believe that they are never good enough for the job they do. Because of this, they are constantly afraid of being fired and try their hardest to get the recognition that never comes.
Unfortunately, for some companies and leaders, creating an environment of constant insecurity and fear can lead to employees working excessively hard without requesting promotions or pay raises.
In this case, people feel so inferior due to fear management that they fail to recognize how much they are being exploited and how their Impostor Syndrome can be advantageous for manipulative bosses.
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Why UX Designers may have Impostor Syndrome?
We have seen that Impostor Syndrome is a condition that can affect most people, some groups more easily. In fact, it is estimated that over 70% of the world's population has symptoms related to IS.
In this context, it is natural that UX Designers can also develop IS. But because it is a relatively new field, in high demand, and with people from different backgrounds trying to transition, isn't IS in UX Design influenced by all these factors as well?
Ph.D. psychologist Melanie Polkosky – also a UX Designer – has some interesting points regarding the manifestation of IS in UXers. The most relevant points are:
- UX Design is a new field;
- Non-standard education and professional experience;
- UX Designers solve difficult problems;
- Lack of maturity in organizations.
UX Design is a new field
While the field of usability has been around for some time, the UX Design market and its various branches are rapidly expanding and attracting the interest of many individuals looking to enter the industry.
When starting out in UX Design, it's common to feel insecure about your work, especially if you're coming from a different career background and starting from scratch.
This feeling of starting over, of not having experience or not knowing if you will get the necessary skills, increases the chance of developing Impostor Syndrome.
Different education and professional experience
If you ask 3 UX Designers about their education, background, and professional experience, you can get three entirely different answers.
This significant contrast can make you feel like you lack the necessary skills, experience, or education. For example, come from a management background. You may find yourself working alongside individuals with degrees in design, psychology, or marketing, which can be vastly different from your own education.
It is important to note that there is no ideal education that makes transitioning to UX Design a breeze. However, observing the diverse backgrounds of others can contribute to feelings of insecurity and Impostor Syndrome.
UX Designers solve hard problems
The task of developing products or services that align the user experience with the company's goals is undoubtedly a difficult and complex one.
It takes a lot of knowledge, practice, Hard Skills, and Soft Skills. And even with all this, the result is not flawless. In fact, the product development process is iterative – testing, analysis, and improvement.
This difficulty and complexity of the area, coupled with the fact that failure is not a rare occurrence, can cause Impostor Syndrome to build up in some UX Designers.
In these cases, it is important to remember that failure is not the problem, but not fixing the failure is.
Lack of maturity in organizations
Lack of UX maturity in organizations can be a big factor influencing the development of IS in people.
There is no point in taking UX seriously if the company where you work does not take it in the same way.
When there is a mismatch between expectations and the actual company culture, it can lead to frustration and hinder the necessary attention to UX design.
In this situation, individuals may begin to doubt their abilities when in fact the unfavorable environment is the root cause. Recognizing and addressing these environmental factors is important to create a supportive and productive workplace for UX designers.
All these factors influence how easily UX Designers can become subject to Impostor Syndrome.
It is important to remember that there are internal factors, such as personality traits and family upbringing, but the external environment, context, and current conditions of the field can also contribute to the manifestation of IS in several professionals.
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How to deal with Impostor Syndrome?
Dealing with Impostor Syndrome is not something simple. Therefore, at the slightest sign of suspicion, the recommendation is always to seek professional help.
Psychological therapy can help you identify the triggers behind SI and this way, you can better work through all the issues.
However, some recommendations can help you fight IS:
Share your feelings: find someone you trust so you can talk about what you are feeling. Exposing your feelings is important to begin to understand them better. Preferably, do this in therapy.
One step at a time: progress and evolution are not quick or easy. Remember that focusing on taking one step at a time is very important. Success and recognition of skills are a disciplined construction. Speed matters little, the important thing is to be consistent.
Make a list of your accomplishments and positive feedback: try to recognize the moments when you succeeded or were praised. Putting these moments on paper helps you reflect on them and why you doubt them.
Everyone has their own journey: it's about understanding that life is not a competition, no matter how much we are programmed to think it is. Not comparing yourself with others and understanding that everyone has their own journey with their own goals. Focusing on our own path is important, without comparisons interfering with our actions.
Use social networks with caution: Social networks are not a true reflection of reality. There is a lot of exaggeration, lies, and manipulation in exchange for likes and shares. So avoid falling into the trap of thinking others are more successful and skilled by taking social media as a thermometer. There is an abyss between what we see and what really is.
Finally, it is worth remembering: seek professional help. Impostor Syndrome is a condition that can cause other illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. So treat it as a priority health issue.