How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome As You Pursue a Vocation
"You’re a fraud.”
Every creative is familiar with that internal whisper, the voice of imposter syndrome slipping its ugly opinion into your mind.
Imposter syndrome is the unsubstantiated fear that your greatest professional or creative accomplishments were somehow accidents or, at the very least, not as important as others perceived. In other words, imposter syndrome says you are incapable of doing the work you’re fully qualified to do.
In some ways, imposter syndrome can have benefits. It can drive us to try harder, study more carefully, and invest more energy into honing our craft. But more often, it holds us back from being paid our worth, pursuing opportunities for which we'd be a perfect fit, and speaking with authority within our subject matter.
Everyone loses when an expert plays down the value of their abilities. Below are some ways to overcome those internal doubts so that you and those around you get the most value from your creativity and expertise:
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
As a freelance copywriter, I’ve encountered my fair share of imposter syndrome. For me, it tends to occur during the project interview process. The experience of being vetted by a prospective employer brings to light my fears of being “found out,” as if I secretly didn’t have something valuable to provide the person on the other end of the call.
Instead of standing by my value, I might internally undermine it. When I sit down for an interview, my gut might insist I’m a fake, with little or nothing to offer the customer. In reality, I bring the experience of having written hundreds of published articles to the table. I bring niche knowledge gained from years of poring through industry books, university education about marketing and business communication, and thousands of hours writing and editing to hone my skills.
Yet, I still sometimes feel like a fraud.
The worst part is, I’m not the only one losing here. The customer loses value when I doubt what I offer their business. In my doubts, I may hesitate to present certain ideas, even if I have seen those methods work time and again through measured application.
Sometimes I focus so intensely on what I think the person thinks about my ability that I overlook the fact that they’ve specifically come to me to solve their problem.
At that point, it helps to pause my racing thoughts and restart here:
Acknowledge that You’re Not Alone
It occurred to me recently that when I’m meeting a prospective client for the first time, they often nervous-talk through our entire first phone call, especially if they happen to be the business owner or product creator.
I can hear the need to prove the validity of their product in the way they talk, even if I came to the project with full confidence in what they had to sell. There was no proving necessary, but I can tell by their nerves that they think otherwise.
The situation reminds me of a story from sci-fi author, Neil Gaiman, who says,
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did."
Take a moment to remind yourself that you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome plagues even the most accomplished celebrities and experts.
Talk with colleagues about your lack of confidence. You may be surprised to find that your peers feel similarly about their own abilities. Not to mention, someone who knows your skills may express their faith in you, even when you can’t muster that belief for yourself. They can remind you of your abilities and empower you to realize the value you offer.
Rely on Learning, Not (Only) Motivation
One of the natural responses to imposter syndrome is comparing yourself to others for validation. The problem is that comparison tends to bring people down, not raise them up. We notice—and focus on—where we lack compared to those who share our expertise.
I had two years of in-house copywriting experience when I chose to become a freelancer. From day one of freelancing, I compared my accomplishments with those of others. Imposter syndrome set in and I turned to motivational articles for encouragement.
High-octane, "You can do it!" articles offered the quick shot of confidence I needed to get through each day, project, or client call in the early months. But motivational articles only work for so long. Eventually they lose their punch, like the pick-me-up of coffee in the 2nd cup versus the 5,000th.
These freelancing articles finally lost their ability to inspire because they lacked substance. I had to come to terms with the fact that I truly had an expertise to offer.
But the question lingered: Was I truly adding value to my clients?
Positive reviews, recurring work, and referrals told me that I must be delivering something of value. Yet the need for validation didn’t go away. I decided that my new remedy for imposter syndrome had to be increased learning. As I mentioned before, imposter syndrome can have positive effects, and for me, it resulted in the learning of new copywriting methods.
I decided that moving forward, I wanted to read freelancing and copywriting material that was focused on giving actionable advice that could improve my business, not just delivering a shot of encouragement to get me through the moments of feeling like a fraud. This meant I would spend more time reading technical business books and articles that equipped me to offer improved services to my clients.
Remember that It’s Not About You
High-achievers naturally maintain high goals. Often, imposter syndrome grows when we mistakenly presume people are judging us by our still-unmet goals, rather than by our knowledge or past achievements.
But most people—including many of your future clients or employers—are more selfish than you give them credit for. They don’t know (and probably care very little about) your unmet goals or idealized future self. They are considering your abilities in relation to their needs or desires. If you put yourself in their shoes, you learn to exercise your abilities in relation to their problems, instead of needlessly flexing just to prove your expertise.
In the context of my experience as a copywriter, that means I don’t have to think about all the ways in which I am better or worse than other writers or marketers. It just means I must communicate what I honestly know I can accomplish within the specific context of each client and project.
I’ve learned that the best way to pitch myself for jobs isn’t to emphasize my experience. Most of your competitors are doing that, and from the client’s perspective you may each look about the same. The most consistent way I land new projects is by focusing the conversation around the client’s goals instead of my background. I talk more about my clients than I talk about myself.
It is a show-don’t-tell philosophy. Instead of emphasizing what I’ve achieved, I focus my energy on telling the client specifically how I will overcome the challenge they’ve approached me to solve. In this context, imposter syndrome becomes irrelevant because I’m more concerned with being helpful than being noticed.
Hope this helps. Were there any important points that I missed? Tell me in the comments below.