Recently I got really curious about the topic of imposter syndrome. Ever since college I have felt like an imposter.
I believed that everyone would recognize how little I knew and how incompetent I felt. Those fears did not leave, even after getting my dream job last year, as a front-end designer.
The crazy part, is that my work is full of encouraging people, who continually build me up. So the only person saying that I am not good enough, is me.
A few months ago I read a book called "The Imposter Syndrome", by Phil Roberts. My goal was to learn more about this topic and finally accept that I truly belong. This series of posts are a reflection and analysis from this book.
- The Cast Of Imposter Syndrome
- "The Perfectionist"
- Personal Reflection
- Addressing Perfectionism
Imposter Syndrome (I.S.) can mean a lot more then "I am not good enough". What we feel and what triggers us to feel that way can differ from person to person.
What I liked about "The Imposter Syndrome" book, is how it categorized I.S. into five unique personas. Each persona embodied specific traits and experiences that someone might go through, and then what they might do to make positive change.
Almost like characters in a movie, I found myself identifying with these people in different ways. I could picture times that I also struggled with similar thoughts and took comfort in the solutions suggested.
This post is focused on what I learned about the first character, "The Perfectionist".
Worries about meeting their own expectations.
Worries how others will judge them, if they don't hit their goals.
Primarily focuses on what went wrong after completing a task. Even if it went 99% successful, they may still feel like a failure.
Because they put so much focus on the end result and what people will think of them, they can be very controlling. The stakes of a single mistake can seem much higher, so this can make it hard for them to delegate responsibilities and trust others to do things right.
Often times The Perfectionist will self-impose a very high bar on what success should look like. This sets them up for failure from the very beginning, further "validating" the feeling that they are not good enough. Thus starts the cycle of needing to be in more control the next time.
So much of this need to control outcomes and achieve perfection, stems from a fear of uncertainty. The Perfectionist will work themselves (and maybe those around them) very hard in order to ever again feel uncertain.
Refusing to accept anything less than 100% perfection can often translate to real success. The problem is that The Perfectionist finds it hard to celebrate what they have achieved. They only focus on the outcome and will worry all along the path to get here. This can lead them feeling drained at the end, instead of fulfilled and proud.
Whew, I really identified with this character as I learned more about their struggles and how they thought.
In the beginning of my career I worked for a design agency where I was responsible for managing several client accounts in addition to design work.
After talking to the client about their project's details, I would work on the print or web designs and then present the finished piece to the client.
If there was any mistakes in the work or they did not like the design, I'd have to answer for it right then and there. I constantly worried during those presentations that that I made a mistake and the client would get angry.
While being detailed oriented is a trait I am proud of, worrying to the point of panic isn't healthy. Mistakes can be learning experiences to grow and looking back I "grew" a lot, despite my best efforts to always be perfect. 😆
Later on as a Senior Web Designer and then Digital Design Director, I struggled with delegating work to other designers or account managers on my team.
When I did assign work, I'd often micro-manage our team, regularly checking how the work was being done and how client facing emails were being written.
There is a saying that a good leader will "trust, then verify" when managing a project. Unfortunately, I tended to focus more on the "verify" part than trusting things would go well.
It took me a long time and a lot of effort to build and in some cases, stabilize client relationships. I set a very high bar for success, out of fear that those client would stop working with us and it would be my fault in the end.
Taking a step back, no one ever died from a website presentation not going to plan. In reality I should have trusted my team's capabilities more and allowed them to learn from any mistakes as I had to.
Fear of uncertainty is actually what got me into learning how to code.
During project kick-off or update calls, I would get questions about servers, how long it might take to build a certain feature or what sort of API we could work with.
I never felt more like an imposter in those client meetings, not knowing what in the world to say. As a designer I could explain why the button should go there, but I couldn't communicate how the button worked.
I hated being viewed as "the expert", but not feeling capable. I was tired of saying "let me check with my development team on that".
After a code bootcamp and a lot of practice, I eventually could answer some of those questions. But I later realized that the real issue wasn't a lack of skill or knowledge. Rather that I didn't feel comfortable or safe to just say "I don't know".
In the last few years of learning front-end development, I have been trying to really embrace the state of not knowing.
Being a beginner or ignorant on subject doesn't have to be a judgment and condemnation on my intelligence. Instead it can simply be a starting off point to learn something new.
Celebrating the wins are definitely a challenge. I’m chuckling now because even writing this paragraph is a bit hard for me.
Celebrating often feels uncomfortable, undeserved, and maybe even arrogant to say "Good job, I've earned that".
I expect a lot from myself, but that is just the effort put into the project. The fruits of that labour uselessly feels like a mistake, meant for someone else.
That is maybe why I really like working on a team vs freelancing. It feels good to be a part of something bigger than just my efforts.
The following are some helpful mindset changes from from the book that resonated with me…
- Going forward I can take time to recognize specific thought patterns around perfectionism and what triggered them.
- Be aware that when I criticize myself as this can lead to a perfectionist mindset.
- This is when I think things (like a project at work) are either a complete success or a complete failure.
- This is unrealistic thinking because not everything can be all good or bad. It is ok to have things in the gray area.
- This is thinking of the worst-case scenario when tackling a project. Such as “If this doesn’t go perfectly I will never recover from shame and I will be fired.”
- This thinking does nothing to help me and only serves to discourage me.
- Instead thinking about things in a more positive light can actually help things. My mood will improve and with less stress I can perform at a higher level.
- This is where I discount any hard work that I have done and am waiting for people to judge me.
- In reality, I can’t possibly know what others are thinking and I need to learn to give myself a chance to be imperfect and see what actually happens.
- Having trouble allowing myself to relax. However, relaxing is ok and a healthy part of being alive.
- It also includes comparing myself to what I think other people are doing. This is not a helpful thought process because I am basing my expectations on an assumption of someone else.
- It's okay if my perspective is wrong and I can challenge my current thoughts for healthier ones.
- I should do better. ➡️ Nobody is perfect. I will do better next time.
- I can’t believe I made that mistake. I’m so stupid. ➡️ I messed up. But I learned something from it.
After learning about "The Perfectionist", I have to raise my hand and acknowledge taking on this mindset quite a bit. I have been and am still at times a very controlling person, because I want things to be perfect.
While being detailed oriented and hard working aren't inherently bad things, I think the struggle comes from the being imbalanced in those efforts.
- Work hard and celebrate the wins
- Learn new things and be ok with not knowing everything
- Do your your best and give yourself grace when there are mistakes
I love this quote from "The Imposter Syndrome" book, chapter 2.
“…instead of wanting everything to be perfect, we can work to notice the things we love about ourselves and accept the things we need to improve on.”
While I am still a work in progress, there is a lot I can love about myself and feel grateful for the many blessings along the way.
What do you love about yourself? I bet if you sat with it for a few minutes, you would find there is a lot to love. 🧡