I’m not good enough.
I don’t think my work is worth that much money.
I’m a fraud, and it’s just a matter of time before everyone finds out. Sound familiar?
Most of us experience self-doubt at some point in our lives. But, some of us doubt EVERY accomplishment, regardless of the blood, sweat and tears poured in.
Freelancers are especially prone to this. It’s very easy to develop a fear of not being good enough when you’re self-employed in a highly competitive market.
So, how exactly do we combat these pesky demons in our heads?
Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome
What Causes Impostor Syndrome?
How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome?
Don’t Give Up
Yup, it’s good old impostor syndrome.
Here’s what Pauline Clance (the psychologist who coined the term in 1978) had to say:
Even though [people] are often very successful by external standards… they are afraid their achievements are due to ‘breaks’ and not the result of their own ability and competence… They are afraid the next time, they will blow it.”
It’s not pretty. Feeling like your hard work is just a fluke can take a huge toll on your mental health and career.
The most shocking thing about it is that 70% of the population actually have suffered it at least once in their life.
Freelancing is a career built on relationships and connections. It is easy to start attributing success to outside factors rather than personal competency.
On top of that, working alone all the time increases risks for anxiety and imposter syndrome. After all, science believes that humans intrinsically work better in the company of others.
Without validation from peers, it’s way too easy for freelancers to overthink and second-guess themselves.
There are 4 major symptoms that we ‘imposters’ suffer from:
They work extra hard and make sure to do it in secrecy – like studying extensively for a project but downplaying it by telling the client it’s their common knowledge.
A sense of approval from others reinforces and encourages this behavior.
Freelancers who suffer from impostor syndrome engage in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please their clients. Things like letting clients scope creep them, or not knowing how to say no.
They believe that if they don’t do so they’ve failed because they’re not smart or good enough.
The worst thing about this is success reinforces this behavior. The more successful a freelancer becomes, the more they think they’re growing too big for their britches.
Using charm and perceptiveness to win approval from clients. The catch is, even if they win this approval, they still don’t believe they’ve earned it.
Instead, they believe deep down that if they were truly intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value.
This is another trait reinforced by success, unfortunately.
Some freelancers with imposter syndrome just stop trying. Not because they’re lazy or unmotivated, but because of fear of failing in front of others.
Most freelancers suffering from impostor syndrome may exhibit 1 or 2 of these traits, but it’s rare to have all 4 of them unless the syndrome is extremely severe.
To make matters worse, these traits are cyclical. They feed on themselves and can lead to a downward spiral.
However, these behaviors are not a standalone process, there is a catalyst to all of it.
According to studies, imposter syndrome is triggered by physical events.
Say what? Well, there are supposedly 4 types of “imposter incidents” – otherwise described as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”
Here’re the 4 types of imposter incidents:
These are moments when someone criticizes you on your qualifications. Like a client doubting your skills. Like that time a client told me they can get their nephew in high school to write for better and cheaper.
When one’s competence is questioned, you tend to overthink. Suddenly, all sorts of questions that harm their self-esteem start popping up in your head. Am I really cut out to be a freelancer? Am I a fraud?
You could be at the top of your game with happy and high-paying clients. Then you see someone on the marketplace who’s more skilled and earning more money than you. Comparisons can really shatter one’s confidence.
Getting bigger contracts, winning awards, getting recognized as an expert in the field. These successes are thrust upon a person so fast they don’t even have the time to internalize their own success.
Fighting off impostor syndrome is not a battle, it’s a war.
There’s so much pressure it’s enough to bring someone down a deep dark rabbit hole. It may seem impossible to climb out, but there’s still hope. It takes just one step at a time.
Most of the studies I found have different coping methods, but here’s the ones they share in common and are fairly easy to do.
Knowing that there is a problem and choosing to do something about it is the first step to overcoming impostor syndrome.
A recommended way of facing your impostor syndrome is by giving it a name. Yes, you heard (read) that right.
By naming it, you’re making it into a tangible enemy. Doing so, the next time you’re hearing negative and doubtful voices, they’re not you. It’s Krazy Karen talking smack in your head again.
It’s much easier to tune out the noise by anthropomorphising your syndrome.
Everyone struggles with it. In fact Pauline Clance stated that if she were to go back and re-do the study, she’d call it the impostor experience, because it’s such a universal feeling.
A well-known sufferer is Neil Gaiman. Take a look at what he has to say about it.
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be 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. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
Even the greats will feel insignificant about themselves.
If you have a great portfolio, you earned it. If you worked with powerful clients and gained recognition, you earned that.
You have so much tangible evidence of your competence and skill. It is impossible to fake all those amazing feats of yours. Try putting yourself in the shoes of your clients and the people you made happy. Your skills are often recognized by those around you except yourself.
Speaking of which, when someone compliments your work or congratulates you, say thank you. Stop shying away from it and giving yourself bad criticism like “it’s not the best” or “it wasn’t much”. Saying thank you instead of sorry is scientifically proven to be better for your own self esteem.
You need to be realistic about your successes and wear them with pride. If you feel like you’re alone, there’s plenty of freelance communities that provide support.
Ironically, a great way to combat impostor syndrome is to be an impostor. As in – pretend to be someone else.
As Neil Gaiman puts it:
Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”
So if you feel like you’re a fake… then pretend you’re someone with an amazing portfolio, someone that did work with big companies, someone who truly did deserve everything they have.
Fake it till you make it, even if you already have .
Let’s end this article with a heartwarmer.
In this case, you should find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to share everything with – a friend, family or a freelance community. Someone close to you most likely has the same problems.
Studies show that group therapy has a profound effect on people suffering from impostor syndrome. A group setting is great because a freelancer can see the dynamics in others and recognize the lack of reality involved.
All in all, there is always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You might even be helping others by bringing it up.
Impostor syndrome is something that is built up over time and ingrained in a person. The key to fighting these voices in your head is through a slow and steady process. As I said, this is a war, not a battle.
It won’t happen in a day, but taking a small step a day is what it takes to remove all the negativity weighing your self-esteem down. Don’t rush it. Slowly building up (or breaking down) your impostor syndrome is better than trying too hard and burning out.
Reflecting upon your impostor syndrome and how it’s affecting your life is a great way to start.
David is a content creator and freelancer. His journey started with writing songs, poetry and academic dissertations in Vancouver. David has freelanced for multiple companies around the world. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.