There are hundreds of articles on the internet around the topic of imposter syndrome. But if you look closely, the advice is mostly generic and detached. It’s one person, sharing their experience and telling you what worked for them.
But like everything that affects mental and physical wellbeing, there’s no linear route.
I’ve decided to try something else. I’m going to share stories from freelancers who’ve experienced imposter syndrome. They’ll tell you in their own words, the impact that imposter syndrome had on their career and personal lives.
I’ll also share tips from successful experts who’ve overcome imposter syndrome and the exact steps they took towards reclaiming control and self-confidence.
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Harvard Business Review describes imposter syndrome as feeling like a fraud and doubting your abilities. It’s a psychological pattern where you experience internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud who doesn’t deserve accolades.
Psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance first came up with the concept in a 1978 study of successful women. They agreed that despite professional and academic accomplishments, women who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they’re not smart enough.
And they’re not wrong. Famous women like Viola Davis, Charlize Theron, Michelle Obama, and Sheryl Sandberg have all admitted to experiencing imposter syndrome.
How Do You Develop Imposter Syndrome?
According to The Internal Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of the population have experienced imposter syndrome. It affects men and women regardless of social status or job.
Transitional experiences may trigger imposter syndrome. Some people struggle with feelings of imposter syndrome as they acclimatize to new work environments and for others, it continues throughout their professional lives.
With imposter syndrome, you’re too hard on yourself. You set unrealistic expectations to redefine what competency means and if you don’t reach these standards, you assume you’re not good enough.
The feeling affects freelancers in terms of how much you charge for your services and the way you approach work. A study at the University of Salzburg found that working professionals who struggled with imposter syndrome were paid less, unlikely to be promoted, and unsatisfied at work.
For minority groups, there’s more to imposter syndrome than meets the eye. You’re faced with a plethora of societal biases such as classism, racism, homophobia, and sexism.
Also, these studies excluded people of color. It blames the individual without accounting for cultural and historical context that manifests in minority groups.
This Clubhouse conversation with Jamar Ramos and Edwin Romero really digs into the racial context of imposter syndrome.
How Is Imposter Syndrome Treated?
When Clance and Imes first coined the term in the 1970s, it was called “imposter phenomenon”, not imposter syndrome. Clance explained that it’s not a syndrome or a mental illness, but something almost everyone experiences.
You can’t treat imposter syndrome, but if you have concerns about the impact of imposter syndrome on your life, you should seek help from a licensed mental health professional.
MedicalNewsToday list the following mental health complications from imposter syndrome:
- Irrational fear of being a fraud
- Lack of confidence
Types of Imposter Syndrome
Dr. Valerie Young, a world-renowned expert on imposter syndrome lists the following types:
Suffers high levels of doubt, anxiety, and worry because they set extraordinary goals they can’t achieve. Rather than celebrating achievements, they dwell on areas they could have excelled in.
When working on a project, this person will not start until they consume every knowledge around the topic which makes it difficult to complete projects on time.
A workaholic who puts in 200% to every project. The extreme effort easily leads to burnout that affects mental well-being and physical relationships with others.
Easily masters new skills and feels shame when faced with a difficult task that takes more time than usual to understand.
Loves working alone and feels that asking for help is a sign of incompetence. They turn away help to prove their self-worth.
What Does Imposter Syndrome Feel Like?
Imposter syndrome makes me feel incapable, unworthy and not as good as I think I am.
Prior to working as an SEO copywriter, I had never experienced imposter syndrome.
I had fun running my hobby blog as an outlet for the frustrations I experienced with bad governance in Nigeria. My friends loved it and my work was published on the back page of the Guardian Newspaper multiple times.
When I moved over to a content mill to earn more money, I worked with Nigerians and everyone looked like me. I was one of the best and I was doing great on a local level.
But it all changed when I decided to compete in a global marketplace. There were thousands of SEO writers on LinkedIn who seemed to have better qualifications than me.
I was competing against White people who looked like the same White people I wanted to hire me.
Why would anyone in their right mind choose me over an American?
Should I join the race to the bottom to stay competitive?
Was I worthy of charging $100 for copy?
In my first year I sent out hundreds of poorly constructed cold messages. I refused to pitch to authority sites because I thought I didn’t have the chops.
Ultimately, my insecurities won.
I stayed small for 15 months because I let myself believe that I wasn’t good enough.
I chased after keywords that generated shitty leads because I thought it was what I deserved.
I was scared, insecure, anxious, depressed, and filled with self-doubt.
Every time I got a new gig, I debated canceling the project and refunding the client. With every project, there was a two-day period where I had to talk myself out of a funk that crippled me in fear and prevented me from completing projects.
However, the moment my mindset changed, so did the entire trajectory of my career.
I niched down because I believed I was good enough to call myself an expert in something. I raised my rates 9x and left the bottom feeder race.
And you know what happened?
I attracted better clients, hit my first $10k month in 2020, worked with some incredible SaaS comapnies and most importantly, I found myself.
I stopped waiting for permission and became my authority.
What Is the Impact of Imposter Syndrome on Freelancers?
I Took the Wrong Job Because I Felt Unworthy of the Right Job
My name is Zisis, and I am an SEO (On-page and a bit of tech-SEO). In the last 5 months, I started creating websites for friends and a few clients. It was very hard for me to call myself an SEO.
I took a job with a company that had nothing to do with SEO. My manager knew little about SEO, so I taught him the basics.
Since I never worked at an SEO agency before, I didn’t think of myself as an SEO. I wanted to start my own business for many years, but I thought I wasn’t ready.
I consumed a ton of knowledge about SEO. But instead of getting better, the thought that plagued me was; “Zisis, you will never be an SEO expert”.
After stalling for so long, I’m ready to start a portfolio project to showcase my skills. I will use all the knowledge and techniques that I learned over the past 9 years to grow this site. If it succeeds, maybe that will be the validation I need to call myself an SEO.
I think the best way to overcome imposter syndrome is to expose yourself to the things that you find scary. Being inside uncomfortable situations makes you stronger and pushes you to find solutions. Sometimes, things are not that scary on the inside.
Zisis Tsiftzis – Content Manager at Kitchen Gizmos
Fear of Losing My Clients Kept Me Stuck in Survivor Mode
Imposter syndrome is a never-ending cycle of stunted growth. I was stuck in survival mode when I could have thrived. I’m from a developing country and I thought that everyone expected low rates. I lacked confidence and I undercharged for my services. My clients didn’t respect me and I took a lot of unnecessary risks.
Here’s an example:
A senior copywriter referred me to a gig that paid nearly 8 times my usual rates. I was excited and thankful, but I was also scared and I didn’t define terms.
I sent an agreement to the owner of the company and they didn’t sign it. They kept sending work even after the project timeline elapsed and I continued doing it.
I asked my client for clarity regarding our working relationship and they didn’t respond to my emails. I had no clue what was going on internally.
On one hand, I needed the money because my other client didn’t pay as much. Conversely, this could go south and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
After a while, I sent one final email telling them that I would no longer work with them because of the risk. It was difficult, but the right thing to do.
Since then I’ve learned how to establish deliverables and set clear expectations. I also learned how to assert myself and ignore the need to yield to every client’s whim. I’ve stopped charging per hour and I ask for 50%-100% upfront when working on projects.
Hannah Cattouse – Copywriter and Bio Writer
I Logged Out of LinkedIn for Two Weeks Instead of Saying Yes
Last year, an agency owner that I really admired approached me to contribute to a book project he was working on. He specifically wanted me to talk about my experience as a freelance writer in Nigeria.
When I saw his message on LinkedIn, I got anxious and I logged out of LinkedIn for nearly 2 months!
I thought to myself: “Finally, I’ll be discovered as a fraud. Everyone will see that I know nothing.”
I spoke to a friend and she encouraged me to return to LinkedIn but it was too late.
It could have been a great opportunity to build a connection with a professional that I admired and even dreamed of working with someday. Instead, I came across as unreliable and I couldn’t tell him that it was because I thought I was unqualified.
Since then, I promised myself to show up even when I’m afraid and in doubt.
Lydia Ume – Freelance B2B writer and content strategist
I Fear Success More Than Failure
Imposter syndrome caused me to turn down opportunities. It created problems in some professional relationships because my anxiety would make me seem defensive or arrogant.
For years I accepted ridiculously low rates. Even with the high-quality content I produce, I fear that I’m not enough and everyone else knows things that I don’t.
When it’s time to show up on social media, I freeze. Everyone has so much to say and I struggle to find my voice. I sometimes delay following up with people even if they expressed a clear interest to work with me.
When I need to negotiate rates, anxiety chokes me and I end up accepting lower prices than I deserve.
Fear of success has definitely been a bigger obstacle for me than fear of failure.
Johanna McWeeney – Copy and Content Writer
I’m Not as Good as You Think
When I started out as a freelancer writer, I was pumped!
I prepared pitches, contracts, drafts, and wrote my portfolio website. I was ready to crush it, or so I thought.
One day, I sat down at my computer and drafted an awesome cold email to an editor I wanted to work with. When it was time to hit the send button my fingers froze.
Every time I wanted to send a pitch, imposter syndrome would rear its ugly head.
Why do you think this big company will take you?
You’re not as good as other writers.
No one wants you
So I didn’t pitch.
Even after I scored my first gig and got paid, I still didn’t believe I had the chops.
I wasted time feeling sorry for myself. I was a generalist doing everything because I didn’t think I had what it took to niche down.
Tired of the confusion and lies, I sought to redefine myself and choose a niche. I joined some writing boot camps to help me improve my writing and networking skills.
Today, I accept myself as a professional copywriter with remarkable skills. I’m not a fraud and its time I stop thinking of myself as one.
Mira Anamae, Freelance SaaS and Marketing Copywriter
I Took Half of My Rate Because I Didn’t Believe in Myself
Impostor syndrome never felt real. I always thought that people with low self-esteem hide behind this term. Fast forward to April 2021 when a founder of a mental health website reached out to me for content.
I thought, “this is gonna be easy to knock out of the park”.
But the moment she agreed to my rates, imposter syndrome snuck in and I doubted my ability to deliver on my promise.
The next day, I reached out and asked my client “what if I cannot deliver?
She calmly replied, “Let’s start with half the rate you quoted and see if it works.”
It’s been 15 days and the results are great. But on the downside, I only received half my rate.
I did not take up another project in the past 18 days because I wanted to concentrate on this one but it’s a missed opportunity to get more leads in the pipeline.
Shruti Agarwal – Copywriter for SaaS and Mental Health
4 Tips to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Freelancer
1. Channel Your Inner White Guy
There’s no way around it, imposter syndrome sucks. I’ve been a marketer for 19 years (6.5 years as a freelance writer) and somehow it gets worse with time.
I think imposter syndrome is one of those things that is directly related to my experience. The more experience I have, the more imposter syndrome affects me. It’s a perfect hockey stick graph (in my head).
I’m always amazed when I’m on a client call or during an interview and I start answering questions like a pro. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience where I’m thinking “This girl knows what she’s talking about.” And the imposter syndrome monster goes away for a bit.
One of my favorite expressions is “Have the confidence of a mediocre white man.” Not sure who coined that phrase, but they deserve a medal. As women, I think this is important because we are harder on ourselves than men.
Karine Bengualid – B2B Content Marketer at THE LETTER K
Still on channeling your inner White guy, meet Tom Bro, my inner White sales man
2. Love Yourself
Most of my struggle with imposter syndrome came from seeking external validation for my skills, my work, and my worth.
I sought validation from bosses and coworkers, and that was my downfall. Some will give you validation and others will make you feel like you’re a failure to make themselves feel better.
Don’t allow that to happen. Be your own best cheerleader. Be your own biggest fan. Celebrate small victories, and dissect what you can work on to improve.
If others celebrate with you, that’s great. But don’t rely on it, or you’ll always find yourself looking for that external validation.
Jamar Ramos – Partner & Chief Operating Officer at Crunchy Links
3. Remember Your Achievements
In creating my new digital PR training program, I’ve had to battle serious imposter syndrome. What’s helped me push past is to remember the results I’ve gotten for myself and my clients.
Oftentimes, imposter syndrome arises because we don’t trust ourselves or we have subconscious negative beliefs about our ambition.
Many of us have wonky relationships with our ambition. We might judge ourselves for wanting more, or feel judged by family members for working too hard. I’ve experienced that myself.
The inner dialogue can look like:
I’m always doing too much
I’m pushing myself too hard
I shouldn’t even be doing this
I don’t even know how to do this, this is pointless.
Feeling judgmental towards our ambition can easily lead to imposter syndrome. To overcome this, figure out if imposter syndrome is really the issue. You could also try focusing on your intentions. If your intention is to help your target audience, don’t worry about being an imposter.
Dayana Mayfield – Creator of Pitch and Profit
4. Keep a Swipe File of Testimonials
I keep a swipe file of positive messages from my clients about the work I’ve done for them. It is a collection of screenshots of testimonials and emails. Whenever someone reads my content and drops a thoughtful comment, I add it to the swipe file.
On dark days when I doubt my writing ability, reading those positive messages reaffirms my ability to do great work. It makes me ignore how I’m feeling at the moment and focus on getting the work done.
Stella Inabo – Freelance B2B SaaS writer
5. What Does Success Look Like? Document It
Many professionals struggle with imposter syndrome. However, I think it’s particularly challenging when you are tasked with producing something that is subjectively ‘good’ or where success hinges on the opinion of others.
One of the things I love about SEO and digital marketing is that there are clear, demonstrable metrics for success or failure.
These are the tangible facts that I hold dear when imposter syndrome creeps in. I can see when the optimization that I made has increased click through and I can document the uplift in sales from our page speed improvements.
Real impact, makes you the real deal. Measure it. Document it. And remind yourself if you forget who you are.
Crystal Carter – Senior Digital Strategist at Optix Solutions
6. Arrest Negative Thoughts Before They Spread Like a Virus
Recently, I became aware of the power of the mind. How thoughts start to form like tiny grains of sand and multiply before you know it. Negative thoughts are especially powerful. They can cripple and render you useless.
So, I became super aware of what’s going on in my mind. For me, negative thoughts usually start to form after the client makes payment. I stay aware and trap it before it grows into a giant-sized demon.
Rather than think:
- Shit, Chima you’re in over your head
- Fuck it. I’m just gonna refund the client because there’s no way I can achieve the goal
- Damn it Chima! Why do you sell yourself like you’re the GOAT when you’re a scrawny chicken.
I use the power of positive words to say:
- I am the GOAT. They pay me thousands of dollars because I’m the shit. The entire shit!
- Well Chima, here’s another opportunity to show this client why you’re the best thing since sliced bread and beans.
- You’re gonna leave them breathless and eating out the palm of your hands because that’s what you do.
- You’re perfection and excellence
- You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again
- SEO is your bitch. Own it baby!
Now, you’ll probably notice that I swear a lot, but hey…I’m nothing if not original and this works for me. Go write down some powerful words that make you feel like Godzilla and a living god from Krypton all rolled into one.
Whenever imposter syndrome starts to rear it’s big, fat, ugly head, grab it by the balls and turn it into praise of yourself.
Concluding Thoughts: Focus More on the Greatness Within Than your Imperfections
It is so easy to dwell on what you’re not doing right. Negative thoughts are only as powerful as you let them be. Learn to stay conscious of these thoughts when they sneak in and use positive words to overcome them. Read through testimonials from clients and remind yourself of the results you’ve gotten for past clients.
Always remember that you are a champion, not a fraud.