How to overcome impostor syndrome (for a while)

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Impostor syndrome.

It can be crippling for any creative professional.

What’s impostor syndrome? Impostor syndrome is the persistent feeling of being exposed as a “fraud.”

Where you think you’ll be found out at any moment.

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You think they’ll find out you’re a fake. A phony. Not worthy of the task at hand.

I bet those words alone were enough to bring that familiar feeling to the surface.

Many people live with this affliction without ever knowing it has a name.

That’s one reason for writing this article:

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Knowing this is a thing is one way to help make peace with it.

The first time I heard about it was in a commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave back in 2012. (If you haven’t heard it, Google that speech. You need to watch it.)

You never entirely overcome it, but knowing other people feel and suffer from it the way you do somehow seems to lighten the load a bit.

I’ve certainly struggled with it.

Having not gone to college and being self-taught instead of formally trained, there’s always been a perceived barrier I’ve had to fight against that I shouldn’t be allowed to work in this profession.

Being a business owner on top of that only compounds things. Since you are the boss, there is nobody who is ever going to give you permission and say, “it’s OK” or, “you’re allowed to create things for people and charge money for it.” 

Giving yourself permission to do that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

But knowing it exists and you are not just going crazy is the first step.

How it holds you back

The big way impostor syndrome rears its ugly head in freelancing is to keep you from asking for the price you deserve.

From working with creatives, I hear words like these all the time:

“I’d like to know if any of you also struggle with impostor syndrome? Where you doubt your freelance capabilities and feel like you aren’t ‘allowed’ to be charging and working the way you do? I’ve been freelancing for over 7 years, but I still can’t seem to shake the ‘fraud’ feeling of it all.”

“I had no idea that ‘Impostor Syndrome’ had a name. Glad to know I’m not the only one feeling sheepish about charging too much.”

“Even when I’ve grossly underpriced my work in the past, I’ve still brace for the client to express shock and outrage… If I’m more audacious with my pricing (which is probably still low), and the client has accepted it, I brace myself for the client to later express shock and outrage, at any point in the design process, as they realise they’ve been duped—cheated out of their money by a finger-painting child who thinks they’re Van Gogh.”

You are not alone!

Not believing in your worth is incredibly common.

But you’ve got to deal with it and convince yourself you are worth it if you are ever going to convince your client of the same.

Here’s how to deal with it

First, the bad news.

As I mentioned, it never goes completely away. At least, it hasn’t for me and it’s been documented to still happen to highly successful and accomplished people like professional athletes, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies and even Presidents.

But there are a few ways to hold it at bay.

Impostor syndrome comes from thinking you have to know it all.

But you don’t.

You only need to know a bit more than the person you are helping.

The best advice I’ve heard on how to deal with it is this:

1. Stop comparing yourself to the people you feel are above you in your field.

When you look up towards people at the “top” of the field or that are more accomplished than you are, it can be inspiring and show you a path you can try to follow. But it can also be debilitating to compare yourself to them and think you are not good enough.

Meanwhile, your client doesn’t care about any of that.

All they care about is if YOU can solve their problem or help get them to an outcome.

They are not trying to “bust you” or figure you out for the fraud you think you are. They are too busy worrying about themselves and their problems (maybe even worrying that you or someone else will see THEM as a fraud) to be concerned with your qualifications.

If you make them happy, case closed. You’ve done your job.

If they feel you have helped them, nothing else matters.

If you look at it like you are the wiser, more experienced person between you and your client, then it’s just you helping someone who doesn’t know quite as much as you do on the subject of branding, marketing, writing or whatever it is that you do.

You only need to be a level up to be of service to your clients.

2. Don’t be the arbiter of what a “fair” price is

In other words, don’t try to determine if what you are asking for is too much. Your client will tell you if it’s too expensive.

If they feel the price is right, it doesn’t matter what you think. Value is subjective to the client. If they feel it is valuable then you should be happy.

If they think it is too expensive, then there is a mismatch between what you are willing to do the work for and how they value the work.

In that case, they are a poor fit for working with you and you should look for someone else that is more in line with, and happy to pay for, what you are willing to do.

It doesn’t mean you are wrong or they are wrong. You are not an impostor for charging more than they feel they want to pay.

It’s just a bad fit is all.

3. Get professional help

No, not that kind of help.

I mean help with your pricing.

Besides you, who looks at your proposals before you send them to your prospect for approval?

For most freelancers, the answer is probably no one.

But the problem with pricing in a vacuum is that it’s a sure way to underprice yourself.

One way to get around the effects impostor syndrome has on undervaluing yourself is to have someone else do your pricing for you.

Just completely sidestep that part of the process.

Authors, actors and professional athletes, have agents do their pricing for them.

Why? It’s not because they love giving away a percentage of their fees to agents.

It’s because agents can get them a better price. (Even when their fee is factored in.)

None of us are good at selling ourselves.

But others aren’t hung up on your impostor syndrome like you are and can give a more objective view on what to charge.

And if you can’t get professional help, get help anyways.

So if you can’t pay someone to help you with your pricing, try sharing your prices with your spouse.

My wife always tells me when I’ve committed to too much work for too little pay—which is often.

Having that feedback is crucial to not letting myself be consumed by impostor syndrome and undervaluing myself.

Want more pricing help?

Another way to get feedback on your pricing is to talk with your peers. I’ve set up a Facebook group specifically for that.

Graphic designers, Web designers, Brand Identity and Logo designers join the Pricing For Designers Facebook group and come talk pricing. Get and share feedback, support each other and don’t price alone!

What about you? Have you ever felt impostor syndrome? Let me know in the comments below. 

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About Ian Vadas

Ian Vadas is a designer and the author of Work With Clients You Love. Get the eBook to learn how to select clients that pay well, treat you with respect and allow you to do your best work.

For tips on getting paid and maximising your freelance revenue, join the FREE email course Pricing For Freelancers.

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Comments

  1. You have challenged my thoughts, Ian. And right away I am going to apply some of your ideas. Thanks a lot for a refreshing approach!

  2. This is exactly what I’m struggling with right now. I’ve underpriced a lot of time. But no more. You are right. I’ve gotta charge what I’m worth. thank you for this article.

  3. Thanks for sharing Ian! I often have this imposter feeling and I do have a degree. In fact I probably spent way too much time in college trying to figure out what type of art I didn’t feel like an imposter with lol! None. Even after winning awards and scholarships I still feel unworthy of the prices I want to ask my clients. But I’m moving past it and practicing not spending too much energy and emotion on people who “cant afford” what I offer. Sometimes I want to say “wait, lets make a deal”, but I stop and remind myself why I ask what I do, the time and resources I put into what I do, and it’s worth it to the person who finds value in that…that is my true client and many times my repeat clients. They’re the ones who tell me I should be charging more even. But yes, that little monster creeps up every time I answer the “price” question of a potential client. Lad I’m not the only one:-)

    • That’s the thing, Tiffany, it doesn’t matter what your qualifications are it can still affect you.

      Not having a degree is just what triggers it for me.

      And it’s true, you are worth it to the person who finds value in all the work you put in.

      Those that don’t, aren’t (or shouldn’t be) your customers.

  4. All of the options you have provided here are simply amazing I like most of them thanks for your great share, please keep sharing.

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