What freelancers need to know about impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a real thing, and it’s terrible. It steals countless wells of self-confidence and ambition from untold masses of freelancers, often at crucial make-or-break moments in their careers. The phrase is commonly used among freelance writers to describe the crippling doubt that gurgles up from apparently nowhere at the most inconvenient of times: when it’s time to submit the first draft of that dream assignment, when you have to reply to a difficult ask, and when the pitch you’re most passionate about gets rejected… again.

Categorized by a sudden loss of belief in all one’s skills and talents, impostor syndrome affects freelancers in all fields, at all age and experience levels. While many people find themselves daydreaming about giving up and becoming a barista during these times, there is probably no need for an actual career change. What might do you some good, though, is an attitude adjustment.

Before you let the “woe is me” mentality settle in, take the “I’m only human” approach out for a spin. It may sound corny but I can assure you that the hesitation and doubt you know as impostor syndrome is, in fact, simply a natural human characteristic, and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Over the years, I’ve counseled many of my small business clients through dark episodes of impostor syndrome. Many of them were women and people of color — in other words, people who traditionally receive messages from society and business that already create self-doubt. We’re often told we just have to work harder to prove ourselves, but in the face of rejection and life-changing opportunities, that’s easier said than done.

You might be surprised to know I’ve observed the same symptoms from clients who fit the ‘mediocre white man’ archetype of memes. The only difference, in my estimation, is that they have learned now to admit their insecurities. I’m not entirely on board with that approach, either, but there might be a shred of validity to it.

Freelancers, self-employed professionals, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, mompreneurs and the like are often advised to “fake it til we make it” and that is a dangerous philosophy. While confidence and ambition are necessary for success in business (because, duh, capitalism), they shouldn’t be the primary driving factors behind your hustle. Rather, they should be the support beams that hold up the mission of your business.

If you still want to like your work at the end of the day, you can’t afford to lose time and precious energy to the impostor syndrome vampire. The next time your cursor is poised above the “send” button and you’re paralyzed with doubt, try these steps for getting through it:

1. Shift gears.  Literally, go do something else. Take a walk, have a cup of coffee, make some follow-up calls, or watch that video of Kristen Bell meeting a sloth for the first time. After your (short) break, return to the task at hand and get that thing done! Chances are, giving yourself permission to ignore the feelings brought on by impostor syndrome, even for a few minutes, will make them vanish entirely.

2.   Set a timer.  Have you ever considered scheduling in time to freak out? I’ve talked to some high-earning writers who swear by this technique. They plan their work load so that they complete deliverables with a healthy buffer zone before the actual deadline, and then they allow a predetermined window of time for pacing or pillow-punching. Once the time is up, it’s time to click that send button and move on with your life. 

3. Skim it. If you’re suffering from a truly crippling bout of impostor syndrome, there’s a chance your subconscious brain is trying to tell you something. Give yourself one last quick read-through of your hot pitch, your precious first draft, or that carefully crafted reply to the difficult client. Don’t scrutinize it, but be on the lookout for stray (or missing) punctuation and other common typos. Once you get to the end, you know what to do.

These actions won’t cure impostor syndrome overnight, or even for good. Some freelancers will struggle with confidence throughout their careers. As long as you remember that this happens because it’s human nature and not because you suck at your job, you just might become a successful freelancer after all.

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