Supporting UX designers with imposter syndrome

What to say to someone with impostor syndrome and how to successfully support them during stressful periods of professional development

Brianna Koch
5 min readMar 20, 2021

The first year of my UX design career was plagued with impostor syndrome. I constantly questioned if I was capable of doing the job and I suffered entirely in silence. I feared that sharing my insecurities would lead to others noticing I wasn’t performing up to expectations. I worried that if they caught on, my job would be at risk.

As my bonds grew with my boss, my mentors, and my teammates, I began subtly hinting at my feelings of inadequacy. Any time I opened up, my concerns were immediately met with verbal reassurance. “No way! You’re doing great!”

With the best of intentions, they intended to reassure me. Instead, I walked away from each encounter feeling as terrible as I did before. Even more, I was confused. The external praise contradicted everything I knew to be true about myself.

No amount of praise from my mentors or my teammates could help me feel better about myself and my work. I could always find excuses to reject compliments about my performance, attributing my success to factors outside my control. Impostor syndrome can’t be complimented away.

“People with impostor syndrome struggle with accurately attributing their performance to their actual competence (i.e., they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others and attribute setbacks as evidence of their professional inadequacy).” (Source)

Eventually, my confidence grew and I overcame my impostor syndrome. While I’m relieved to be past that period of my career, I’m thankful for the lessons it taught me, and how it equipped me to better support others in similar situations.

From Mentee to Mentor

A few years (and a lot of confidence) later, I was asked to mentor a new, Associate UX Designer (they/them) on our team. During their onboarding, I observed how others on the team attempted to encourage and support them.

“You’re doing great!”

“We’re so excited to have you on the team!”

“You’ve got this!”

Observing this led me to reflect on the beginning of my own design career. How would I have felt hearing praise like that? (Not good). Would I believe it? (No). I wondered, is my mentee feeling similarly?

The next time we met, I told them that if they ever felt like they were in over their head and couldn’t do this job, that was a very normal feeling to have. I assured them that it wasn’t true, but we can be prone to believing otherwise.

My delivery was blunt, but my intuition was correct; they immediately began to divulge their fears and insecurities about their performance. They too felt like an impostor.

The 4 Stages of Competence

The four stages of competence is a learning model that describes the progression of acquiring competence in a skill. This model helped me make sense of my impostor syndrome and understand why I questioned myself so heavily in the beginning of my career.

A staircase showing the progression of the four stages of competence. Starting from the bottom, it’s unconscious incompetence. From awareness, it climbs to conscious incompetence. From training, it climbs to conscious incompetence. From practice, it climbs to unconscious competence.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

In this first stage, someone is unaware of the skill they lack.

2. Conscious Incompetence

In this stage, someone is aware they lack the skill and are working to develop it.

3. Conscious Competence

In this stage, someone is trained in a skill they didn’t have before. Utilizing this skill requires conscious effort.

4. Unconscious Competence

In this final stage, the skill has become ingrained as a result of time and repeated practice. It’s second nature to them and can be performed virtually effortlessly.

The conscious incompetence of a new designer

A junior designer cannot remain blissfully unconsciously incompetent for long. Whether new to the industry or new to a company, the designer will quickly encounter new and unfamiliar territory that pushes them to acquire new skills to properly navigate it. They are immediately thrust into conscious incompetence.

The period of conscious incompetence can induce insecurity and anxiety. People in this phase are prone to making mistakes. Mistakes feel especially scary when they happen during a period when someone is seeking to prove that they were worth hiring. Mistakes are crucial for learning but, understandably, people often feel upset, frustrated, and embarrassed when making them. Mistakes and failure can (and often do) reinforce someone’s impostor syndrome. Ironically, it’s those same mistakes that help someone grow and evolve to being consciously competent.

How do I help someone who’s “consciously incompetent” and struggling because of it?

Ultimately, you can’t compliment someone out of their impostor syndrome nor can you compliment someone into gaining competency. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to support them through their skill development.

Consider their situation

This person is growing and will naturally go through periods of shaky confidence. They may not communicate their feelings or concerns with you out of fear or embarrassment. Be mindful of where they are in their career and their development.

Be vulnerable

Being an effective mentor (or a manager) isn’t about proving your competency and always having the answer. Mentors often draw on their past experiences to offer guidance to mentees. When doing this, be forthcoming about your own mistakes and how they helped you gain the knowledge you’re now imparting to them. Acknowledge what you still don’t know and where you aim to grow. Vulnerability can help the two of you develop a relationship of trust and respect.

Affirm their feelings

When someone does open up to you, affirm their feelings. Don’t deny the validity of their concerns and dismiss it with a “No way! You’re doing great!”. Affirmation is not agreement, but acknowledgment. Allow them to feel heard by receiving what they say without countering it. Let them know that it will get better for them and explain how you can help them.

Find appropriate opportunities for growth

They won’t grow and become “consciously competent” unless they’re developing and growing their skills. Look for opportunities suited to their level — something that pushes them slightly outside of their boundaries. It’s okay to feel some discomfort as part of growth, but avoid challenges that are too difficult to the point of being demoralizing.

Find measurable opportunities for growth

Giving them opportunities for growth that you can measure will make it easier, later on, to find and share specific examples with them that illustrate their development.

Create a safe environment to fail in

In addition to sharing your own mistakes to build trust, you can also foster psychological safety by celebrating theirs. Don’t jump to suggestions or critique when they make a mistake. Work with them so they can come to their own conclusions about what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what they can try next.

Point out specific, data-backed examples of their growth

Sharing specific examples and illustrating how their skill development yielded those results can neutralize their tendency to attribute good results to external factors (like luck). This type of positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue refining and practicing that skill until they graduate from consciously incompetent to consciously competent.



Brianna Koch

Taco Bell enthusiast that does Product Design @ Artera. @briannakoch