Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Derail Your Freelance Career
Proven ways to shut down your inner critic and enjoy the success you’ve earned.
Every freelancer I’ve met suffers from the same affliction. Without a doubt and without compromise, Imposter Syndrome manifests in different ways at different times throughout their careers. No matter how successful they are or how long they’ve been a freelancer, they all tell me at some point they’ve wanted to crawl in a hole and not come out.
This isn’t merely being shy or introverted. Let’s take a look at ways imposter syndrome presents itself, how it can derail careers if left unchecked, and ways to silence the inner critic once and for all.
How Is This My Real Life?
Recently I was able to take a month-long trip to Scotland. On the surface, it was an adventure around a country that’s come to be my very favorite, and my days were full of shortbread and gin, exploring castles and making new friends with people from all over the globe. Toward the end of the second week, I was having a conversation with someone who asked a typical question, “What do you do?” and I launched into my elevator pitch.
“I help freelancers start, grow, and run a location independent business.”
…which is technically accurate but incredibly dull. It doesn’t encapsulate how fantastic my job is, and by extension, the life I’ve built around it.
- I teach bloggers how to run away from home and write in castles all day long.
- I teach novelists how to get paid to talk to imaginary friends sitting on a beach in Bali.
- I help web designers build a portfolio in the afternoon after exploring Mayan Ruins in the morning.
I’ve revised my answer to reply with one of these, and I continuously brainstorm more. When I answered my new friend, she said all the things I’ve heard before. “How cool.” “That’s amazing.”
Rather than be proud of my circumstances, or even just gratified, a very familiar gut check brought my joy to a halt. The ever-present internal critic whispered, “what makes you so special? Why should anyone listen to you, and how can you possibly justify charging people for anything?”
Hello, Imposter Syndrome.
Studies have shown that at least 70% of people will experience some form of Imposter Phenomenon, which is characterized broadly as “[causing] people to doubt their achievements and fear that others will expose them as fraudulent.”
That’s precisely what I felt. Suddenly I didn’t feel qualified or lucky to be able to do great work for the people I served. I felt like a fraud. Again.
Spotting Imposter Syndrome in Yourself and Others
Imposter syndrome manifests differently for everyone with a few combinations of common traits. High-Achievers seem to suffer most often, and more women than men report being affected. It can present by merely attributing success to others and minimizing one’s accomplishments. It’s also observed that those suffering will go overboard on goals and task setting, hoping to show others that they’re high performing and go-getters. Internally, they may suffer from self-sabotaging habits and overall low self-esteem.
Dr. Valerie Young speaks and teaches on the subject extensively. She’s identified five types of typical “imposters”:
- The Expert — Continuously on the hunt for more information. Experts feel like they’re chasing data to justify their involvement in a project or conversation.
- The Perfectionist — Generally dissatisfied with their work. They continuously look for what they could have done better, rather than celebrating their successes.
- The Natural Genius — Can master skills naturally and quickly. They feel shame when they’re not able to confidently do it 100% of the time.
- The Soloist — Works alone to avoid asking for help. Soloists like the spotlight, but they also mask deep fear that anyone else will discover their weaknesses.
- The Superhero — The classic workaholic. Overachieving and out of balance in terms of time and priorities.
Those that pursue a career as a solopreneur or freelance business owner can find themselves in one (or more) of these imposter types. If left to fester, it can derail careers and business opportunities.
Undervaluing Our Worth As Freelancers
The hard-dollar costs of Imposter Syndrome for freelancers are immeasurable. Still, I can anecdotally confirm that nearly every freelancer I’ve surveyed has to fight the instinct to undercharge for their services. They say things like:
- My clients can’t afford to pay more
- I’m too new or inexperienced to charge more
- I’ll charge a lower rate this one time to get the business
Every one of these justifications and the many others will ultimately kill a freelance business. It may be a slow, frustrating march to burnout and bankruptcy, but ultimately it’s unsustainable.
Dr. Young repeatedly says in her books, TED Talks, and in written articles that there’s no instant cure for Imposter Syndrome. Like other conditions, it requires management.
The only way to stop feeling like an impostor, is to stop thinking like an impostor. — Dr. Valerie Young
She outlines ten steps that include working to break the cycles and patterns of behavior here, and it’s well worth a read and a deeper dive. What stood out for me as I worked to combat my archetype (Hi, I’m Chelle. I’m a Perfectionist, Soloist, Natural Genius. Nice to meet you.) was that the feelings are the last to change.
Let me repeat that. The feelings are the last to change. This means that that twinge of guilt, that inner critic, those feelings of shame aren’t going away — yet.
When they surface, I need to interrupt my brain with a new script — a new vision of success. I need to fake it ’til I make it. My mind and emotions will eventually catch up.
Tackling Imposter Syndrome likely isn’t high on the list of other experts’ lists of how to be a successful freelancer. It is high on mine, though. As a solopreneur, the talks I have with myself count as a staff meeting, and my productivity and success depend on staying motivated. I’m the only one responsible for that. I’ll still have moments of self-doubt like everyone does. But now that I understand the importance of shutting down the self-sabotaging behavior I can pretty quickly correct my course and not let it spiral into something much bigger with more lasting consequences.