I work in UX&D at the BBC. This week, fellow creative directors have been sharing their mental health stories. I wanted to contribute. But, I didn’t think I had anything to share. I really admire the people who shared their stories — they showed vulnerability and that buys us all more space to be ourself — that makes us and our team fitter, happier and more productive.
But I don’t think I’ve had to cope with serious mental health challenges myself. I’m sometimes sad. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed. When things don’t go my way, my first thought isn’t always to bounce back. I sometimes struggle to know how I feel — and I get surprised when I realise I’ve been a bit spiky in a meeting or a bit quieter than usual. And I still get mild palpitations before most presentations or when I talk to a group — even though I’ve done it loads.
I have managed people who have had more significant challenges. I thought I could write about how I found the first few conversations hard to navigate — struggling like lots of people do around these conversations — not knowing what to do, ask or say. But that’s pretty normal. I thought I could talk about the pressure of feeling underprepared and unqualified to offer support. And how I questioned where my responsibilities began and ended. I thought I could share how I went on mental health first aid training. And how, like most conversations, if you listen with compassion and curiosity, that’s a good place to start. I didn’t think there was much special or unique in sharing that.
None of that felt to be the same tone or to fulfil the same purpose as the other stories. And I’m not 100% sure whether this is post-rationalisation or a genuine reflection, but that reminded me of feelings of imposter syndrome, which I’ve written about before.
If you’re not quite sure what imposter syndrome is, don’t worry. You won’t be alone. It’s just a name for feeling like you’re a bit of a fake or fraud — that you’ve somehow tricked your way into your current role and will be found out by someone soon. The last time I asked, around 70% of people in UX&D said they’d had feelings like that at some point. Whether it’s because we’re surrounded by talented designers, challenged by other disciplines or we’re trying to establish ourself in a new role — anyone can feel like a fraud.
There are lots of causes for imposter syndrome. Being someone who is different to the majority can be a cause — which is why our efforts to build an inclusive culture are so important. Roles reliant on transferable skills can also see more of it — as people question whether their knowledge, skills and experience are really relevant to their current challenges… and that describes most design project, as we grapple with inventing new things or doing old things in new ways. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle with this sensation.
I found a few situations that are likely to be more challenging:
- uncertain and ambiguous situations challenge us. When it’s unclear what to do next, it’s inevitable we’ll fell underprepared.
- representation and responsibility also present challenges. When we find ourselves as the only designer on a piece of work or in a meeting it can add to feelings of both pressure and doubt.
- expert skills are a double edged sword. The expertise and knowledge of other people can be intimating. It’s easy to compare our inside doubts and struggles with the “outside” performance we see in others. We can overestimate the competence of colleagues and leave ourselves intimidated.
- situations affect our confidence. Lots of people mention meetings and presentations as bringing out this feeling. A bored-looking face in a presentation can undermine us. A senior stakeholder, regardless of our own experience and expertise can also put us under pressure.
- feedback can also be challenging. Design succeeds on the back of feedback and iteration. But it can be exhausting. Describing the rationale behind design work, being faced with questions and even times when the team adopts our idea can spark doubts. There are also times when we get good feedback and feel like we don’t deserve it — kicking in negative feelings when we should be celebrating.
Doubt helps design — but we need to control it. It’s good to ask questions and not to jump too early to certainty. But where imposter syndrome can stand in our way, there are ways of coping.
When we’re feeling like an imposter, we have a tendency to over-prepare. As a coping strategy this is probably a pretty good one, especially when we combine it with the next two tips.
I also do a sort of mini-prepare or recharge in meetings sometimes. I take a moment of quiet and calm, and focus on breathing. In almost every context 2 or 3 seconds is a very short time — but we sometimes panic in meetings — when this is all the time we need to gather our breath and thoughts. I don’t dwell on the moment of fear or doubt, I leave it behind and try to focus on the subject or task at hand… I do often forget about this technique.
Accept where you are
I remind myself that it’s OK not to be certain. Most of us feel less confident at the beginning of things. It seems like the longer we spend doing anything we feel less of an imposter — so maybe it’s enough to know that this is a normal reaction to something new… and most design projects are dealing with new and uncertain possibilities. Focus on and celebrate small achievements to build confidence.
Own your ignorance
Even if you’re an ‘expert’, you can’t know everything. Grant yourself permission to ask questions. Remember, the majority of the people in the room probably suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time — so try not to be the one waiting for someone else to ask the question — ask it yourself!
We’ve all got achievements in our past. We can call on past achievements to re-assure us when we’re having a wobble. I’m pretty fast “rebound” from events, but it means I sometimes forget the good stuff too. One simple tip is to keep a list of things that reassure you and make you proud. Keep it in the back of your notebook or in a file on your desktop. Keep it to remind yourself that you do belong.
Clean your pallette
A colleague shared how she does a focused task to try to get into Flow. I do the same. If I’ve had a tough day or week I make time for a little pallete cleansing activity to recharge. At the moment this tends to be writing daft little poems. I get a little sense of acheivement and 20 minutes not thinking about anything else.
While for some of us, being surrounded by a talented team is intimidating, it’s also our greatest asset. Mental Health awareness week is partly about lonliness. Being intimidated in a team can feel really lonely. But connections can make us stronger. Lots of us get strength from seeking advice and getting feedback from peers. Build trusting relationships and seek out authentic feedback that you can believe in. Make sure to accept it and believe it when it’s given.
Confidence is an asset in design. It’s the source of energy we need to answer the questions which doubt and curiosity spark. I try to think of these as two sides of the same coin. I try to give myself permission to feel a bit lost at times, and then I trust myself, design processes and my colleagues to help me get out of the fog and find the next best thing to do. My confidence in each one might waver at times — self, process, team — but I can usually find a mix of those in every moment to make progress.
Imposter syndrome can make people defensive or trick them into not contributing when they could. We can beat ourselves up over the doubts we hold — but I think that just leads to a negative cycle that makes everything harder. So if you’re one of the many people who sometimes feel like a fake, don’t worry, you’re not. You’re just you. And we’re all a bit of a work in progress.