Freelancers Are Uniquely Susceptible to Imposter Syndrome. Here’s How to Deal with it.

April 4, 2018 | Stephen Jackson

Freelancing can be tricky business. There are ups and downs, peaks of euphoria and valleys of despair. The thrill associated with booking a client, all on your own, is a singular experience in business. However, each successfully snagged job usually comes after many rejections. Frankly, the whole business can be exhausting.

Self-employment is a proving ground for all sorts of mental-health challenges: self-doubt, anxiety, uncertainty, and everything in between. A particularly common issue is “imposter syndrome” — the inability to accept one’s own accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

What Are You Doing Here?

Imposter syndrome is also commonly experienced among graduate and postgraduate students, who find that as they become experts in their fields, they also realize how little they actually know, causing them to fear that they aren’t the “experts” they’re supposed to be.

As freelancers, people often get into business as graphic designer or writers, but suddenly find themselves in a position where they also have to be accountants, salespeople, and social media managers in order to hack it. Suddenly, they feel that they are out of their league professionally, and boom — imposter syndrome.

But Sarah Larkin Birdsong, a licensed mental health counselor with years of experience working with developers and freelance professionals, doesn’t believe that people need to feel this way. She has an M.A. and Ed.M from Columbia University in Counseling Psychology, and has been an on-staff counselor for Dev Bootcamp in New York City, so she understands the struggles of young, independent professionals who specialize in highly competitive markets.

We talked about imposter syndrome and how it relates to freelance hustling. She pointed out that these feelings come up in freelancing for several reasons:

  • As a society we’re primed to work in group environments in which we receive positive feedback while pursuing a relatively linear path of success. Freelancers don’t necessarily work in groups nor have a linear path.

  • Branding oneself and blasting one’s business all over Instagram (especially for creative introverts) might feel antithetical to the authenticity of the craft in the first place.

What follows is helpful advice from an experienced professional. But if you’re feeling super low or particularly out of sorts, you should really find someone to talk to in person. (Birdsong points out that none of this should be taken as “writing policy,” either.)

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what she has to say.

Only Experts Feel Like Imposters

One thing Birdsong likes to remind people suffering from imposter syndrome is that in order to feel like there are tons of things you don’t know how to do, you have to have reached a certain level of expertise in the first place.

“It’s important to realize that when you first started out, you thought you knew everything, but now that you’ve gotten a certain level of expertise, you feel like you don’t. It’s important to reality-check that, because it’s counterintuitive,” Birdsong says, pointing out that just because you are aware of the fact that you have much more to learn, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t gained a great deal of expertise to get you to that point of realization.

In other words, all the knowledge you’ve gained in order to be humbled by the breadth of what’s out there hasn’t gone anywhere.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

“I also recommend that people fake it,” she says brightly. “If you’re not a self-marketer, then you’re not going to get to a place where you’re a self-marketer, so the best thing to do is make it a habit, normalize it, just go through the motions and do it and don’t think that it requires authentic fire behind it. Just do it, and it will become more comfortable.”

Basically, doing anything becomes habit after enough repetition — including acting like a social-media whiz or a sales-funnel sensei.

“I can’t think of an example where that’s not true. But I think creatives are so used to doing something that comes from a place of passion, inspiration, and personal drive that it feels very forced to do something that doesn’t come from that,” Birdsong says. “But just go through the motions. It gets easier.”

The Smaller the Voice, the More It Should Be Heard

Birdsong points out that in a world where confidence and extroversion is celebrated as the norm, sometimes those whose craft is particularly unusual might feel out of their league as they pursue their own self-directed business.

“You might feel like your voice is niche, or maybe there’s not space for you, or that your voice shouldn’t be really loud,” she says. “But actually, if you put that into a larger social-justice context, we actually need your voice more. So if doing something takes more confidence than you might feel you have, then please, for the benefit of those other voices, force yourself to be loud.”

It turns out that imposter syndrome is a really common thing, and Birdsong encourages people to find peace of mind knowing that they’re far from alone — and that they owe it to the community to break the cycle of self doubt.