August 11, 2021

Dealing with imposter syndrome as a freelancer

Written by Martin Baxter

Any day now they are going to realise that I’m just not that skilled. I don’t deserve to be leading this project and it’s all going to go catastrophically wrong. I couldn’t possibly put up my rates, because my work isn’t good enough. I’m not capable.

If your train of thought at work goes something like this, you might be suffering from imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the name given to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and fear of failure in people who are inarguably outwardly successful and talented. It can make you feel like a fraud in your own life, as if you’re undercover playing a role and could get found out at any minute. It’s really not a nice feeling, and one that can start to affect your work and mental health if it gets out of control. In this article, we have a look at what to do if you start to hear that little nagging voice inside you that tells you that you’re not good enough…

You’re not alone

Some comforting news is that if you feel like this, you’re not the only one. Imposter syndrome is a common feeling, and most people will experience it at some point in their working life. A study reported in Time magazine estimated that it affects up to 70% of us. Freelancers can be particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome, because it thrives when you are isolated from others, have to work solo, and are under pressure to complete projects to perfection.

Don’t try to ignore it

Trying to ignore the feelings of imposter syndrome when they arise might only make things worse, as you find yourself fighting your internal monologue all by yourself. One of the most powerful things you can do is to acknowledge the feelings and give a name to them (so reading this article is an excellent first step). Then, when the thoughts pop up, you can say “oh, hi, imposter syndrome”, and quickly counter them with some rational and positive oppositional thinking: “I’ve never failed at leading a project yet”, “This client has been happy with all my previous work”, “I do deserve to be here because I’ve worked really hard”.

Talking to others about your feelings can also help, whether that’s friends, family or other freelancers. The chances are they’ve felt the same way at some stage. They will also know you pretty well and be able to point to other examples of your earned successes, or indeed be able to give you some perspective on how work isn’t everything.

Relish in your successes

What do you do when you finish a project? Just move on to the next thing on your to-do list? This could unwittingly be feeding the imposter monster. Taking time to celebrate and enjoy your successes is an important part of job satisfaction. And when you’re a freelancer, you haven’t got a boss or line manager there in the background to champion you when things go well or help you see what you’ve achieved in an annual review. You’ve got to be that cheerleader for yourself.

Make sure you’re shouting about your successes on your website and social media – whether that’s new contracts won, projects completed, or being nominated for awards or featured in the press. Sometimes writing it down and publishing it can make it seem more real. Develop a ritual for jobs well done. This could be a treat like a coffee at your fave cafe, finishing the day an hour earlier so you can go on a walk, or a pint down the pub with a fellow freelancer. For bigger jobs or exciting things like awards, think balloons, champers on ice and maybe a fancy meal out. If you live with other people, like housemates, partners or children, try to involve them in your successes too and have them celebrate with you. Alternatively, you could join a freelancing community so you have like-minded people to share your big wins with.

Fake it until you make it

You know those people who come across as so super-confident and self-assured? The people who always seem to be smiling and relaxed, no matter how much pressure they’re under? Don’t you wish you could be like them? Here’s a secret: you can! Here’s another secret: they don’t feel that confident all the time. They just got good at faking it, until it became a reality for them.

Smiling is key here. Smiling gives off the impression that you’re happy and not the bundle of anxious nerves that you know yourself to be deep down. It wins people over. But most importantly, the act of smiling in itself has measurable, physiological effects on your body. It releases feel-good hormones like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, and neuropeptides which reduce stress and slow your heart rate. Smiling tricks your body into making you feel more relaxed and confident. Over time, all this faking confidence becomes second nature, until you realise…you’re not faking it anymore! You’ve become that person – the confident, in-control role model. Now, go look for another freelancer and share your secrets.

Let go of perfection

Perfectionism is one of the most common traits of people suffering from imposter syndrome. As freelancers, we sometimes hold ourselves to impossibly high standards that we would never expect from anyone else. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed, overworked and still unsatisfied because no piece of work we did could ever meet our exacting requirements. One useful technique here is to try to step outside and externalise the problem: what would you say to a friend or another freelancer who was experiencing the same feelings and worries? This can help you take a more objective perspective and realise that it’s just work – it’s not life or death.

Indeed, one of the most inspirational figures and role models during the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo was Simone Biles. We know she is capable of some jaw-dropping, record-breaking gymnastic performances, but she stood out for her ability to say “no”, to choose to protect herself and her mental health against the weight of expectations. It’s a good lesson for any of us that ever feel pressure to perform consistently at a level of perfection. It’s not sustainable all the time, we’re only human, and sometimes we need to put our health and wellbeing first. Our clients – the good clients, the clients we want to keep working for – will understand.

Dinghy is here to support all our freelancers whenever they need us – including those times when things aren’t feeling so great. Our Freelancer Assist service comes with every freelance business insurance package we offer, and includes access to a 24/7 counselling line giving confidential help when you need someone to listen. Our professional indemnity and public liability insurance packages act as a safety net for freelancers, meaning there’s one less thing to worry about. A quote takes less than a minute, so you can sort it quickly and get back to being your awesome freelancing self.

About Martin Baxter

Read more blog posts by Martin Baxter


Subscribe to our exclusive mailing list for the latest stories, newsletters and freelancer tips from the Dinghy team