For some reason, I never expected to feel like a fraud when it came to freelancing. I felt like an imposter many times in my previous career as a Higher Education employee, whilst constantly dreaming about setting up my own business. I had so many ideas of things I could do and what I could be, including a personal trainer, a social media manager, and a virtual assistant, before settling on a return to my true love – writing (with a bit of editing thrown in).
Not once did I contemplate during those wistful longings for self-employment that I’d feel imposter syndrome as a freelancer. Part of that I think stems from the fact that I don’t have a journalism or writing qualification (if that even exists), although I do have English degrees. I know deep down that I’m a good writer regardless; it’s something which has always come naturally to me and I can express myself far easier through the written word than verbally.
But still every day there’s a nagging sense of doubt, a feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this, that I’m not good enough. I think partly it’s because I’ve always held myself up to very high standards, berating myself frequently if I don’t meet them, never really giving myself a break.
I love it when I get a commission and see my work published, whether I’ve been paid for it or not; but the feeling of elation doesn’t last long before I’m thinking of chasing the next opportunity, with an underlying anxiety about it not coming to fruition quickly enough.
So now that I am moving into self-employment, I’ve found myself simply repeating the negative thought patterns which plagued my previous career as an employee. There’s an added element when it comes to imposter syndrome and freelancing of being completely responsible for bringing in money, which depends entirely on your ability to put yourself out there, market your services and follow through on jobs. But at least I don’t have to deal with tedious office politics and I can manage my own time and priorities.
What causes imposter syndrome?
Evidently, your personality traits are largely responsible for your experience of imposter syndrome, specifically traits such as perfectionism and fear of making mistakes. I definitely recognise myself there; I’ve always been terrified of making a mistake in anything and being found out, but I’m not sure why. My parents were always encouraging and supportive, but never overly pushy or pressuring. Of course I’ve made many mistakes in my life, as have most people, but I’ve not yet been banished from any space because of them.
I worked at a University for ten years before my mental health put paid to my career. Whilst working my way up the ladder over that time I experienced imposter syndrome to varying degrees, which peaked in my final role as the manager of a new academic department.
During the year I was in that role I questioned my capabilities constantly, expected myself to know everything straight away and admonished myself when I didn’t, and became paranoid that everyone thought my recruitment to the role had been a mistake which was becoming ever more clear as time went on. It all became too much and I had to resign, and I’ve been gradually piecing my self-esteem back together since.
But I really couldn’t tell you where this comes from; I can’t blame overbearing parents or exacting teachers from my past. It seems to be just some kind of internal barometer which is always set to high. I’ve read that women are more prone to imposter syndrome and I can understand why; we’ve always been praised for being the ones to keep everything together and running smoothly, which perhaps now manifests as always expecting so much of ourselves even when others allow us to relax a bit.
Imposter syndrome and freelancing
It’s easy to see why being self-employed and being completely responsible for your income would add additional pressure on someone who already holds themselves to incredibly high standards. That fear of making a mistake is heightened; you can’t blame anyone else if you do something wrong and have to take full responsibility for it. A mistake can lose you a client or customer, cost you money or affect your reputation. That’s a lot of pressure.
There’s also a sense that by deciding to go it alone and lay yourself out there for all to see you’re actually proclaiming your abilities and competence. In an employed role that often gets lost amongst the masses, providing a sort of safe haven so that you’re not too exposed and from which you can creep out as and when you choose.
Not so with self-employment; you’re bare, naked, and there’s a pressure to live up to the assertion inherent in that that you’re worthy of attention. No client or customer is going to want to give work to someone who appears unsure of themselves. Their business is their baby and they’ll only entrust it to the most capable hands.
How can you overcome self-doubt as a freelancer?
As I’m at the start of my freelance journey, I obviously have no clue about this and it’s something I’m grappling with daily, so I’ll defer to the wisdom of others.
- Don’t compare yourself to other freelancers who might be at different stages of the self-employed journey. You can’t compare your level 1 to their level 30! This is something I’m certainly guilty of. I see established freelancers killing it on social media or getting constant commissions and I immediately feel anxious that they’ve achieved something I haven’t, despite the fact that they might have been at it for years whilst I’ve only just started. That doesn’t make sense does it?
- Remind yourself of successes you’ve had in the past and good jobs you’ve done. Remember compliments you’ve received and when you’ve been praised for your work. Even just passing a probation period at work is a success! I liked one tip I found which suggested collecting written compliments from clients, or former managers if you’re new to freelancing like me, in a particular folder in your inbox, so you can read through them when you’re feeling like a fraud and give yourself a confidence boost. I’ll certainly be doing this.
- Talk to and connect with other freelancers; you’ll probably find that a lot of them, even seasoned pros, feel the same sometimes. The more we talk about imposter syndrome and freelancing, the more open and honest about it, the better we’ll feel knowing we’re not alone and it’s a common reaction to stretching yourself and levelling up. Perhaps find a mentor who can guide you and provide support and reassurance.
Successful self-employment depends on your ability to project confidence, even when you don’t feel it, particularly when it comes to asserting yourself and setting your rates and boundaries. But wouldn’t it be better to feel it in the first place, rather than pretending or faking it until you make it? That’s what I’m aiming for.
I hope my sense of imposter syndrome will gradually reduce with time and experience, but in the meantime I’m going to focus on those tips, trying not to compare myself with others, reminding myself of my skills and being open about this with other freelancers.
I think it’s also really important for me, and perhaps for others in the same boat, to remember why I’m doing this in the first place – the benefits I’m gaining from self-employment, particularly with regards to my mental health, and the skills and experience I have behind me, or which I know I can acquire if I put my mind to it.
Let me know if you’re a freelancer who also suffers with imposter syndrome and if you’ve found any other strategies to successfully tackle it.