UXers: are we all anxious?

A brief analysis on empathy, anxiety, Impostor Syndrome, design and their connections.


Julia Forneck Pinheiro

3 years ago | 5 min read

Earlier this month I participated in a webinar offered by UX Writing Hub that consisted of an informal chat between JR Miller and Melissa Sepe-Johnston, two UX Writers at Google Maps, that talked about their professional experiences. They brought up many themes such as how they learned about design and UX Writing, our communication in these pandemic times and many other topics.

During this chat, it didn’t take too long for a familiar feeling to come up and become the resonating topic between the speakers and the audience: anxiety.

This happened when JR mentioned in a very casual and playful way about the recurrent feeling as if he tricked people to pay him for his sentences. Melissa laughed and stressed this statement, and this exchange was enough for many colleagues on the chat to start opening up about this constant sense of insecurity and anxiety related to the work they produced.

The so-called Impostor’s Syndrome.


The audience ranged from very experienced writers to people starting to or even thinking about transitioning to the design industry. All these professionals, from many different places and different backgrounds, shared this deep-rooted feeling as if they’re about to be unmasked as a fraud. The zoom chat felt like a supporting group for all these people somehow relieved for acknowledging this sensation and being aware that they’re not alone.

“I’m about to cry, no jokes. I’m so relieved to hear from you guys.”
“I’ve found my people…”

These were some of the comments.

Although it was nice to hear all those perspectives, it was also a bit uncanny and worrying the fact that we all shared this poor feeling. Why is that, people started to wonder, and so Misti Pinter, one of the attendants of the event, shared an eye-opening insight on the chat: “UX requires empathy, and empathetic people tend to be anxious”.

After this, I was really curious and wanted to understand better all those feelings and the reasons behind them. In order for that to happen, we need to break the pieces that make up for this mess.

Impostor Syndrome

The term was coined by the psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s on a study made on high achieving women and the feeling they experience. Many years later, it is understood that the syndrome isn’t restricted to only high achieving women, but to a wider range of people.

“Though the impostor phenomenon isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression.”
Kirsen Weir on the American Psychological Association publication.

If you haven’t heard of it, in simple terms anyone that’s facing the Impostor Syndrome deals with the fear and anxiety that people around them will realize their work, effort and achievements are fake, and they’re unworthy of it.

The psychologist Arlin Cuncic lists a few common signs of the syndrome as self-doubt, inability to realistically assess your competence and skills, attributing your success to external factors, fear that you won’t live up to expectations, among others.

Empathy on design

As for empathy, it could be described as the ability to understand and share emotional experiences with other people. Those who work on designing products and experiences are encouraged to be empathetic with users, which is a purposeful encouragement, and we’ve already heard a lot about the importance of it.

We can’t create products for people’s needs if we don’t understand them.

Jon Kolko mentions on Well-Designed-How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love that “When you bring design to product management, you’ll find yourself taking larger risks and being more confident in trusting your intuition, because your intuition will be shaped by empathy with the people that you hope to help and empower”.

But what if we’re not confident? Is it possible that by harvesting empathy we become more anxious and unsure of our capabilities?

Empathy and anxiety

It’s already acknowledged by psychologists that being over-empathetic is a thing, and it can be extremely harmful. This empathy is usually associated with professionals whose jobs are of high-exposure, such as nurses, doctors and journalists, but actually all — or at least most — of us feel empathy for the ones around us, for the people we see on TV facing hard times, and for the stories we read on social media.

We are living in times of high-exposure, and most of us feel tired after just a few minutes scrolling through the internet and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. To distract ourselves from the news, let’s put our minds to some work, after all, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

But now imagine you’re trying to write an error message and a how-to solve it, but nothing seems right. You try to understand what the user is feeling and thinking, and for you what they’re thinking is “this I’m reading sucks”.

Should you be doing this? Are you good enough to be in this position? Maybe you just had luck and landed this nice job, but you’re not a good fit for it and your words are crap.

Now, is there a scientific reason behind why we go down this swirling insecurity?

There may be.

Studies are not so broad in this area, as mentioned in the Convergent Neural Correlates of Empathy and Anxiety During Socioemotional Processing, but this article published in 2019 hypothesizes that empathy and anxiety are indirectly related, and this relation is established through the process of worry.

Previous studies to this raise internally generated thought (such as worry and rumination) as a relation factor between empathy and anxiety. Analyses have also shown that the links between rumination and anxiety are attributed to brooding and emotion-driven rumination.

“While rumination shares many similarities to worry, it has been suggested that rumination is a process of “compulsively focusing attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions” (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998). This idea both supports the observation that rumination is most closely related to anxiety, and provides a scaffold for how empathy relates to worry, which in turn relates to rumination, and thus anxiety.”
Lindsay K. Knight, Teodora Stoica, Nicholas D. Fogleman and Brendan E. Depue on Convergent Neural Correlates of Empathy and Anxiety During Socioemotional Processing

Am I too empathetic?


Should I stop being empathetic?


Empathy is essential in establishing connections, building relationships and as already mentioned, in our work. More than that, I personally believe that empathy and caring about others is the way to go (our world is already messed up enough with a lack of consideration, but this is a topic for another post).

Now, we can change the way we care.

There’s been already identified two forms of empathy: emotional and cognitive.

Emotional empathy is the kind we experience when watching a loved one suffering. We feel what they feel, as if somehow by taking a part of that feeling, we can relieve the weight for them. This is the kind of empathy that incites us to help.

Cognitive empathy is when we take someone else’s perspective, trying to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes, but not evoking that same distress in ourselves.

Understanding what, how and why we feel is of huge importance.

This article is brought up as a way to incite a conversation regarding empathy, anxiety and insecurity. By any means, it aims at reaching a definite conclusion.

Huge thanks to Misti Pinter for sharing her insight on empathy and anxiety and fomenting the inspiration for this post, and to Stephanny Calgaroto for reviewing this post and making sure I wasn’t committing any atrocity to the psychology field.

For more information, these are the references for this post:

Greater Good Magazine — Empathy Definition

Psychology Today — Empathy

Verywell Mind — Cognitive vs Emotional Empathy

Verywell Mind — What is Imposter Syndrome?

Psychology Today — Rethinking the Path to Empathy

Convergent Neural Correlates of Empathy and Anxiety During Socioemotional Processing

American Psychological Association — Feel like a fraud?

UX and the problem with empathy

Impostor Syndrome: Living as a fraud daily


Created by

Julia Forneck Pinheiro

Technical Writer and Advertising student learning more about words, people and tech. Find me on LinkedIn ;)







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