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Breaking Free From the Imposter Trap

“As everyone was introducing themselves in my new mastermind, I was in awe of each and every one of them: the way they articulated what their business was about, the work they do, their mission. They all seemed so impressive! As it got closer and closer to my turn I felt more and more anxious. I could feel my palms getting sweaty, my throat tightening. In truth I wanted to hide as it hit me like a tonne of bricks: ‘I don’t belong here, I’m not at their level, I am not an expert like they are. They’re going to see me for what I am - a complete fraud.’”

Hands up if you’ve ever been in a similar spot? Never feeling qualified or experienced enough, worrying you won’t live up to others expectations of you, never quite satisfied with what you produce or achieve, thinking you got to where you are by being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.

These are all classic signs of impostor syndrome and if any of these resonate with you then you’re in good company. It’s one of the most common mindset traps we fall prey to as business owners and entrepreneurs and one that keeps popping up with every level of success unless kept in check.

I’ve worked with over 100 female entrepreneurs and business owners who all admitted a degree of impostorism and here are some of the typical impacts shared with me:

  • I feel like I’m just playing at this and I’ll never succeed! It’s slowing my progress.

  • I finish a piece of work and then all I do is criticise it and compare myself to others.

  • I think “Who am I to say I’m an expert?” I end up referring more complex clients to other people.

  • I can’t increase my prices because I feel like a fraud.

  • I don’t share or promote my business as much as I should.

  • I don’t ask for testimonials because I don’t feel what I do is that important and I worry about negative feedback.

  • I don’t believe it when people praise my work, I feel they’re just being kind.

Our thoughts and feelings affect the actions we take, so when you feel like a fraud, when you feel not good enough and that you don’t measure up in some way, the action you take comes from this place. It’s like trying to drive with the brakes on - it slows you down. It leads you to say “no” to things, to discount your prices, to feel not ready or discredit your achievements. It also acts as a filter for how you see the world, so opportunities that could be right in front of you just aren’t even on your radar.

What isn’t often talked about is the exhausting cycle of subconscious coping strategies that are the real trap - they actually end up sustaining impostor syndrome. Habits of avoidance and forgetting to do certain things or conversely spending an exorbitant amount of time completing or perfecting things are typical culprits.

The thing that makes me so sad is that it stops really talented people making the impact they’re meant to have in their own life and in a world that really needs them. It’s a real problem.

So why is imposter syndrome so common among entrepreneurs and business owners?

It wasn’t a surprise when a recent Kajabi study revealed ‘a majority of entrepreneurs and small business owners feel like imposters.’ Three things I believe play a major part in this are:

  1. The online world is a breeding ground for comparison

It’s hard to see the full picture of anyone else’s competence or success online when all you ever see are the highlights and the big successes. We make comparisons in the blink of an eye and the scroll of a finger, we aren’t even aware half the time that we’re constantly measuring ourselves against others and concluding we’re falling short or seeking validation from post likes and comments. All we experience are the fears and self-doubts it creates.

1. We don’t have a manager

If you’re a solopreneur in particular, there is no manager or team to help you review your performance from a wider perspective. External, objective feedback may be infrequent, or perhaps non-existent and this creates a void into which self-doubts start to seep, so many of us are overly self-critical or hung up on all the things that have gone wrong, losing sight of the wins and progress made.

2. There’s so much to learn in business

I’ve noticed that a lot of people who experience impostor feelings are giving themselves a hard time when it comes to learning the ropes of business: learning how to market, sell, use social media platforms, and get your head around tech can be challenging, and for many of us it doesn’t come easy. Don't lose sight of your areas of expertise and allow it to be okay that you need to learn some new stuff and not necessarily being great at it doesn’t make you an impostor.

3. We don’t admit how we really feel

At the root of impostor syndrome is that we think people won’t like us or accept us if they find out who we really are and this causes another issue: we don’t talk about how we really feel and how it’s affecting us. It’s incredibly vulnerable to admit to someone else, “I feel like a complete fake!” Keeping up appearances feels a much safer option.

So where does it come from?

At the heart of imposter syndrome are the beliefs we formed about ourselves, our intelligence compared to others, and what competence and success meant as a child or young adult.

The messages we picked up about ourselves from parents or carers, siblings, peers, teachers, and even bullies at school, all pay their part.

Were you the ‘bright one’ in the family, to whom everything came easily who now as an adult struggles if you find things hard?

Were you the sensitive, caring one to your siblings’ ‘natural genius,’ who now still doubts they are highly intelligent and competent, too?

Or perhaps, like me, were you diminished by a teacher in maths and then never believed that you could ‘get’ numbers? [Thank you Mr. Cross for calling me a monkey all those years ago for scoring badly in the test!]

So while many of the symptoms and impacts of imposter syndrome may be the same, the roots will lie in the unique experiences you’ve had, so being aware of what they might be and the conclusions you formed from them, and understanding they don’t have to define who you are now, means they hold less power over you. The real key to overcoming imposter syndrome seems ultimately to come down to these two questions:

Who am I being?

Do I belong?

When YOU like who you’re being - when you know YOUR unique talents and strengths and make them your superpowers - you can stick two fingers up to those impostor feelings. Intentionally being our best selves is what keeps us out of the impostor zone.

Try this: Take a moment to bring to mind a day when you felt absolutely on fire in your business. You had a great day, did amazing work and felt totally in the zone. Did you at any point feel like an impostor?

My guess is no. You were too in flow, totally engaged in what you were doing for it to even cross your mind.

We all dance up and down the continuum from ‘impostor zone’ where insecurity, self criticism and doubt reside, to ‘being at our best’ where we feel unstoppable.

But if you consciously and consistently pay attention to being at your best more often it follows you’re less likely to enter the impostor zone, or if you do, it’s more likely a fleeting-stay than finding yourself in a downward spiral of self-doubt.

Having more ‘best days’ boosts your self-confidence and builds your self-belief bank account.

How do you have more ‘best days?’ By focussing on what’s within you, what makes you unique - your talents and strengths. It makes comparison to others as irrelevant as comparing a pigeon to a squirrel: both can get to the top of the tree but they do it in completely different ways!

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The other major element is our sense of belonging. When you feel like you belong you are naturally more confident and self assured.

One of my favourite sayings is this:

The action you take when you feel like a fraud is nowhere near as good as the action you take when you know you belong.

And it’s true isn’t it? When you don’t feel like you fit the picture of someone who should be doing ‘this’ you’re more likely to underperform relative to your abilities. Research has shown this to be a particularly relevant factor in the experience of imposter syndrome among minority groups.

But this is something we can focus on more intentionally, too: building closer, more authentic relationships with people in your network so you get to know the real them, connecting with people who help you see a wider perspective of yourself and who will reflect their belief in you back to you. If you’re a community builder, you get to make a real impact here in facilitating people’s sense of belonging in how you bring them into your communities and show them they belong.

We are not powerless against the impostor gremlin - there is so much we can do to take it by the horns and stop it from holding us back, and the more you practice these things, the easier it becomes.

I want to leave you with six tips to help you be armed and ready next time an attack of the impostor strikes.

  1. Normalise your impostor feelings, you are not broken. Being successful doesn’t mean being free of self-doubt. We can normalise the self-doubt thoughts, choose not believe them as truth, AND persist towards our goals.

  2. Remember, when you feel yourself heading towards the impostor zone it’s an outdated protection mechanism to keep you in your comfort zone: no more relevant to you today than the clothes you wore as a child. You get to choose and keep choosing a different story for yourself.

  3. Know your unique strengths and hone them into your superpowers. Focus everyday on the intention to be at your best. It builds your confidence and reminds you of your uniqueness when you start to compare.

  4. Give yourself permission to be a learner. As children we were constantly learning and being pushed further and further. That’s how we discover things about ourselves. Knowledge is infinite so you can never know everything. Don’t wait until you feel like an expert before you do anything - the day you feel fully ready may never come. It really is okay not to know the answer sometimes and still be credible.

  5. Challenge your habits. Notice where you’re avoiding and procrastinating, or overworking and perfecting. Ask yourself what’s behind this and practice new habits that align with who you want to be and the outcomes you want to achieve.

  6. And finally - but importantly - find the people who believe in you, in whose company you feel good and decide that you belong.

Emma O'Brien helps talented women entrepreneurs and business owners like you to dismantle their doubt and follow their calling so they feel more fulfilled in business and life. Connect with Emma here.


Article originally published in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of SOULACY.

SOULACY is a monthly digital and print magazine for entrepreneurs. In each issue we bring entrepreneurs articles, stories, and inspiration to spark insights on generating more wealth, personal and business growth, aligned strategies, equity and diversity, entrepreneur wellness and mindset, leadership, creating a legacy, and more, written by a global network of women entrepreneurs.

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