Dealing with Impostor Syndrome as an Entrepreneur

Today I want to talk to you about something that doesn’t really get discussed a lot but that is a huge issue for most people as they build their businesses: impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is, in layman’s terms, that nagging feeling inside of you that what you’ve accomplished wasn’t because you deserved it and that, at any moment, everyone will find out that you’re not really as smart and talented as they think you are. Essentially, it’s you thinking of yourself as the Wizard of Oz and always waiting for that moment when someone pulls back the curtain and you’re revealed and then everything will crash down around you.

The thing about impostor syndrome is that it really only strikes high achievers. Yes, we could argue about what “high achievement” means to different people, but the fear that everyone will find out that your accomplishments are flukes requires that you have accomplishments; worry that somehow you’re not going to be able to deliver excellent service to that big client you landed because of your past performance means that you have to have landed that big client. In fact, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to suffer from imposter syndrome because the smarter you are, the more likely you are to realize that success is actually a combination of talent, hard work, and luck….and then you just start to have these moments of panic where you feel like maybe it was mostly luck and that soon everyone will realize that and decide you shouldn’t actually be in charge.

This goes into overdrive with entrepreneurs because, when you’re first starting out, you constantly have to be out there selling yourself and sometimes you need to oversell yourself. There is a need to always focus on the positives with your growing business as you’re out in public because you don’t want to lose credibility by saying you didn’t pick up as many clients as you’d expected this past month or one of your customers was super slow to pay so now you’re really struggling with cash flow. The idea that everything must be running perfectly in a business and that you need to appear larger than you are – your team handles clients of all sizes, even though your team is you and your dog and sometimes one freelancer if you get enough work – in order to continue to build that business, naturally leads to you feeling like you’re somewhat of a fraud, even if you’re not lying.

I feel this way all of the time. Almost every entrepreneur I’ve ever met feels this way all of the time. But feeling this way isn’t helping anyone build their business. So how do we deal with it?

Here are some tips:

First, connect yourself to a support system. Join a Mastermind or other group that is full of entrepreneurs and be brave enough to be honest about these feelings. I all but guarantee you that the others in the group will feel relieved that you were honest and will pour out their own similar feelings right away. Knowing that you have a support system of people who understand what you’re going through, know everything is no perfect in your business, and still think you’re awesome will help.

Second, break everything down to its component parts and remember that what’s easy to you probably isn’t easy to everyone else. One of the reasons impostor syndrome begins to rear its ugly head as you become more accomplished is that as your level of expertise increases, your assessment of how difficult something is decreases, which leads to feelings of “this really isn’t that hard; anyone could do it; why would someone pay me so much to do this; what if they all find out I’m not that special and this isn’t that hard.” I had a client who offered executive search services for large corporations with a specialty area in diverse candidates. When we talked about her work, I found out that she always ended up doing a lot of strategic consulting for clients that hired her for search, so I encouraged her to package that consulting as what it was and charge for it. She decided to give it a try, landed multiple contracts to make multiple six figures in the first couple of months of it, and then got super nervous because she had never done x type of project before or never been paid to produce y document. Except she knew how to do it all so she figured it out and then kept telling me how surprised she was that the clients kept complimenting her work and looking to her to make key decisions. She was putting in fewer hours and making more money but felt anxious about it because she either had a new project and had to determine what proper formatting looked like or how to speak to a particular executive in the right way and then, once it was done, felt like what she was doing “wasn’t that hard.” Ah, impostor syndrome. The quick flip from “oh my gosh, I’ve never done this, they’re going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing,” to “this is so easy, they’re going to find out I’m not special and anyone could do this,” is a sure sign of it. Listen, nothing is that hard; it’s just that some people are experts and some people aren’t and if you happen to have expertise in a particular area you have a lot of value to share with those who don’t and they will be willing to pay for that value.

Thirdly, you just need to learn to deal with it. I don’t know anyone who has cured themselves of impostor syndrome so the best thing you can do is learn to recognize it when it’s rearing its ugly head and not give in to it. When you start to feel like an impostor, focus on your accomplishments – but not the public ones that make you say, “why on earth would they give this award to me, I don’t deserve this,” but on the internal ones where you had a major hurdle to deal with inside your business and you found a solution that worked because you were smart enough to figure it out. Remembering other times you felt like you would be found out as a fraud and then actually rocked it and gained even more respect should help re-ground you. If it doesn’t, call someone from your support group and they can usually smack that self-doubt out of you for at least a few hours.

Finally, just remember that true impostors don’t suffer from impostor syndrome, so the fact that you feel this way probably means you’re doing pretty well. If you spend your days thinking that you’re perfect and wonderful and everyone should fall at your feet, you may want consult a professional about your delusions. If you worry that you might not measure up despite having the success to indicate that you do, you probably more than do.