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Is Impostor Syndrome A Real Thing?

A blog about impostor syndrome in the entrepreneurial world.

“I’m out of my depth, it’s just a matter of time before I’ll be found out"

“Who am I to be doing this?”

In a ‘zoom room’ of business owners at any level you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at some point felt the dreaded feelings associated with impostor syndrome. So what is it and why is it important to lift the lid on it right now?

Impostor syndrome is often associated with high achieving, intelligent and successful people. Studies cite the prevalence of the phenomenon among elite academics and more recently have expanded into looking at the impact in the the corporate world and among minority groups, where feelings of ‘phoniness’ are exacerbated by fewer examples in more senior leadership, board and 'expert' positions. Some very talented famous people, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Michelle Obama to name but a few, have all identified with the feelings associated with impostor syndrome, so if you do too, you're in very good company! However, I’ve found little about how it impacts entrepreneurs specifically and yet, here it is, the great big elephant in the room and a massive problem. Here’s three reasons why I believe it's such a big issue for us.

Reason 1 - The impact of Impostor Syndrome

When someone feels like an impostor it is those thoughts and feelings that are driving their behaviour and, of course, it's our behaviour (in particular our habits) that drives our results. When you feel like a fraud on the inside, it’s a bit like driving with the brakes on - despite what someone consciously wants to create for themselves these inner thoughts and beliefs have the impact of slowing them down. When it comes to business owners this 'slowing down' and holding back stunts business and personal growth and creates frustration, anxiety and sometimes burnout. Outward the effect ripples: it impacts relationships with others, both professional and personal, it impacts the clients we serve, and because small business is such an important contributor, it impacts the economy too.

Here are just a few examples from the stories I've collected of how impostor syndrome plays out for some such business owners:

Recently I completed illustrations for a well known best selling author, the book was a success. All I could do is criticise and compare myself to others. That's part of it...I looked to others as the shining experts and I became the follower as if I didn't deserve to stand tall and be proud…...I suffer from a huge amount of anxiety and self-limiting beliefs. I feel that I will never succeed as I'm just playing at being this fabulous illustrator with a business. the anxiety makes me less productive and sure of my decisions so growth becomes nil or very slow. It's exhausting playing the part...I wish I could believe I was that person” Kat, Illustrator and provider of education and illustration services

"I compare myself to other hypnotherapists who have been practising for years and feel who am I to say I'm a hypnotherapist that specialises in women’s well being. It’s my passion I’m always researching and doing courses but that underlying feeling of being a total impostor is always there...it can hold me back from taking on complex clients. So I end up referring a few to others as I feel I don’t have any weight in helping this personHelen, Hypnotherapist

The impact is that I am moving slowly towards my goal and hesitating where in my 20s I didn't I just did it. I am very fearful now and wary about what other people will say. I don't like rejection.” Jayne, PT and Life Coach

These stories and many more just like them are heartbreaking!

Reason 2 - The online world perpetuates it

Impostor syndrome is rooted in negative bias (more about that later) and it’s easily perpetuated by the culture of the online world: combine the fact that it’s hard to see the full picture of anyone’s competence/success (and many can and do manipulate this ‘view’), with the volume and frequency of opportunity to make comparisons in the blink of an 'eye' and scroll of a finger, together with an inbuilt predisposition to compare ourselves less favourably to others, adding in an inability to recognise our own strengths and competence...you can see the mounting problem, can’t you?

Reason 3 - It’s not talked about enough

Impostor syndrome is a label that’s commonly bandied about, it’s a recognised term and it seems that when you ask, everyone feels that way at some point..but so few openly talk about it, therefore it remains hidden and buried and the individual’s problem to deal with (or avoid dealing with).

I think it’s time to see Impostor Syndrome for what it is - a pretty big trap!

Time to really look at this in the depth a problem of this magnitude deserves and to expose, educate and neutralise this phenomenon so it harms and holds back fewer business owners so they can step more confidently into their mighty missions and the vision they have for themselves.

Let's dig into it a little more here.  

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome is characterised by the feeling that you are being a fraud, you don’t have enough experience, you're a fake and it’s just a matter of time before people see that.

Typical thoughts are “I am not good enough and everyone is better than me and they know more than me”

If you've experienced it, you’re likely to feel that you got ‘here’ by some good fortune and your toes likely curl when you get praise as you dismiss or downplay it.

It results in experiencing self-doubt, lacking confidence in yourself and your abilities and not being able to internalise or recognise your successes or the part that you’ve played in them. The effects can also become very serious including anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, inability to achieve in the face of self-imposed unattainable goals, which can lead to burnout [1]

The root of impostorism is thinking that people don't see you as you really are," said Bryan Stewart, an accounting professor at Brigham Young University and co-author on a study of a sample of students from an elite academic programme there. "We think people like us for something that isn't real and that they won't like us if they find out who we really are." [2]

Another study highlights the impostor phenomenon as a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealised image to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.[3]

The reason I suggest it’s ‘trap-like’ is because the behaviours, strategies and coping mechanisms do invariably lead to success. It is also usually people who are high achievers who feel this way in the first place and in a strange way impostor syndrome could be a reason for someone’s success, for example working so hard to avoid being found out or evaluated as ‘lacking’ has driven financial success and business growth (even if it’s come at a price). So from the individuals perspective - if they make changes will this mean ‘success’ will go away?

I've come to understand it more like a complex combination of traps that all work together to keep a person stuck

and that is why it tends to require more than knowing that you are enough or feeling the fear and doing it anyway or gaining the next level income, stage, qualification….the solutions lies in understanding and seeing the various traps you’re caught up in and knowing the right combination of maneuvers to work yourself free of them.

It’s not as simple as just ‘knowing you’re enough’

The “Gap Trap”

At the root of it all is a gap that was created when you were a child or young adult between how you perceive your competence and intelligence relative to others vs ‘reality’ and what being successful and achieving mean.

To illustrate:

 

A child who is labelled ‘the sensitive one’ and her brother the ‘intelligent one’ may be very intelligent. However she never receives the recognition as such because in her family her brother took that role. She works harder to prove herself and still doesn’t receive the recognition. She begins to doubt her abilities and feels that perhaps her ‘success’ is down to other factors - perhaps she was in the right place at the right time, the ‘pass mark’ for the exam was lower this year, other people didn’t do so well so it skewed her position in the ranking. Many and varied excuses explain away her present position, but the feeling of intellectual phoniness has already begun to develop. “I’m not bright - so it must be down to some other reason that I’m ‘here’, I don’t really deserve to be here, it’s a matter of time before I’m found out.”

A child who learns to walk and talk before all the other babies is labelled as ‘bright’, they are so clever! This child associates being bright with ease...it comes so naturally and effortlessly to them. So when the inevitable time arises as school work becomes more challenging the child who is used to being 'bright’ and it all being ‘easy’ suddenly begins to doubt and mistrust their parents view of their intelligence - “I can’t be intelligent if I find it hard, I’m just playing at this”.

This skewed perspective perpetuates and becomes the gap that you feel between the success, achievement or 'level' you have attained versus your deservedness of it.

The Belief Trap

Whilst having the term ‘Impostor syndrome’ can be helpful (for one it would be difficult to get people to congregate around the topic if not), labels are limiting and sometimes oversimplify what really lies beneath. Combined with some form of ‘gap trap’ will be other beliefs that you formed about yourself that layer in and mean that your experience of impostor phenomenon and the root of it may not be the same as another’s because only you have had the experiences you have had and formed the conclusions and beliefs that you have about yourself and what you are capable and deserving of. We are cleverly ‘wired’ in a way that means we must act in a way that matches our thinking and we only ‘see’ information that matches our beliefs. Exposing, challenging and changing beliefs that are keeping you trapped is a component part of the work to break free.

The Habit Traps

I call it the impostor trap because many have experienced success both in spite of and probably because of it. Working harder to avoid being exposed and found out, for example, is one way people create success for themselves. The problem is the continuation of these habits often means success comes at the price of overwork and burnout. Even if all the hard work brings with it some relief or pay-off impostor feelings often emerge again, and can often amplify, at higher levels of success, which means that continuing in the same way can’t be the long term solution. The common habits that perpetuate the trap are overworking, perfectionism, avoidance/procrastination and self-criticism.

The Bias Trap

I’ve already said, we only tend to take on board information that matches our beliefs, so when it comes to breaking free from the impostor trap, developing a new view of ourselves that more accurately, or perhaps a better word is ‘fairly’ weighs up our achievements and the successes that we have created is necessary. Not every success and achievement you’ve ever had in your life can be down to luck, knowing the right people, someone’s misjudgement or however else you may have explained it? And yet isn’t it funny that anything that goes wrong or any criticism you receive you probably have no trouble owning? This bias is totally unfair and needs to be challenged. Being prepared to re-examine the evidence of your achievements together with an understanding your unique strengths is a major component to overcoming impostor syndrome.

Taking the first step

As Psychologist Nathanial Branden said: “The first step towards change is awareness”. Just seeing the impostor trap for what it is is the first step and knowing that it is more common than you perhaps thought may at least provide some reassurance (if you’re a business owner you can assume that most people have or will experience it, including those you follow and aspire to be like).

Perhaps the first step should be talking about this more?

Emma O’Brien is a Mindset Coach helping entrepreneurs at all levels break free from the impostor trap and step into the business dreams they crave. With her unique Freedom FrameworkTM she helps her clients achieve transformational results.

Want to talk about how I can help you? Find a time for us to chat about working 1:1 here

Join the wait list for my transformational live group coaching programme Believe! For business owners who want to kiss impostor syndrome goodbye here

Follow me for more conversation on this topic here: Emma O'Brien on Facebook

References

[1] Parkman A. The imposter phenomenon in higher education: incidence and impact. J High Educ Theory Pract. 2016;16(1):51.

[2] Sciencedaily.com “Impostor syndrome is more common than you think; Study finds best way to cope with it. A certain type of social support is a major asset when facing impostorism 24 Sept 2019

[3] The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. By Langford, Joe,Clance, Pauline Rose Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 30(3), Fal 1993, 495-501

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