The focus of this blog is possibly the most common mindset challenge facing business owners and entrepreneurs. A recent Kajabi survey of around 600 business owners and entrepreneurs, revealed that 84 %, which is a huge number, had scores indicating that they felt like an imposter at moderate frequent or intense levels on the IP Scale (created by Pauline Rose Clance). This is a big issue for a number of reasons, I’m exploring why, and sharing two really simple things to consider that will help you to check in with yourself to help you avoid slipping into the imposter zone too.
What actually is imposter syndrome? What does it feel like when you experience it? The term imposter syndrome has been around for ages it's been around since the late 70s, and correctly known as imposter phenomenon. It's not actually a syndrome but that's how it's become more popularly known. There's no ‘diagnosis’ and it's not a mental health condition. However, it can be really serious in terms of how it can affect someone. I think the label is really helpful because so many people I talk to about this, and you can tell me if this is true for you too, say “it's a thing, it's a real thing!” “so that explains why I feel the way I do”. It makes you feel like you're a fake and a fraud and that you're going to be found out. It's an irrational fear that you got to where you are by luck, or perhaps it was chance or even mistake and as such somebody is going to find out that you’re not as good as people think you are. At any moment you might be exposed. It might be irrational, but it feels incredibly uncomfortable to feel that way, and it can range from, mild discomfort or a fleeting thought through to really crippling anxiety and everywhere in between. When you consider that our thoughts affect our feelings, our feelings affect our behaviour and actions and that of course, affects the outcomes that we get, it's going to have an impact
Consider this: when you’ve been in a place of feeling like a fraud, or a fake, how does that lead you to behave?
If you've ever felt the feeling and the worry that you're going to be found out, that perhaps you're just playing this ,how does that lead you to behave? What are the actions that you take or don't take as a result of feeling that way?
Typically the response and kinds of behaviour that I see and read about, fall into three camps: the first is avoidance, the second is overworking and the third is discounting your success i.e. not recognising and internalising your own success.
I'm going to briefly talk about what that means for us as business owners.
The potential for being found out often means that people will stop doing things, they will avoid putting themselves 'out there', they won't do the thing that’s really going to move the needle for them and get them visible. Common examples are not posting on social media, putting the launch date back yet again for their new thing, not going for the opportunities, not actively marketing and selling. All of those sorts of things are avoidance behaviours that feeling like and impostor can encourage in us, and we may not even realise it, we may just notice the procrastination or avoidance behaviour but when you backtrack you can find that at the root of it is this fear. There's a level of discomfort brewing underneath. The thing is, it's easy to change timescales or switch tasks and activities around when you are in control of your own time and only accountable to yourself. This makes it an easy coping strategy to get into the habit of.
The other thing that people do in an effort to not be found out as an impostor is to overwork and put so much into everything that it becomes a disproportionate for the task in hand. This can really cause problems in terms of burnout and impacting health and relationships. It's also a self perpetuating cycle that happens: you put a tremendous amount of effort in, you pull it off, you get the success and that rewards the behaviour. It rewards overworking and over preparing, and that becomes something you get stuck in and people find it really really difficult to get out of. It takes trust in yourself and your competence and abilities and that things will work out OK to take that away. It can feel very vulnerable because there’s a perceived greater risk of being exposed as an impostor.
Discounting your successes
The third thing is an inability to recognise the successes and achievements that you've had and to internalise and own them. Why that's so important is because if you are discounting your successes, you're not truly valuing what you're doing, you're not valuing what you're achieving and if you're not valuing what you're achieving, it makes it really really difficult to price and promote your skills, talents and abilities accordingly. This really shows up when people want to put their prices up. The fear starts to emerge when they think “right I really need to put my prices, I need to increase my revenue but am I worth it? Do I deserve it? Am I good enough?” Then self-doubts pile up and the conclusion is “I'm an impostor. I'm just faking it”
Why is it so common among entrepreneurs and business owners?
What are the things about what we do and who we are that make this phenomenon affects us in higher proportions than the general population? It's really common in the general population and in the corporate world too, and within minority groups as well, but as entrepreneurs, this figure of 84% is significant.
I think the answer relates to the fact that this phenomenon typically affects high achievers and people who are really striving for high standards and taking on new challenges that require going outside of what’s comfortable. It makes sense, doesn't it? Being a business owner isn't for the faint hearted, not that many people percentage wise jump into this world and really thrive in it and make a long term success of it.
Another factor is that we're often working alone. There may not be a team, there’s no manager to help us see that broader perspective of ourselves and to help us internalise and recognise the successes that we're having. Very often people are just working by themselves. Moving on to the next thing without stopping to smell the roses or really take on board the evidence that's around them about what they're actually contributing and achieving.
The third element that I think is really relevant, particularly in the online space, is that we are wired to compare. As human beings we're always comparing because we want to fit in, we want to know where we stand in this situation, how we stack up among a group of people. It's only natural. However, we mostly compare in a way that's biased against us. Typically we're cherry picking what and who we're comparing ourselves against, if you always compare upwards you are never going to measure up. It's really difficult to get a sense of the full picture about other people's lives, we only ever see highlight reels, only perhaps their successes, their amazing client testimonials, not all the string of things that failed beforehand or the clients where it didn't go so well. People don't share that stuff. We're always comparing ourselves against the highest standards, or things that just aren’t even achievable for anyone! Like comparing to people who've been in business for six years and you’ve been in business for one year.
The conditions of being a business owner or entrepreneur make this a more prevalent thing for us to be aware of and know how to deal with.
The two things impostor experience boils down to.
Now I want to move on to the two things that I think are really the key to understanding this and overcoming it. I am offering a very simple perspective to something that can be much more complex for people, if you really want to tackle this, you will need to put some work in to understanding yourself and how this is affecting you and work through it,
but I've synthesised how we can look at it in a really simple way and it's reflecting on these two key questions: ”who am I?” and “do I belong?”.
At its essence, the root cause of impostor experience comes down to how we're defining ourselves, how we understand ourselves and our sense of whether we feel we belong.
Imagine a straight line and at one end of it, is you at your best. This is you being your very best self: you’re in flow, thriving in life, doing amazing work, loving what you're doing, feeling really strong and confident, knowing your values, knowing your strengths, your contribution and just totally being in the zone. You've probably had an experience like that in your life, think back to a day in your business where you felt like you had your best day. Now, think about the thoughts you were thinking when you were doing that, how did you feel when you were experiencing that? Did you ever think, “hang on a minute, I'm a fraud. I'm going to be found out in a moment?”. Or did that just not even enter your mind? My guess is that didn't enter your mind, you were feeling confident, you were feeling in the zone.
When you’re feeling your best self, doing the things you're great at, you most likely feel amazing and you're having amazing thoughts and being encouraging of yourself, and you’re experiencing great outcomes, doing your best work, getting great feedback. This is the zone where you get great results with your clients, producing the best quality ‘thing’ that you do.
Down the other end of this spectrum is the ‘impostor zone’. In the imposter zone you start to doubt yourself, you feel self conscious and start comparing upward “hang on, I'm not as good as everybody else, maybe I'm not good enough to do this, maybe I'm not experienced enough to do this”. Then the thoughts we think create those feelings of doubt, fear and anxiety. You start to conclude that those feelings must mean you're an impostor. When you feel very anxious and really scared and fearful you constrict, you don’t think straight, you can’t do your best work. You don't tend to remember all of the successes that you’ve had, or the challenges that you’ve already overcome or all the scary things that you did before that worked out fine. You forget all of that, you’re down in the impostor zone stuck in your own thoughts and feelings about it.
We're all dancing up and down this continuum: nobody's their best self, all the time. Well if you are, let me know, I want to know what you’re doing! For most of us it's natural that we dance up and down this continuum. But the thing is to know it, and to be able to observe where you are on it.
So try that now: if it was a scale of one to 10, where one is right down in the weeds in the impostor zone and then 10 is you at your best self. Where would you put yourself today?
Are you in ‘best self’ zone or are you edging towards the 'impostor zone'? If you're edging towards the imposter zone, how long do you think you've been there for? A few hours, a few days, a few weeks, months? If you're happily in your ‘best self’ zone, great! What have you been doing? How have you been achieving that? How can you do more of it?
This way of thinking about this gives you the ability to check in at any moment. Where am I heading now? It gives you the opportunity to do what you need to to correct that, to move yourself back up into the zone of being your best self.
You can do the same thing with belonging. I think we all have a sense of knowing when we feel we belong somewhere: we feel comfortable, we feel natural, we feel like we can be ourselves and don't have to wear a mask. So if we just take that as a very loose idea of what belonging feels like, out of the last seven days how many days have you felt that sense of belonging? Feeling like you belong to a group, a community, belonging doing what you are doing in your business, within your field of expertise?
Belonging is such an important factor in all this, because you can be really confident in yourself, you can be your best self and then you can find yourself suddenly not feeling like you belong, suddenly feeling different. “Hang on, there's no one else like me here” or "everyone else is beter than me". You can find that this ‘belonging’ dynamic can change how you feel quite rapidly. For example you could join a new business mastermind and suddenly find yourself in that situation, you could join a new course among your peers and find yourself in that situation. So checking out ‘do I feel I belong?’ if you don't then what can you do to help yourself feel that you belong? Some of the things that you can think about here is, how can I get to know these people more? Making genuine connections with the people helps you to see the full picture. If we go back to what we know about where the issue comes from it's comparing and not really knowing the full true picture about people. So get to know people, getting to understand what their challenges are, what they are going through is really helpful. I've been on so many courses where we've all had that judgement about each other, “they've got it sorted out, they know what they're doing, and they're better than me”. Then gradually as you get to know everybody you realise we're all struggling with the same stuff! Everybody has those judgments and compares themselves less favourably, puts themselves down the stack and then it's only over time when you get to know the people that you understand that. So if you're in communities now and you don't necessarily feel like you fully belong and that’s contributing to this impostor feeling, how can you rectify that? How can you reach out to people to create those more genuine connections?
If you're somebody who creates communities, you have a great opportunity to help people to feel like they belong, helping people to feel like they can be themselves, that they can be at the beginning, they can be a learner but they can also be experienced and all levels are valued. You're in an amazing position to help combat imposter syndrome with the people that are with you and around you, just by making it okay to talk about it.
I hope this has been really helpful to you in terms of giving you some insight and tips.
Emma O'Brien helps pre and post six figure females break through the doubt that slows their growth, fast.
She combines subconscious transformation with mindset and strengths coaching and is on a mission to help womxn entrepreneurs step out of doubt and into their next level success.