impostor syndrome

Impostor Syndrome: How to Recognize the Voice of the Impostor (and What to Do About It)

Have you ever felt like you didn’t really measure up to the assumptions that others have made about you? Do you wonder if your success may be the result of luck and timing, rather than your intelligence or hard work? Have you ever worried that at some point, everyone is going to figure out that you’re just making it up as you go, and figuring it out on-the-fly? If so, you may have had a run-in with the impostor, that inner critic that tries to convince you that your success isn’t real, and that you’re living a lie.

And you’re far from the only one who feels that way.

Research has shown that up to 70 percent of the population experiences impostor syndrome—the feeling that their success may be accidental, coincidental or even fraudulent—at some point in their career. And further studies have shown that impostor syndrome tends to be more prevalent among high-achievers.

That’s right—people who are ambitious and competitive and who push the boundaries; people who are not satisfied with coasting through life; people who take risks and try new things. These people are more likely to wrestle with the feeling that they may be a fraud.

Entrepreneurs, especially, are prone to feeling this way.

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There are three reasons that, as an entrepreneur, you may frequently wrestle with impostor syndrome.

You’re pushing boundaries

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. One of your defining characteristics is your ability (and your willingness) to step out and take a risk. That means you’re regularly in the position of trying things for the first time and figuring them out along the way.

This leads to a lot of learning by trial and error. Every successful entrepreneur has been involved with many failed experiments—some small, and others very costly—on the road to success. It can be easy to feel like the many failures define you, while the successes (which are usually fewer and farther between) may just be the result of luck.

You’re put on a pedestal

Entrepreneurs are sometimes celebrated as superheroes.

A CEO named Toby Thomas used an illustration that has become my go-to description of entrepreneurship: a man riding on a lion.

People look at the man on the lion and think, “This guy’s really got it together. He’s so brave!” And all the while, the man riding the lion is thinking, “How in the world did I get on this lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”

That contrast is remarkably accurate. I’ve received plenty of admiration and respect for the risks I’ve taken and the things I’ve accomplished as an entrepreneur. Yet on the inside, I’m not always celebrating; in fact, sometimes I’m freaking out a little bit. What looks to others like strength and boldness feels to me like a series of near-catastrophes.

Entrepreneurs are celebrated for being the risk-takers that we are, but that celebration often feels undeserved. It can feel fraudulent.

You’re almost constantly in sales mode

Entrepreneurship involves a lot of selling. The most obvious sales job is selling your products or services to potential customers. You were likely the first salesperson in your company, and may be the only salesperson for several years. You might be selling a product that isn’t yet as high quality as desired, or a service that is not completely defined and tested.

But that’s not the only sale you’ll have to make as an entrepreneur. In fact, it might be the easiest.

You have to sell your grand vision to potential employees you are recruiting to come join your company. You have to convince people to take the risk of joining, sometimes working more hours for less pay and fewer benefits, and to believe that the rewards on the other side of success will be worth the sacrifices. You might be part of the small percentage of entrepreneurs who will sell a stake in their company to investors, which is one of the hardest sales jobs there is.

The problem with all that selling is that you’re usually presenting only the best version of yourself, your team, your idea and your business. You are highlighting all the positives, while you know deep down there are plenty of negatives as well. You know there are cracks and flaws in the plan. You know there are things you haven’t figured out yet, and there are assumptions you have made that you can’t yet prove.

That combination — having a close relationship with uncertainty, being glorified by others and being continually in sales mode — puts entrepreneurs on a crash course with the impostor. It provides plenty of material for that inner critic to work with, and plenty of options to convince you that you’re not really who everyone seems to think you are.

Related: How to Overcome the Self-Sabotage of Self-Doubt

Three reasons that impostor syndrome is actually a good sign

But it’s not all bad news. The presence of the impostor can actually be a great sign, if you learn how to recognize it for what it is.

Here are three ways that you can reframe those feelings of self-doubt as a sign that something good is about to happen:

It means there’s a learning opportunity.

You rarely learn in your comfort zone. You don’t improve by continuing to do what comes easily. Improvement usually involves some level of discomfort.

The impostor is most active when you’re stretching yourself, and its biggest weapon is the fear of failure. But failure is not the opposite of success – failure is part of success. It’s an important step in the process. The success rarely comes without the failures.

When your inner critic says, “You’re about to fail at something,” you should translate that to mean, “You’re about to learn something.” Failure leads to learning and learning leads to success.

Never let self-doubt keep you from an opportunity to grow. Instead, use it as a signal of a learning opportunity, and take advantage of every one you can.

It means you’re surrounded by smart and talented people.

The impostor often springs into action when you’re with people who intimidate you.

When you hear the voice of your inner critic starting to say things like, “You have nothing to offer here,” or, “These people are out of your league,” that’s a good sign!

It means you’re among people who are going to challenge you and inspire you to do more and think bigger. You should not be running from those situations; you should see them for the gift they are and lean in to those opportunities.

There’s a famous saying that has been attributed to a lot of different people: If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

The corollary to that is this—if you think you’re the dumbest person in the room, stay there! That’s exactly the place you need to be. When the inner critic tells you to get out, that may be the best sign that you’re in the right place.

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It means you are not recklessly overconfident.

Entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran, who built and sold a $66-million real estate company before becoming one of the famous investors on the TV show, “Shark Tank,” has talked about the value of self-doubt, and the belief that it’s a positive sign, not a negative one.

“Thank God you doubt yourself because the one thing that I have learned that is true of every single person who is exceptional in whatever they are doing is self-doubt. Without it, you become big-headed, arrogant,” she said. “The curse of being competent is self-doubt, because competence rides on your own self-doubt. It’s the edge of doubt that makes you a performer in anything you do.”

Arrogance and recklessness are not signs of strength, they’re weaknesses that can get you into a lot of trouble. A healthy amount of self-doubt will keep you grounded and humble, even while you’re doing great things.

If you learn to recognize the presence of the impostor—that inner critic who tries to speak fear and doubt into your mind—as a positive sign that great things are happening, you’ll begin to lean into those situations rather than shrink back from them.

You’ll recognize those feelings of insecurity as an indication that you’re doing great work. And, you’ll start to realize that feeling a little bit like an impostor is the surest sign that you’re not one.

Originally published April 7, 2021.

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