Startup founders: how to push back feelings of imposter syndrome

It was my dog’s birthday last weekend. Don’t worry, that’s not the entirety of the blog. I gather that there were some minor national royal celebrations that weekend too, though it is hard to recall any that rivalled Mollie’s birthday for pomp or pageantry. We wanted to avoid the hullabaloo going on in London, so my wife booked one of those ‘grand stately home’ hotels with huge grounds but allow dogs – although it’s £10 a night for them to stay.

It was fancier than I anticipated: thick carpets, heavy curtains, formality that brings me out in a rash, and too much cutlery on the table. Unexpectedly, it was full of enthusiastic Americans, two of whom became embroiled in what my wife had called the Coronation Imposter. I thought she was preparing a script for Ann Cleeves to turn into another Vera adventure, but she was referring to my recent behaviour where I’d been kidding people I was a fan of the pending state event.

I was perusing the cake trolley for Friday afternoon tea, when an elderly American woman waiting for me to haul my bara brith onto my plate overheard my accent. Are you British? she asked. Her friend then leaned over and whispered Are you going to the coronation? This was despite us being in Bala, 205 miles away from London, 4pm the day before. Are all Americans daft, or just the ones that I attract?  

This is where things went awry. I could not bear to dampen their enthusiasm. The truth was that I intended to watch not one fleeting moment of the event and ignore it from a sedentary position on a sofa somewhere eating crisps watching Blackadder on my iPad. I sensed this was not going to satisfy their curiosity, so I instead offered polite ambiguity: Like the whole country, I am just so excited, I beamed.

Unfortunately, the ladies mistook my vagueness for British modesty and concluded that I must be an invitee to the ceremony. A dignitary. Perhaps an obscure minor royal. I am pretty sure one of them performed a curtsy, but I have a tendency for exaggeration and cannot be trusted with the retelling of any story.

I took my bara brith and egg sandwiches (no crusts, alas) back to the table and tried to channel my inner King Charles III – I also have big sticky-out ears. I sat down with poise, an upright stance, and a generous wafting of the crisp, white linen napkin, giving my best smile to my newfound American fans. I resisted the temptation for one of those comically stiff waves of the hand, although they both were giving me giddy smiles and their own fluttering hand waves across the room.

Why, my wife asked, eagerly munching crips, are you sitting like that and why, she gestured across the room, are those American ladies waving at you? I returned a regal wave to my new friends, who had promised to keep their eyes peeled for me on the television coverage. Because, I replied in my best Windsor accent, they think I’m someone I’m not.

Now I was being an imposter for a bit of fun, but Impostor Syndrome is something I’ve observed in many startup founders, a psychological pattern of doubting their competence and accomplishments. Imposter Syndrome is often tied to our identities and sense of self-worth, and was first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in a research paper back in 1978, noting three critical attributes of the phenomenon:

  • Thinking that people have an exaggerated view of your abilities.
  • The fear of being exposed as a fraud.
  • The continuous tendency to downplay your achievements.

That’s Imposter Syndrome talking. Entrepreneurs with these feelings are often paralysed with self-doubt, harming their chances for success. I suspect that it is more common among entrepreneurs than in the general population, as we are high achieving seeking people with high self-expectations. Regardless of the cause, this toxic line of thinking may end up sabotaging their success, obsessing over minor mistakes, or working twice as hard to prove themselves as a result. 

If you feel like you’re suffering from Impostor Syndrome or something like it, know that there are ways to curb these feelings in a healthy, proactive way. Getting rid of Imposter Syndrome isn’t as easy as positive self-talk and a can-do attitude. While those things are helpful, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to uncover ways to overcome this debilitating mindset. Here are some thoughts.

1. Acknowledge it – and know you’re not alone The first step to overcoming Imposter Syndrome is to acknowledge that you’re feeling it. It’s okay to feel this way. Everyone feels it at some point. Some of the most important encouragement comes from realising how many successful people have built great businesses while regularly coping with it. Like them, remind yourself of what you’ve achieved, no matter how small. This will help you see that you are capable and competent.

2. Distinguish humility and fear There’s taking humility in your work and accomplishments and then there’s feeling overcome with fear because of them. Sometimes, simply being good at something can cause it to discount its value.  It all boils down to feeling unworthy. I like how Seth Godin said: When you feel unworthy, any kind response, positive feedback or reward feels like a trick.

But it is possible to feel worthy without feeling entitled. Overcoming Impostor Syndrome is all about finding a healthy balance between the two. Godin goes on to write, Humility and worthiness have nothing at all to do with defending our territory. We don’t have to feel like a fraud to also be gracious, open or humble.

3. Let go of perfectionism Perfectionism, while helpful in certain contexts, can be a major roadblock for productivity. It leads to procrastination, which overrides the law of diminishing marginal returns which only fuels Impostor Syndrome, because you’re comparing yourself to an ideal outcome that’s either impossible or unrealistic. Holding yourself to that standard is counterproductive. At some point, you need to take a step back and ask yourself: When is good enough good enough? A typical (but misguided) way people try to overcome the feelings is to push harder to prove that they’re worthy. Unfortunately, this worsens the situation and inevitably leads to burnout. Be comfortable in your own success.

4. Just be yourself Impostoritis can be self-healed with a positive mindset – so pay more attention to your own positivity. Try to catch yourself whenever you have a negative thought and challenge your own claim. For example, if you find yourself thinking I just got lucky, challenge that by thinking What work did I put in to get to here? Then, you can answer your own question using affirmations, which are short, focused, positive statements and force symptoms to melt away.

Entrepreneurs are constantly selling and pitching, and one of their key products is themselves. We often try to create an image of the perfect confident leader and visionary. It would be healthier for all of us if we could, even just in private with each other, admit and share these feelings. It goes a long way to reducing the burden.

5. Track and measure your successes When you feel like an impostor, one of the hardest things to grasp is how much of a role you have in your own successes.  To help show yourself that you’re actually doing well, keep track of your wins. Talk about your success and notice your achievements. Separate feelings from facts. The underlying quality of greatness is consistency, so aim for that as an initial goal.

6. Talk to a mentor Don’t suffer in silence, sharing your thoughts and experiences with someone else will make you better equipped to deal with your self-doubt. Your mentor will be able to help you talk candidly about your struggle while giving you a more objective point of view. Mentors are forthcoming about the struggles they’ve gone through and the mistakes they’ve made, and you may find that they have some guidance for how to deal with what you’re feeling.

7. Say yes to new opportunities It’s impossible to say ‘yes’ to everything, especially when you’re already feeling stretched, but when you’re presented with a new opportunity, it’s important to distinguish between the voice in your head saying you can’t do it because you’re not worthy and the one saying you can’t do it because you have too much on your plate. The former is your impostor Syndrome speaking.

If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later. While it might be intimidating to take on something you’re not sure you can succeed in, know that you were asked to do it for a reason, and there’s nothing wrong with learning new things and asking questions along the way.

8. Embrace the feeling, and use it We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it. So invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means. Whenever you hear that negative voice in your head, pause, take a deep breath, and say to yourself, Welcome back, old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get back to work.

9. Get a plan A better way to manage your anxious feelings is to be organised. Break down your goals into small, manageable chunks to tackle one at a time. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear emphasises the impact of 1% better every day.

Part of the journey to overcoming Imposter Syndrome is learning from each experience you face, reflecting on what feels best to you in different situations. Pivot your plan based on your newfound knowledge and keep adjusting.

10. It’s a state of mind, not the reality The most important thing to remember from the outset when thinking about Imposter Syndrome and how we might tackle it, is that it is a psychological phenomenon. It’s happening in our heads. It is not a true reflection of reality, only our own interpretation of reality, which is subjective at best, and completely skewed out of all proportion at worst.

It often manifests itself as a voice in our heads, berating us with negative messages. Such self-talk is a bad habit, and heavily influences our anxiety. Being a startup founder provides the perfect pressure cooker for self-doubt to thrive. Having to stretch yourself between so many areas of the business and take on responsibility that you have little knowledge or experience of is obviously going to make anyone feel out of their depth.

But it’s not you, it’s a natural part of the startup journey. There is no blueprint, and having crises of self-esteem is often inevitable for entrepreneurs, but it’s not insurmountable. Founding a new venture requires daily decisions that may leave first-time founders second-guessing themselves, no matter how much confidence you have, self-doubt and uncertainty are part of the process of launching your own venture.

If left unchecked, those feelings of uncertainty can become a cycle of negativity. However, embracing some of the thoughts above will help you appreciate that Imposter Syndrome is a battle that you can, and with practice, will win. 

We’re ready to talk...

Wherever you are on your startup journey, get in touch and let’s unpack your thinking together and see where we can help turn your idea into a reality.