How to overcome imposter syndrome

Man suffering from imposter syndrome in group of people

Everyone doubts their own abilities and feels like a fraud from time to time - it's called imposter syndrome. It's especially common during times of change, such as when you're setting up a business. Rachel Miller finds out how to spot the signs of imposter syndrome and overcome those feelings of doubt

Imposter syndrome affects almost everyone at one time or another - it's the uncomfortable feeling that you're not good enough at what you do, that you are a bit of a fraud and that people are going to find out that you're not up to the job. These thoughts are common but they are also irrational so it's important to recognise them and try to overcome them.

No-one is immune from imposter syndrome but studies suggest that high achievers are most at risk. They set high expectations for themselves and have the cognitive ability and self-awareness to identify their own flaws. Imposter syndrome is often triggered during times of change. While everyone experiences doubts when they take on a new role, for some these worries develop into feelings of being an imposter.

In fact, research has found that business owners are especially prone to imposter syndrome; a 2018 study a by AXA found that one in five UK small business owners said they suffer from imposter syndrome. Of those affected:

  • 52% said low self-esteem made them feel like an imposter;
  • 42% said they compare themselves to others;
  • 27% suffered from doubts about their decisions;
  • 45% were convinced that someone else could run their business better;
  • 32% admitted that imposter syndrome had prevented them from taking their business to the next level.

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What Is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the experience of doubting your abilities to the extent that you feel like you're pretending to be someone you're not. If you're starting a business, for example, worry about your abilities could develop into a fear that you're not a real entrepreneur.

You could be suffering from imposter syndrome if:

  • You can't switch off feelings of doubt in your own abilities;
  • You worry that you won't meet other people's expectations and fear being "found out";
  • You compare yourself unfavourably with others;
  • You set unrealistic goals and berate yourself for not doing enough;
  • You don't give yourself credit for your successes and put them down to luck.

Many people experience imposter syndrome despite clear evidence of success. In fact, if you have a lot of expertise in an area you can be more acutely aware of the challenges ahead and that can trigger negative thoughts about not being good enough.

Perfectionists are also susceptible to imposter syndrome because they never think they have done enough. Those that set unrealistic goals risk feeling like a fraud when they can't achieve them. This can have one of two impacts - either they keep procrastinating because they fear they can't meet their own high standards or they over-prepare and spend too long on certain tasks.

Most business owners are on a steep learning curve and that can cause issues too. If it is taking a while to learn the skills you need to run your business, you can feel as though you weren't meant to be a business owner in the first place. Often business owners try to do everything themselves and having to ask for help can make them feel that they are an imposter.

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Unchecked, imposter syndrome can lead to more serious problems, such as anxiety, burnout and depression. Typically, people that suffer from imposter syndrome will do anything to hide the fact - it's all about trying to keep that mask in place. But admitting you have a problem is the first step.

Here are seven ways to overcome imposter syndrome when you run a business:

  • Acknowledge your feelings and share them . Don't suffer in silence. Many people with imposter syndrome are scared of admitting how they feel - even to themselves. Being open about these feelings is the first step towards overcoming them. Sharing how you feel with others will help you see you're not alone.
  • Celebrate wins . Write down all the things you've achieved so far in your business and list your abilities. Give yourself credit for your successes and celebrate your wins - no matter how small.
  • Identify where there is room for improvement . You don't need to have all the answers; it's ok to say you don't know and ask for time to find out. There's also no shame in needing to learn new skills or delegate some tasks to others. Instead of trying to hide areas of weakness, focus on overcoming them.
  • Aim for "good enough". With every task, there comes a point when you need to finish and move on. Don't let an obsession with detail and a desire for perfection hold you back.
  • Change your mindset . Don't let negative self-talk dominate your thinking. When doubts creep in, take a step back and ask yourself if these thoughts are justified. Call out your own negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. This can be hard to do on your own; seeing a therapist can help you to work on your mindset.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others . When you're the new kid on the block, it's easy to feel like an outsider - especially when you see how well others are doing. Try not to compare yourself to others (especially on social media) and remember that building a business takes time.
  • Get a support group . It can be lonely when you work for yourself. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about your achievements - join a local business group, find a mentor or ask friends or family for support.

Imposter syndrome is very common for business owners but, like many mental health issues, it can become a much bigger problem if it is left unchecked. If you think that imposter syndrome could be affecting your health, happiness and even your business, now’s the time to take steps to overcome it.

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