5 tips for overcoming the imposter syndrome
I took a huge leap when I was returning to work after having children. I didn't go and get a job. I launched into my own business as an interior designer without really knowing what I was doing. From the very fact that I am not an interior designer anymore you can see how some of that went. I lasted about 6 months before I wound up my business. I felt like a failure and an imposter. However, the lessons I learned in that 6 months form the foundation of my coaching business today. One of the most important was how to overcome the imposter syndrome. A state of mind that plagues even the most hardened would-be business owners.
This is how I experienced that first nerve-wracking meeting when you begin to adopt your business persona and it feels so strange:
As I walked up to my client's front door I became aware that I had only a vague idea of what I was going to say. Clutching an interior design manual under my arm it occured to me that my ‘Trust me, I’m a designer’ veneer may not cover me very well. I felt exposed and uncomfortable. I began to judder inside. “These people will never want to work with a fraud” I reasoned. I got through that first meeting somehow (my first few clients were friends so that helped) and then the next and the one after. Everytime I saw myself as a bonefide designer doing the things I imagined other designers did the sting of the imposter syndrome lessened. But I wish I had known the 5 pieces of advice in this article as I steadied my nerves that first day.
What is the Imposter Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is that state of mind you have when you are convinced you are just about to be exposed as a fraud. It's fearing that a little slip of the mask might give you away as being a fake. It's being caught between your desire to be authentic and your need become a better self.
You would know if you were experiencing imposter syndrome by the anxiety symptoms: sweaty palms, racing heart, catastrophising thoughts, dry mouth. You may have harsh or critical thought racing through your mind: “They are going to see through your act!”, “You haven’t a clue what you are doing”, “Stop pretending and go and get a real job”, “This is so embarrassing!”
One thing that really helped me was listening to some talks by Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth is the author of several brilliant books and her mini-course on ‘The creative life’ was full of gems. My absolute favourite quote is: “Every day, take the path of curiosity not fear.” She talked about her own journey of recovery from divorce and finding her voice as a creative. For me, it was an epiphany. I can choose! In fact, I can choose every day! Curiosity sounded safe; even fun.
I started choosing. I kept choosing. I found that, although overnight success is the stuff of legend, the more curious I was, the more comfortable I felt with calling myself a creative (or in fact any random job title I chose that day!) The more comfortable I felt, the more my behaviour reflected confidence. And the more confident my behaviour was, the more I attracted other clients and colleagues.
Here are my 5 tips for getting rid of the imposter syndrome:
1. Choose the path of curiosity over the path of fear.
When starting anything new there will be plenty of unknowns. We can use those unknowns as reasons to fear and back off or as reasons to get curious and find out. Swapping a fearful mindset for a curious one was the best defence against the paralysing imposter syndrome. This way of thinking gave me opportunities to learn. I even began to look forward to situations when I would be outside my comfort zone. I would repeat the mantra “I get to find out” when facing a situation I felt unprepared for.
2. Decide that being right is not the most important thing.
In my small business start-up journey, I learnt that it is not being able to get rid of the worrying thoughts that counts, but having a better alternative thought. I like to be right. It gives me a nice feeling. But I also like to grow and change. I decided that growing and changing was more important to me that looking like I had it figured out. I adopted the mantra: “I’m great at learning new things”. This helped me focus when the sting of embarrassment at getting something wrong was all I could feel.
3. Tell people that you are new at your job.
With my new contacts, I would get into the conversation early, that my business was just starting up. Without apologising for it I would mention “I have started with a handful of clients like you”. “I’m still learning and figuring out the best way to do this”. I found that people were much more understanding that I thought they would be. They appreciated that I was in process and giving them a discounted rate acknowledged that I wasn’t amazing yet.
4. Celebrate small successes.
I counted having tried something for the first time as a success I could celebrate. I looked at not just the outward result but also at the mental and emotional process I went through to make it happen. I allowed myself a reward: a night off, a glass of wine, doing my favourite work activities first instead of the boring ones.
5. Make friends with others who are starting out.
I am lucky enough to have good friends, a few of whom have also started up their own businesses. A couple of times I took a day out to meet up with them and catch up. There was always good things that came out of our chats. My husband is also involved in a start-up. We would flex our daytimes so we could go for a coffee or a walk and share the challenges with each other.
Do we ever get past the imposter syndrome phase? I’m still in my start-up years as a business owner but I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally free from feeling like a fraud. And perhaps that isn’t the goal. I want to constantly stretch myself and try new things so that little voice might always be over my shoulder. Perhaps the goal is to be comfortable in my own skin as a woman in business. To own my own journey and be free to fail. In that case, I’m well on my way.