What we're talking about

Impostor syndrome can manifest in many ways. It might be that you consider yourself a phony who’ll be exposed at any moment; you’re a perfectionist who’s never happy with what you’ve created; or you think you need to do everything yourself to avoid looking incompetent. Sound familiar at all? It can affect small business owners especially. Business owners don’t benefit from the external validation that comes with a typical workplace: they don’t get promotions or even a guaranteed salary. To make things worse, business owners constantly have to blow their own trumpet – whether it’s advertising your product on your personal social feed or pitching investors for funding.

Why it’s important

There’s nothing one-size-fits-all about impostor syndrome. People experience it in different ways and at different times in their lives. A major study from the International Journal of Behavioural Science showed that more than 70% of millennials experience it at some point – it can be a minor sensation you carry in the back of your mind, or it might plague you for months, keeping you up at night and damaging your personal and professional relationships. 

Making it disappear can of course be the aim, but keeping it in check is a more realistic goal – and is essential for your mental health. Feeling like you’re not supposed to be running a business or that you’re letting employees down can contribute to stress, burnout, anxiety and depression. It can also impact your business. It might leave you questioning your every move, failing to trust your intuition and not taking the risks necessary to move your company forward. You may try too hard to get things ‘just right’ and miss out on opportunities that you don’t feel sufficiently prepared for. Eventually, staff morale may take a hit also, because it’s hard to inspire others when you don’t believe in yourself.

Things to note 

There’s a difference between impostor syndrome and humility. If you’re as aware of your weaknesses as you are of your strengths and only occasionally worry about your business failing, chances are you’re just down to earth. Impostor syndrome is when you begin confusing fact and fiction – for example, when you think your successes are luck or a mistake, and your failures validate the narrative you have in your mind. 

It’s rife among business owners. Harvard Business Review once asked CEOs about their biggest fears, and ‘being found to be incompetent’ came out on top. People are often reluctant to talk about their professional failures, and the media doesn’t exactly paint a picture of reality. Hearing other business owners’ true experiences is often a big first step to realizing you aren’t an impostor after all. 

It’s more prevalent if you’re under-represented in your field. Impostor syndrome is particularly common among women, people of color, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and other demographics that aren’t adequately represented in business. Business owners that fall into these groups may have internalized elements of systemic oppression or stereotyping. For these people, tackling impostor syndrome on an individual level is important – but the real solutions are more systemic. 

There are five key types. Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome, defines them. The perfectionist focuses on how well things are done; the expert feels a need to know and understand everything; the soloist needs to complete tasks alone; the natural genius criticizes themselves for failing to get things right on the first attempt; and the superhero views competence in terms of the number of roles and responsibilities they can juggle.

How to mitigate impostor syndrome 

1. Identify the signs. Being aware – and labelling the syndrome for what it is – is the first step. Consider the five key impostor types above and reflect on any persistent and intrusive negative thoughts you have. Be mindful of more general signs, such as ignoring praise and taking criticism to heart, a lack of self-confidence that might spill into how you communicate (like saying sorry all the time) and fear of failure. 

2. Figure out where it might come from. Knowing where your feelings originate is very useful in negating them. Consider, for instance, whether you’ve had bad treatment from managers in the past and didn’t receive praise for your work. Assess, too, how you respond to others’ successes on social media. If that reaction is one of jealousy or comparison, do the work and think about why you’re experiencing those kinds of feelings.   

3. Understand why others may be critical. Although impostor syndrome comes from within, social conditions and expectations can make it much worse. It’s normal to feel self-doubt if you’re on the receiving end of harsh words or stereotypes, especially when they confirm your own negative thoughts. Don’t completely cut yourself off from the views and hesitations of others – but try to treat them with a pinch of salt. 

4. Use your support network. Impostor syndrome thrives in spaces where people can’t admit or accept that occasional errors are inevitable. You might not be ready to go public with your impostor syndrome, but everyone benefits from a listening ear. Confide in your co-founder, a family member, mentor or a close colleague, or look to external communities, like this one on Reddit. Try to surround yourself with people who are as willing to talk about their flaws as their successes. 

5. Conduct a personal SWOT analysis. Do an analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities (eg, contacts you’d like to make plans with) and threats (eg, major industry changes that might disrupt your day-to-day work). Consider your qualifications and achievements rather than the fictitious SWOT analysis that impostor syndrome has created in your head. You’ll end up with a more rational and objective picture of what you’re good at (where you can be confident and stand your ground), and areas you need to improve upon (where you might delegate or take on constructive criticism).  

6. Reflect properly on your successes and failures. Rather than letting your emotions dominate, write down your wins and losses and reflect objectively. Figure out the real reasons things went wrong, and if it really was 100% your fault, take responsibility and make the necessary adjustments going forwards. Take a note of your successes and wins – no matter how small they might seem. You can even refer back to your list whenever that negative voice starts getting louder. 

Key takeaways

• Small business owners commonly experience impostor syndrome – and failing to manage it can seriously affect your mental health. 

• Although eliminating it completely is the goal, more realistically it’ll be an ongoing matter that you manage and mitigate. 

• Identifying impostor syndrome when it arises – and working out where those feelings originate from – is the most important part of the process. 

Learn more

Perspective. Silicon Valley founder and investor Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon spoke to CNBC Make It about feeling ‘not good enough’ and how she overcame barriers.

Example. This diagram on CEO Today illustrates how wide-ranging and self-reinforcing impostor syndrome’s impact can be. 

Example. Check out Hannah Roberts’ CV of Failures – where she flips the traditional résumé on its head and documents her supposed weaknesses.   

Tool. Use the selection of worksheets from Positive Psychology as templates for some of the steps in our how-to guide. Look in particular at Track and Measure Success and The What If? Bias.

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