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How to overcome impostor syndrome as a small business owner

Impostor syndrome is a real thing. That nagging sense of self-doubt and incompetence casts shade on all your accomplishments. Despite your experience, achievements, and the reputation you’ve established in your industry, you still feel like a fraud, that you’re undeserving, that you’re only where you are out of sheer luck, or that you somehow don’t belong.

And while impostor syndrome affects people of all identities, it tends to be more prevalent among women and historically marginalized communities. Indeed, systemic racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression play a significant part in this phenomenon. 

High-achievers and creatives are especially susceptible to impostor feelings. Entrepreneurs, small business owners, and freelancers often fall into one of these categories, and if so, it can get in the way of progress, growth, and productivity. It can impact mental health, too: A recent systematic review of previously published studies also associated impostor syndrome with anxiety and depression. 

To conquer impostor syndrome and silence your inner critic, we’ve got some ideas on how to build a healthier relationship with your professional self. Here are nine actionable tips you can put into practice today

9 ways to overcome impostor syndrome

Most experts agree that the only way to defeat impostor syndrome is to change how you think.

1. Speak up about self-doubt, and know you’re not alone

Impostor syndrome is pervasive, even among the most successful business owners. Talking about your feelings can be incredibly liberating. Even the small act of putting a name to what you’re going through is empowering in itself; it’s like finally having a diagnosis for a mystery ailment you’ve been dealing with your entire life.

Plus, when you open up, you might be surprised at how many of your peers share the same self-doubt. Even some of the most powerful, respected, and high-achieving women globally — Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, and an estimated 75% of women executives — have struggled with impostor syndrome from time to time. These successful women prove that impostor feelings are just that, not a true reflection of their abilities. 

If you have the means, seek therapeutic intervention from a licensed therapist or counselor to help you process your feelings. Talk about them with a trusted friend or fellow small business owner. There is power in community, and perhaps you’ll find ways to lift each other up.

2. Separate your impostor feelings from facts

When running a business, there might be times when making a mistake leaves you feeling unqualified. Take time to step back and look at the bigger picture. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a fake. Consider that your small mistake isn’t the catastrophe you think it is. 

Nobody can be 100% perfect all the time: it’s just not possible. Plus, if you didn’t make mistakes, you’d never learn anything, and life would be pretty flatline.

Whether your impostor syndrome is a momentary lapse or a lingering phenomenon, here’s what you do. When you feel it coming on, take a quick inventory. Separate facts from feelings and see what you can learn from the situation. Above all, don’t dwell on the negatives because if you’re prone to impostor syndrome, that’s a fast track to the dark side.

Do not allow your feelings to inform the “truth.” Constant fear may lead you to back down from opportunities. We are our own worst critics. And though our feelings are valid, not all are constructive. They’re not the entire truth. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s just par for the course.

3. Recognize that just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place

When taking risks, it’s common for people to judge themselves harshly and feel like a fraud. You may harbor secret thoughts that you’re too old or too young. Maybe you hardly (if ever) see people like you doing what you’re doing. But just because you’re doing something different doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place. 

When you feel you belong, you’ll have confidence in everything you do. But if you’re out on a limb, at the top of your field, a pioneer, or launching something that’s never been done before, you likely don’t have many peers. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly natural to feel like you don’t fit in.

Imagine all the firsts that wouldn’t have happened if their champions had retreated in the face of impostor syndrome. The first woman astronaut, Black woman vice president, or c-suite executive — they didn’t arrive where they did without a few doubts and a lot of adversity and opposition along the way. But where would we be today if they didn’t persevere?

All this is to say, don’t take your feelings of impostor syndrome as a sign that you’re unworthy of your dreams. It’s a perfectly normal response, especially if you’re a woman or part of a historically marginalized community.

4. Keep focusing on the positive 

Optimism and your belief system are essential to your success. When you believe something is possible, you’re far more likely to achieve it.

There’s an old Sufi saying that’s worth reinforcing here. They say, “thoughts are things.” That means when you think something, you manifest it into the world. To avoid turning those negative thoughts into reality, you need to reframe those thoughts to be more constructive. 

When you do so, you’re rewiring your brain to be more positive, shifting the inner dialogue from self-doubt to self-compassion. Instead of beating yourself up and saying, “that was so awful,” change that thought to “perhaps not my best work, but I know how to do better next time.” Your brain automatically switches to thinking about the next thing, which helps you put the unpleasantness — thoughts and all — in your rearview. 

5. There is no such thing as ‘failure’ – it’s just feedback

It’s okay to be wrong or to make mistakes. These are some of your best opportunities to learn and grow. Don’t assume all the blame for them, or see them as proof of your inadequacy. Leverage what you’ve learned into a better, more robust effort or strategy. Pick up the pieces and move on. 

Don’t shy away from a perceived failure, as there are plenty of things it can teach you. This is precisely why sports teams examine game films between matches. They identify the events that led up to the mistake, and they talk about it with the goal of developing a strategy on how they’re going to crush ‘em next time.

Accept both negative and positive feedback when it’s offered. It won’t always be constructive, but it’s always informative, and it shouldn’t spin you out into negativity. You’re not always going to have approval, but knowing what your customers or colleagues think gives you a more holistic view. 

Keep these points in mind:

Onward!

6. Reshape the stories you tell yourself 

Instead of looking around the room and thinking, “everyone here is so smart and accomplished, and I’m not,” why not go with, “Wow! Everyone here is so smart and accomplished – I’m really going to learn a lot!”

A slight shift in the thought process leads to seismic shifts in your world.

It’s all about context. The way you approach a situation informs your response and everything (including your thoughts) around it. To achieve this, you need to be intimately aware of your inner narrative to recognize the triggers that lead to impostor feelings.

Every innovator in the world starts on unsure footing. There’s no precedent to prove their ideas, so doubt will almost certainly creep in. Even though you don’t have all the answers, you’re smart enough to figure them out.

7. Visualize your ideal outcomes

Visualization is a proven practice — and it works! It harkens back to the “thoughts are things” discussion we had in tip #4 above. Visualization is used by athletes, executives, first responders, and people focused on self-improvement. It’s used in neurological rehabilitation to help people recover movement after an injury or stroke; in fact, one study found that imagining that you’re moving a body part trains muscles almost as much as the actual movement. That’s pretty cool!

To achieve your goals and reduce the stress you feel around those efforts, visualization should 100% be a part of your toolkit. When you can visualize your ideal outcome and the steps you’ll take to get there, your impostor syndrome won’t stand a chance.

The impostor phenomenon feels like we don’t know how we got where we are and don’t deserve to be there. Visualization is the perfect tool to help us get past those feelings. After all, if you’ve got your course all mapped out, you’re not exactly there by mistake. Plus, by visualizing various what-if scenarios, you’ll have strategies to mitigate risk and disaster, thereby reducing the stress of the unknown.

8. Reward yourself for overcoming impostor feelings

Celebrate your wins—even the small ones. If you’re always looking for that external pat on the back, you might be disappointed. People don’t always recognize your good work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a significant accomplishment. Learn to pat yourself on the back, and don’t rely on validation from outside sources, as it might not come when and where you need it.

First, you’ll need to own your successes. You deserve it. It’s not luck; nobody did it for you. Although, if others helped, by all means, include them in your celebration! Tell yourself how proud you are of your accomplishments. It’s not vain or boastful, and if you’re an introvert, you certainly don’t have to shout it to the world, but you do need to acknowledge it.

If you find impostor syndrome creeping into your psyche, take a quick inventory of your accomplishments. Go back as far as you want; you can even start at the beginning of your ideation process or when you quit your job to focus on your business full-time. When you’re done, you’ll see how far you’ve come. We’d wager it’s been a long and eventful journey with plenty of highlights.

Rewards don’t have to be earth-stopping. As long as they make you smile, they could be as breezy as a walk in the park with your favorite latte or a glass of bubbly after work with your bestie. Whatever your pleasure, you’re worth it.

9. Know that greater courage comes from taking risks

Taking risks is key to a successful career. As a small business owner or entrepreneur, you expect to venture out of your comfort zone from time to time, but the more you do so, the stronger you become. Change your behavior (and thinking) first, and self-confidence will follow.

Fake it ‘til you make it. You never know until you try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Big risk, big results. Okay, all platitudes, but each has merit in the context of this tip. Courage grows with each risk you take. Not all will provide the desired outcome, but you’ll take those lessons, tweak your approach, and try again.

Each learning opportunity is brick and mortar to fortify your foundations. Your failures become stepping stones to the next level. You can’t avoid these critical steps, as they may trip you up later in the journey. Invite them, and you’ll find peace with the process.

For example, entertainers are never afraid to make fools of themselves on stage. Okay, perhaps that’s an extreme way to put it, but it’s not untrue. All eyes are on them. It’s a lot of pressure, but they know that those moments pass so quickly. 

Even if something goes wrong, they pick themselves up, recover, and move on — instantly! At that moment, they’re capable of reinventing themselves and turning it around. It’s a rare occasion when a misstep causes any lasting repercussions, and even when it does, it’s humanizing rather than humiliating. Nobody is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes.

  • You have a right to be wrong.
  • Nobody always knows the answer all the time.
  • It’s okay to ask for help.
  • Everybody has off days.

In most cases, the audience is none the wiser. In some cases, those “happy mistakes” become their signature move. Meditate on that for a moment.

We hope our tips gave you some good strategies to help you overcome feelings of impostor syndrome. Ultimately, the takeaway here is that you’re not alone. As small business owners, we’ve all experienced self-doubt at one point, so just know you’re in good company.

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