The other day I was talking to a friend about her business. She was having one of those days where everything felt difficult. Rationally, she knew she had to fight through it. But in that moment, she said, she felt like an impostor—like a child playing at being grown up.
Man, I know that feeling. It’s holding your business back, but more importantly, it’s an emotional drain. It makes you worry and spend time and energy on all kinds of thoughts that don’t help at all.
Break up self-doubt into its individual parts
As it turns out, almost everyone knows the feeling. When I spoke to friends and colleagues about it, I noticed three recurring themes that might sound familiar to you:
- not feeling good enough
- not knowing how to become good enough
- feeling ashamed about not being good enough
Quite a nasty mixture, isn’t it? Let’s take a closer look at them.
The feeling of not being good enough
When you’re starting out on your adventure, be it a business or a big project, everybody cheers you on and life is great. Yet buried under all that starting enthusiasm is the knowledge that you don’t yet know everything you need to know.
You haven’t done this before and you see others being successful in ways you don’t understand yet. Deep down, you might doubt that you’re good enough to make your project a success.
Not knowing how to become good enough
Knowing that there’s a lot you need to learn isn’t a bad thing, of course. It can be quite exciting to realize that a year from now you will have learned lots of new things. But it can also be intimidating, especially if you don’t know what you can do to get better at what you do. Your project suddenly becomes a lot harder if there is no clear way forward. Not being good enough right now is one thing—but not knowing how to become good enough is even tougher.
A feeling of shame about not being good enough
There you are, with questions and insecurities. What if everybody notices that? You started this project, you told everyone you were going to make it into a success. You let them think you knew what you are doing. What if they find out that you don’t know enough yet? The feeling of shame can be paralyzing.
If you think you’re not good enough, don’t know how to change it, and are embarrassed to admit it, you end up feeling like an impostor: someone who tells big stories, but cannot live up to them.
How to stop feeling like an impostor:
1. Don’t keep it to yourself
Everyone knows this feeling—including all the people you look up to. When I suggested this article to our editor, the first thing she said was: ‘I feel like that in my job every day.’ We all know this feeling and everyone is willing to help you.
Remember those people who offered their help when you just started out with your business? They are still there and they are still ready to help you with knowledge, mentoring, and decision making. All you need to do is speak up.
You don’t even need to know what exact questions you are facing. Sometimes all it takes is a good session of unstructured rambling with a good listener. They will help you find your questions and get you realigned. No need to feel embarrassed about this, because we all know how this feels.
2. Get support
You don’t have to do it all alone. You can if you want to, but chances are that you would be making your life a lot more difficult by doing so. Sometimes others can do something for you in an hour that would take you two weeks of struggling. Now imagine what those two weeks can do for you, especially combined with a feeling of relief and of progress in an area you thought was difficult.
I never became an entrepreneur myself; the thought of having to find customers and do my administration scared me out of it. Looking back, I think I could have done it if I had just recognized my fear of administration and hired an accountant for that part. And maybe a business coach for advice on finding customers. (Who knows, maybe one day I’ll finally start my own ice cream shop after all).
3. Take time to learn and feel awkward doing so
From the experience of learning a new language, I can say that the only way to make progress is to go out and make mistakes and to feel awkward doing so. Laughing about your own mistakes helps a great deal: you can have fun learning and stay motivated.
The only way others can help you is if they know where and how they can help you. The gaps in your knowledge need to become visible for others to offer you the missing piece. You will feel exposed and vulnerable, so pick a few experienced and patient people from your network and ask them to guide you. Acknowledging that you have things to learn is the first step, finding a good mentor is the second step.
4. Celebrate your victories and be proud of yourself
I live in Germany, but I am not German. It’s hard to imagine how proud I was the first time I spoke German for a whole day. I was mentally exhausted from thinking and expressing myself in a new language the whole day, but I had done it! And I had a smile that stretched from one ear to the other. I still had tons to learn, but I had reached a small milestone.
If you allow yourself to get addicted to that kind of pride, it’s a great motivator for your business. You will always face challenges and you may not immediately know how to overcome them. But it’s a mistake to think of these things as mere obstacles that are in the way of what you actually should be doing. Learning and developing yourself is not an obstacle, it’s a necessity!
Those are your opportunities for growth as a business owner and as a person. Those are the challenges that will sometimes make you feel like an impostor. They are also your chance to add a new accomplishment and open up a new area of knowledge.
5. Act like an apprentice
You might not know the first steps in a certain field. And yet you still need to step onto that field, because your business demands it. Allow yourself to be an apprentice for a while. Get help and take time to learn from a good master.
You feel like an impostor as long as you try to present yourself as more than you are. Present yourself as an apprentice and you free yourself from the weight of other people’s expectations. And as you take your first steps, reward yourself for learning and making progress. You have every reason to be positive and motivated about what you are doing.
7. Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle
It can be intimidating to see how much you will need to learn to become successful. And you might get angry with yourself for not knowing those things yet, when others clearly do.
There’s a lovely saying that has helped me with that issue: “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
The time others spent learning what they know is time you spent learning your trade. You might be new at making websites, but know everything about business administration. Which means you might not know how to build a website, but you have a fantastic service that you can offer on a website.
It is unfair to yourself to compare your first steps in making a website to what a full-time web designer knows. And also, that comparison completely ignores everything you know already.
We all have self-doubt…even Neil Armstrong
Here’s an anecdote from author Neil Gaiman, showing us that even the people we look up to know the feeling of being too small:
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
Oh, and that friend I mentioned at the start, she just made a great partnership and gave her first training to a group of her customers, celebrating some milestones in business and personal life at the same time. It does get better!