Understand and handle impostor syndrome

At some point, most people feel like they are doing something they don’t know how to do … they are in a situation in which they do not belong and fear others will find out. It’s called impostor syndrome and entrepreneurs suffer from it as much or more than anyone else.

Impostor syndrome is a psychological condition in which someone doubts their accomplishments and fears they will be exposed as a fraud. In spite of evidence to the contrary, those experiencing this condition are convinced they are fakes and their success is based on luck. Or they incorrectly attribute their achievements to tricking others into thinking they are more competent than they think they really are. Seventy percent of Americans experience these feelings.

According to Erin Dean, associate professor and an assistant dean for the School of Criminal Justice and Social Sciences at Tiffin University, imposter syndrome is not considered a mental disorder but most therapists recognize it as a very real phenomenon that many people experience. “Especially those that put a great amount of pressure on themselves to be successful or those who have faced significant external pressures and expectations of success.”

Impostor syndrome is more often found in high-achieving men and women … including entrepreneurs. The more successful someone becomes, the more likely they are to experience these thoughts. Business owners who have been struggling through the start-up stage of a business and suddenly start to see the fruits of their effort in the form of growing profits are especially likely to experience impostor syndrome.

“While some might think that those who feel like imposters must be duping others on some level, the opposite is actually true,” Dean said. “It is usually those who work hard and want everything to go perfectly that somehow fear that they won’t live up to expectations.”

When impostor syndrome creeps in, people feel they are not good enough or not worthy. Experts believe feelings of being a fraud could come from personality traits, behavioral issues or early recollections. People often internalize these ideas and negative thoughts that they need to be successful to be accepted. This can become self-perpetuating.

Impostor syndrome can have strong negative consequences for businesses. Motivation and drive can decline. The quality of work can suffer because the individual is so preoccupied with insecurities that it is difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.

One of the ironies is that impostor syndrome may get worse as people become more successful. The more successful people become, the more likely they are to associate with more accomplished people, which may create an even greater feeling of insufficiency.

There are ways to deal with impostor syndrome. One is for those experiencing these thoughts to recognize they are doing something new. Being an outsider and bringing a new perspective is one of the traits of a successful entrepreneur. Innovative thinkers bring something different to the market.

Another suggestion is to concentrate on the learning instead of the performance. Learning about the subject that is creating the anxiety can relieve some of the negative feelings. Writing a column about a topic about which I know very little (impostor syndrome, for example) helps relieve some of my worry.

Dean added that discussing these negative thoughts with others can help. “The realization that competent and successful colleagues face the same doubts helps to externalize the feelings and allows one to see that such thoughts and feelings are more fear-based than fact-based.”

Almost everybody suffers impostor syndrome at some time. I vividly recall wondering what I was doing the first time I was in front of a classroom full of college students. Someone experiencing impostor syndrome feels they are the only one feeling this way, but reality is very different.

Perry Haan is professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Tiffin University. He can be reached at (419) 618-2867.