Let’s Talk About Imposter Syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Image: David Whittaker

How does IS reveal itself?

  • The only person without a degree, let alone a masters or PhD from a top university
  • One of only two non-technical founders
  • One of only two women in a cohort of 38

What are the symptoms of IS?

  • Sudden loss of confidence
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Worrying about how you are perceived
  • Undermining your own achievements
  • Uncharacteristic levels of perfectionism
  • Crippling fear of failure
  • Discounting or not internalising praise
  • Procrastinating when you usually gravitate to action
  • “Why did they choose me”?
  • “I’m going to get found out”
  • “Everyone is better at [insert things that you think you aren’t] than me”

Who is most likely to be affected?

  • You’re a high achiever
  • You’re very charismatic
  • You have a Type A personality
  • You’re extremely competitive
  • You score highly on the EQ quotient
  • You’re a hyper-rational thinker
  • You outwardly display high levels of self-confidence

“The higher they rise the harder they fall”

Seven strategies for beating IS

  1. Recognise and acknowledge the signs
    If there’s one thing I’d love for you to take away from this essay it’s the ability to recognise some of the signs that present with IS. I wish I’d had the courage to better understand myself sooner instead of jumping to simplistic conclusions like “I’ve just lost my mojo”. Unless you recognise and identify with the problem, you won’t be able to take affirmative action to challenge your beliefs.
  2. Learn about it
    Knowledge is power and increasing your understanding of something in turn increases the power you feel you have over it. You can own it. Although IS is by no means a mature field of psychology, there are plenty of resources out there to help you better understand what‘s going on. Check out the “Further reading” section at the end of this post to get you started.
  3. Talk about it
    If you’re anything like me, this is easier said than done. It feels especially tricky in startup land because the TechCrunch narrative conditions you into thinking that everyone else is “crushing it” so nobody wants to expose their insecurities and risk being the cry baby. Here, it’s helpful to remember the 70% statistic coupled with the fact that high achievers are more prone to developing IS than others. It stands to reason that fellow founders, executives and even investors will experience feelings similar to yours. When I started to broach the subject with others in the community, I was taken aback by how prevalent it really is. Moreover, everyone seemed genuinely relieved to learn that they are not alone.
  4. Write about it
    Writing therapy has long been recognised as an effective self-help strategy for improving overall mental health. Indeed, I consider the very act of publishing this to be an important part of my own therapy. Initially reluctant to share my experience publicly, I started taking private notes whenever I caught myself falling into negative thought patterns. Keeping a diary helped my to take a step back and assess my situation through an objective lens and provided the raw material for this essay,.
  5. Consider your context
    As my dad once told me “someone will always have a bigger yacht than you”. The background to this was that teenage me thought that having the biggest superyacht would be a symbol of supreme success. The point he was trying to make was that no matter how smart, hardworking or creative you are, there will always be someone whose achievements (fairly or unfairly) exceed yours and there’s nothing you can do about it.
    Instead of using unhelpful proxies like first to market with an idea, university you went to, size of the round raised etc., it’s more constructive to focus on being the very best you can be given your background and the sum of your experiences to date. As soon as I started to reframe my thinking like this, my happiness, productivity and overall performance improved markedly.
  6. Challenge limiting beliefs
    Limiting beliefs are thoughts that constrain us in some way. The origins of these thoughts can be complex such as things your parents repeatedly told you when you were a kid or battle scars from painful or unpleasant life experiences. The thing with beliefs that limit us is that once we have them, we subconsciously gather evidence to reaffirm them (confirmation bias). Conversely, we can counter our limiting beliefs by proactively seeking out evidence to the contrary. A good place to start is to make a list of all your limiting beliefs (e.g. “I’m not…” or “I can’t…”) and then add sub bullets with objective evidence you gather to discredit those beliefs.
  7. Reframe failure as success
    As some guy called Einstein once said “If you’ve never failed you’ve never tried anything new”. He was spot on! It took me a long time to royally fail at something so when I did it hit me like a freight train and left me feeling completely perplexed. On reflection, I never took myself far enough out of my comfort zone before. Everything I had done came relatively easily and because I was doing well compared to most people in my immediate peer group I did not try anything really audacious. The learnings that followed failure have been my most powerful life lessons of all, so my only regret is not fucking up royally a little bit sooner.

“If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new”

You might just become a better human being

Further reading:

Thanks for reading!

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Founder & Maker of Things | Product Geek | Alumni @efLDN (EF4)

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Karin Nielsen

Karin Nielsen

Founder & Maker of Things | Product Geek | Alumni @efLDN (EF4)

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