A month after leaving my corporate job to start my own business, I was asked to give a talk at a digital marketing conference in London. Only three months prior, I’d delivered a similar talk to a similar audience at a similar marketing conference. But this time around, instead of having instant credibility thanks to my title at a well-known global brand, I was newly self-employed, trying to build my reputation as a public speaker and career expert–all on my own.
I felt completely out of place. All the other featured speakers were from big-name companies like Adobe, Microsoft, and Intel. The networking breaks didn’t exactly boost my confidence, either. When people asked me, “Which company are you with?” I stumbled through a clunky response, trying to explain I’d just started my own consultancy–but that I used to work for a big brand. Recently. Yes, really!
I spent most of that day questioning my own legitimacy as a speaker. Moments before my presentation, I was racked with self-doubt, worried that the audience would wonder how this random imposter had managed to sneak on stage.
You’ve already heard of imposter syndrome, and chances are you’ve experienced it, too. That moment when you feel like a total a fraud. Like you have no business being trusted to do what you’ve been hired to do. Psychologists first gave a name to that experience some 40 years ago, but James Lyda, director of mental health services at Minerva Schools at KGI, points out that it isn’t considered a psychological disorder–it’s a “psychosocial phenomenon”–and it’s “especially common when people find themselves surrounded by high-achieving people,” he says.
I’d earned reputable degrees from reputable universities, and had done pretty well in my professional roles in the corporate world. But getting up to speak that day, I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t measure up. It wasn’t a totally novel experience–I’d felt similar insecurities before then, whenever I was asked to manage a new team or take over a project I knew little about. But I felt it much more acutely after becoming my own boss. Without a big company to conveniently back my credibility, I constantly felt like my reputation was on the line.
The imposter feeling has been especially poignant whenever I’ve done something for the first time. For example, I almost said no to giving a TEDx Talk because I didn’t feel like my track record as a solopreneur was established enough by that point. When I launched my podcast last year, I was nervous about how I’d sound even though I’d worked in radio many years prior. And when coaching clients, especially older ones, I’ve caught myself wondering if the value I was delivering truly warranted the fees I charged.
Clearly, feeling like a fraud all the time is counterproductive, and over time I’ve gotten better at shaking myself out of it. Whenever I’m caught up in a cycle of self-doubt, or faced with a daunting situation, I try to force myself to take three deliberate steps to get out of my own way.
First, I start by getting a clear picture of my desired future. I think about how I’ll ideally be spending my time. What my reputation will be. How my business will look. Which clients I’ll be serving. What types of talks I’ll be delivering. How I’ll be spending my time. What impact I’ll be making. The more specific, the better.
Then, I try to act in a way that’s consistent with that person I’m trying to become rather than the person I’ve been in the past. I’ll consider how that future version of myself would behave in this situation–and try to behave similarly right now. If my ideal future-self is a confident keynote speaker, for instance, somebody who regularly gives inspiring talks, I’ll spend a few moments convincing myself I’m already that person before I take the stage to give a keynote talk myself. It’s not just about psyching yourself up or trying to be someone you’re not–it’s about matching your current behavior with your sense of who you’re trying to become.
Finally, I just remind myself that I need to believe in myself before anyone else can. I used to think I’d be able to believe in myself once I’d achieved a goal or reached a certain level of success. But these days, I’ve gotten better at first believing in myself instead of letting my self-confidence be contingent on some imagined, ever-receding level of success.
But what if you just don’t believe in yourself? I realize there’s some circular logic going on here: After all, if you did, you wouldn’t feel like an imposter, right?
It’s true. I have plenty of days when I simply don’t believe in myself. When I genuinely feel like I don’t have the skills or knowledge to do something effectively enough. When I feel like my business isn’t where I want it to be through some fault of my own. When I wonder if a gig fell through because I just wasn’t qualified enough. Or when I question if I’m capable of reaching a goal that still feels really far away, despite working on it for so long.
For starters, I try to remember that everyone has insecurities, and they aren’t all bad. Sometimes self-doubt can hold some useful career lessons. Second, I try to remind myself how someone else might feel if I constantly questioned them in a similar way. What if I constantly critiqued or second-guessed or challenged them every time they tried to do something bold? I’d imagine talking to someone like that would be deflating, damaging, and demotivating. So with that in mind, I try to remember that I shouldn’t tolerate talking to myself the same way–it’ll be just as counterproductive.
It’s a cliché that we’re all our own worst critics, but that’s because it’s true. If you can find a way to let go of that critique, focus on what you want for your future, and behave in a way that’s consistent with it, you’d be surprised how much you can achieve.