How Founders Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome
Photo Credit: Young black woman reading a problematic text message on her mobile phone while working at home.

How Founders Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

This article was originally published on 07/02/2019

“I think the reason why I share that note about imposter syndrome is because I want for people who are experiencing it to know that they’re not alone and that it is just a syndrome. It is a myth and it is something that’s not true, but yet feels very true in the moment. And I think sometimes only when you see someone else who is experiencing that thing do you realize ‘Oh, I’m not alone. This is temporary. This is fleeting and I still am as awesome as I think I am.’”

– Julia Collins, CEO of Planet FWD and Co-founder of Zume Pizza, on imposter syndrome. 

With so many negative perceptions of millennials in the media and minds of the gatekeepers of society, it is a wonder that they [millennials] have figured out a way to carve out a place in this world. Despite years of seemingly doing all the right things, only to be told and shown that it is still not enough, young professionals are starting new trends, businesses, and changing the world. However, it’s in this vicious cycle of upward mobility and survival that many young professionals and startup founders seem to find themselves in a constant state of doubt. 

It has a name — imposter syndrome.

The idea that any amount of success you attain is based on luck? That’s imposter syndrome. The daily struggle to simply believe that you have more than earned your role in leadership? Yup, imposter syndrome again. That journal entry you just wrote, questioning when your best will be enough for your overbearing, yet well-intentioned family members? Your angst over your employer and their idea of who deserves a raise? Are you feeling like you don’t deserve massive funding rounds even though your business idea can change the world? Imposter syndrome. These are all contributing factors to an undeniable feeling of uncertainty that makes you believe you need to fix something about yourself to be more deserving of the space you’re in.  

We experience imposter syndrome differently.

Feelings of inadequacy and doubt do not magically appear one day and decide to drag us by our eyebrows, often in our most vulnerable state. In general, imposter syndrome can develop as a result of years of disappointment and being told that your best is just not good enough. It can also creep into the development of your self-image simply because you have not figured out how to claw your way out of an endless cycle of people pleasing. However, for a Black American, who is dealing with the standard challenges of being a founder and inherently aware of the disregard for Black life, our education, our freedom, and ability to provide for our families, the feeling of inadequacy is internal and systemic. 

There is undoubtedly a damaging psychological impact on being constantly and consciously aware of the fact that many of the systems in place to move society forward, are often the ones that hold us back. When you stop to think of the examples illustrated in your personal life and the media, it is clear that many of us must walk a tightrope each and every day for a world that often assumes that we are, in fact, undeserving or unfit for positions of leadership.

Imposter syndrome starts early.

Let’s talk about validation. Think back to a time when you only knew if you, your behavior and attendance were acceptable based on the feedback of a teacher and your intelligence or academic prowess was measured by a grade. Think about the amount of weight or maybe even respect you placed on the individual giving you that grade. Multiply this times ten when it comes to the energy that goes into seeking counsel, praise or approval from your loved ones; who are not only from a different generation, but did not have the option or privilege to be vulnerable in the workplace — under any circumstance.

Now, think about a time when these same individuals somehow made you feel that your best wasn’t good enough or the first time that you realized that, who you really were or aspired to be, didn’t quite line up with someone else’s plan–for your life. How do you process that over time? How does that manifest itself in your life, and how does it impact your decision making and self-worth? For some, it may seem easier to endure the vicious cycle of shrinking to see everyone else smile, while you remain trapped in a world where your truest, highest self continues to wait for an opportunity to live or simply be seen. Could imposter syndrome be what we are left with after learning so early to doubt ourselves, to shed our idea of what success looks like, to lace-up our shoes to aggressively pursue things that look like happiness to everyone but ourselves? 

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a struggle, indeed. But it is specifically a fight between what you have been conditioned to believe about yourself and the truth. I invite you to first understand that you are not alone in the daily circus act of trying to fit in. Next, take a moment to figure out how to peel away the layers of untruth about who you are in order to be proud of how far you have come. Finally, take a deep breath and fight for your peace of mind.

It’s time to be intentional about breaking away from imposter syndrome. Meditation can serve as your daily reminder to just breathe, be, and appreciate being in the moment (even the rough ones). Studies show that mindfulness can have a positive impact on your mental, and physical health by reducing stress, improving sleep, and increasing focus. During that five, 10, or 20-minute practice, you can be at peace where permission to be your authentic self is not required. If you have a smartphone, there are two great resources just waiting to be added to your daily routine: Calm and Headspace. Both have options to practice meditation for free or with a subscription.  

Get moving! I mean, literally, get up, go for a run, go to the gym, or call up a friend to see if they’re down for a walk around the neighborhood. The Mayo Clinic lists exercise as a way to combat various health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Not only are you showing yourself some love by exercising, but you are also taking your mind off of the daily grind — self-doubt and all — showing others how much you love yourself by taking care of yourself. 

Empower and honor yourself.

If you feel like you have led a life of constantly not being heard, asking for permission to just be, then this is your wake up call, your reminder that you do not have to remain in that place. We have to be careful equating our self-worth with opinions and even net worth. To do so is to take yourself down a path of chaos. You have to know that you are enough. Practice positive self talk. 

I recently read a quote by Randy Francisco that said, “Perhaps we should love ourselves so fiercely, that when others see us they know exactly how it should be done.”

To love yourself also means to honor yourself. Sometimes the only way to do this is to say “no” to something or someone else; no matter how good their intentions. Believing that you belong in every room you walk into starts with believing in yourself and that you are prepared for this very moment, to lead, crush goals, and empower others to do the same. When you honor every other voice, plan, expectation, you will continue to build a wall, a cage around the person you were called to be.