Does this sound like the inside of your head?
“I don’t belong here. Not really. They’re going to figure that out. I’m not good enough to do this. Why haven’t they said anything yet?”
If it does, your brain is a lot like mine. It doesn’t matter if you’ve sold a hundred online courses, launched a monolith of a membership website, or written a hundred articles before.
Whenever someone looks at your products (or work), you grit your teeth, wait for them to realize you’re a fraud, and desperately wish you had a breadbox to hide in.
Impostor syndrome, the name for the phenomena falsely convincing us we’re not legitimate enough to start a business or run our own show, knows no boundaries.
At least 70% of people will experience it once in their lifetime, in fact. And it’s a beast of a burden to bear, but it doesn’t have to put limits on your business or outweigh the many benefits of being an entrepreneur.
Like any beast, the trick to taming it begins with understanding it. Today, we’re going to do both.
Let’s get started.
What is impostor syndrome?
Characterized by self-doubt, impostor syndrome describes an emotional state in which an individual experiences persistent anxiety of being ‘found out’ as a fraud despite a wealth of evidence that they’re anything but.
In less academic, tongue-tied terms, it’s when someone -- like you and me -- has overwhelming proof they’re competent and capable, but still attributes success to events like luck and perceived effort.
And like the worst line of gelato ever, it comes in many flavors.
Here’s how they break down.
Type A: The renegade on the run
In the first variety of impostor syndrome, people don’t feel as if they’ve earned their successes, and sooner or later, everyone else is going to realize it.
They can have a wall decked out with certifications or a league of adoring customers, but somehow, their achievements aren’t as valid as everyone else who has the same credentials.
The webcomic xkcd illustrates this type well in a single, poignant panel:
It’s not limited to academic achievers, either.
If you’re trying to sell online courses in a competitive subject area, you’re probably familiar -- too familiar -- with this form of impostor syndrome. Why should people buy your online course when there are dozens, if not more, experts out there?
Sure, those ‘experts’ might have learned the same way you did (old-fashioned DIY and experience), but they’re still better-equipped than you are, right?
And not a harmless assumption, either.
Because not only is this assumption factually incorrect, it’s also potentially dangerous for your business. Competition is the fourth most significant contributor to small business failures, so giving your competitors more credit than they deserve?
It’s like letting another job applicant check out your interview notes. You’re not doing yourself any favors.
Especially when you consider this fact: the entrepreneurship economy is healthy across the globe. The Global Entrepreneurship Index (GEI), a measurement of the quality and economic support of entrepreneurs, is up 3% since 2017 overall.
Ergo, competition is quite literally -- in the truest sense of the word -- fiercer than ever before, and that’s not likely to stop anytime soon.
So don’t make it harder on yourself by giving your competition undue credit. Remember that people who become your customers are choosing you for a reason: because they believe in you, even if you don’t quite believe in yourself, and it’s not a matter of luck.
Which is, incidentally, the second variant of impostor syndrome.
Type B: The lucky (Or unlucky) star
This is where things get interesting. People who link their achievements to serendipity -- random chance or luck, depending on your preference -- have an externalized locus of control.
If you’ve never heard of the locus of control, good news: it’s not an oversized grasshopper intent on keeping you awake for three years with its serenades about world domination. It’s a spectrum used by social scientists to measure an individual’s self-efficacy.
In other words, when someone with an external locus of control successfully sells digital downloads for the first time, it’s not because they spent weeks preparing their product, did hours upon hours of audience research, and marketed like a pro.
It’s just that they ‘lucked out’ into finding their first customer at the right time and right place.
For people in this niche of impostor syndrome, your success isn’t a consequence of your actions, but the result of events well beyond your control.
This is specifically called an external-chance orientation locus of control, and it’s a problem for creators.
Because the more internal your locus of control, the more likely you are to achieve venture growth and withstand the many winding twists and turns of solopreneurship.
Those twists and turns may bring excitement and financial freedom -- that’s what Jamie Keddie’s experience has been -- but there’s a dark side to reaching them that no one wants to talk about but we need to bring up.
Chiefly, that they’re not always painless to navigate. Living the dream may be a popular Pinterest slogan, but the ‘dream’ takes hustle, and the hustle takes a toll.
Sometimes, that toll manifests in our mental health. Compared to the general population, entrepreneurs are twice more likely to have mental health afflictions.
So an external locus of control, coupled with the natural chaos of a creator’s life, isn’t a recipe we recommend following.
Taking control of your destiny doesn’t require wrestling it from the hands of the cosmic lottery.
Though sometimes, that can feel even harder, but when you do pull it off?
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not an achievement worth wearing on your sleeve -- even if you fall into the third type of impostor syndrome.
Type C: The underselling achiever
Yeah, you’ve been teaching people how to market their business or managing your family’s nutrition for years, but it’s not that big of a deal.
Anyone could do it. You only excelled because it was so ‘easy.’ You might be an expert in your online course subject, but being an expert isn't anything special.
No mind that you had to read a dozen five-pound sleeping pills, traded in one sleepless night after the next to make sure your little ones enjoyed their meals, or juggled your day job while producing content for your membership website.
But does that matter or make it worth bragging about? Not if you fall into the last variant of impostor syndrome: the under-seller.
In this flavor, what you’ve accomplished -- and will accomplish in the future -- isn’t because of your own ability or sacrifices, and even if it is, it’s not worth a gold star.
That purview can be more detrimental to your business than you realize. Because if you’re not selling yourself and letting customer testimonials do the same, you could be putting severe limits on your revenue growth.
Which means not taking a compliment on your products and using those compliments to your advantage can cripple your ability to make more sales, generate traffic, and the quality of your future offerings.
So own your successes. You earned it. Even if you don’t always feel like it.
Now, let’s look at the other side of it. We’ve talked about the negatives that impostor syndrome brings, but what positive do we see in its absence?
The ability to realistically assess our progress, for starters, and maintain our trajectory -- mentally and financially.
Why you need confidence for business growth
Impostor syndrome is a funny thing. It rises in the face of our successes and reaffirms our failures (even though research says practicing gratitude with failures is a critical part of life), but it doesn’t actually produce anything positive in our life.
We don’t excel because of it. The anxiety doesn’t make us grind harder or earn more.
In fact, it does the opposite. Happier employees are 12% more productive than their less happy counterparts.
Which isn’t to say that you’re doomed if you’re not all sunshine and rainbows. Flipping the switch and improving your impostor syndrome doesn’t mean you have to fall intensely in love with every piece of content you produce or every product you create.
Doing that could be just as harmful -- at least if you take neuroscience’s word for it.
“Intense emotional pressure, good or bad, can cause dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex (PFC),” says Amy Arnsten, a Yale neuroscientist, elaborating that the PFC is a part of the brain known to be critical for creativity.
The key to being more productive, especially as a creator, is keeping a check on your mental lows and highs.
And, of course, putting a little extra fire under your self-confidence.
Note, however, that self-confidence and self-esteem are not interchangeable terms. Self-esteem is the reflection of yourself, while self-confidence is the reflection of your capabilities. It’s entirely possible to have low esteem and high confidence, in fact.
Ideally, both should be high, and people with impostor syndrome often suffer from lows in confidence and esteem, but there’s no definitive correlation between esteem, confidence, and impostor syndrome.
Which means even if you do value yourself (and you should) with high esteem, you’re still susceptible to impostor syndrome.
That said, if you should happen to fall into the low esteem category, take care not to disregard the value of your self-image to your business and career.
Improving your self-esteem can boost your earnings as much as $1.12 million throughout your career.
Plus, it also makes you more likely to take risks. You know, like the kind you have to take to start selling online courses.