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The impact of imposter syndrome on small business owners

26 January 2023

Are you familiar with the term ‘imposter syndrome’? Even if you haven’t heard of the term, it may be something that you or your team have experienced. Imposter syndrome can be defined as the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. 

So how prevalent is imposter syndrome amongst business owners? In our 2018 survey of 1000 business owners, a quarter (24%) said they had suffered from imposter syndrome.1 Of those who said they had suffered from imposter syndrome, 56% said they fear failure, 51% said they compare themselves to others and 38% said they second-guess every decision they make.1 

Imposter syndrome can therefore have a big impact on you and your business. Fearing failure could mean that you are less likely to take risks and challenge yourself, which could end up holding you and your business back from progressing. Regularly experiencing feelings of self-doubt when it comes to your ability can also have a big impact on your confidence and self-esteem, which can also hold you and your business back.

Tips to overcome imposter syndrome

Colin Houlihan, Psychological Coach at AXA Health, shares his tips for how to overcome imposter syndrome as a business owner:

1. Acknowledge & understand

Knowledge and evidence are the enemy of worry and anxiety. With more information we have more choice, which in turn breeds autonomy and active participation towards positive actions. So, take a step back, maybe a breath. Ask yourself, what is really going on?

There is an implicit set of assumptions that can underpin imposter syndrome: 

  • Success is a separate ‘thing’, external to oneself - I am me, success is the ‘other’
  • Success is intrinsically conditional - It must be earned and therefore implies we begin from a place of ‘unworthy’
  • Everyone is legitimate, I am the outsider - Feeling lonely in your struggle
  • If it is easy, I am not working for it - Therefore what I do is also not of value

Questions to ask yourself: 

  • Is success really external? Would this ideal even exist without me?
  • What am I basing my conclusions on? Is there any evidence? Are they based on emotion or concrete actions?
  • What language am I using? How am I talking to myself?
  • Imposter syndrome; what am I imposing on myself?

2. Take action

Once we have a clearer picture it’s time to take action. What you do will depend on what you learned in the previous exercise. The vital aspect is that we take steps to encourage useful thinking patterns, helpful behaviours, or positive emotions. Some examples might be: 

  • Journal – keep a diary of your successes
    • It doesn’t need to be a traditional diary! Get creative; make a scrapbook, screenshot feedback, ask people to talk about your successes, voice notes – whatever works for you!
    • Gratitude – quite a buzzword but very impactful
    • Take a moment at the end of each day to write down three bullet points about what you are grateful for
    • Raising your awareness of the positives in your life trains the mind to start looking for the positives in yourself too
    • Where your attention goes energy flows; your mind, body & emotions will bear witness to your positivity and how you are embodying this sense of legitimacy which can then be fed back to you in a positive feedback loop
  • Change the self-talk: reframing
    • Write down negative statements about yourself and review them
      • What are they trying to achieve? Are they serving you? Are there alternative ways of viewing the situation?
      • Or you can try speaking through the internal dialogue – I sometimes do this whilst the kettle boils. Stand in one area and speak aloud the negative criticism, then move to another spot and respond

3. Communicate

Feeling alone can exacerbate our negative emotions. As the old saying goes; a problem shared is a problem halved. When we shine light into an area of darkness, we remove the power it has over us and those around us. 

  • Speak to friends, family and colleagues
    • Share how you are feeling and thinking – it is likely that you are not alone!
  • Reduce the shame and stigma 
    • Change the narrative, change the cycle – increase the number of options and support available to you
    • Contrary to popular belief, speaking about these things decreases their likelihood and pain associated

Imposter syndrome and your employees

It’s not just business owners that suffer from imposter syndrome in the workplace. One study found that more than 1 in 10 employees admit they 'always' or 'very frequently' feel like a fraud. Nearly twice as many more women (21%) suffer  from imposter syndrome than men (12%). Millennial age groups (25-39 year olds) are the age group most likely to suffer in the workplace (27%) whereas only 3% of workers aged 65 and above regularly suffer from feelings of self-doubt. However, despite the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the workplace, 94% said they haven’t discussed their feelings at work.2 

In one report, respondents highlighted the negative effects that imposter syndrome can lead to, including greater levels of procrastination, longer working hours, as well as employees avoiding applying for internal promotions.2 

So how can you support your employees if they are experiencing imposter syndrome? Colin shares his tips:

  1. Raise awareness – ask twice
    1. Are people okay? Are they working longer hours? Is there anything out of the ordinary happening?
  2. Speak up & speak out 
    1. Normalising these feelings can help 
    2. Letting people know they are not alone, and creating a support group can really help lower the stigma around imposter syndrome
  3. Regular feedback
    1. Feedback is a term from computing; negative feedback means information ‘fed back’ to the operating system that creates no change. Positive feedback, however, is not always positive but does create change
    2. Creating a psychologically safe place for people to share ideas, normalising a sense of being an imposter, can really help to allow people to come forwards about their 

Imposter syndrome can have a big impact on you and on your business, whether that’s experiencing debilitating feelings of self-doubt to fearing failure and holding your business back from progressing. However, being able to identify when you may be experiencing imposter syndrome, and then taking action to reframe these feelings can help you to reduce the impact that it can have.

How we can help

With an Employee Assistance Programme* in place, your team can get help with the things that are affecting them right from the start – before they start to impact their wellbeing and productivity. You can rest assured that they’ll have someone to talk to confidentially by phone – 24/7, 365 days a year.

Find out more about our Employee Assistance Programme and our small business healthcare cover, including what is and isn’t covered, and get a quote today

*Our EAP options are not available on their own, without other cover options in the plan.

Sources and references

1Research of 1000 working people (500 SME owners and 500 employees) undertaken July 2018 by Vitreous World on behalf of AXA Health.

2Indeed Mental health and wellness in the UK workplace report , 2022