The Imposter Phenomenon

Marshall Atkinson on Beach

A long time reader of my blog wrote in with a remarkable question:

“Love your blogs, they always resonate. I have a topic I would love to hear your thoughts on: confidence. Specifically, when you have a crisis of confidence. My business has grown over 1000% since I took over 8 years ago, and we’re having another great year. But sometimes I lose faith, sometimes I think I just can’t do it, that I’m just around the corner from failure. Sometimes this feeling lasts a few hours (that’s the most common), sometimes it lasts for days or longer. It always goes away, but each time it feels like it won’t. Is this something you experience? That feeling that, despite your knowledge, your experience, and financial evidence that indicates otherwise, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing after all!” “

It’s funny, sometimes I have those same thoughts!  I doubt you are alone in that regard.

I think most people struggle with that sneaky voice inside their head that says “you are not good enough” or “you don’t know what you are doing” or worse of all, “you are going to be fired”.

Let’s face it, we all have our down days.  Some days it just sucks even getting out of bed, let alone coming into work and slaying dragons all day.

Even when your life is amazingly successful that inner demon on our shoulder starts spewing out nonsense about failure, doom, and disaster.  It can shake your faith in yourself and confidence.  So why do we buy into that crap?

It’s because we have a brain.

We know from our own past experiences and from witnessing what can happen to others, that things can go wrong.  Quickly.  We start over-analyzing.  What does this or that mean?  Maybe something about bad luck.  Maybe a harsh comment from some jerk from the past that always said you would fail, pops up in your psyche like a bad song.  La dee da.

There’s a reason those negative thoughts creep into the picture.  You are human.

At the end of the day, your personal outlook is completely made up of your life experiences and how you engineer your thoughts to make decisions.  We are all unique.  I’m different than you, because my life is different.  Trust me, I’ve got my own set of inner demons and crazy life stories.  Some of that bubbles up for me on occasion, and I have to find ways to deal with those bad feelings and insecurities.  Your personal history is what builds the framework of how you see the world.  The positive experiences in your life make you happy, but the negative ones influence your decision making more than you think.

You sometimes feel like a fraud because there’s a mental ear-worm that works it’s way past your armor.  For super successful people this strikes usually when things are going really well, as maybe they feel like they didn’t earn the success, or that failure is just around the corner.  It feels like that facade can come crashing down at any moment.

For people that aren’t successful at all, this is what usually keeps them down and from even starting.  “I know I’m going to fail, so why even try?”  They hate the thought of losing so much they won’t even play the game.  They are forever on the sidelines, jealous of the people on the field, giving it all they’ve got.  (You know these people online as trolls)

Also, let’s be cognizant of the fact that modern society places an incredible amount of pressure on people to succeed.  Business articles these days are over-focused on one thing and that’s growth.  Do companies or people always need phenomenal growth?  What happens if one year we achieve the exact same success as the year before?  Is that so bad?  Is it still success if you are happy but made the same amount of money as last year?

When we place so much emphasis on achievement, are we constantly setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t have LEGENDARY success?  When your sense of self-worth is tied up into the total amount of achievement you’ve amassed, things could get tricky when there’s a plateau. Then what do you do?  Does your job define who you are as a person?

So what can we think about all this?  Well, I’m not a mental health professional (but I play one on tv) but I do know what works for me when that chord of self-doubt gets struck.  Here’s what I do:

Share.  Get your own personal board of directors or mentors and discuss openly what’s going on.  Don’t keep those feelings to yourself.  These people should be trusted partners in your success.  They could be your spouse, relative or a close friend.  Maybe someone in your industry or someone you look up to that’s successful as well.  

You absolutely don’t want people that will just parrot the situation and say it will be ok, but will give you good strong advice instead.  You want people to tell you that you are wrong and sometimes correct your direction.  You need to be challenged.  Who is on your personal board of directors?  Do you even have one?

Fail.  Nothing breeds success like failure.  Learning to fail is a skill, like any other.  You aren’t going to hit a home run every time you are at the plate, so why worry about it?  Life is about mental toughness, and the ability to fail and try again.  Every time you fail at something it’s also a learning opportunity for you to get better.  

I’ve always liked Thomas Edison’s quote when he was trying to invent the lightbulb,  “I have not failed.  I just found 10,000 things that won’t work.”  So take some risks and be ok with the results.  In fact, every time I publish one of these blog articles I’m still a little surprised that anyone wants to read them at all…let alone write in with a topic suggestion.  Guess what?  I would do it anyway, even if nobody read it.  You have to bravely push your art out.

Enjoy.  When you achieve some success, even if it is a small degree, enjoy it.  You’ve worked hard for that achievement.  Rather than focus on the doom and gloom of a potential disaster filled future, focus on enjoying on the results of your work!  Did you do or try something different?  Did you do something the standard way and it’s still working like a charm?  Replicate what just happened, and keep chugging along.  Remember the “P” rule: Proper Planning Predicates Peak Performance.  This includes relishing in the success you are having and keeping the momentum going.  It’s ok to celebrate!

Try.  This goes along with Fail.  Try new things.  Learning what will and what won’t work will always keep things interesting and push the envelope for success.  Remember when you were a kid and your dad helped you learn to ride a bike?  Nobody ever just jumps on and knows how to do it.  Most have spectacular wipe-outs and drive straight into a bush or a tree.  I know I did.  That’s why training wheels were invented.  To help.  Because Dad can only run alongside you for so far.  

Think about a skill or an achievement that you want now in your life.  Who is there to help you?  Can you get some training wheels for that?  What happens if you crash into a bush?  Will you get on the bike again and keep learning to ride it or will you start crying and run into the house?

Breathe.  Feeling overwhelmed?  Rather than subject yourself to a battery of self-doubt and mental nay-saying thoughts, practice some mindfulness exercises.  I’ve used these before when I get a little out of whack, and this really works.  Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight, and your head up.  Be comfortable.  Close your eyes.  Breathe in through your nose and take a big full breath.  Hold it for a moment.  Breathe out through your mouth.  Repeat.  Focus on how your body feels only.  Feel the floor with your feet, feel the chair with your body.  Relax.  Breathe deep.  This only takes a few minutes, but when you are finished you’ll feel better, be more alert, and you’ll be ready for whatever is coming up.

Trust.  As in trust your gut.  Something not right and you have that nagging feeling?  Well, maybe there’s something to that.  How many times have something happened, and you thought to yourself “I knew that was going to happen!”  Well, why didn’t you listen to your gut and explore what was going on?  Maybe that weird feeling you have deep inside is telling you something.  Of course, I just wrote a bunch of stuff about not listening to that inner demon, and now I’m stepping backwards on that notion a bit.  In my mind these are different.  One keeps saying “You suck”, and the other is saying “Something’s wrong.”  Learn to recognize the difference.

Quit Comparing.  All too often we measure ourselves against someone else’s success.  That’s just going to drive you crazy.  You will never be on top, as someone else will always have more.  Instead, learn to be thankful and happy with what you have.  Invest in yourself and help others succeed.  Plan for the future and strengthen yourself for a rainy day.  Stick out your hand and help others if you can.  True leadership is all about helping others succeed.

Being confidant is just knowing what you are doing.  It is developed by amassing the skills and experiences that will allow you to push through a challenge because you have the mental toughness to power through the situation, even if it is not one you’ve ever seen before.  This is why professionals train and keep learning new things.  

Confidence comes from repetition.

Think about other professions where the people have to exert confidence constantly in what they do.  Off the top of my head I’m thinking about Navy Seals, chefs, neurosurgeons, artists, firefighters, ninth grade English teachers, ballerinas, maybe even football coaches.  I’m sure you can name plenty more…  These are all people that constantly learn about their craft.  They practice.  They make mistakes.  They learn from them.  I’m sure at some point they have some doubts too, but they channel that into their success.  Think about how they get it done and what do they do to develop themselves professionally.

Are you on the same level as these professionals with your outlook?

Crisis of confidence?  More like proof you aren’t a robot.  At the end of the day, you just have to push through that doubt and keep reaching for your goals.  You can do it!


  • Mark Robinson

    Good Afternoon,

    Sorry I have not kept up regarding a print clinic for my sales team. I did not give up, just been overwhelmed selling.
    Anyhow, I do hope we can meet some day, some show. I truly look forward to your blog and get re-energized every time I read it.



    Mark Andrew Robinson
    Vp of Sales- Imprintables

    Direct- 678-966-4227
    Cell- 410-375-9083

    Sent from my iPhone. Please disregard spelling errors, abbreviations, etc.

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