To start a business, entrepreneurs need to believe in themselves and their ideas. Yet, risk is also an inherent part of the process. As a result, founders can feel uncertain even when not surrounded by naysayers, which can lead them to experiencing imposter syndrome.
How can these anxieties best be alleviated? Serial entrepreneur Nicholas Mathews, co-founder of Stillwater Behavioral Health and The Brain Lab, provides valuable advice for transcending imposter syndrome, staying resilient, and keeping on track.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
According to Harvard Business Review, “Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.” While called a “syndrome,” it isn’t a medical condition.
Mathews knows about imposter syndrome from personal experience.
“It’s very interesting how it will manifest,” he said. “You just have this disbelief, like ‘Oh my god, they’re going to catch me. They’re going to figure out that I’m not supposed to be here.’ I’d tell myself all these crazy things.”
He describes imposter syndrome as a “weird feeling of alienation” in which he felt like his abilities were constantly being judged, and he needed to prove himself again and again. This constant pressure to perform resulted in perfectionism.
“I would hold myself to this insane standard in which I always had to be put together,” he explained. “I always had to have the answers.”
This drive to overachieve is a common symptom of imposter’s syndrome. Other common symptoms can include self-sabotage, setting unrealistic goals, a fear of being unable to meet expectations, and attributing previous successes to outside forces rather than to your own abilities and hard work.
How imposter syndrome isolates
Mathews pointed out that, while the effects of imposter syndrome are hard on the individual themselves, others can also experience negative emotions as a result.
“When you’re talking to somebody who always has all the answers, somebody who is so well put together, it can make it difficult to connect with that person,” he said. “They don’t seem to be having a human experience. Or, at least, they’re not having the same human experience you’re having.
“That was a mistake I made,” he continued. “I was ostracizing myself from my peers, my employees, and my friends because I was trying to put on this mask so that no matter what happened, I could still do it.”
Since businesses rely on well-functioning teams, the corrosive effect of imposter syndrome on individuals can ripple out to other team members. Since workers tend to pick up on the emotional states of their leaders, addressing executives’ imposter syndrome benefits the entire enterprise.
Breaking out of imposter syndrome
Mathews was able to break out of this mindset, and others can as well. How did he do it?
“The best way to break through imposter syndrome,” he explained, “is to realize that people don’t actually expect you to be perfect and have all the answers.”
While Mathews had felt pressured to come up with solutions to problems on demand in the past, he now communicates more truthfully and takes the time he needs.
“I can tell people I don’t have the answer right now, but I will find it,” he explained. “I am a solution-focused individual. When a problem does come up, I don’t dwell on the problem. I try to get into the solution as quickly as possible, and I can be honest about that.”
Rather than undermining his credibility, this approach makes Mathews relate to others more authentically. As a result, he is able to build rapport with coworkers and friends, rather than distancing them.
“That perspective builds confidence in other people,” he said. “They realize that, ‘yeah, he’s a human being. He’s not going to know everything.’ They don’t expect me to have all the answers and always say the perfect thing. But if I’m willing to take the time to educate myself, find the answer, and bring a solution back, then that’s all it takes.”
For Mathews, cultivating this kind of emotional intelligence is central to being a good leader.
“The testament of a good leader — whether it’s of a business, a country, or an organization — is being willing to absorb somebody’s problem and help them find a solution,” he said. “That’s what makes a strong leader.”