Feeling Like a Total Imposter

My first year in business, I earned a  total of $20K. I had so little money that I would go to the upscale pizza restaurant down the street. I worked from my laptop while sitting at their bar, hoping someone would come in and ask, “Why aren’t you eating?” To which I would respond, “Because you haven’t ordered for me yet.”

Believe it or not, this happened with two strangers. Both men seemed to know that I needed help and started caring for me a bit like an older brother. I would eat half for lunch, and save the rest for dinner.  They never asked about my financial situation or had other expectations. They just helped.

I was working hard to build a speaking and coaching career, helping people reach their potential, while privately, I was (more or less) asking for someone to help me find my next meal. The voices in my head were wondering (very loudly) if I was really the right person to be sharing my wisdom, or even to be building a business.

My first opportunity to test whether I was an impostor

A few short months after starting my business, I was asked to be a speaker on a panel of entrepreneurial women. While I was excited by the opportunity, my heart screamed out, “You have no business being on that stage.”

Having spent the first fifteen difficult years of my life feeling like a waste of space (sports ultimately turned this around for me, giving me goals and a clear destination), I was terrified of going back to that place.  As a child, I floundered.  As an athlete and as a college student, the goals were clear, and so were the timelines, so I excelled.

Fresh out of grad school, I completed a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, and worked for a government contractor. I left both positions, ultimately because the experiences lacked (significantly) in clarity of completion or contribution. Being in those positions left me fearing that I would return to feeling like a waste of space.

Being on the panel would mean that I would have a chance to gain visibility, which could lead to doing the work that was calling to me. I thought it could reconnect me to a greater sense of accomplishment again. I hoped that maybe I would even land some speaking opportunities from it.

Then came the loud voices

Have you ever had a voice in your head telling you that you’re not enough?  That’s the voice of the impostor! When thinking about moderating the panel, the voice of impostor syndrome became like a 3 year old throwing a tantrum in the middle of a Sunday sermon.

Here’s what the voice was trying to tell me:

  • “If you don’t get this right, you could destroy your reputation.”
  • “You’ve never moderated a panel. You you don’t know what you’re doing.”
  • “What if they can see that you don’t know what you’re doing?”

The voice of impostor syndrome told me that I wasn’t the right person for the job. If I messed it up, I would be valueless, and therefore worthless. Despite all of these voices, I was desperate to gain the visibility, and possibly land an opportunity, so I said “Yes,” and quickly began doing research on entrepreneurship.

A Shifted Opportunity

Fortunately for me, the organizers came upon a bit of a challenge. They needed someone to step up and moderate the panel I was on. With this shift in position, you might think the “You’re an impostor” voices would have gone away.  Instead they shifted, telling me all the reasons I wasn’t right for this new role.

For weeks after I agreed to moderate, I worried incessantly.  Calling the planning committee, I suggested that I might be a better panelist. Fortunately, they were supportive. “Misti, by moderating (instead of being a panelist), you’ll look like more of an expert,” they suggested.

Was I actually an impostor?

On the day I moderated the panel, I was nervous. But I soon found out that I didn’t have to be. Questions were easy to generate. Digging beneath the surface, on stage, was incredible! My passion, intrigue, and willingness to ask the deeper questions led to a lively discussion on stage. In-between sessions, people came up to me and asked, “What do you do, and how can you help our team?”

An Opportunity To Be An Impostor Again

As a result of moderating that panel, I found myself sitting in a senior vice president’s office at a Fortune 500 company. I was excited to learn about their challenges with getting new employees collaborating with their knowledgeable (and often annoyed) experienced leaders.

Asking questions, listening to their challenges, and offering ideas to increase retention, engagement and collaboration among the generations, was exciting. I was feeling charged up and ready to work with them. That is, until they asked me to submit a proposal.

I had honestly never submitted a proposal, and didn’t even know what it was. I figured it out, but that didn’t stop the nagging voice of the impostor.  The voice just found another new way to tap into my fears.

10 Years Later, Still An Impostor

I haven’t always been able to overcome impostor syndrome. About 10 years into my business, I was offered an opportunity to work with a group of CEO’s in a demographic I enjoy learning about and working with. They wanted me to speak on giving and receiving candid, compassionate feedback. But they wanted me to do it for four hours. I only had forty minutes of content at the time.

“Don’t worry about it, Misti,” the gentleman responsible for the training said, promising to help me expand my content into the four-hour time slot. Moments before we signed the contract, he asked if I had any last questions. I said, “I’m just scared.” With that, he said, “This isn’t the right fit,” and the opportunity was gone.

Does Impostor Syndrome Ever Go Away?

I have learned as much from not being able to overcome impostor syndrome as I have from overcoming it.  And nearly fifteen years into my career, I still find myself with butterflies in my stomach.

  • “Do I have something they actually need?”
  • “Has their organization already heard from someone like me?”
  • “Can I hack it, or am I really just fooling myself?”

Questions like these often scare me into self-doubt. Fortunately, I can now draw on my earlier experiences to keep progressing anyway.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Here’s what I have learned to overcome the feeling (we all sometimes have) of being an impostor.

  1. Be honest with yourself and others about what you have to offer.
  2. Do your research. Focus on figuring out how you can help them, rather than concerning yourself with… yourself.
  3. Focus on your assets. By focusing on sharing your unique skills, experiences and relationships, you give yourself (and them) a chance to benefit immediately.
  4. Request and re-read testimonials. Remind yourself of the value you bring.
  5. Be authentic. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking you need to be someone you’re not, or force your way into opportunities.
  6. Get good at asking questions. The more you know about their unique challenges, the better you’ll be able to help solve them, or point them in the direction of someone who can.
  7. Listen, listen, and listen some more. Focus on what they’re saying, repeat what you heard, and than ask more questions.
  8. Help Make a connection, offer a resource or simply send them an encouraging quote.
  9. Be gentle and patient with yourself. Mistakes, lost opportunities and frustration are a part of the learning process. With time and practice, confidence replaces the once-crippling fear.

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