How to deal with the impostor syndrome?

I have a PhD in a hard science from a renowned, top-notch institution. I founded a startup in a new, growing market and within months I developed and lauched my product, hired people and turned myself into a salesperson. Probably because of my background or the media attention my company recently had, I can get easily to meet C-suite or partner-level executives. Unfortunately, I feel like a fraud. I quickly picked up the information I need to fake expertise, but I’ve been in this field for little more than a year and I’m selling my product to people with over a decade’s experience. They don’t seem to notice, but I feel ashamed.

Although people with way more business experience than me (and very successful entrepreneurs) tell me I’m wrong, I don’t think I have what it takes to be a successful businessperson.

I’m getting more and more depressed and I’m seriously considering throwing in the towel, writing off all expenses an get a job like most people do. This situation is seriously affecting my life, my lack of self-esteem will for sure sink my company and I’m losing all motivation and stamina.

How can I get over it and recover some sanity?

  • Is your company a scam? If not, what’s the problem? Sometimes it takes a fresh look from someone with no experience in a field to find an innovative solution to a problem, or a brilliant new idea to fit in a market. You don’t need years of experience to be good at something.

    It seems to me your lizard brain is taking over, and wants to you fear success. I’ve been there. Don’t let it control you, get over your nonsense, and keep up the good work. You won’t regret it.

    • No, it’s not a scam. I just cannot see myself being successful. I’m no more replying to RFIs and I’m ignoring clients’ emails. After so much time and resources spent in development, I’m reluctant to reap the benefit of my efforts. That’s so sick! I do not really know what’s going on.

      • Realizing it is a big first step! And yeah, success can be really scary, it’s a lot of responsibility. I recommend you fight this however you can. Force yourself to respond those emails, and act confident. Believe me, the sensation of feeling you boycotted yourself is even worse.

      • Dude, I’m doing exactly the same thing! You don’t know how good I feel to hear it from you, because if you’re not an impostor, so probably I’m not one too. It’s all about motivation and self-confidence. I don’t feel like an impostor all day, everyday. But when it comes, it undermine everything and then I lose 1-week of job.

        My suggestion? Always remember what you have and where you want to get when you wake up and when you go the bed.

        • I’m glad that knowing you’re not alone makes you feel better! I also don’t feel like an impostor every day. Maybe I’m just mulling over things too much. One the companies whose RFI email I plainly ignored just called me up to know about my product. Considering that I haven’t spent a cent in marketing, that’s a great… but what runs in my mind is uncorrelated from the results I get.

          I blame myself when I don’t close a deal, but I think it’s just luck when things go well. Should I seek medical help? Does anybody have experience with serotonin uptake inhibitors? (under medical control, of course). Could that help me seeing things for a better perspective?

          • Realize this – most successful people at one point in their career had to “fake it till they make it.”

            Also – did you ever have a job where your boss was more experienced than you but totally incompetent? Or have you ever met a successful person only to realize they’re a jackass that got to the top by screwing other people over?

            It doesn’t matter if you have less experience in a specific field. If you care more about the customer and show people that you’re genuine you’ll go much much further with them. Successful people appreciate meeting other people that are genuine because they know how many successful people out there are plain ass holes.

            • That’s a good observation, thanks! I always try to be honest, unassuming and reliable, but I know that many businesspeople do well without those qualities…

              • Let me get this straight, you have “…a PhD in a hard science from a renowned, top-notch institution. You’ve started your own business, you’re making sales. What’s the downside here?

                There’s an old saying that goes…”As a man thinketh, so is he.” Dude, you’re not a fraud…you’re an entrepreneur! Accept it…believe it! The other skills you are now acquiring are the very steps that every successful entrepreneur that has gone before you…has had to walk on their road to success Nobody is born a CEO! It’s a journey. It’s not a destination. Tell those doubts and fears to get the fuck out of your way, and enjoy the ride brother!

          • Yes I’ve been on SRIs and they helped enormously.

            Treat this is an emergency. Which it is. Get to a doctor, get prescribed. Also counselling – essential. From a professional, like, next week.

            Treat this also as short-term, in which short-term is the next five years (the classic time period for all new ventures to fail). Map out a plan to get off the drugs from that time. I’m off them now after about six years.

            You are stressed, and probably have been for a long time. What that means is that your brain is possibly now chemically imbalanced, that your chemical buffer zone has been worn away from too much PROLONGED stress. You need a means of rebuilding that buffer zone.

            Counselling will help get immediate perspective. Sometimes just physically hearing the words that have been running around (and around and around, repeat ad nauseam, ad infintum) gives you the space you need to be brave one more time.

            You’re not an imposter. Studies show that those who worry a lot actually make better managers. But only up to the point where the worries overwhelm.

            For now, do what I did to begin the healing. Everytime you get into worry mode, which is all the time, imagine a big, fat close up of a STOP sign. Just STOP. Breath. Shoulders back. Stomach in. Now breath out. Relax. Slump. Annnd repeat.


          • I had the same feeling often before. I identified it as a burnout.

            Now every time I feel bad like that, I just sleep it off, play video games or whatever. Sometimes take a full day off. I used to work until 10-11pm every day (starting around 9-10am) and it was just too much for me. It’s not only a question of how long you work, you’re doing something difficult all day long. I can easily code non-stop. But ask me to do sales until 10pm and I’m burn out. Then I start to be depressed and feel like a fraud.

            I’ve been to “500 startups” in mountain view. Nobody there would work after 7pm. And they were RIGHT ! By working less, they could vent the pressure, and all those bad feeling faded. And it doesn’t matter how much volume you work, the work you produce should be of good quality.

            Now I work until 9pm maximum. Sometimes 7 or 8. And Most of this pressure is gone.

            Maybe your rythm is even less than that. That’s ok. Quality matters, volume doesn’t.

    • This sounds awful for you, are you going through it on your own?

      Get support/therapy/mentorship and congratulate yourself for creating a scenario where you can comfortably do some inner transformation to get yourself to the point that you can enjoy your success.

      You’ve earned it even if you can’t see that yet, hope you get there

      • It’s very, very unpleasant. I’m not alone, but I’m hiding this situation from my colleagues. I’m getting from them plenty of flattering positive feedback, it seems that I’l leading my company very well and landing deals at a relatively high rate. And yet, I wonder every day when will everybody find out that I have no management or business skills, that I have little or no control, nor I know what I’m doing. People are trusting me and I’d like to tell them not to do that. Maybe I just know too well what I don’t know, my limits and my shortfalls to be truly self-confident.

        • Okay, could you give your colleagues’ intelligence some credit for seeing something in you that they respect and admire without questioning your business or management pedigree?

          Am also curious whether you’re able to see the same in them? Do you put flattery and praise out there for other people? When you do, do you rationalise their background/pedigree/skillset?

          If so, why? If not, why do you assume others do that with you?

          • I’m lucky enough to know well quite a few very talented people, including a few very successful entrepreneurs that I admire and hold in high regard, because of what they have achieved. Although these are people I normally hang out with and those who tell I’m doing just fine, I have this deep belief that they have some skill that I don’t have, and I cannot understand what.

            Once again, this is all irrational. If I could have solved my problems by rational reasoning, I would have done it already. Apparently, the prolonged stress of the last few months triggered some faulty mechanism and now I’m struggling to get it back to normality.

            • If you think sales are what is triggering this stress is it possible to find a someone to help with or take over the sales cycle?

              I’ve found myself having similar irrational feelings after periods of prolonged high stress. I know what you mean about faulty mechanism, like some higher order flight or fight response. When I get like that there is no amount of rational reason that will change my mind. I just have to step away from the stress, find someone to talk to about it with and try to live life a bit more and not be all consumed by the business.

  • Impostor syndrome is real. It’s good that you’re self aware. Therapy or just white knuckle it. Fake it til you make it, dog.

  • If people will pay for what you’ve made, you’re the real deal – regardless of how you feel about yourself.

  • Let me get this straight. You’re able to convince C-level folks to talk to you and you say they believe you. Are you able to close them? Or you’re not WILLING to close them because you feel they’ll be disappointed once they use your software?

    • I’m very honest with my clients and I never created disappointment. The problem I have is in my mental representation of what I’m doing, my skills, my failures and successes. It’s all biased towards a negativity and self-deprecation. I’d love to snap out of it. but I haven’t managed so far.

      • Get a sales/account person who can deal with that minutiae or at least do the heavy work and hand it over to you. You’re the founder and visionary, the every day handling shouldn’t be keeping you down. Good Luck!

  • Your mind will catch up with your actions. We have to act like the person who we aspire to become. Then one day we magically ARE that person.

    Are you familiar with the story of Jerry Weintraub? Read his book and/or watch the movie about him, “You’ll know I’m dead when I stop talking”. He was a pro before he was a pro. Fake, phoney, fraud. He eventually grew into his big boy pants though.

    For more information, google “episodic simulation”

    • That’s an interesting approach: I went through a review of the field: “Episodic Simulation of Future Events” by D. Schacter et al. As I suspected, “the severity of depression correlates with faster and more successful access to negative future events and a belief that negative events will happen in future“. So I’ll have some hard time imagining detailed positive future events, but it’s worth giving it a try. Thanks!

  • Get a coach, get a counselor, talk to others: many people in every walk of life feel like impostors. It is a common anxiety (I don’t know if that is the technical term.) Even some of the people you assume because of their fame and success should be brimming with annoying confidence are actually feeling like Impostors.

    • I have an exceptional coach, ex C-suite of a large corporation. He totally believes in me and I think I’m getting plain lip service.

  • You’re smart, right? So you can take advice and apply it, right? (Like college, post-grad)

    Take this and apply it:

    Action and fear are inverse.

    Take action (write the email).
    Cognition kicks in -ie. ‘I just wrote the email! I must be an email writer!’
    Fear is lessened
    Repeat action 1-3 until you have no choice but to believe your eyes.

    Google ‘amy cuddy ted talk’

    Nike. Just do it. ..wiser words than any of us knew.

    Go be a fucking champion and remember, we’re ALL making this up as we go!

    • yes, that’s something I noticed… I’ll probably have to learn to live with it: doing things and repressing the thoughts of being incapable of doing them right. It sounds so bizarre, but that’s what’s happening.

      Thank you everybody for your support and suggestions, I really appreciate that!

  • You need a good dose of self esteem. A lot of us creatives feel this way. God knows I have achieved a ton but sometimes i need to re read my CV to realize it. Good for you if you’re making money. You’re not cheating anyone.. Look yourself in the mirror and say. I can do it, I did it. I’m the real deal.

    Good luck!

  • Don’t let that little voice in your head be the one that stops you.

    If people aren’t stopping you in the middle of the presentation and walking out -BUT- are calling you back after, means you are doing something right.

  • Late into the discussion, but I feel my experience might be relevant.

    I went through several high-tech startup episodes, each one failed due to its own “objective” reasons. In hindsight however, I have come to the conclusion that I squarely sabotaged them, despite having founded them, creating mostly brilliant technology and experiencing huge business prospects. I repeatedly found myself in a situation as described by the OP. Not quite a feeling of “impostor”, rather one of “usurper”: of un-deservedness, un-familiarity, definitely “not feeling well in my clothes”, and some hint of futility.

    As irrational, absurd, pointless, crazy to outside observers (as well as to “the other part” of ourselves) that little voice may be, it’s there and it won’t let go.

    Through those years I had recurring, nightmarish dreams, all a variation of a basic theme, conveying a message like “you have not finished your schooling; you have not learned all the lessons”.

    At some point, tired, uneasy, depressed while in the middle of crafting a 5M$+ deal I decided to kick it, let it play out, taking a leave of absence without any self-imposed time limit.

    After three years, having lavishly spent all my savings I found myself broke and down-and-out.

    Then it finally, slowly began to dawn. Long story short, I had all but forgotten the metaphysical side of building a temple, the synergistic connection between what you build in the real (outside) world, and what you build within you. The two need to go hand in hand, because once you are swimming in money, it becomes virtually impossible to climb that other hill. .

    Confronted with such a fundamental dilemma, bits of advice like “Fake it till you make it!” entirely miss the point, and don’t cut it. And “Don’t let that little voice in your head be the one that stops you”? Actually, I will be eternally thankful to that little voice in my head.

    What have I learned through this, at times extremely painful process? It’s philosophical as much as psychological; most people won’t care, many will find it laughable, but here it is again, rephrased:

    Although furiously celebrated as the ultimate bliss and cure-all in western culture exemplified in the American dream, material wealth by itself is not much more than a metaphor: it becomes an empty shell unless it is built up in tandem with interior progress and wealth.

    More precisely still, the interior masonry must take precedence; procrastinating it won’t work.

  • I like the idea of every day write down something you have accomplished and/or look at your CV. You will be amazed at what you have done in a short space of time

  • People at literally all levels of accomplishment feel this way. They may not show it or speak of it, but it’s almost universal.

    I know someone who made millions by 25. He is humbled and rendered insecure by people who made tens of millions.

    There is always a greater power.

    It might seem trite but, read some Buddhist literature. The feelings you have are self-directed. They do not represent external or “true” reality. They’re illusions. When you realize that you’re trying to climb a ladder made of vapor, you will stop climbing and just move through the vapor instead.

  • We’ve been taught that we should keep our heads down in life and we’re not good enough. get yourself a dose of self esteem ! you rock. Believe in yourself. because there are a lot of people out there who would like to see you fail.

    you just do what you do and don’t like the world get to you!

    I’ve been in your position, and now i tell that meek scared part of me ( actually it does not dare try to bug me anymore! ) shut up, you can go curl up on a couch, I have a world to change !!

  • Another way of looking at this is that these people with way more experience don’t have time to waste and your viability as a business and as an individual in an Industry is via peer acceptance; And, writing a check to you for service is bottomline acceptance. So ask yourself –would you rather being doing this or something else. Either way most of the best things in life take hard work and honest effort and being paid is what your ultimate goals seems to be so be there now and enjoy it. #shakeitoff

  • A mentor of mine told me a little saying that has served me well of the course on my 35+ year career.

    “Walk into any room like you own it….and you will.”

  • I’ve come to a point now recently where I think imposter syndrome, is just a latent fear, and to a certain extent we all have it. Read a great article recently about dealing with fear, where they interviewed the climber, Alex Hommold, who climbed El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. He said “obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way.” I think this approach for dealing with imposter syndrome works too. Perfectly normal to feel at risk when we feel we’re out of our depth, but the fear doesn’t help us. Best to acknowledge it and learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable 🙂

  • I run a tech startup with a staff strength of 15, I have trained close to 50 developers by creating a learning path of what they should learn to be developers, these people started with zero knowledge and today are doing great stuff.

    Many times in a week, I feel like an impostor. I feel that everyone I trained knows more than me and one day someone will ask me a question that will reveal my incompetence and put me to shame.

    Business is 12 years old and the day hasn’t come yet. It’s all in your head my brother, your mind isn’t used to this level of operation and wants to go back to it’s comfort zone.

    You are worthy to be here, you are a great leader and sales person.

    I still feel like that but now I recognize it as a trigger to learn more about the new challenges or opportunities I am faced with so I can rise to the next level.

    I also fix it by doing stuff and getting shit done

    I hope this perspective of mine helped you a bit and I pray more success comes your way but also the grace to handle it.

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