"I'm worried I'm taking up space from people who deserve it more than me."
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Comparison is a natural part of being human. Whether we want to or not, because we share our environments with other people we are going to observe them as part of our daily surroundings. When this happens, our brains compare us with them and come up with conclusions based on those comparisons.
Objectively speaking, observation is completely innocuous; there’s nothing good or bad about it. The trouble with comparison usually starts when we process the information we take in and define ourselves based on the conclusions our brains produce. One way we tend react to this information is by perceiving ourselves as frauds in whatever area we want to show up. This is more commonly known as Imposter Syndrome, the second noisy passenger on our bus.
What does Imposter Syndrome sound like for entrepreneurs?
How many times have we thought that even though we have an online business one day everyone would find out that we’re just a regular person who still has their day job? How often do we perceive our audience as a group of incredibly talented people who might eventually call bullshit on our niche or passion? How many times has our brain told us that we are a nobody and that we have no business doing what we’re doing?
This particularly Noisy Passenger lets us know quite frequently that we don’t know how to drive our bus, we don’t know where we’re going, we’re driving everyone down a path that leads to nowhere, and before we reach the dead end everyone on board will realize that we’ve been faking our bus driving skills the entire time.
Why, WHY, WHY would it do that?
Think of the brain as a machine firing on all cylinders, a lot like a cell phone on its best day. Whether we have any apps running or not, the phone will still be hard at work in the background tracking our location, staying connected to wi-fi or using cellular data, eating up the battery we just charged 20 minutes ago, and remembering which apps we opened most recently and what we were doing in them.
The brain basically does the same thing, only instead of running apps and tapping into wi-fi it’s running programs like thoughts, feelings, memories, and problem-solving. Whether we want those things to happen or not our brain will continue to work in the background as it sees fit to assist us in getting through our day. It even runs while we sleep, which is how our dreams can end up being reflections and expansions of our experiences while we’re awake.
Since the brain is, at its best, an excellent problem-solving device, this means Imposter Syndrome is actually a thought process that the brain runs all the time in an effort to help us out. The mind can’t solve observations so it turns them into problems and then produces the fraud message as a solution to those problems. It isn’t the best solution ever but it is much easier to convince us that we’re a fake than convince us that we’re capable, and the mind typically goes for the easiest solution rather than the most helpful. (Rude, right?)
How the brain works
The reason the brain comes up with the solution it does is because it’s attempting to interpret how we’re feeling. Emotions may seem extremely complex, but at their core there are only four: fear, anger, joy, and sadness. Remember that the brain is a machine so it’s not purposefully collecting ammunition to use against us the next time we want to accomplish something. It’s just trying to figure out what’s happening.
Regardless of whether we want to or not, we have emotional responses to our surroundings and experiences. Our feelings are showing up as a result of seeing people who appear to be intelligent and informed in ways we perhaps aren’t (or think we aren’t. We can thank our mind for that too). One way our brain interprets our emotions and tries to make sense of them is by determining that since others know things it must mean that we don’t and we should give up. That’s why we perceive ourselves as frauds.
One emotion that the mind defines as Imposter Syndrome is sadness. We might feel sad because:
We don't think we have information that other people have
We’ve begun a business that depends partly on our ability to share information and we don't believe we have enough information to share to sustain it
We seem to have set ourselves up for failure because our industries are saturated with businesses like ours
Our efforts at creating - though well-intended - seem futile because other people have already created seemingly similar things
Another emotion that can lead to Imposter Syndrome is fear. We could be afraid that our business will fail and that we will have to go back to working an unfulfilling desk job. We’re afraid people won’t find the information we share useful and will stop listening to us - or worse: they’ll tell others not to listen to us either. We might also be afraid we’ll misinform people and give them information that is harmful rather than helpful.
It may seem that some of the triggers for sadness and fear are similar. That’s because they are. When we see others achieving in areas where we have yet to achieve, that observation can trigger multiple emotions simultaneously because we are complex creatures capable of experiencing more than one sentiment at a time. That’s also why the struggle feels so heavy when it happens: we’re feeling all the feels all at once and they are heavy.
The brain does its best to try and process everything that it’s taking in. Since emotions aren’t problems on their own, the mind turns them into problems so that it can do something with them. That's how feeling sad turns into you don't know what you're talking about. That's how feeling afraid turns into you're full of s*** and eventually everyone will figure that out. Again, the brain isn't always coming up with the most helpful solutions to the problems it creates. It's just coming up with the simplest ones.
What the mind is good at
The brain is really good at comparing two things and coming up with judgments about those two things. If you’ve read some of the other Passengers this concept might seem like deja vu because it’s also discussed in the posts about Envy and Not Good Enough (because everything happens in threes, right?) The emphasis is intentional: the more we understand how our brain works the less we will - hopefully - try to fight and control it.
Back to comparison: if you’ve read the post about Envy you already know that the mind can compare two random things and decide which one is better before we even realize what’s happening. Something else it does almost instantly is defend the judgments it has just made. (Again, rude.) No sooner has the brain decided that a cell phone is better than a pair of glasses than it has convinced you beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is factual information. If someone says anything to the contrary, the brain doubles down on its convictions.
Why, why, why would it do this to us?? Well, we have to remember that it isn’t doing it to us, it’s just doing it because it’s easier. If we had to choose between walking one block up the street to get to a coffee shop versus walking the three blocks it would take to go around the building first, we would probably choose the easier route every time.
The brain wants to walk a block, not three. The brain would love to walk zero blocks instead of one. Coming up with a reason to stop doing something (like running a business) is easier than coming up with reasons to keep going because stopping is easier than continuing. This is a simple example but it's evidence of just how good the mind is at coming up with problems and solving them in a machine-like way that doesn’t always serve us well.
What do we do?
Every Noisy Passenger, no matter how annoying or relentless they might seem, has a purpose for being on our bus. It might be difficult to recognize their role when they are yelling in our ears, but if we take the time to hone in on the fear and sadness that is triggering all that yelling we will begin to uncover some of the meaning behind the noise.
When we dig into our feelings we develop a greater awareness of our own values, those daily decisions and actions that we make that determine the direction we go in our lives. We cannot control how loud our passengers get or what emotions egg them on. We do get to control whether or not we only pay attention to the noise on the surface or do the more difficult work of figuring out what deeper message they're trying to send. Our passengers don't necessarily go about it the best way but they play a crucial role in helping us figure out what our values are as well as how we choose to align ourselves with those values on a moment-to-moment basis.
It's also important to maintain an awareness of the fact that those noisy passengers may never get off our bus and that we don't have any control over whether or not they leave and how loud they get while they're there. This is often difficult to accept because we would like to believe that we are in control of everything in our lives, or that we can assume control of everything eventually. The belief that we can somehow kick Imposter Syndrome off the bus by controlling whether we feel sadness or fear might seem soothing but it’s unrealistic.
Try, if you will, to tell your brain to stop making your heart beat. Did it work? (I hope not!) The mind does it automatically so it isn’t something you can voluntarily control. Emotions are the same; they happen automatically and are outside of our ability to administer on our own. Eliminating them isn’t an option either, to most people’s dismay (mine included!) If we try not to think about them, not only will we think about them anyway but we might also amplify what they’re saying.
Think of it this way: if you were to tell yourself over and over “Don’t tell yourself you’re a fraud! Don’t tell yourself you’re a fraud!” and really hone in on delivering that message to yourself, you’re really just zeroing in on the message that you’re a fraud and blocking out everything by directing all of your available energy at getting rid of it. It’s like trying to tell someone not to think of a red car. You just thought of a red car, didn’t you?
Don’t worry, there is hope!
Technically, just like with Envy, we can do literally whatever we want. Some of the choices we might have taken in the past, however, only get us arguing with our brains or feeling discouraged. So we don’t get stuck in a hopeless exercise of mental gymnastics, let’s dive into some options for moving forward that don't involve fighting to get rid of our thoughts and feelings all the time. In fact, the following suggestions will hopefully offer a bit of relief from all the time spent trying to get that Imposter Syndrome to just sit down and shut up.
1. Invite fear and sadness (and their interpretation, Imposter Syndrome) onto the bus
This might seem strange or maybe even crazy, but accepting the fact that Imposter Syndrome is going to be a passenger on our bus is a way to take some of the struggle out of driving with it in the first place. Since we can’t control fear and sadness, we can instead work on ways to come to terms with the fact that they are going to show up. We can practice getting better at experiencing the discomfort that they bring with them. We might even try welcoming the passenger onto our bus out loud just to see how it feels.
When we interact with another entrepreneur and we perceive that they know their stuff inside and out, sadness at the fact that we might not know everything there is to know in our own niche as well as they seem to know theirs will probably show up. That's okay. Fear that we might never know as much about a particular topic as that person seems to know about theirs might show up as well, and that's okay too.
Consider how much easier it will be to keep moving forward with our business if we don't engage in a battle to eliminate fear and sadness before we make decisions. We can be afraid and sad and still do things that help our audience regardless of how limited we believe our knowledge to be. Fear and sadness don't have to stop us; they can just be present and we can work on just noticing that they are there.
2. Practice observing without interpreting
This is also known as mindfulness, but it isn't just a feel-good strategy the way that it’s often presented.
As we now know, the brain is fantastic at solving problems. The easiest way to solve a problem that it has created from external observations is to also look externally for the solutions. That’s why it's so good at comparison. Looking at other people allows our brain to solve a problem almost instantly, whereas looking at ourselves would require us to slow down a little and take some time to further process before coming up with a solution.
Mindfulness is - in a nutshell - just noticing without trying to explain what we’re noticing. It is an excellent way to train the brain to slow down instead of immediately trying to solve what it thinks is an issue. Mindfulness does not have to look like meditation. In fact, when we’re are in a situation where we’re feeling consumed by fear and sadness it’s probably best not to be laser focused on those emotions. It might end up being an incredibly overwhelming experience and just make matters worse.
Instead, noticing can be something as simple as observing what is taking place around us in addition to what is showing up inside of us. Take a moment to gently gaze around and take in what is in your immediate vicinity. Is there a clock ticking on the wall? Is there a breeze gently blowing through the trees outside? Are you sitting or standing? If you’re inside, what color is the paint on the walls?
Observations like these are helpful in putting some space between the moment our brain receives information and the moment we determine what to do with it. Once we’ve engaged in noticing our surroundings for a while (maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour) we might find it easier to:
Return to the problem our brain created (the other person knows so much more than I do), and
Develop additional ways to go about solving it (such as seeking out new experiences to expand your knowledge base or hitting publish on that blog post no matter how imperfect it may seem)
3. Incorporate some distance
In addition to practicing ways to give ourselves some time between receiving information and acting on it, it can also be helpful to de-fuse from the messages our mind has probably been telling us for a very long time.
The following exercise might help create a little bit of distance between yourself and what your mind says to you. It has been adapted from the book “Stress Less, Live More” by Dr. Richard Blonna (an awesome mindset coach who helps other mindset coaches develop their skills.) You’ll need a whiteboard, some dry erase markers, and a dry eraser.
At the top of the whiteboard, write the title: “Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Tells Me About __________.” Fill in the blank with whatever seems to be keeping you stuck right now (social media, sales funnels, live streams, etc.) Now list everything you hear your mind say to you that gets you thinking you’re a fake who doesn’t deserve to be in your industry.
Examples might include:
- “I never should have started my own business. Everyone will know I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
- “I don’t know anything about sales funnels and I’ll never know enough to set up a successful one.”
- “I can’t give this Facebook Live talk because everyone will think I’m stupid.”
- “I’m a total fake. Why did I think I could do this?”
No matter how mean (or true) they seem to you or how much you don’t think it matters, write everything down. Keep going until you’ve listed them all. Now put the marker down and take a few steps away from the board. Repeat the following to yourself out loud: These are just thoughts. These thoughts are not me. I am so much more than just thoughts.
Note how far away you are from the board, the physical distance between you and the noise. Take a few more steps back. (It helps if you’re in a room with some space to it!) Keep repeating those words to yourself out loud. Step back even further until you can feel yourself loosening your mental grip on those thoughts. It’s totally fine if you end on the complete opposite side of the room!
How do you feel now that there’s a considerable amount of distance between you and them? It might help to journal about the experience before you do it and after, taking note of how you feel and what thoughts show up while you’re doing it.
As you go about your daily life, feel free to put your thoughts into this context by framing them as: “My mind is having the thought that __________” or “my mind is saying __________.” This will help you to perceive the things your Imposter Syndrome passenger says as just thoughts you can notice and not cold hard facts about who you are.
4. Commit to action
This is another common thread that runs through the entire Noisy Passenger series: the concept of doing something.
Awareness can be great for understanding where Imposter Syndrome comes from, what it might be trying to tell us, and how to relate to it in more helpful ways when fear and sadness evoke it. However, we don’t want to get wrapped up in analysis paralysis and spend so much time processing our emotions that we stay just as stuck as we were before reading this post.
Come up with a list, maybe two or three small tasks, that you can complete today that are aligned with the values you uncovered underneath the fear and sadness. If you discovered that you value openly sharing your information with your audience, perhaps you can commit to hitting send on that email you’ve been sitting on for a while. If you found that something you deeply care about is answering questions and providing honest feedback, maybe you can reply to some of the questions posed by members of your Facebook group in the last week even though you don’t think you have all the answers.
We don’t have to revolutionize our industry in a day to try and prove we know what we’re doing. Small actions in service of what truly matters to us will allow us to connect with the power and courage we have inside of us to continue driving our bus toward business - and life - fulfillment.
time to put your foot back on the gas
Now that we’ve discussed Imposter Syndrome in some depth and come up with some strategies for relating to it in a way that keeps your foot on the pedal and their butt in their seat, I’d love to hear about which of them were helpful for you.
Did you have any “aha” moments while you were reading?
How did you feel while doing the exercises?
Drop a comment below and tell me all about it! There’s more where this series came from so I hope you stay tuned into it.