Get Real: Imposter Syndrome and the Entrepreneur

The idea to submit a proposal to speak at ShutterFest came to me in a dream. I was waiting just off stage to be introduced to the mass of thousands of successful and aspiring photographers, grinning as my history with ShutterFest was told. “In 2018, she won a contest to get a free pass for photographers who needed to grow their business. The next year, she was teaching a session herself. The next year, it was three sessions. Every year, it was the same thing. ‘I want to do more. I want to do more!’ After five years, I said, ‘If I let you do the keynote address, will you leave me alone?’ And do you know what she said? ‘Maybe.’”

I’m not a mystical or spiritual person. I’m a science-minded agnostic who believes that dreams are nothing more than your brain processing all of your thoughts from the previous day, defragmenting itself like a computer so you can create new short- and long-term memories. This was not a deity giving me my calling, nor an untapped gift in prognostication manifesting itself. My subconscious was tapping into my audacity and unbridled ambition, manifest in this dream of what I defined at that moment as ultimate success combined with a fleeting glance at an email call for speakers.

But it felt so real, so within my grasp, that I knew I had to go for it. So I submitted three proposals for sessions at 2019 ShutterFest.

When I received my acceptance email, my heart momentarily stopped.

Self-doubt creeped up on me. Panic set in.

Oh holy shit. What have I done?

I am not alone in the world when it comes to suddenly feeling terrified of my own success. Imposter syndrome, the cognitive distortion that says any success is undeserved and you will be exposed as a fraud, is very real, and experienced by budding entrepreneurs and mega-successful people alike. A study in the International Journal of Behavioral Science estimates that 70% of individuals experience the delusion of their success being fraudulent. Despite their very demonstrably real successes, Sheryl Sandberg, Natalie Portman, and Howard Schultz have all written or spoken of having thoughts and feelings that are easily recognizable as imposter syndrome.

Self-doubt is a common feature of the human psyche; nervousness is normal. If you have never doubted yourself or questioned your success in your entire life, there is a high probability of another psychological pathology at work. But, for some people, that self-doubt does not go away when they ace that test they studied for; the expect to be fired for incompetency any day now the moment they get the promotion they’ve worked 80-hour-weeks to achieve.

There are many reasons why high achievers in particular have a nagging doubt about their worthiness for success. For some, it can be perfectionism run amok. For others, its a mix of high levels of stress coupled with anxiety–also known as Tuesday by your typical entrepreneur or business owner. By nature, entrepreneurs are high achievers–just by going out and saying, “No more will I be a wage slave! I am forging my own path! I am making money for myself!” a small business owner has taken a giant leap outside of the acceptable norm and dedicate themselves to gargantuan efforts. We take on the job of not only CEO when we forge our own paths, but that of CFO, office manager, accountant, head of public relations, an entire marketing department, all of research and development, scheduler, and (of course) customer service.

For me, it’s a mix of entrepreneurial stress and major depressive disorder. The stress anxiously asks: will I get this done? Will it be good enough? Will people like it? Will people buy it?

The depression answers: no, no, no, no.

Most people would celebrate a success like mine–I applied and was accepted the first try. Many did. Other speakers posted in the ShutterFest group, on their websites and blogs, sent out press releases, and probably popped a cork here and there. Not me.

I made an emergency appointment with my therapist.

“Why haven’t you told your husband? Why aren’t you announcing it online?” my therapist asked during our session a week later.

“Because I feel like, any day now, I’m going to get an email that’s like, ‘Sorry. Made a mistake. That email was for someone else. We don’t know who you are or how this happened. Hope you enjoy the conference as an attendee!’”

“Is that a realistic expectation?”

I paused and looked down at my feet, like a child caught stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.

“No. Maybe. What if they find out I’m not a success?”

“Why do you think you’re not a success?”

“Because all of the other speakers have these amazing careers with all of this brand recognition! They have been published multiple times, won multiple awards, have a legion of fans, and are all like rock stars! They have name recognition. People fight to get into their sessions. Even if they don’t cancel mine, I feel like I’m going to show up for my session and no one will be there because I’m not good enough. I haven’t succeeded enough. I’m not famous enough.”

“Okay,” my therapist replied. “So you’re not as famous as everyone else. So what? So what that you haven’t done what they’ve done? From everything you’ve told me in the past, you sound pretty knowledgable and pretty darn successful in your own way.”

I thought back to the beginning of my career, walking into a portrait studio in the mall with a portfolio I’d put together in my high school photography class. They weren’t hiring for photographers; they were looking for a receptionist, but I didn’t know that. I went in, filled out an application, and asked the woman at the front desk if I could leave my portfolio there for the manager.

The woman at the front desk briefly flipped through it, then said, “I’ve got a session waiting in the camera room. Can you come back to interview in thirty minutes?”

An hour later, I was hired as a studio portrait photographer.

I was eighteen-years-old.

I worked at that portrait studio for eight years while I went to college part time, only leaving once I’d earned my bachelor’s degree. I thought I would leave photography behind, thought I’d make my way in the world in a “real” job, behind a desk, working 9-5 (or 8-4, as it was) because I wasn’t a good photographer. Sure, I had repeat customers who spent hundreds, sometimes thousands, on the portraits I turned out. Yes, a local Philadelphia newscaster had his family portraits done by me for Christmas, then asked for me by name the following year. But there was that one time, when I first started, when a husband asked me why I was shooting at a 5.6/f and I froze. He proceeded to mansplain (as we call it nowadays) why a 2.8/f was the better aperture for portraits, and how only hacks and teens with a GED education use a 5.6/f. He left me in tears, and I was sent home early because I lost my composure and could not regain it.

“He’s right,” I thought to myself for days afterwards. “I’m a fraud.”

The thing is, I could not get away from photography. Within months of starting my “real” job, a colleague spied my engagement photo on my desk and asked where I’d had it done. I explained that I shot my own engagement photographs, and he hired me immediately to do a portrait of him in his Navy dress blues. Based on his images, other co-workers began inquiring about portraits. Soon, I was shooting on my lunch break, at night, and on weekends. I decided to make it official (and legal) and opened Girl Plus Camera Photography in March 2008; I quit my day job to work in my photography business full time three years later.

During the next four years, I shot portraits for multiple clients, promotional images for local businesses, and events for several fashion brands in New York City. I was hired twice by magazines to create images for editorials that were later published. I became the photographer for Princeton Public Library’s events.

Then, my boyfriend had a falling out with his business partner around the time he proposed to me. He began looking for new jobs, and within a few months, he had found one.

In Colorado.

Closing my business broke my heart. My client base had been steadily growing; attendance at charity portrait events had been consistently doubling every year, and I was beginning to regularly partner with larger companies and brands. But I am always up for an adventure, and I loved my fiancé. So, I made the decision to pack it up and start over.

Within one year of moving to Boulder, Colorado, I had reopened my business in a super-saturated market, and that nagging doubt began creeping in.

“You can’t do it again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You got lucky in New Jersey and New York.”

Like people who work for New York City companies get those jobs by sheer luck.

Hello, imposter syndrome, my old friend.

When I entered the contest to go to ShutterFest, I wrote in my entry that I needed to go to learn how to rebuild after shutting the door and walking away from success, how to make a dent in a market that really could not take one more photographer, and how to expand into untapped niches. The truth was, I needed an ego boost. I needed to see other success stories and be surrounded by other people who were building or rebuilding a brand. I told myself this was going to be the beginning of my success story, ignoring the fact that I’d already succeed, many times over.

Ten months later, and in the first month of 2019, I doubled my entire photography income over 2018 and quadrupled my clients.

Ten months later, I’ve spoken to reporters about my business and been quoted in two different business publications.

Ten months later, I am one of a small number of photographers pioneering a new genre–personal brand photography–and seeing big wins from it.

Ten months later, I still think any day now, I’m going to be exposed as a fraud. Imposter syndrome is a bitch like that.

Cognitive distortions are not overnight fixes. You cannot be cured in one therapy session, by reading one book, by subscribing to one newsletter, by buying one online course, by holding a crystal, by going vegan or keto or whatever new diet someone is shilling. When you have a mood disorder, as I do, things can be doubly hard. Some days, the imposter syndrome is so all consuming that I feel frozen, unable to do anything productive. I ruminate on my failures, on every man who has mansplained photography to me, on every potential client who chose another photographer over me. Some days, the self doubt turns into terror that I will be exposed as a fake, a fraud, a talentless hack getting by on luck and maybe some amount of charm.

However, imposter syndrome does not have to be debilitating. I would be remiss if I did not offer some of the homework I’ve been given by therapists over the years that helps me get through the worst feelings of failure and self-loathing.

Call Out Your Imposter Syndrome

Run through the following questions whenever imposter syndrome (or any other cognitive distortion) decides to pop by for a mental invasion:

1. What is the thought that is making me anxious?

Whether it’s perfectionism, depression, or stress, imposter syndrome is rooted in anxiety, so take time to name the thought that is a product of that anxiety.

Example: Everyone’s going to find out I’m a fraud.

2. What is the fear behind my anxiety?

Anxiety is fear that’s overwhelming your thought processes and causing a cognitive distortion, so acknowledge that there’s something you are afraid of behind your anxiety. This can also be answered by asking “Why?” the thought is making you anxious. Keep asking why until you arrive at the root fear of your anxiety.

ExampleI have no control over my success. Life is a crapshoot, and any day now, all of the success will vanish and I will have nothing. I am anxious that all my successes will evaporate because it will mean I am a failure. I am afraid of failing.

3. Ask yourself: “Can I predict the future?”

Hint: the answer will always be no. You are not clairvoyant. #sorrynotsorry

4. Since you cannot predict the future, is this a realistic fear and/or probable outcome?

Now that you’ve named your fear, try and look at it rationally. Sure, any fear may be possible, but is it probable? Is your fear the most likely outcome, or is it a cognitive distortion? Name the cognitive distortion. It may be imposter syndrome. It may also be something else, like black and white thinking.

Example: It’s not realistic that I will suddenly stop succeeding, that all my leads will dry up, and I will fail. This isn’t the most likely scenario, this is imposter syndrome and catastrophic thinking. Everything is, most likely, not going to suddenly go wrong all at the same time and leave me with nothing.

4. Replace the negative thought with a positive one or more likely scenario.

Example: Success is like a snowball, it tends to increase with momentum, not decrease. If, in the worst-case scenario, I notice I have fewer bookings or lower avegrae sales, I have systems in place that will give me an early warning sign. I will course correct as necessary. I can pivot.

When you feel like a fraud, list your successes

Make a list of every time you have succeeded. Remind yourself any and all obstacles you’ve over come. Remember the hard work you put into each and every successful effort. Acknowledge that you did not get where you are because of dumb luck or fate, but because you put in the time, the money, and the sweat equity to get it done.

Feeling paralyzed by imposter syndrome? Start a journal.

For me, imposter syndrome can become so overwhelming that I feel absolutely paralyzed by fear, so I do nothing, and then my fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To overcome this, I now keep a mental health journal. Every time I feel paralyzed by terror of failing, I write down:

  1. What is the situation that is happening right now? What occurred to trigger the fear / cognitive distortion?
  2. Why is this making me feel uncomfortable?
  3. What is the worst possible outcome?
  4. What is the best possible outcome?
  5. Which outcome is more probable?

I commit to a reward for completing whatever task is making me uncomfortable – whether it’s speaking publicly or giving an interview to a reporter. I remind myself that doing nothing is the only guaranteed failure. Even if I try and look like an idiot, I can learn from the experience so that I can avoid it in the future. Once I’ve done the terrifying thing, I come back to my journal:

  1. Describe doing the uncomfortable thing. Describe how it felt do it in the moment.
  2. What was the result of doing the uncomfortable thing?
  3. How do I feel now that I’ve done the uncomfortable thing and have seen the result of my effort.

After a while, look back through your journal. How often was your anxiety actually right? How often were you humiliated, exposed as a fraud or failure, or overwhelmed and unable to succeed in the task at hand? I guarantee you will find that your successes outweigh your brain’s doomsday predictions.