Three causes of imposter syndrome and my suggestion for moving beyond it
This morning I opened my eyes to the sound of my 14-year-old chocolate lab peeing on our carpet … for the second time this week. (It may be time for Depends for Dogs.) After jumping up, letting her out, and then cleaning up the mess as my husband groaned in the bed and put a pillow over his face, there was no going back to sleep. But instead of doing what I usually do at 6 a.m. every morning—putting on my workout clothes, prepping a to-go cup of hot water with lemon, and jumping in the car to get to the gym while listening to Abraham Hicks’s “Morning Rampage”—I decided perhaps I should start my day with a more calming routine. So this morning, I shut the front door behind me, left the ear buds inside, and decided to run in the quiet dark.
I love running early in the morning, late at night, and in the rain. It’s at these times that I feel like I could be the only person in the world. Everyone else is holed up in their homes, so all I see is the road up ahead and all I hear is crunch of my footsteps.
Some may think this feels lonely; I don’t. As I run the roads, I watch people’s days begin in a plethora of ways. I watch sprinklers turn on, hear a child squeal from his room, and see an older lady walking out to retrieve the newspaper. I like seeing people this way—not yet dressed perfectly or woken up by their first cup of coffee.
When I run before sunrise, I watch the world wake up, and I see everyone in their most vulnerable state.
It’s as if my body knew this morning that I needed this.
I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with business owners about “imposter syndrome”: this feeling of self-doubt and fraud despite one’s level of education and experience. Just yesterday I went to lunch with an extremely educated colleague who questioned why a company was listening to her advice.
“I’ve just been out of the game for so long,” she said, lamenting about her “break” from the digital world as she took a few years’ departure into a different career.
“So?” I answered. “You’re smart. You’re a hard worker. And you care. That’s what really matters—that you care enough to figure it out.”
Right when those words came out of my mouth, I smiled to myself because just a week earlier, I should have told myself the same thing. Thank goodness someone else did. That someone was David Tann, the owner of Tantrum Agency in Atlanta.
Let me back up and explain how this came to be.
The marketing agency world is comprised of agencies upon agencies. That is, the larger, national agencies often contract with local or specialty agencies for parts of larger jobs. So large national companies will, for example, reach out to their agency of record for a new campaign. Let’s say that campaign targets a certain demographic or specific location. The large agency will then contract with a smaller agency that specializes in that area. And sometimes even the smaller agencies have even smaller agencies.
Yea, the agency world is like one giant Russian nesting doll.
In my eyes, Tantrum is a big agency (David would disagree, but that’s a different story for a different day). Months ago when I had just left my job and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, David hired me to assist with project management and general copy editing. As Tantrum has grown, TealHaus has grown, and we’ve continued to work together. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and we don’t have competing clients. It just works.
So the day that David called, I had previously been on the phone with a bit of a high-maintenance client. She was questioning my knowledge of digital advertising, so I explained to her how I’d arrived at my conclusion. I knew I was right; still, her questioning made me doubt myself.
Right after this conversation, David called me for a quick request. After we discussed what he needed, I said, “David, before you hang up, can I ask you a question?” (I oftentimes think of David sitting at his desk in a zen, sage-like state.)
“Sure,” he replied.
“Do you ever have imposter syndrome?” I asked.
“Every day, Lindsay,” he said, and I could hear his head nodding through the phone. “Every single day. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get better.”
I groaned. Because this meant there was no hope for me.
In my eyes, David is the marketing king. He’s worked for all of the big brands: Bath & Body Works, Kohl’s, Carter’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the Atlanta Hawks. His clients are the likes of well-known celebrities, multi-million-dollar insurance firms and national nonprofits. Yet this pillar of achievement still doubts himself.
This made me pause. Why does someone as knowledgable as David still sometimes question if he is good enough?
Studies show imposters syndrome is due to anxiety, neuroticism, and a feeling that achievement leads to self-worth.
Now, although I believe this is a valid hypothesis, I would venture to say imposter syndrome also has to do with two other factors.
First, specific to my situation, I hear all the time that “anyone” can do marketing.
You may laugh at this, but you’re also probably the person who wrote your own tagline or created your own website. The invention of software like Canva and Squarespace don’t help this belief either, giving the layman the tools they seemingly need to do it all themselves … Except the tagline sucks and the website is bland. But “It’s enough for now,” you say. So when everyone around me feels like marketing is common sense, why should I believe that I actually have a skill that’s better than anyone else?
Second, the rise of social media gives everyone a microphone to have an opinion—like it or not. And when everyone is shouting all of their “knowledge,” it’s easy to start doubting your own.
Doesn’t matter if this “knowledge” is actually legitimate. Every noise out there begins to make your voice seem very, very small.
So this morning, as I ran down the empty streets, I reveled not only in the silence, but also in the vulnerability I saw around me. At this moment in time, there were no business owners blowing me up on Slack, no friends texting me about drama, no talk show hosts lambasting the state of the world. There was only a man walking onto his front porch holding a cup of coffee. There was a silhouette of a woman holding a child in a bedroom. And there was a quiet house on the corner with stringed lights in the backyard. No puffed chests, raised eyebrows, or perfectly made up faces. Only real people in their elements, doing what real people do.
I found myself wishing, “If only the world stayed like this all day.” If only we didn’t feel the need to impress, donning our fancy clothes for the perfect selfie before walking into the office. If only we walked into the office with no makeup, still in pajamas, admitting our head hurts or that we really know zero about what the client was asking. Then, perhaps we could stop fearing appearing “less than” or vulnerable, instead embracing each other as we really are. We could just be, and we could encourage other to just be as well.
Alas, this is not reality. And actually, I do enjoy putting on my heels every day. However, anyone who knows me knows that I am not afraid to reveal my real self to you. In fact, I’m unable to do the opposite — my poker face is nonexistent. If you ask my opinion, I’ll give it to you, but I also won’t judge you if you disagree. And this—this practice of vulnerability and heart—is my vision for TealHaus. Yes, we excel in marketing, but that’s not why we exist; we exist because we want to create a space for others to be open, authentic, and honest. When you give us your truth, we’ll empower you to keep sharing, and together we’ll grow your business in a space with no egos—only care and support.
Isn’t it time we all stopped playing life and actually lived it?