Self-doubt doesn’t go away when you are successful. Sometimes it looms even larger in the mind, making you question the validity of the things you’ve accomplished. Even if you know the truth, it defies all logic. You know you’ve done the hard work, but you still find yourself asking, Do I really belong here?
What’s going on here?
Impostor syndrome is at work.
Alli Webb and Adrian Koehler, co-hosts of the podcast Raising the Bar, know this feeling very well. They’re both successful entrepreneurs, but they still doubt themselves in certain situations. They talk about this on their episode of SUCCESS Stories with Kindra Hall, where one thing is made clear: Pushing back against those feelings takes constant self-reflection. “The best we can do is to notice our machinery,” Koehler says. “My thinking isn’t me, it’s just what I happen to be thinking. Even if I think I’m an impostor, so what?”
It’s probably difficult for others to see Webb and Koehler as impostors, even if they both admit those feelings. On the outside looking in, we only see their accomplishments: Webb is the co-founder of Drybar, a salon chain with more than 150 locations in the U.S. She’s also the author of The Drybar Guide to Good Hair for All, which is a New York Times best-seller. And Koehler founded an executive coaching firm called Take New Ground, which helps people become better leaders and reach self-fulfilment through their work.
Their bios are just the tip of the iceberg, though. If you listen to Raising the Bar, you know there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes. On each episode of their podcast, Webb and Koehler interview other entrepreneurs, their conversations revealing the true depth of entrepreneurship—the good, the bad and everything in between. The important thing to remember is that when the good times come, you have to let go of the bad times. That’s what Webb believes, and she has the personal experience to validate that one simple truth: that if you never celebrate your wins, you unintentionally make the hole that impostor syndrome digs bigger.
When Marie Claire named Webb a top beauty expert for its 2011 “Women on Top” list, she initially rejected the idea. It didn’t feel like a title she could believe or associate herself with. “I looked at the list, and I did feel almost embarrassed,” she says. “I’m like, people are going to read this and roll their eyes and say, ‘She’s not like the other people on this list.’ ” Notably, that never stopped Webb from sharing that list, or any other, on social media. Even as her mind was telling her something different, she found the courage to share her accomplishments with the world. Then a few weeks would go by, and Webb would think, I absolutely deserve to be on that list. It’s an up-and-down feeling that has to be managed, but Webb says humble acceptance is never a bad thing. It’s so much better to simply be proud of yourself.
Koehler agrees, but he has a slightly different take on impostor syndrome. He’s the philosophy buff in their relationship, so he’s studied the human condition through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, an Austrian physician and psychiatrist. Freud believed that most people are their past, and Adler believed that most people are their purpose. The truth, Koehler says, is probably somewhere in between both extremes. So while he understands the importance of celebrating your wins and not letting impostor syndrome immobilize you, he also knows there’s a sliver of truth behind people’s self-doubt. “The bad news is, we probably are some of our fears,” he says. “It occurs to us as bad news because we’ve spent so much of our time trying not to be that. Because if it turns out to be true, that means we’ve wasted a lot of our time. We’re not who we think we are. The good news is that it doesn’t matter.”
But how do you actually get to the point of accepting that last statement—that we’re not our history and that we have the power to overcome our fears? Koehler’s journey of becoming an executive coach may hold the answer. He didn’t plan to create an entirely new profession, but he did plan to say yes to new careers that sounded fun, effectively silencing his fears. It started with dreams of becoming a nurse. He wanted to solve problems for people in need, especially during crises. Then he switched dreams and became a pastor. That strengthened Koehler’s passion for leadership, something he’s always identified with. After leading interventions with prisoners serving life sentences, Koehler had all the experience he needed to launch Take New Ground.
When he explains each venture, Koehler repeats the phrase, “That sounded like fun”—which seems like a key to overcoming impostor syndrome: to boldly do the things that bring you joy. Webb says she and Koehler share that same outlook on life. She spent her 20s trying to figure out what she liked and wasn’t afraid to try new things in the process. “Can you imagine if more people thought about things like that?” Webb says. “I think a lot of people don’t allow themselves to do that because of impostor syndrome. They think they should be living their lives a certain way, so they can’t just jump careers.”
Maybe it’s something that takes blind courage. Maybe you have to say, “1, 2, 3, go!” and let the chips fall where they may. Either way, impostor syndrome doesn’t disappear with success. If you can learn how to manage it over time—overcome it, even—you’ll get everything you deserve and more.
Listen to the full episode of SUCCESS Stories here.
Photo courtesy of Alli Webb and Adrian Koehler