Speaking at Cornwall Business Fair alongside Sally Heard, CEO from Cornwall School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), I opened up about the hidden challenges of social entrepreneurship: feeling like you’re not good enough and don’t belong here. The imposter experience is something I think the majority of us have experienced, be that in our careers or personal lives. We just don’t talk about it. So here’s me sharing my story, and why it’s so important that we all talk about these hidden anxieties…
Thanks to Sally Heard for inviting me to speak with her at Cornwall Business Fair.
Social entrepreneurship in Cornwall: A unique perspective [transcript]
“I’m an SSE fellow; I graduated from the School for Social Entrepreneurs start-up programme last year. I’m the founder of Quiet Connections, which is all about growing confidence when you’re feeling socially anxious or awkward; shy or not good enough, so you can live life the way you want. I’ve also been selected as one of Cornwall’s 30 under 30 for 2017 and I’ll come back to this later.
I believe no one should feel alone, broken and ashamed the way that I did. So Quiet Connections is based on openness, speaking about the thoughts and feelings that we tend to keep hidden (however uncomfortable it might be to share). So naturally, I want to be open with you. I’ll be sharing the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my journey, which I am positive the majority of us experience but choose not to talk about.
After 6 months of written applications, a one to one interview and a ‘dragon’s den’ style assessment, I’m nervously waiting to hear if I’ve been offered a place on the course. And then Sally Heard calls. Now calm is my superpower, and generally my version of ‘excitement’ is much less obvious than other people’s, but I can’t contain the celebratory squealing with delight and jumping around the room. Isn’t it magic when you realise that someone believes not just in your idea, but in you?
And then my imposter gremlin rears its ugly head. If I’m honest, I thought I had dealt with it but new situations can stoke old fears and awaken old insecurities. As the self-doubt creeps in, I feel like SSE’s decision to let me in must have been a mistake and I’ve fooled them into thinking I’m more competent than I actually am. I imagine how badly I could fail and what a big disappointment I might be for Sally and everyone else who believed in me and gave me a chance that perhaps I wasn’t deserving of. It even crossed my mind that I was probably the first mistake Sally had ever made.
I put my imposter gremlin back in his box, packed away in a dark corner of my mind and I start the course. I’m surrounded by all these beautiful souls; truly amazing people with big hearts, most of whom seemed to be achieving wonderful things right from day one. I can’t help but to compare my abilities, progress and achievements to those around me. I feel they’re in some way better than me; more competent. For the first few months, I’m stuck in a period of inaction. It’s as if putting myself out there at all would expose me as a fraud. My old safety strategy is in full swing. The small voice inside says: “keep yourself small; don’t be seen, and no one will notice you’re not good enough to be amongst them.”
Then I start hearing about similar challenges from other people on the course; friends I’ve made who felt safe to share their fears with me; people within our Action Learning Sets, discussing their confidence blocks. Even more surprising, some of them are actually comparing their abilities and achievements against mine and feeling as though they’re not as good – the exact same thing I’m thinking about them! So many of us are carrying around secret fears while thinking no one else feels this way aren’t we?
So I explore these feelings with my own coach, releasing some of those fears about being seen as imperfect; shifting the ‘stuckness’. I start putting myself out there, organising workshops, taking on new coaching clients and actually promoting what I’m doing.
This is the same process that Quiet Connections uses: Connecting people with a community of understanding; providing coaching to work through the things that are holding us back; and creating safe, supported spaces to gradually stretch their comfort zone.
The photo above is an early comfort zone stretch for me; looking a little nervous doing the very first speech at the first speaking club. The more I’m pushing through the fear to put myself out there, the easier it becomes.
So how do you think it might be to open the email that says you’ve been selected as one of Cornwall’s 30 under 30? Funnily enough, it wasn’t a happy dance moment for me. I immediately feel sick. I go from thinking “it’s a joke”, to “it’s a mistake”, to “oh my god, I don’t deserve to be here and I’ve fooled people into thinking I’m far more successful than I actually am”. Thankfully, I know just who I have to speak with…
Stacie Clark (pictured below, left) was on the SSE start-up course with me. She’s a crochet designer – the piece she made in the photo below has been hanging in Lemon Quay for several weeks to remind everyone that we are all good enough, just as we are. (We’re excited to have recently welcomed Stacie on board to head up our Community Connections peer support project and spread this message even further!).
Stacie is also my first go-to person when the gremlins come up. She tells me that she gets it, and reminds me of what I know to be true, deep down: that success isn’t all about how much money your company is making; it’s also about how other people feel about what you’re doing. It’s about the lives saved and the friendships made by creating a community of understanding. It’s about the person who couldn’t leave the house when we met and now they’re regularly volunteering, can order a drink in a café and progressing their career. Most importantly, it’s about how you feel about what you’re doing.
There’s no getting away from the need to be seen; you have to put yourself out there to achieve what’s truly important to you in life. But we can’t do it alone. Most of us will never truly shed our fear of not being good enough or feeling like a fraud. Research from Brené Brown shows that the less you talk about it, the more you feel it. So I encourage you to be open, to share those fears, because the more we’re aware of our anxieties and how they operate, and the more we talk about them; the easier it is to work through them, one by one.
And if anyone’s thinking “that’s all well and good, but your fear is unfounded and mine’s not” then I know how that feels. I’d look at the people who put themselves out there, like Sally and people within my group, and I’d think they must be a totally different breed to me. But our self-assessments are usually way off. Many of us have a tendency to underestimate ourselves and our capabilities. To succeed, we need to be open-minded and open-hearted; aware that our perspective is guaranteed to be, at best, incomplete.
So be willing to be seen as you follow your heart, embrace your imperfections, and look for kindred spirits to openly share your journey with. Thank you, Sally, for creating a community of understanding where social entrepreneurs can do just that.”