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Vulnerability, Shame, and Imposter Attacks When Self-employed

Vulnerability, Shame, and Imposter Attacks When Self-employed

[Image: hiding cat]We all experience fears, vulnerability, and shame attacks like “What will they think of me?!” or “Who am I to do this?” whenever sharing something new. Including me! If you’re self-employed, sharing new stuff regularly is part of the job, and therefore so is facing vulnerability. 😰

This vulnerability and shame topic comes up often in my work with solopreneurs. It’s time to write about it directly today — to validate us all, and to loosen its grip on us.

For most solopreneurs, vulnerability angst can take up way too much energy and seriously get in the way of our dreams if we’re not careful. It can be quite sneaky and persistent. I love how well this captures the push/pull solopreneurs go through:

I learned something hard about myself – as much as I would get frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.”
~ Brené Brown, describing her own shame attack in her TED talk on shame.

Key Lessons I’ve Learned

A little conscious effort to understand and tame these inside parts can save your dreams.

Bad news: These worries tend to get louder when we are putting something new out there that’s especially important to us — a new offer, new career identity, a new piece of writing, a new business, new prices. Sound familiar? For me, all of those have come with thoughts of “What will they think of me?”

Good news: The level of worry can lessen as we keep going, little by little. The sharing of our gifts becomes more and more joyful. Vulnerability won’t go away completely, but we can learn to work with it. Having passion for the cause is your best fuel.

Turning pro means that your work in the world, the mission you’ve chosen for yourself, the calling you’ve answered, all become far more important than the troublesome worries of what others might think.”
~Steven Pressfield, in Turning Pro.

Big vulnerability in the early days of my business.

In the first couple years of self-employment, vulnerability and shame stuff can feel quite big! You’re not actually going out of your mind. It’s normal, and it can also be easier.

When I first ventured into self-employment, it especially showed up as nightmares. They were about fear of exposure and I just wanted to hide. I thought I was having PTSD symptoms, and went to therapy, which helped soften some of it.

But what was more helpful for me was learning that the brain simply will create a fear response anytime we even think about moving forward. Once I understood this is just a human thing, and that it doesn’t have to stop us, that’s when the nightmares went away. Also, I got stronger by moving forward, in small steps. [More info here: overwhelm prevention.]

I’ve since learned that this panic feeling is a primal survival instinct doing what it’s meant to do. It’s like hiding from tigers when venturing out of the trees. It’s the same survival instinct that fuels the classic fear of public speaking.

When it happens, I find a little self-compassion and simple calming methods can help me breathe again and then return to going forward. Well, that and calling a friend.

Vulnerability and shame often go hand in hand. Shame also showed up as perfectionism, as it had often done in my life. In those early business days, perfectionism nearly killed my business, which it can too easily do.

Shame attacks, blech. They still happen sometimes for me, just less intense and less paralyzing.

Shame Attack Example: “Not Good Enough”

One of the basic ways a shame attack happens is captured well in this cartoon:

Cartoon about self-doubts when comparing to someone different.
Comparing ourselves to others can kick up self-doubt. Laughing about it helps me, and this cartoon helped me last week! [source]
This cartoon really helped me last week when I had a sinking feeling of “not good enough,” like a shame attack, when I compared myself to another business coach who I think is amazing!

Luckily I saw this cartoon the same day and realized, it’s like I’m a crayon and she’s a pencil, and that’s OK! Both kinds are great and needed! Phew. Got through that one quickly (about 2 hours), but it was a sharp pang at the time.

Because it comes up so much, all of my career and business groups have this as our topic this month. This was their homework, which you can also try it out:

Try This

Watch Brené Brown’s famous TED talk on shame and vulnerability. Even if you’ve seen it, it’s probably been years. I found it well worth rewatching the other day. I like that she starts off with her own big vulnerability hangover story  — so funny, poignant, and relatable. Might be worth watching with a loved one so you can laugh and connect around it.

Then you might think about or write down:

  1. What is staying with you from her talk?
  2. What about this topic feels resonant or relevant for you in your career or business journey these days?
  3. What’s ONE thing that helps you when this happens?
  4. What’s ONE thing you might want to try to make it easier? (Example: I’m liking my new mantra of “I’m a crayon!”)

You’re invited to share any of these things in the comments below.

9 antidotes when vulnerability, shame, and imposter worries come up in your work.

  1. When you create something (an offer, an article, etc.), imagine you’re only creating it for an ideal client that already loves you and who you’re excited to help. It’s not meant for the “world” which is what our brains tend to think by default.
  2. Companionship – Talk it out with someone or do it together.
  3. Self-compassion – Tell yourself something comforting, as if you’re comforting a child who has skinned her knee.
  4. Gratitude – Name something that’s already going well, even that you have a choice in moving forward. When we turn toward gratitude, fear lessens, and it feels good.
  5. Smaller steps – Look for one tiny next step. Find one you’re willing to do. For example, “I’ll share this new idea with one person who is a great cheerleader for me.”
  6. Say no to “comparisonitis” or “comparanoia”, like in the crayon vs pencil cartoon. For instance, unsubscribe from any email list that makes you feel bad that you’re not doing it their way.
  7. Knowing that vulnerability is universal, is stress relief in itself.
  8. Take it as a good sign, because that worry means you’re starting to move forward on sharing your gifts. Congratulate yourself.
  9. Yes, there are times when seeing a therapist is helpful, such as if shame attacks and anxiety have you regularly in their grips. But beware that the goal is not making the fear go away, because it won’t. Only moving forward will lessen the fear.

The Magic of Taking Tiny Steps Forward

Thinking you have to take big steps is often exactly what gets in our way. Big steps kick up panic and paralysis most of the time. Little steps feel doable, and actually get done. Done adds up to reaching goals, but frozen inaction does not. It’s a simple, yet often forgotten, workaround for shame attacks.

It could look like this:

Big step forward, Yikes!
Backing up.
Smaller step forward, Ack, and maybe I’m still OK.
Another small step forward, ack, and maybe I’m getting somewhere.
Another step, hmm, interesting….
It’s just how it is.
I can get somewhere new, one step at a time.

Resources for going deeper

There’s a lot of talk online about shame and the various ways it shows up. Bringing it into consciousness is part of what helps to lessen it. Perhaps one of these will help with an area that is most resonant for you right now:

In many of my writings, and in my coaching, the topic of fear and how to get around it comes up a lot. You’ll find some of those writings below.

Please no shaming yourself for not doing it all. May it feel nourishing and self-loving to explore any of these things. ❤️

Picture of Val Nelson

Val Nelson

I’ve been a self-employed career/business/purpose coach since 2009. I help introverts and HSPs (like me) who want to make a difference — in a way that fits our practical needs too.
Val Nelson | Coaching | Groups | Courses | Newsletter | LinkedIn

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