The Monkey on Your Back – How Your Thinking is Making You Stressed

This is the second in our blog series with Business Psychologist and Coach, Charlotte Sheridan.

Setting up or running a business is hard work.

 If you’ve done it already, you’ll know. If you’re about to do it, friends may have made a face and said, “Are you sure?” So why do we make it harder than it needs to be? Why do we say to ourselves, “This bag isn’t heavy enough, I’ll pick up a second one!” 

I’m talking about the monkey on our back, or the gremlin on our shoulder. It’s that nagging, critical voice that tells us that we’re going to fail. It’s also called Imposter Syndrome.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The Imposter Syndrome is the self-doubt and worry that we’ll be found out. We’re in good company as many famous people have also had Imposter Syndrome.  

Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook CEO): “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” 

Tom Hanks (Actor): “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’” 

Maya Angelou (Civil rights activist, author, poet, Nobel Laureate): “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” 

David Bowie (Musician): “I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. … I was driven to get through life very quickly. I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.” 

So how can we make our businesses happen, despite the monkey on our back?

1) Mindset

There are many challenging aspects of setting up or running a business that we can’t avoid. Taxes, accountants, stock-taking, But, one thing we can avoid is the wrong mind set.  

Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck says that we either have fixed or growth mind sets. If we think our skills, experience or talents are fixed, then we can’t improve and we won’t reach our goals. That’s unless we aiming low – doing something we’ve already done. Then we’re just in repeat mode. Or, we might have a growth mind set. We know we can learn, develop and gain new skills. It might take effort, but our future is in our hands. We can aim big and do something spectacular.  


So ask yourself these questions:  

  • What is your inner voice like? Is it helpful, curious, interested? Or, questioning, patronising, negative?
  • If a friend came to you with a business dilemma, what would you say? Would you be kind and interested or dismissive and cruel? It’s helpful to use the same words of comfort on yourself that you’d give a friend. 
  • Can you remind yourself of you own success? Try reflecting on the times where something has gone well. How did you do it – was it your skills, experience or personality that enabled this to happen? You still have those in your toolbox, so you can use them again.  

2) Thinking Errors

We need to pay attention to what Psychologists call Thinking Errors. These are faulty patterns of thinking that make us stressed or anxious. This happens when our thinking doesn’t match reality – we often don’t even realise we’re doing it! Here are some examples:   

Focusing on the negative” – when you only pay attention to what has gone wrong in the past. Whatever you think you can or can’t do, you are probably right. It’s helpful to shift your mind set and pivot to what has gone well. Remind yourself of these times when you are full of doubt.  

Another is the “fortune telling”– predicting how something will go (often the worst-case scenario). Picture your business being really successful. Imagine in detail all the things that will be successful. Athletes do this all the time. They imagine themselves in a race or a playing a game, picturing how well it goes and how they will win.   

Mind-reading” – second-guessing what someone else is thinking and how they’ll behave, without evidence. Is there a challenging conversation coming up with a supplier? Or a difficult meeting with a new business partner? Maybe you are avoiding it, as you already “know” how they’ll react. Instead imagine different responses that are more positive. It will make you less anxious in the run up to the meeting or the conversation.  

 “Overgeneralisation” – when you take the outcome of one event and predict it will happen every time. Instead remember other times when you tried something and it went well. Be aware that we often overgeneralise on what went wrong, not what went right.   

To find out which thinking errors you use click on the link at the bottom of this blog.  

3) Other people's voices

Don’t you just hate it when you share a new business idea with someone and they kill it….stone dead. Perhaps you’re about to launch a new product or service and you’ve sunk months into development. But now you’re really worried about it. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Whose voice am I hearing? Are the doubts, questions, concerns really mine? Or are they from others – business partners, parents, family or friends?  
  • Have you spoken to the right people? Have you got a mentor or trusted advisor you can talk to? I’ve learned to be careful who I share new ideas with. My family are not top of the list. They are great for stress testing working out the risks, how it might fail. But I wouldn’t show them my newborn idea, they will tell me it’s ugly. Instead, I present the idea when it has grown up a bit. 
  • Are you driven by some old and negative voices? They might say things like it shows weakness to ask for help, don’t trust anyone, if you’re not the winner you’re a loser, never give up, win at all costs…. Check whether these messages are your own or perhaps they actually come from other people. Often things are ingrained in us at an early age by parents or family.  

Setting up or running a business is hard work, but don’t make it any harder than it needs to be. Be aware of your mind set and thinking errors and that will help you to reduce your stress and anxiety.

To find out which thinking errors you might have, download the questionnaire below.

Charlotte Sheridan

Charlotte Sheridan is a Business Psychologist and Coach. She’s also been through the highs and lows of setting up several businesses. Click here to find out more about her project where she interviewed 100 people changing their career or becoming entrepreneurs.