In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Will the Real Me Please Stand Up

5 Ways to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud

“Feeling like a fraud” is an issue that concerns many and is often addressed in therapy. By this, people mean that they look and act as if they know what they’re doing when, in fact, they feel as if they’re pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, deceiving others about their capabilities, or lack there of, and even their true identities. Of course, the vast majority of people are not doing this on purpose; it’s just that they don’t feel good enough about themselves. They manage to stay afloat, but seem to live in a constant state of anxiety; their biggest fear: being found out, ridiculed, humiliated, and dismissed.

This phenomenon is known as the Impostor Syndrome and is far more widespread than you might think. We all experience feelings of inadequacy at some points in our life. But the sense of inadequacy in these individuals occurs even when there is no evidence for its existence, and often when the exact opposite is true. You can be the most competent person, the brightest, most talented, gifted, and successful and still suffer with self-doubt.

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There may be one particular, contained area of your life where “feeling like a fraud” applies, such as academic achievement or career. Or, this syndrome may describe an entire life; every area of a person’s life is suspect. These people feel like they’re just “fakes,” acting out a false persona, trying to blend in when, in fact, they worry that they will be discovered for who they really are. This can take a lot of psychic energy to keep up the façade of the artificial personality.

And then, there are some individuals who just can’t take ownership for the good and capable things that they are and do. In their own minds their success and achievements somehow come from sources outside of themselves. They would rather believe that it was “just luck”, a mistake or an accident that just worked out in their favor, or maybe they were just in the right place at the right time. What this kind of thinking does is to set the “impostor” up to doubt that they can be successful or achieve the next time around since they haven’t owned it the first time.

So, here are five things that you can do to help yourself from falling into the impostor trap:

1.) Own up to your feelings. Tell someone about it; that way it’s no longer your own little secret. You’ll find that when you do, you may be reassured by others that you are not the odd-man-out after all. Chances are others will tell you that they have felt the same way at some point in time and they probably won’t judge you for it.

2.) Recognize truth from fiction or, at least, fantasy. Because you feel like a fake and a fraud---stupid, incompetent, incapable, a failure---doesn’t mean you are in reality.

3.) Understand early programming. Parents may have contributed a great deal, knowingly or unknowingly, to a child’s beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings. The messaging from some families to their children is judgmental and critical. There may be unrealistic expectations placed upon a child that they may carry with them, unquestioned and unchallenged into adult life. What you feel may be just something you “inherited” that never should have belonged to you in the first place.

4.) Make a list of all of your accomplishments, achievements, and successes. Instead of tossing these off as just “luck” really spend time remembering how you were able to do what you’ve done in the past. Bet you had a lot more to do with your achievements than you thought.

5.) Challenge automatic thoughts. Instead of jumping in right away with the old way of thinking, step back, and re-envision the scenario. Instead of the expected doom and gloom prognosis and potentially bad outcome, imagine a realistic better result. Reassure yourself that you have what it takes to successful accomplish your goals, and if you can’t really feel it at first, than just add up the positive experiences and let the numbers speak for themselves.

We can project all we want out into the world and make others responsible for us and for what happens to us; especially our failures. Or, we can choose to take responsibility for ourselves and for what happens to us; especially our successes.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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