Feel Like a Fraud? (You're not alone)

Discusses the characteristic of perceived fraudulence, or self-doubt. Studies by Yale University psychologist John Kolligian Jr.; Why self-doubters suffer anxiety, depression or embarrassment; How they can be helped.

By PT Staff, published on March 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Feeling anxious about the way others perceive you is normal. But what if you can't shake the belief that the person you appear to be differs from the person you really are?

About a third of Americans feel like frauds at some point and are convinced that their "fake fronts" have misled others. As a result, they suffer from anxiety, depression, or embarrassment.

Often, they're the ones who seem most successful--the sharpest students, the best parents, the most effective employees, says John Kolligian, Jr., Ph.D. "You think when a person goes up the ladder, they somehow become more self-assured. But it's precisely the opposite" says Kolligian, a Yale University psychologist who's studied perceived fraudulence for years.

Unable to overcome their intense self-criticism, impostors attribute their success to external events--"I got the promotion because my boss has low standards"--instead of taking credit for their own talents.

Frauds are also very careful monitors of the impressions they give off and cues they pick up from others. Starting new jobs, new relationships, and new schools is all the more threatening as impostors sense the high expectations of those around them and know that if they let down their "shell," they may fail--or even worse, succeed.

Success is only one of their fears. Frauds may also worry that friends will scorn or abandon them if they find out what they're truly like.

For this reason, new beginnings can actually be helpful, opening opportunities for change, provoking impostors to reassess who they are and who they want to be. "Ultimately the motivation to change comes from a sense of dissatisfaction"--and from a lot of soul-searching, says Kolligian.

Admitting to feeling fraudulent is a big step, as impostors are often "very, very embarrassed" about revealing their true selves. Sometimes the admission ushers in self-comfort. But for others, reevaluating their self-image is a life-long task.