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Feel Like a Fraud? Don't Worry, You're Not Alone

Worrying that others will see you as you do takes a toll. But you can break out.

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Cara is three months into her first “career” job since graduating from college and she’s a wreck: overwhelmed not only by what she has to learn, but more by what she doesn’t know. She feels like she is barely holding together, is certain that everyone can see through her “professional” persona, and on bad days thinks it’s only a matter a time before her boss realizes she’s incompetent and fires her.

John will admit that he’s always been a bit intimidated by those in authority — school teachers, coaches, supervisors — was always looking over his shoulder, constantly worried he was going to get caught not knowing something that he should. But those same feelings have continued into his adulthood and even bleed over to his relationship with his partner where he's always walking on eggshells, is worried she is going to nail him for doing something wrong.

Feeling like you’re always faking it, worried about being seen as incompetent and getting busted for the fraud that you are. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. There’re generally a few sources for these feelings; here are the most common ones:

You’re inexperienced

This is Cara. She is the newbie on the block, the rookie in her career, inexperienced compared to those working around her. But what is likely driving her anxiety and her worse-case scenarios is not what she doesn’t know, but her always front-burner awareness of what she doesn’t know. As she interacts with coworkers in staff meetings, on team projects, she understandably often doesn’t have a clue about they are talking about, though she shakes her head and pretends she knows what is going on. But inside she feels like the 10-year-old hanging out with the teenagers.

You’re a good kid

John was the good kid in his family when he was growing up. He was the one who always followed the rules, worked hard and did well in school, never got angry, was sensitive to the reactions of his parents, teachers, was accommodating. The problem is that even as an adult that childhood stance is hard to step away from. Like many of us, certain situations and relationships automatically trigger those old feeling and reactions, and when they do he easily falls into being hypersensitive to the reactions of others, fears disapproval, feels in a one-down position in important relationships. And so he begins walking on eggshells, worries about getting in trouble.

You’re self-critical, perfectionistic

John is likely to be this way, and so may be Cara. The authority figures that John felt intimidated by become a critical voice in his head that rakes him over the coals for screwing up, for making mistakes, for not doing better and being perfect.

But unfortunately, it doesn't end there. This relentless, demanding, critical voice gets projected onto others. He assumes that others are thinking what he is thinking, that they are viewing him the way he is viewing himself, that his failings are as important to them as they are to that voice in his head.

Tamping down your anxiety

The underlying driver here for Cara and John is their own anxiety. Some ways to keep it in check:

1. Realize others don’t see you the way you do

Cara’s boss has undoubtedly worked with lots of new grads and realizes Cara is understandably not at the same level as others in the office. The same holds true for John: While he may feel like he is one-down in his relationship, his partner doesn't, probably doesn’t care about the things he assumes she cares about, or if she does, will not automatically react to him the same way his parents did.

To pull themselves out of these little-kid feelings, it can help for Cara and John to realize exactly that: that these are old little-kid feelings from the past that are being triggered, that they are not 10-years-old, that their hypersensitivity doesn’t necessarily fit the time and place of their current adult world.

2. Realize that others can’t see your feelings

Cara believes that others can detect how awkward she feels in team meetings. They likely can’t, or don’t care because they are focusing on themselves and not her. And even if they do, so what? They all had been there.

3. Lower your expectations

If you tend to be self-critical and perfectionistic, your anxious/self-critical/perfectionistic mind tells you is that the only way to feel better is to be more conscientious, more perfect. This is BS that you want to push back against. This is old wiring that you can change.

The starting point is being more realistic and compassionate about what you can and can’t do. Notice when those old voices are kicking up, push back against them when they start scolding you, experiment with lowering those unreasonable expectations to find out that what you fear will happen doesn't. Treat yourself now the way your parents likely never did.

4. Be proactive

Cara and John are constantly reactive, i.e., are always acting in response to others, to what is coming at them; they are always playing defense. The antidote is to go offense, to be proactive. If Cara is worried about her performance on the job, is always waiting for her supervisor to pounce on her, she can control the process: schedule a meeting with her supervisor to get feedback on her work, or to proactively ask for the help she needs. This will give her some control, help her feel less like a victim.

Similarly, John can do the same. Rather than walking on eggshells, he can step up and be more assertive with his partner — checking in with her about any concerns she has, and better yet, voicing any of his own. By doing this he is stepping out of his in-trouble, little-kid, one-down position, and is beginning to replace his old coping style with a healthier, adult one.

5. Lower your overall anxiety

If you are plagued by this self-doubt, self-criticism, fear of others, you likely are operating at a fairly high level of anxiety most of the time. By lowering your overall anxiety level through meditation, medication, exercise, yoga, etc., can make you less susceptible to these obsessive thoughts and worries.

6. Be patient with yourself

The theme here is treating yourself as would a compassionate parent: being patient with yourself when you hear those demanding voices that tell you that you need to do better, lowering those expectations and realizing that you have plenty of time to learn and grow, telling yourself that mistakes are part of process of learning from life.

With practice, you can learn to feel less frightened by others, by the world.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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