Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

Why so many of us feel as though we're fooling everyone else.

Posted Nov 12, 2019

“I feel like a total fraud.”

I can only guess at the number of times I’ve heard that said in my office. I’ve heard it from all ages and from just about every walk of life, from the professor and from the executive; from the engineer and from the homemaker; from the artist and from (gulp) the surgeon.

The feeling is as durable as it is ubiquitous: it appears that this feeling remains largely unaffected by years of training, by decades of success, by winning prestigious awards and honors. In fact, the awards and honors are often fuel on the fire of a sense of fraudulence. “If people only knew.” The secret becomes even bigger.

In my years of practice, I’ve been shocked to come to realize how many people privately feel like total fakes. How is that the world continues to go round and round and yet is populated by such a flotilla of abject frauds?

While a few people have no doubt bluffed their way into positions of responsibility, the obvious truth is that many perfectly competent people have a tendency to feel as though they’re getting away with the secret (and inferior) truth of their incompetence, when in fact they are doing no such thing. Why such rampant distortion in self-concept? Why do so many people who are clearly up to the task feel as though they are pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes?

I think much of this has to do with the basic truth of our interiority: we are all-too-painfully aware of our inner experience and its roiling pool of self-admonishments, longings for do-overs, and crises of confidence, big and small. We are aware of all the vulnerabilities that must privately be managed to show up in a way that others will have confidence in us. We are aware of the enormity of the gap between our self-generating interiority and our largely constructed exteriority, and we believe the existence of this gap means we are fraudulent.

Our health and image-obsessed culture promotes the idea that outer beauty and ease is, by default, a perfect reflection of an interiority that looks much the same. In this time of spiritual acquisitiveness, we’ve come to believe that the smoothness of our interiority is the true measure of ultimate success, the holy grail of status. We yearn to be seen as successful in this way, and we present as though we have ascended that mountain of tranquility. And yet we alone know the secret truth: we are each, at times, a quivering, heaving, throbbing crockpot of insecurity. And we tend to believe (erroneously, of course) that the smooth Instagram exteriority of others is a reflection of their inner conviction and utter lack of any anxiety or darkness to be managed.

Others have achieved true mastery, while I only pretend to.

The truth is, to be genuinely fit for a role, any role, we must be able to successfully manage the pieces of ourselves that do not fit within it. We must manage our doubts, we must manage our shadowy pieces—our aggression, our covetousness, our selfishness, our frailties. We all must curate our interiority to show up in the ways we need to, professionally and often personally. To do this well, to manage ourselves such that we can meet the demands of our position—to pull it off, in a sense—is not to be a fraud; it is to be the genuine article. In fact, to be able to “pull it off” is to be the only genuine article there is. Just read the memoir, if it is halfway decent and at least fractionally honest, of anyone—anyone at all.

And yet even still, so many of you will read this and think, “Well yeah, okay, it makes sense. But not for me. I really am kind of a fraud.” And the overwhelming likelihood is that, despite the intensity of that feeling, you are not. You are, however, plagued by the same secret doubt and shadow that is the baseline challenge for any living human being. And if you’ve gotten through this day so far largely and convincingly showing up in your chosen roles as though that weren’t the case, I sincerely congratulate you on a job well and truly done.

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