Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud?

Questions to help you get back on track with who you feel you really are.

DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock
Source: DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

“Feeling like a fraud” is an issue that many grapple with. 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 real capabilities 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.

Many people live a good portion of their lives acting out a false persona, just trying to blend in. We often hear of it in the workplace, but it could manifest in any or many aspects of one’s life. People often feel that they are not as smart, capable, industrious, dynamic, or deserving as others believe them to be, and that one day they will be exposed for the fraud they are, and then be fired, demoted, dismissed, and sent where they really belong—the bottom of the heap.

Although we may successfully study others around us in order to learn how to emulate appearances, behaviors, and actions that are deemed appropriate in certain situations, only you know that these actions and appearances are nothing compared to what you really want to be. In fact, it inevitably takes an incredible amount of psychic energy to maintain an artificial personality or false persona on an ongoing basis, and that’s exhausting and depleting.

There are many consequences of being someone other than who you really are, including bouts of anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and constant vigilance lest someone find you out and expose your charade. For some, feeling like a fraud starts early in life as a defensive maneuver, a protective device against being exposed and hurt. But continuing this behavior into adult life often deprives you of facing and confronting issues you have avoided.

Sometimes, the fear of being who you really are is based in reality, and how others regard you really does deny your true self. In response to this, you may quickly learn what to do and how to behave in order to be accepted. The message conveyed is that this is what others want or need you to be. They may be more comfortable with a false identity or persona rather than the “real deal”—your true personality.

Sometimes, feeling like a fraud comes even when there are few or no outside influences putting pressure on you to be other than who you are. This sense of self may be the result of your own imaginings, perhaps generated by low self-esteem, feeling unappreciated as you are, and/or not hearing enough from others about what you consider to be your strong attributes, those things that make you shine.

But at the core, feeling like a fraud is a far more complex issue: living life as a “divided self.” Some children are confronted by the dilemma of having to choose an identity created by parental figures that is diametrically opposed to the identity they experience as themselves. And often, the choice is simple, but harsh: Give up who they feel they really are, “the true self,” in order to continue being cared for and approved of.

Unaddressed and uncorrected, this maladaptive model is one people may utilize moving forward. The family dynamic is recreated and reenacted at every turn. It is no stretch that many individuals will even select (albeit unconsciously) situations that mirror the familial one. Perhaps we do what we know best, but repeating old patterns, akin to the classic repetition compulsion, is actually an attempt to work out a difficult situation, but with a different outcome. However, real change is only possible when we can access and confront those intimate parts of ourselves that have been banished, invite them back into our lives, and heal the divisions within ourselves.

On a positive note, here are some steps to help you identify what you believe to be true about yourself in order to help you get back on track with who you feel you really are:

  • Make a list of 20 things about yourself that you know in your heart to be true. What determines the truth of these characteristics/traits to you? (Do you “just know," have you been repeatedly told these truths, or are they a result of self-examination and soul-searching?) Do you affirm these characteristics/traits in the way you live your life?
  • Make a list of 20 things others believe to be true about you, but which you know are not accurate. Why have these characteristics/traits been reinforced? How do you effect a course correction with those things that you feel don’t accurately fit you, or are core negative beliefs?
  • Who were you as a child? Do you recognize the expression of that child in yourself as an adult? When you were young, what were you encouraged or discouraged from being or doing? What were the things that you were especially recognized for? What were the things people neglected to recognize most about you?
  • Do you feel successful in your relationships? Do you feel you can be yourself in your relationships with a significant other, friends, and family? Do you fear expressing your needs and desires? Do you worry that your feelings, behavior, and actions are truly understood and appreciated? Do you feel frustrated that your relationships don’t seem to work out time and again? Do you worry that significant others will find out who you really are and criticize, judge, and reject you?
  • As far as your professional life, where are you now? Are you doing what you really want to be doing? What are the special traits/skills/gifts unique to you that your current work allows you to utilize/express? What are the traits/skills/gifts that your current job/work does not allow you to utilize or express? What job, career, or profession do you wish you had pursued? What got in the way of your pursuing/being what you thought about earlier in your life?
  • In your early upbringing, were personal expression and creativity recognized, encouraged, and rewarded, or discouraged and even negated? How did you express yourself creatively as a child? Did that expression find its way into your adult life? If not, why? Do you believe that there is some creative aspect of yourself that you have never pursued or expressed? If so, why haven’t you?

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. Deep change often has to take root before we can live up to the potential that resides inside us.