Do You Ever Feel Like a Fraud?
Imposter syndrome is far more common than you might imagine.
Posted November 8, 2018
As a young therapist, halfway through a four-year postgraduate analytic training, I used to worry that, despite two years of graduate school and lots of good feedback from clients and supervisors (including that many of my clients seemed to be getting better!), I was actually a failure as a therapist. I was sure that one day not only my clients but also my supervisors at the clinic where I was working were going to figure out that I was a fake.
I was tremendously relieved when a supervisor who I greatly respected said that no one felt like they knew what they were doing until after they graduated. “And sometimes,” he added, “we don’t even know what we’re doing long after that.”
It might be disturbing to imagine that therapists sometimes worry about this, but we’re not alone. Parents often have a similar sense, and even worse, of “faking it.” As numerous young parents have told me, there’s no parent-training institute – and not even a manual!
But even highly successful professionals in every field sometimes worry about being frauds and being found out. An author friend told me that even though he has written and published a number of books, he often felt like he has never done it before. “I keep all of the books I’ve written stacked up on my coffee table,” he said, “so that I can look at them and remind myself that I do know how to do it.”
Carl Richards, a successful financial planner whose sketches about investing, money, and behavior are often published on the NYTimes Your Money pages, revealed in an essay for the Times, “Every time I sent a sketch or something else into the world, I worried the world would say, ‘You’re a fraud.’”
Richards also tells us that Maya Angelou, American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist, who won three Grammys and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award, told him, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
So, if you are worried that you are a fraud or a fake and that someone is going to find out, at least you now know that you’re in excellent company.
But what is this anxiety about? And what can you do about it?
Although not a diagnosis in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the fear of being an imposter, of not being as good as people think, and of being found out, has been described and recognized by numerous authorities in the field of psychotherapy and psychology. Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes first named the syndrome in an article in 1978. After studying 150 women who had achieved a high degree of success they wrote, “…despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘impostors.’”
Initially believed to strike mostly high achieving women, the syndrome was viewed as a cultural and sociological problem related to the reality of the time – that there was a prejudice against women achievers, both in the culture and in many women’s families. But later studies have shown that not only women who are following traditional female paths, e.g. staying home to care for their families, but also a number of men suffer from these feelings.
Apparently, even Albert Einstein struggled with these feelings, describing himself as an “involuntary swindler” because he believed that his work didn’t deserve all of the attention it had gotten.
The thing is, it’s a very common feeling.
One of the reasons for this self-doubt, according to some social scientists, is that there is no good measure that allows us to say, “okay, now I’ve accomplished enough to feel that I’m truly a success.” There’s always something more that we can do, no matter what our goals might be.
Another difficulty comes from something called “pluralistic ignorance,” which is a situation in which we believe something to be true but have no way of proving or disproving it. Pluralistic ignorance often involves shared, but unspoken, and often false beliefs about other people. For instance, while research shows that many college students feel anxious and overwhelmed, students themselves often believe that they are the only ones who are having these feelings and that all of their peers are successfully adjusting to college life.
Other factors can also play a role in the imposter experience. Sometimes, just the fact that some things come easily to you can make you feel that you don’t deserve the success you’ve achieved. For instance, a highly successful musician once told me that he didn’t play nearly as well as he should. When I asked him what he meant, he said, “It’s too easy for me. I just enjoy myself. If I was a great musician, I would have to work harder.”
While we all know that hard work is necessary to make any talent take off, it’s also important to remember that talent can make something that is hard for one person easier for another.
Fear of other people’s reactions to our success can also lead to feelings of fraudulence. It’s something like the age-old reaction of some women to compliments – the “Oh, you like this dress? I don’t think I look good in it at all!” We have to deny success, either by downplaying it or by denying it by feeling like it’s fake. The really difficult part of all of this, however, is that we often don’t even realize that that’s what we’re doing!
So what’s the best way to deal with feeling like an imposter?
Given how common the feeling is, and yet how seldom we know that other people are also suffering from it, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the one technique that is the most useful when you feel like a fraud is the very thing that you probably most don’t want to do:
Talk about it!!
There are some other ways to work with and change the problem. I’ve listed two good discussions in the reference section. But bottom line: they also encourage you to bring the feelings out into the open.
Once you get the courage to start to share your feelings with other people, you’ll probably get plenty of people telling you that you’re crazy or otherwise trying to reassure you that you are competent and have no reason to feel like a fake. Of course, that’s not going to help a whole lot, since you probably won’t let yourself believe them.
But then, turn the tables. Ask them if they’ve ever felt that way. They might not acknowledge it at first, and some people will never admit it, but many of the people you ask will, after giving it some thought, tell you that yes, they have felt that way. Ask them to tell you about their experience. And keep asking other people about their feelings of fraudulence. You will find that some of the people who you respect, who you think have tremendous self-confidence, and who you think are totally competent and successful, struggle with these feelings.
And once you see that competent, successful, and good people you admire also sometimes feel like frauds, you can start to recognize that your own feelings don’t have anything at all to do with whether or not you really can have achieved what you seem to have achieved. Maybe they simply mean that you don't know everything and aren't perfect at everything you do. But that's okay. That just means that you're human. Just like the rest of us.
Please note: I love reading your comments, but I’m not able to answer personal requests for guidance over the internet
Harris, Russ (2011). The confidence gap: a guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt. Boston: Trumpeter. ISBN 9781590309230. OCLC 694394371.Discusses treatment of impostor syndrome with acceptance and commitment therapy
"Overcoming Imposter Syndrome". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 18, 2017
Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3). doi:10.1037/h0086006