“What if everyone figures out that I don’t really know what I’m doing?”
In my decade-plus career as a freelance writer and blogger, I’ve probably had this exact thought—or a similar one—approximately 1,845 times. Just before I press “publish” on a post, turn in a story, or give a presentation, I experience a brief but uncomfortable sinking feeling: The jig is up, sister. Here’s where your lack of talent and ability will finally be exposed, once and for all.
Among those of us who’ve been there—which, I’m convinced, is everyone except robot-alien hybrids and the 1% of the population that have somehow developed a superhuman level of confidence—this phenomenon is commonly known as Fraud Syndrome.
It’s the sense that, no matter your level of achievement, success, experience, or education, you don’t really deserve the accolades, the paycheck, the job, or the diploma. Maybe, us Fraudsters worry, it was luck, good timing, or being in the right place at the right time that got us where we are… and sooner or later, everyone is going to figure that out.
And fellow Frauds are everywhere. In fact, there’s a long list of high achievers who occasionally—or always!—feel like frauds even though they come off as confident and successful.
Meryl Streep, who, incidentally, identifies herself as an introvert, once famously told a reporter, “I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying: “I have written eleven 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.’”
And Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization, once said: “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me?”
I haven’t yet figured out a way to completely overcome Fraud Syndrome. I’m not even sure it’s possible. In fact, I’m feeling like a bit of a fraud writing this post! But over the last few years, I’ve come up with strategies to help me get past those impostor feelings without letting them derail me. Here’s what (usually) works:
Flip the script.
Everyone has an “inner critic.” It’s that small, nagging voice that likes to remind us of all the ways we have failed and will continue to fail for the rest of our lives. The inner critic is skilled at zeroing in on our weaknesses, real or perceived. But what if you turned that limitation into a source of pride rather than evidence of your ineptitude?
Here’s an example: people often ask if I have a degree in a writing-related field. I do not. In fact…I didn’t even finish college. For years, I felt sheepish about that and went out of my way to avoid all discussions of degrees and alma maters. But at some point, I decided to own and embrace my lack of formal education.
Now, whenever I feel twitchy about that blank space on my resume, I tell myself, “Wow, look at all I’ve been able to accomplish without a degree!” It never fails to give me a little boost.
No matter what skill or knowledge you lack, chances are you can identify at least one way you’ve overcome that limitation. Next time you find yourself focusing on the lack, why not flip it around and emphasize what you’ve accomplished in spite of it?
For example, maybe you’re down on yourself because instead of spending your thirties raising a family like you’d planned, you went through a divorce and wound up spending those years digging out from under a pile of debt. Now you’re 40 and feel like you’re starting over. Can you look at your life as a story about resilience, discipline, and embracing fresh starts rather than failure?
Or maybe that bakery you tried to open in your hometown flopped when the economy crashed, and you’re still beating yourself up for it. Instead of zoning in on the failure, think of the things you felt best about when you ran your business. Were you proud of the way you treated your customers? Did your pies win awards or simply the hearts and stomachs of everyone who walked in the door? In any failure, you can find success stories. You just have to take a few minutes to look for them.
If you can’t seem to “flip your own script,” it might help to ask a friend or colleague to weigh in on your skills and accomplishments. We are all our own harshest critics after all, and having someone who knows you well list what they perceive as your biggest successes and strengths can help you see yourself the way others see you…which is very likely “an awesome person.”
It’s so typical, it’s become a cliché: we tend to look at other people’s accomplishments as evidence that they are smarter, harder-working, and more talented than we are while simultaneously downplaying or ignoring our own successes.
But life—and making a living as a writer—has taught me two important truths: one, other people aren’t nearly as perfect as we think they are; and two, we’re a lot more awesome than we give ourselves credit for.
That’s not to say that I don’t know plenty of talented, smart, and accomplished people. But focusing only on their accomplishments while ignoring how long it took them to get there and the failures they experienced along the way—and simultaneously wallowing in my own failures and ignoring my accomplishments—creates some backward algorithm that only further cements the idea that I am out of my league.
“Too often we put people on pedestals and pull ourselves off them as we are so acutely aware of our own shortcomings… even more so in the areas we work to be most masterful,” says Margie Warrell, leadership coach and author of Stop Playing Safe.
One of her suggestions is to find examples of the ways people you admire have failed; this will put your own shortcomings into perspective. Asking someone you think highly of to identify his biggest failure or doing a Google search on the failures of famous people might help you break the ugly comparison cycle.
However, Warrell stops short of advising us not to compare—something she feels is unrealistic. I agree. Otherwise, it would feel like one of those well-meaning pieces of advice that leaves the whole “human nature” part out of the equation. Instead, Warrell advises, “The key is to return our focus back to what it is that WE do well—to focus on our innate strengths, passions, talents, and experiences.”
When you do compare, at least do it accurately: failures against failures and highlights against highlights. Measuring your biggest flop against someone else’s red-carpet moment is just bad logic. As author Steven Furtick said: “One reason we struggle with insecurity: we’re comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Feel it, let it go, move on.
Experts disagree on exactly why Fraud Syndrome exists, but it’s thought to be exacerbated by blending perfectionism with high-pressure scenarios in which we are expected to perform for a subjective audience. It’s also worth noting that high achievers—those who have accomplished great things and will continue to do so in the future—are much more likely to suffer from Fraud Syndrome than others. So if you’re hard on yourself, says Warrell, “You’re in good company!”
When struck with the fear of being “found out,” talk to yourself the way a kind, warmhearted yoga instructor would: notice the feeling and recognize it as natural and normal. Take a deep breath, and try to replace those negative messages with positive ones. Tell yourself you’re capable and confident; remind yourself of a past success or two. And then, lift yourself off the mat and try again.
You may never completely eliminate Fraud Syndrome from your psyche, but you can take steps to move past the feeling when it pops up. And as with any negative thought pattern, with time and practice, you can “rewire” your brain to skip over that initial lizard-brain impulse and choose a more productive way of thinking.
You can even think of each time you act despite Fraud Syndrome as flexing a muscle to make it stronger. When it comes down to it, moving forward in spite of fear and self-doubt requires practice… just like holding an endless plank pose.