Being a Fraud: Dealing With the Impostor Syndrome

Lonely young man outside at house balcony looking depressed destroyed sad and suffering emotional crisis and grief on an urban background

Do you think that you’ve fooled the world into believing that you’re smart and capable? Then you might suffer from the Impostor Syndrome.

Have you felt it before?

The sinking feeling that you’ve been fooling everyone into thinking that you’re better, smarter and more qualified than you really are?

If so, there’s an official name for this issue.

This insidious mind virus is known as The Impostor Syndrome, and here’s an excellent definition of it, courtesy of Fast Company:

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to see their own accomplishments, dismissing them as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

The good news is that if you’re thinking that you’re alone in feeling like a fraud–you’re not. I’m right there with you.

Here’s my story, and more importantly, here’s how we can win the fight against Impostor Syndrome, starting today.

The Impostor Syndrome in Action

The Impostor Syndrome has tormented me my entire life.

As I’ve mentioned before, it took me three years before I found the courage to officially launch The Positivity Solution and publish my first-ever article for the world to read.

Up to this point, my story about why it took me over 1,000 days to press the “Publish” button on my initial article was due to the fear of dealing with the online haters.

Well, that was only half-true.

The other–and slightly more debilitating–reason was that I didn’t feel like I was good enough to launch a website about positivity.

The voices in my head relentlessly reminded me of that point:

“Seriously, why would anyone listen to you? There are people out there with Ph.Ds in Positivity Psychology, and you think that anyone would care about you and your sorry little Bachelor’s degree? You’re barely qualified to leave a comment on someone’s blog, much less start a blog of your own. Stay in your lane, man.”

We really do save the most mean-spirited words for ourselves, don’t we?

As you already know, I believed in those voices for three long years. When I finally found the guts to hit the “Publish” button, I thought that the reward for slaying the dragon inside of my mind would be that it would actually stay dead and leave me alone to write my articles in peace.

Well, not exactly.

Instead of vanquishing the dragon, the dragon became stronger. From the bloody stump where its head once was, it grew multiple heads–each one with a renewed focus to inflict its toxic influence in every area of my life.

  • I was promoted to a Director position at work (“It will only be a matter of time before you get found out that you don’t know what you’re doing.”)
  • I was asked to be a keynote speaker at large conferences (“You’re a fraud. You don’t have a fraction of the qualifications as the other big-name keynote speakers.”)
  • I was given a publishing deal to write a book (“You didn’t deserve it. You got lucky.”)

This is the Impostor Syndrome in action, and it almost limited my effectiveness in every meaningful way. Almost.

Thankfully, I learned a secret that changed everything.

I’m Not Alone

Last month, I was invited to be a speaker on an author panel at a very large conference.

Specifically, I was on a panel with five other extremely gifted authors who were there to talk about their books to a large audience of librarians. And predictably, the Impostor Syndrome was raging out of control in my mind prior to the event starting.

In hopes of doing anything to calm the flock of vultures swirling around in my stomach (read: distract me from throwing up all over myself), I decided to strike up conversation with the other authors while we were waiting for the festivities to begin.

“Out of curiosity, since I’m a newbie to this author stuff–what was the hardest aspect for you in writing your books?” I asked with sincere interest in their answers.

“Oh, without question it’s the self-doubt,” one author said immediately. “I would sit at my computer for hours typing up something, only to read it over and realize that it was a steaming pile of crap. Then I would go to my room and cry about how much of a fraud I was until the tears stopped. Then I would dry my tears, crawl back to my computer and start typing again. That was the process that I repeated until my book was finally done.”

All of the other authors on the panel instantly chimed in.

“Yes! That is soooooo me!”

“Whoa, here I was thinking that I was the only one who did that.”

“I feel so much better knowing that I’m not alone!”

To say that I was completely blown away by this conversation would be the understatement of the year. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I honestly felt like I was the only person who was consumed by the Impostor Syndrome as I was writing my book.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to the Fast Company article that I mentioned above, over 70% of people have experienced the Impostor Syndrome at one time or another in their lives.

The 70% undoubtedly includes famous movie stars, professional athletes, Grammy-winning musicians, high-profile politicians, New York Times best-selling authors, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and the guy/gal that at the coffee shop that you have a crush on, just to name a few.

On a positive note, that means that you and I are in very good company.

But, since this issue affects pretty much everyone, that means that we’re going to need to stare down this issue and deal with it once and for all.

The Reality of the Impostor Syndrome

The reason why the Impostor Syndrome is so insidious is because it devalues all of the blood, sweat and tears that we have put into our accomplishments over the years.

Instead of owning our successes, we chalk it up to dumb luck and our sneaky ability to pull a fast one on the entire world.

This is crazy.

The world is not filled with gremlins lurking in the darkness, patiently waiting to expose us to the world as frauds once we launch our blogs, write our books, apply for manager positions, enroll into colleges, or speak in front of audiences.

Equally as true, the world is not filled with gullible morons who are consistently (and easily) fooled into believing that we’re actually capable–due in large part to our “expert acting jobs” at work, at home, and every place in between.

The gremlins aren’t real, and our abilities aren’t Oscar-worthy acting jobs.

The voices of the Impostor Syndrome are consistently telling us lies. The reality is that we are better, smarter, and more talented than we believe we are. That is the voice that we need to listen to.

No, we are not frauds because we have some insecurities about our experience or knowledge. That makes us normal, like everyone else.

But to be exceptional, we’re going to need to act in spite of our insecurities, unlike everyone else.

In order to win the daily battle raging between our two ears, we must remember these truths, each and every day.

Even when we might not believe them ourselves.

Your Turn

Do you suffer from the Impostor Syndrome? Have you ever dismissed your accomplishments as lucky or as a result of fooling other people? If so, jump into the comments below and make your voice heard!

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Shola

Shola

Founder of The Positivity Solution
Author, keynote speaker, and kindness extremist who is committed to changing the world by helping as many people as possible to live and work with more positivity.
Shola
Shola
Shola

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Comments

  1. Hello Shola!

    First, kudos to you and the other authors for recognizing the importance of being honest and vulnerable with each other. The connections you made at that moment obviously made a huge impact on you, and I imagine on them.

    I think the Imposter Syndrome may also stem from the fact that there are no shortage of critics in our culture. Look at the way we speak of our ‘celebrities.’ There is a bizarre need to put them on a pedestal for superficial reasons (acting, music, reality tv, etc) and then tear them down at the first possible moment. So we all live on edge just waiting for that same treatment.

    I have found myself mired in the Imposter Syndrome most often as a parent. When I was a new mom in the hospital having that fragile baby placed into my arms, I looked for someone to say, “Don’t give her that baby!” Even with the third one, as I strapped her into her carseat, I felt like I was stealing something precious away from the hospital and once they realized it was ME they would come take her back.

    Now, almost 2 decades since that first baby was handed over to me, I still wait for someone more capable to come along and tell me they could be a better mom to my kids. Additionally, I have dealt with some specific issues with my three children that left me feeling like an imposter.

    13 years ago, when Mia was three and had never spoken a word, we got the diagnosis of autism. Two years ago, when August was 16, I got the revelation from them that they are transgender, specifically agender. I had to learn all new pronouns! Just this winter, after three months of ER and hospital visits with constant pain, Louisa was diagnosed with Celiac. Every single time with my kids I reeled in terror that I was handling it all wrong.

    (In all honesty, I look at parents of ‘typical’ kids and wonder what the heck that must be like!!!!)

    I can say, with complete honesty, that it has taken going through the trenches with each of these situations to finally feel like I am not an imposter. And even so, I still have moments where I doubt myself. Your message is a huge step for everyone to push past those feelings!! Long term, I believe the key is being vulnerable like you and the other authors were.

    Sharing our fears with each other is how we face the hard things. We face them, then we move on. If we don’t share the hard things, they stay inside and fester. That festering will eventually eat away at us until we lose all sense of being lovable or capable.

    Forgive the long reply. You inspired me and I just wanted you to know how enthusiastically I agree! Happy Monday, Shola. Keep on keeping us real and vulnerable. I’m in this with you!!!

    Kathy

    • Sounds to me like you are an excellent mother, and your kids know they can count on you.

    • Kathy, I don’t know how many times that I have told you this over the past few years, but you are such an inspiration to me. I don’t think that there is anything that brings out the Impostor Syndrome more than parenthood, and I’m sure that many people reading your comment (myself, most definitely included) could deeply relate to feeling unworthy of the responsibility of caring for the tiny humans who are in our care. In case you need a boost, please know that there is no one on this planet who is more worthy and capable of caring for Mia, August, and Louisa than you are. You are the real freaking deal my friend, and anyone who knows you would say the same. Believe that 🙂

  2. Hi Shola!

    Thank you for talking about this topic. It sure gets difficult when you try to follow a dream and are overwhelmed by self-doubt. Even though it took you three years to launch The Positivity Solution, I’m glad that you went for it. You are definitely a motivation to so many people around the world. I can’t wait for your book to come out!! 🙂

    • Thanks Yenny! Self-doubt can be brutal, but I’ve finally learned to expect its presence, especially when I’m trying to do something really meaningful. As we’ve chatted about before, you know that you have everything it takes to make your dream a reality. The key is not to let the voices in your head stop you before you start. You got this!

  3. This one hit home for me. To compound my angst on this I had a former spouse that would actively call me a “fraud” when I had successes. I still get “the flock of vultures” on a regular basis, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Very helpful.

    Would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the converse side – when you have to dominate the discussion/room/meeting, posturing as the smartest person. I have (unhappily in retrospect) found myself doing that as well.

    Kevin

    • Oh man, Kevin–that’s brutal. Thankfully, it’s a former spouse, because I can’t even imagine the hellish reality of having a life partner who would call you a fraud whenever you achieved success in your life. Props to you for leaving that relationship in the rear view mirror where it belongs.

      As for the other side, I can definitely relate. When I first got promoted to a leadership position, I used to posture like I knew way more than I really did ALL of the time–it was so pitiful. I did it because I felt like that was the only way that I would be perceived as worthy by my peers and my staff, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I finally learned through some painful trial & error that being authentic about the fact that we don’t know everything is an incredibly charming trait. Now, I’m the first guy to raise my hand in a room full of executives to say that I have no idea what they’re talking about (which happens often, by the way.) So, in summary–it’s a balancing act. One on hand, it’s okay to be real about the fact that we don’t know it all, but it’s also important not to overstate our lack of knowledge/ability either.

  4. Caitlin says:

    Nearly every day, I struggle with this. Recently, my manager told me in a meeting that since I had my daugther and a recent serious health scare that she’s noticed a lack of dedication (ie, I’m no longer working 45 hours a week). She also pointed out several areas of weakness that I wasn’t even aware of, small personal things that have nothing to do with my job responsibilities, nor my abilities. Needless to say, a boss who is a bully can make the Imposter Syndrome worse and cause me to question myself nearly every day.

    I’ve been working through your book and seeing a counselor to learn how to keep the Imposter Syndrome at bay.

    • You nailed it, Caitlin–bullies (being the manipulators that they are) are quick to use people’s insecurities against them in order to control them. In terms of your boss, please do not give this broken woman the power to make you doubt your abilities and your self-worth. Seeing a counselor is an excellent idea, and I am thrilled to hear that my book has been helpful too. Hang in there, and never forget how capable you are!

  5. Shola, I really struggle with this. For a long time I couldn’t feel authentic when I had professional successes. I kept thinking I was a fraud, and I needed to get my act together, before everyone found out that..I bit my nails, was behind on bills, my makeup was covering a big zit, my long coat was hiding my pot belly, etc. I thought a person had to be perfect before they deserved others’ respect. I did finally realize that the most successful people are imperfect, and they don’t let that stop them. We are human; a weird mixture of stuff we are on top of, and stuff that we need to pack a little tighter. I still am challenged by this. When I’m running a meeting or event, and I know lots of people are trusting me (because I always do such a good job!), I can’t shake the feeling that disaster and shame are around the corner. This is so bad, I’ll even have nightmares in advance, of me royally screwing up, like forgetting to set up a room with furniture, or forgetting to send out invites, so no one shows up. I have NEVER screwed up like that, and I’m 58 years old! Yet the fear is always lurking, that I can’t pull this off. Thank you for the encouragement, and reminding me this is something that many of us have to deal with. The only positive thing I can say is, that I did learn to plow ahead, and not let the doubt hold me back. I make good plans, I organize well, stay attentive, and ultimately. let go of the results. When unforeseen issues arise, I breathe, remind myself I am VERY GOOD at thinking on my feet, and cheerfully address whatever it is. Even though inside I am totally panicking and want to hide! Sometimes I feel so immature over this. It really does help, to hear you and our other readers talk about this painful problem.

  6. Donna, you have such a gift for explaining things in a way that anyone can relate to. Everything that you mentioned is exactly what I feel too. Every time I step on stage, publish a blog post, run an important meeting, or even care for my little girls, I feel that sinking feeling creep in: “Am I good enough to be doing this?” And just like you, I’ve gotten better at plowing through and not letting that voice stop me, and each time, it has made that voice get a little quieter. Most importantly, your results are proof that you’re not an impostor–the fact that you haven’t had a major professional screw-up in 58 years of life is pretty impressive!

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