Imposter Syndrome: Why You Feel Like a Fraud
Have you heard the term imposter syndrome lately and wondered what it is? What does imposter syndrome feel like?
Fraud. Imposter. Charlatan. Fake.
Maybe, you ask, “Why do I feel like a fraud?” Imposter syndrome is not an official diagnosis in the DSM, but that doesn’t make it any less of a real issue many people face.
Throughout my life journey, I have learned that there are three reasons people feel like frauds.
What exactly is imposter syndrome?
Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes initially coined the term in the 70s. Their research paper, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High-Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” first noticed this problem in women who had achieved academic success, professional goals, or peer respect.
After researching this group of women (over 150) for five years, the pair concluded, “Despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, a 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.”
Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. At the time of their study, they questioned if this happened with men but decided that warranted further study.
Women seemed far more likely to doubt their abilities or attribute their success to some other outside factor. Today, we accept anyone can suffer from imposter syndrome.
My personal experience with Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is something I have struggled with for my entire life. In middle school, when I earned higher grades than my peers (without studying or doing anything I felt was difficult), I assumed it was because all of my teachers felt sorry for the little girl abandoned by her parents.
They were taking pity on me. In high school, when I was accepted into the dual enrollment program (a program that allowed me to attend college classes at the community college in the evenings), I assumed I had gotten lucky on the test.
Or maybe my counselor had put in a good word for me. I, and one other student, became the first two high schoolers to earn our associate degree before we graduated high school—a full year before.
When they interviewed me, I had these lovely words of wisdom to say: “It’s odd,” said 17-year-old De Santo, “but we’re odd students.”
Geez. Odd. As if it was some fluke, and I did not know how I did it. When I completed my Master’s degree, part of me considered my teachers were terrible (they weren’t) and that I had earned a lesser degree.
Who am I to have these degrees and hold this knowledge? When I left behind the business world to write, it was so much worse.
I told my therapist that my freelance clients and audience on Medium were “being nice to me” when they expressed pleasure in my work. That is what imposter syndrome does to people.
The thought process is that you don’t deserve what you have worked for, that someone will figure out that you were mistakenly ‘given’ a degree, or that you don’t belong in the community.
Even the great Maya Angelou struggled with Imposter Syndrome.
“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.’” — Maya Angelou
What does Imposter Syndrome feel like?
Imposter syndrome feels like drowning in a river of self-doubt. I hinged my feelings of self-worth on my achievements for as long as I could remember.
Yet none of those achievements filled the void, and I questioned their validity. It feels like you are tiptoeing around your accomplishments, waiting for someone with more authority to come along and call you out.
Anxiety and stress cloud everything you achieve because it doesn’t feel like you earned it.
“Sometimes, sitting here in the dark, slowly creating strategy, she wondered if she was only fooling herself to think her plans were clever.” ― Vernor Vinge
I first heard the term as a writer, and when I brought it up to my therapist, who is also a writer, she said, “imposter syndrome is just low-self esteem.” I said I do not have a self-esteem problem, and she looked at me like I had lost my mind.
Once I started examining how I felt, I thought ok, maybe it isn’t as high as I believed it was. I have confidence in many areas of my life.
You either like me, or you don’t. I don’t go out of my way to do anything crazy to improve my appearance.
I wear makeup five times a year and put one outfit on in the mornings, which is what it is.
If it fits and is comfortable, that’s good enough for me! I have been this way forever. Confident and sure of who I am.
A little more introspection led to the discovery that I need perfection in my achievements because I think that will make people love me. And if they love me, they will stay.
I am not as confident as I portray. I was writing about my trauma and very personal things.
These things brought me back to a place of insecurity and low self-esteem and triggered the feeling of imposter syndrome.
Looking for shortcuts and avoiding the tough stuff
The first reason is that things seem “too easy.” Maybe you didn’t study for those tests and skimmed the practice test.
Perhaps you have a genuine affinity for a specific skill and don’t feel you paid your dues. Shortcuts can help ease some stress, but eventually, you will want to do the work.
Even though you are good at something, keep improving because there is always more to learn. Doing that work will make you feel less like a fraud.
Be proud of what you know, but go the extra mile every day to learn something more. Don’t be afraid to put in the work, even if you can achieve the bare minimum without doing it.
According to Paula Lawes, taking shortcuts leads to leaving things to chance. She says:
“When you get up every morning, what do you dedicate your life to that makes a difference to the world? If you’ve no idea what that is, you need to work out what it is you want. Once you work out your true feelings and desires and act in line with that, you’ll get more from life than you ever expected.”
That might be why people suffering from imposter syndrome feel like they got lucky. By taking those shortcuts, or easy routes, things get left to chance.
Is it any wonder we get uneasy about our hot streak when it goes in our favor?
We fear being who we are
I have known that I am a writer since high school. The thrill of publishing some early poems and writing an article for a real-life paper clinched it for me.
I was going to get a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications, but life took some unexpected turns. I earned a Master’s in Management and Leadership and worked professional jobs.
Twenty years had passed between those initial plans and the decision to reinvent my life. To say I was terrified to quit my job is an understatement.
I had benefits and made decent money. Two decades had gone by, and I had written nothing.
I was afraid of failing, but I was also scared of succeeding. My whole life would be different if I became a freelance writer.
Or wrote my book, and it became a success. Those fears can cause self-doubt and make you feel like a fraud.
You can overcome these feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome.
These thoughts are only in your head. It is your doubt and your insecurities that are playing the never-ending tapes of fear.
You alone have the power to hit the pause button. Use positive affirmations and other techniques to improve your self-esteem.
Seek therapy or a life coach to help. Stop taking the easy way out and put in some work.
Find something that is challenging and learn more. Keep building your skills.
Finally, don’t be afraid to let your authentic self shine through. Be true to who you know you are.
Doing these things will have you feeling less like a fraud every day. Over time, you will see yourself as others see you.
You will thrive when you stop swimming in that river of self-doubt. Just get out and find a new watering hole.
One that fulfills you and satisfies the desires you carry around. You deserve to live a balanced life that makes you happy.
Have you suffered from imposter syndrome? Share any tips that helped you move past it in the comment section below!