“I feel like a fraud,” my friend said, gasping it out between breaths as we struggled up the final hill of our five mile trail run.

Her words startled me – like a slap to the face, or the shock of cold water being thrown on me.  She was always so poised and competent; an intelligent, beautiful woman like she is shouldn’t be feeling such self-doubt.  And yet, part of me wasn’t surprised.  Part of me was not surprised, because I knew exactly how she felt.

The first time I ever felt like a fraud was when I was leaving the hospital with my first daughter.  A nurse wheeled me down the hall – hospital procedure –  the baby safely strapped and bundled into her brand new car seat, and I thought, Someone is going to stop us any minute now.  Any time, now, someone is going to say, “Hey, you can’t leave here with that baby!”   To be honest, part of me was almost hoping for the admonishment not to leave with the baby.  The part of me that was terrified, insecure about her own abilities as a mother; the part that felt like there was no possible way that I knew enough to successfully raise another human being well.

Of course, the admonishment never came.  And now, more than eleven years later, my daughter is thriving and healthy, and has been joined by two younger siblings.

But there are still times in life when I feel like a terrible fraud; that if someone just looks a little bit harder, they’ll find me out for the impostor that I really am.

And I’m not alone.

In fact, this feeling is so common that there is a name for it:  impostor syndrome (also called impostor phenomenon).

I learned about it because, in a deep heart to heart with another amazing female friend, she admitted that she, too, often felt like a fraud, and mentioned that she had heard someone on a radio show once talking about how prevalent the feeling is in women.

Through hard experience, I’ve learned that often, the first step to fixing a problem, preventing a feeling that we don’t want to have, or don’t believe we should be having, is knowing that we are not alone.

No matter how original, different, or unique we imagine ourselves or our situations to be…we aren’t.  Someone has been there before.  Someone will be there after.  Someone else is there, right now.  We are not alone.  In those devastating, heartbreaking moments when we feel like no one in the world could ever possible understand us, let alone know us, when we feel the despair of our solitude…we are not alone.

So I feel like a fraud.  She feels like a fraud.  You feel like a fraud.  They feel like a fraud.  We are not alone.  And guess what else?  We are probably not frauds, either.

Impostor syndrome was first documented by two Georgia State University psychologists in 1978. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes  worked with over 150 successful women who, despite all evidence to the contrary, felt that they were frauds.

“Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” says Clance in the abstract of the study.

But the real question is why?  Why do women who are smart, ambitious, successful and educated feel as if they are merely posing as such, and that at some point, are certain to be discovered as frauds?

Clance and Imes found that their “impostors” generally fell into one of two groups, in terms of early family history.

The first group of “impostors” were part of a family where a sibling was designated as “the smart one.”   The implication for this “impostor” was that “she can never prove that she is as bright as her siblings regardless of what she actually accomplishes intellectually,” according to the previously cited abstract.

The second category of “impostors” were from a markedly different situation.  “The family conveys to the girl that she is superior in every way –intellect, personality, appearance, and talents. There is nothing that she cannot do if she wants to, and she can do it with ease. She is told numerous examples of how she demonstrated her precocity as an infant and toddler, such as learning to talk and read very early or reciting nursery rhymes. In the family members’ eyes she is perfect.  The child, however, begins to have experiences in which she cannot do any and everything she wants to. She does have difficulty in achieving certain things. Yet she feels obligated to fulfill expectations of her family, even though she knows she cannot keep up the act forever. Because she is so indiscriminately praised for everything, she begins to distrust her parents’ perceptions of her. Moreover, she begins to doubt herself. When she goes to school her doubts about her abilities are intensified. Although she does outstanding work, she does have to study to do well. Having internalized her parents’ definition of brightness as “perfection with ease,” and realizing that she cannot live up to this standard; she jumps to the conclusion that she must be dumb. She is not a genius; therefore, she must be an intellectual impostor,” according to the abstract.

Recognize either of these situations?

Dr. Valerie Young let her own feelings of fraudulence be the impetus for her doctoral research.  She counsels and speaks on the subject, and has published a book about the syndrome, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

“Your perceptions of what it takes to be competent , has a powerful impact on how you measure yourself and therefore how you approach achievement itself. And if you feel like an intellectual fraud then there is an excellent chance that you have been operating from a definition of competence that is so grandiose that not even a certifiable genius could ever hope to attain,” asserts Dr. Young on her web site.  (Emphasis my own.)

Dr. Young believes that an important step in overcoming impostor syndrome is adopting a more realistic idea of competency.

Other steps to overcome the feeling, from Dr. Young and clinical psychologist Dr. Joan Harvey, include:

Separate feelings from reality.  Remind yourself that feeling like an imposter is different from being an imposter.

“Imposters” often have conflicting images of themselves as either geniuses or total idiots.  Give yourself permission to be somewhere more in the middle, where most of us are most of the time.

Keep a written record of your accomplishments. Feel a sense of ownership for them.

Talk about your secret fraudulent feelings with trusted friends. Find and give support.

Don’t turn yourself in. “Fake it till you make it.”’

You are not alone.  You are not a fraud.  In fact, “there is no one alive who is youer than you,” to quote Dr. Seuss.  Let your you-ness shine.

 

 

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