What to Do When You Feel Like a Fraud
Jason, an independent contractor in the technology industry, has a very successful career. In spite of that, he frequently questions his accomplishments. When asked about his success, he reports that he is plagued by the thought that "it has happened in spite of everything, or because of dumb luck, not so much because I'm actually good at something." Accepting accolades for his work is "horribly embarrassing," he says.
Like many people, Jason has impostor syndrome, the belief that one has not earned his success. It is particularly common among people who are high achievers. Ironically the more successful someone is, the more likely he is to think he didn't come by that success honestly. It is particularly worrisome because not only can this self-doubt make you miserable, it can harm your career. In extreme cases, it can even lead to depression and anxiety.
Psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., first described what they called impostor phenomenon in the 1970s. They said it "occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success" (Weir, K. (2013). Feel Like a Fraud? gradPSYCH. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud.aspx). Those who suffer from it often feel like frauds. Rather than celebrating their achievements, they worry others will find out they have not earned them.
Like Jason, they incorrectly believe they just got lucky.
Do You Have Impostor Syndrome?
If you feel unworthy of receiving recognition for your achievements, you may have impostor syndrome. While it strikes women and minorities most often, according to an article in Scientific American, it can strike anyone.
It is usually triggered by a major achievement, says article author Ellen Hendriksen. "It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion" (Hendriksen, E. (2015). What Is Impostor Syndrome? Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-impostor-syndrome/).
You may wonder if you will ever be able to let go of the belief that you are a fraud. After all, this feeling can be very distressing and can keep you from enjoying your success. Fortunately, rational thinking takes over occasionally. Samantha, a freelance writer, reports that although she struggled with self-doubt after starting her own business several years ago, things eventually improved. She reports that "I woke up every morning positive that everyone would find out that I was a fraud. It took about two years before that stopped being a daily occurrence. Now I'm down to about once a week." When it makes an appearance, Samantha says, "Unfortunately, I'm a fraud today. Tomorrow, I'll be the queen of this town, but today I'm a fraud."
Will Your Self-Doubt Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
When you question your success, others may begin to question it as well, and your worries about being discovered to be a fraud could actually become reality.
If you don't believe in your accomplishments, how can you expect anyone else to take them seriously? Even when you doubt yourself, it is important to avoid sharing those feelings with any but your most trusted confidants. Remember that while you may be unwilling to accept the accolades right now, you may not feel this way for long. At some point, you may appreciate the recognition. You will certainly need it if you hope to advance in your career.
Not only should you acknowledge compliments when they come your way, but you will at times have to let others know about your accomplishments. You may attempt to stay under the radar instead of basking in the glory of your success because of your fear of being 'found out'. Unless you are hoping to rid yourself of impostor syndrome by actually becoming unsuccessful, this is the wrong approach.
If you don't tell others about your achievements, they may go unnoticed and therefore, unrewarded. Want a raise or promotion? You probably won't get either if your employer doesn't realize what a great job you're doing. If you are self-employed, you may hesitate to charge appropriately for your services. Jason, the technology consultant, blames impostor syndrome for not always earning as much as he should: "I think that's why I have trouble charging people for things or being properly compensated."
Your reluctance to own your success can thwart your job search efforts. Your resume, for example, should highlight your accomplishments. If you neglect to do that, you probably won't get called in for a job interview. If you manage to score an interview but don't talk about your accomplishments, you won't get hired. You will also have difficulty networking because you may not think you are in the same league as your peers.
Finally, impostor syndrome is often associated with perfectionism. When you try to do everything perfectly, you may either procrastinate or spend too much time trying to get everything just right. Neither is going to please your boss since you will miss deadlines for completing work.
Take Ownership of Your Success and Stop Feeling Like a Fraud
When it seems like impostor syndrome is taking over and interfering with your career, you must try to put an end to it. Remember, if it seems like you are heading toward depression or anxiety because of it, seek help from a mental health professional. If you are just experiencing garden variety self-doubt, take some time to think about all the work that went into achieving your success. Was it the result of working very hard? Did you earn a degree or a certificate? Did you spend long hours at work? Success rarely comes to those who don't work for it. If you have it, it is likely because you earned it. Now own it.