Fraud. Imposter. Charlatan. Fake. Have you heard the term imposter syndrome lately and wondered what it is? What does imposter syndrome feel like? Maybe, you find yourself asking, “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 that many people find themselves facing. Throughout my life’s journey, I have learned that there are three reasons that people feel like a fraud.
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, 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; in fact, 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. It seemed that women were far more likely to doubt their abilities or attribute their success to some other outside factor. Today, it is accepted that anyone can suffer from 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 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 that I had gotten lucky on the test. That and maybe my counselor had put in a good word for me.
Myself, and one other student, became the first two high schoolers to earn our associate degree before we graduated high school—a full year before actually. When they interviewed me, I had these lovely words of wisdom to say:
“It’s odd,” said 17-year-old DeSanto, “but we’re odd students.”
Geez. Odd. As if it was some fluke, and I had no idea how I managed to do it. When I completed my Master’s degree, part of me considered that 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.
“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 it 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 just 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 believe it is.
You see, I have confidence in a lot of areas of my life. You either like or you don’t. I don’t go out of my way to do anything crazy to improve my appearance. I wear makeup maybe five times a year. I put one outfit on. 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 my need for perfection in my achievements is because I think that will make people love me. And if they love me, they will stay. I am not actually 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.
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 just skimmed the practice test. Perhaps, you have a genuine affinity for a specific skill, and you don’t feel like you paid your dues.
Taking shortcuts can help alleviate some stress, but eventually, you will want to put in the work. Even though you are good at something, keep improving because there is always something 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 also 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, then you need to work out what it is you want. Once you work out your true feelings and desires and take action in line with that, you’ll end up getting 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. When it goes in our favor, is it any wonder we get uneasy about our hot streak?
We fear being who we are
I have known that I am a writer since high school. The thrill of having some early poems published and then writing an article for the 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 ended up earning a Master’s in Management and Leadership and working 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. I also hadn’t written during that time. 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
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 out 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 begin to 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!