Fraud, Fake or Phony?

My girlfriends are some of the most cleverest and most smartest and most capable of people to have ever existed on this planet. This is a fact. They are all highly qualified. Some have multiple university degrees. And what they continue to accomplish in their personal and professional lives, continually makes my belly buzz with feelings of pride.

But despite all of this, I've had conversations with some of these remarkable women of late, about how they’re feeling a bit fraudulent in the workplace at the moment. 

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that these people are ‘faking’ their successes at present. There has been no mistake in them obtaining their mammoth amounts of qualifications, certificates, awards and accolades. They've not gotten to where they are based on blind luck or error. They just worked bloody hard.

But despite highlighting all the evidence to the contrary, it can be hard to take away the feeling of fraudsterism.

In many challenges – personal and professional – we can be held back by the crippling thought that people like us could not possibly triumph given what we know of ourselves: how reliably stupid, anxious, dull, and downright bad we really are. We might leave the possibility of success to others, because to ourselves we don’t seem to be anything like the sort of people we see lauded around us. Faced with responsibility or prestige, we quickly become convinced that we are simply impostors, like an actor in the role of a pilot, wearing the uniform and making optimistic and confident cabin announcements while incapable of even starting the engines. Sometimes it can feel easier simply not to try.

This feeling is not at all uncommon.

Social psychologists have studied what’s termed ‘The Imposter Syndrome’ since at least the 1970s, when a pair of therapists (clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes) at Georgia State University used the phrase to describe the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women who had a secret sense they were not as capable as others thought. Since then researchers have documented such fears in adults of all ages, as well as adolescents.

As it turns out the impostor complex doesn’t discriminate. It can show up at any age, profession, position and area of our lives. It can show up in students, CEOs and artists. It can show up in our parenting and even spiritual practices. Researchers have seen people wonder: “Am I doing enough? Am I spiritual enough?”

Clance and Imes have found four distinct behavioural traits in their research that show up in imposter syndrome:

  • Diligence: When we feel so terrified of being “found out” that we end up working two or three times as hard, leading us to over-prepare and feel exhausted.
  • Feeling of being phony: To avoid being “found out,” we might give people the answers that we think the others are seeking. For instance, we might say that we agree with taking a certain direction on a new project (even though we really disagree). This only leads to a further entrenched sense of phoniness. 
  • Use of charm: We might become overly reliant on our likability to get approval. But then the praise can feel hollow because we'll believe it’s due to our charm — not our skills or smarts. What a vicious cycle that one is. 
  • Avoiding display of confidence: This is when we worry that if we show confidence in our abilities, they’ll just get rejected. So instead, we'll convince ourself that we're “less than” to avoid the rejection. Ohh. 

Though the impostor phenomenon isn't an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. The impostor complex is problematic because it has the potential to paralyse us. It can prevent us from putting our best work out there, especially if we think it might be controversial, or that there might be potential for failure. It stops us from pursuing opportunities and exploring new experiences. It can contribute to absenteeism, perfectionism and burnout. In more severe cases, we can develop anxiety, depression, shame and deep self-doubt.

Research has found that many people who feel like impostors grew up in families that placed a big emphasis on achievement. In particular, parents who send mixed messages — alternating between over-praise and criticism — can increase the risk of future fraudulent feelings. Societal pressures only add to the problem, with many of us becoming confused between approval and love and worthiness. I know that I’ve experienced periods where my self-worth has become contingent upon achieving.

But the impostor phenomenon seems to be more common among people who are embarking on a new endeavour. This makes sense. When things are new and a bit more challenging we may be particularly susceptible. It’s harder to complete things perfectly the very first time around.

This imposter complex has some real potential for disaster. So, can it be fully eliminated? Well, I haven’t fully eliminated mine yet.

On occasion though, I find these tidbits somewhat helpful:

  • I read a suggestion once to think of the impostor complex as a traveling companion. It can ride along in the vehicle you’re driving (preferably in the backseat), and point out places where there might be room for improvement. But you would never hand over the steering wheel. Because if you let it drive, you’ll never go anywhere.
  • Remembering that it’s common. When I was completing my post-graduate clinical psychology programme I had recurring feelings of anxiety bordering on panic. Although my grades were fine, and I had been accepted in on the first round of offers, I was certain that my peers, supervisors, teachers and University would find out that they had made a mistake; that they shouldn’t have admitted me into the programme; that they shouldn’t have let me provide therapy to people who were vulnerable. I would alternate between feeling this way because I was sure I didn’t have the capability of getting a Masters or because there had been an error in my undergraduate degree. I thought there was some mistake in the process or that I had gotten in based on some process of luck. I remember one night (aided by alcohol) tearfully confessing to another friend in the programme (also under the influence) that I was a fraud and would eventually be exposed. He burst out laughing and then gave me a hug. “Don’t you know that EVERYONE here feels that way?” I was shocked to discover I wasn’t the only one.
  • Talk to mentors. Last year I was uber blessed to have a boss who continually reminded me how competent I was. She did this by saying “You are so very competent”. A Lot. It made a world of difference.

It’s possible though that the root cause of the impostor syndrome is that we are really unable to generate a picture of what other people are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we fail to imagine how deeply flawed everyone else must necessarily also be beneath a more or less polished surface.

Are we just failing to imagine that others are every bit as troubled as we are? It’d be lovely to think it’s not the case, but once we get to know someone we often find out about their regrets or their agonies or their pain. Their vulnerabilities are not unique curses upon them, or us, but they are just universal features of being the humans. So could the solution to the impostor syndrome then be making a leap of faith? That is, that the minds of others work in basically much the same ways as ours do. Everyone must be as anxious, vulnerable and wayward as we are. It’s a leap of faith because we just have to accept that the majority of what we feel and are, especially the more shameful, unmentionable sides, will be represented in each and every one of us.

Wow. That's a controversial thought.  

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