Feel Like a Fraud? You’re Not Alone

LSD Photo
Lisa Doane and her two children

MotherBoard is excited to introduce Lisa Doane, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Rocky River (www.drlisadoane.com). She will be lending her expertise to our community on the topics of women, stress, anxiety and coping. Lisa earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a certificate in Women’s Studies from Ohio University (Bobcats!) and her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University.

Picture this: you have a huge presentation coming up. The pressure is high, and you’ve been working on this project for weeks. You know the material. You know your client. Others see you as cool and confident, and have trusted you with this important work. You dismiss their compliments—they are only saying nice things because they like you, not because you are competent. Inside, you are absolutely panicked. Freaking out. Sure that this is going to be the time when, finally, others discover that you really don’t know what you’re talking about. You are so afraid that you’ll make a fool of yourself, but you can’t ask for help because you should know how to do this by now. Asking questions will simply make obvious how little you really know.

Has this happened to you? I’ll bet it has—for some in fleeting moments, for others chronically. Psychologists have studied this experience since the late 70’s, and refer to this as the “impostor phenomenon”— it is characterized by persistent failure to internalize one’s own accomplishments (instead, we find external explanations for our successes that minimize our own contributions), paired with significant self-doubt and a persistent fear that you’ll be discovered as a phony (in spite of all those achievements).

This type of anxiety is one of the most common concerns I see in my private practice, especially among high-achieving, successful women. And although this is not a diagnosable psychological disorder, it can certainly have a negative impact on mental health, our work, and our relationships.   It can be particularly troublesome as we arrive at a midcareer point—we find that our self-confidence has failed to grow in pace with our professional responsibilities and roles, leaving us with a lingering sense of uncertainty and feeling like a fraud. Early in our careers, we expect to have some insecurity. We’re young, still learning. We are being mentored or trained, mistakes are anticipated and normalized as part of the learning curve. But as we gain experience, we may start to think that we should have it all together and, when we experience those same self-doubts, may interpret them as being catastrophic indicators that we are complete fakes who are not deserving of the responsibilities we have or accolades we’ve earned. If we feel like a fake, we must really be faking. Whew. Easy to see how this can be overwhelming.

This experience is certainly not limited to our professional identities. Motherhood itself is an opportunity for this impostor syndrome to rear its ugly head. Your kids are loved, cared for, provided with food and shelter and lots of extras, you spend quality time together, but on occasion you find yourself thinking, “Yes, but GOOD moms _______ (fill in the blank: have time to volunteer at PTA, don’t let their kids eat junk, are home after school, don’t yell at their kids, stick to a bedtime, etc.). If I don’t do that thing, I must not be a good mom.” Feeling like you’ve swindled those around you into believing you’re a good mom is enormously anxiety provoking and often results in very time consuming efforts to make sure that people don’t find out that you aren’t a perfect mother.

This feeling is familiar to me on a personal level with both sets of these doubts combined, as a psychologist who specializes in treating stress and anxiety and yet, on occasion, loses her cool with her children in the aisle at the grocery store. “If I can’t keep it together all the time with my kids, how could I possibly help other women to stay calm with their own children? If people see me, they’ll know I can’t possibly be a good psychologist.” And yet, what’s true (and the much more helpful, realistic way of thinking about it) is that I can experience those moments when my own frustration rises to the surface and be a supportive and effective therapist and good mom—these ideas are not mutually exclusive.

So what can you do to help resolve this problem and begin to feel the confidence you portray to the outside world?

  1. Identify the doubts for what they are: feelings, not fact. If you are feeling anxious and worried you might be found out, it is easy to fall into the trap of emotional reasoning—if I feel like a fraud, it must be true. Instead, actively work to remind yourself that those doubts are simply negative thoughts rather than true statements. This can make them easier to dismiss or challenge.
  2. Acknowledge your own strengths & achievements. Reflect on recent past situations in which you’ve experienced some success—whether you identified them as successful or you received that feedback from someone else. Systematically write down each of your contributions to the successes, big and small, and listen for that inner voice that tries to persuade you otherwise (“Our client loved that sales pitch. Yes, but only because…”). Remind yourself that these thoughts are unhelpful, negative, and likely untrue, and return to focus on your successes. With repetition, this may help you to believe in your own contributions, rather than dismiss them.
  3. Be happy with “good enough”. Perfectionistic women are most likely to experience this impostor phenomenon, in part because our expectations are so excessively high that even slight deviations from our own standards make us feel like failures, which further reinforces the fear that we will be uncovered. Instead, work to create more realistic (though still high) standards and then offer yourself some kindness and praise when goals are achieved at that level.
  4. Talk to a therapist. If you’ve tried these strategies with some consistency and still find the self-doubts are difficult to manage, or are affecting your ability to succeed at work or home, consider getting the help of a competent mental health professional, ideally someone with an expertise in anxiety, who can help you quiet those doubts and build your confidence.

Do you wonder if you are experiencing impostor syndrome? Take the test here:


Have a question about your mindset or mood?  We want to hear from you!  Email lisa@drlisadoane.com and we will try to answer it in a future post. 

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