Stop the Fraud Police -- You Deserve To Be Here

Female.Police.Officer.HandcuffsMany an ambitious woman periodically experiences a sneaking suspicion that she hasn't really earned her professional position and that the bottom is going to fall out one day. 

One Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist told me she could get a hundred and ninety-nine letters that were full of praise and positive feedback and one letter that was negative. She remembers the bad letter for days; it haunts her; it's the one she believes it true. She secretly fears this letter writer might be onto something. Even though she possesses certified credentials and knowledge in her field, has shown her ability and intelligence, and has ample education and dazzling prior success, she still tenders the thought, "If they only knew..."

As is the case with so many women I work with as well as those I interviewed for my book, Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word, many -- if not most -- accomplished women periodically fear that the fraud police are going to come banging on our door. 

By any objective standard we deserve our position and recognition and the paycheck that goes with it, but somehow we feel we are undeserving. Our professional veneer seems like a false persona. We are like a person who has just made footprints in the sand but does not recognize them as our own when we look behind us.

We feel like fakes. Like we're going to be found out. 


Journalist and author Valerie Mutton wrote a great article about this phenomenon. 

Using herself and a friend with equally impressive work and life credentials as research subjects of sorts, Mutton shares their experiences of sometimes feeling like imposters -- and tactics they deploy to stop self-sabotage in its tracks. 

Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? 

By Valerie Mutton

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of More

Ever feel like you’re fooling everyone with your success? How to stop being your own worst enemy and beat imposter syndrome.

It happened again when I was polishing my bio for a speech I would soon be giving. I looked at the accomplishments listed on the page and thought they must belong to someone else. The apparent high achiever I'd just finished describing seemed to bear no resemblance to the chronic underachiever I feel like most of the time. I dared to mention this to my friend Lynn*. "I keep waiting for everyone to discover I'm not nearly as clever as I look on paper," I admitted.

I expected to be met with a quizzical stare. Lynn, 46, is the very definition of superwoman. She is a well-respected freelance writer in Toronto, a third-degree black belt in karate and a first-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu.

Oh, and she has seven children - four of whom are adopted. This totally together woman would not understand what I was feeling.

An imposter syndrome epidemic

"Oh, I know exactly what you mean," she said. "Just recently at a karate tournament, the head instructor was introducing all the high-ranking black belts. Of the 200 or so people in the room, there were only five people experienced enough to be called high-ranking and to be acknowledged for that. It turned out I was one of them. It took me a second to realize I was supposed to step forward and bow - it really shocked me." She went on to admit that she worries all the time her karate club will find out she's no good at karate, that her editors will discover she doesn't know how to write, and that her kids will realize she's a lousy parent.

Clearly, we needed an intervention. 

I contacted two experts, Debra Condren, a business psychologist with offices in New York and San Francisco, and author of the book Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word, and Valerie Young, a Massachusetts-based speaker and author who gives workshops on "How to Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Seems to Think You Are."

According to Condren and Young, Lynn and I are not alone in sharing imposter syndrome. While few people are immune to it, women - particularly boomers - are especially vulnerable. Young says the syndrome often strikes women who are either the first or among the few in the family to enter a profession or go to university, and those are are in traditionally "masculine" careers.

Could you go three days without self-sabotaging?

One of the hallmarks is an inability to internalize success. In other words, you attribute your achievements to luck, being in the right place at the right time, or good connections - but never to your own hard work and talent. Condren tells me that one of her interviewees for her book was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who said she could get 199 letters praising her work and one letter with negative comments. She'd remember the negative one for days, convinced it was the only one that spoke the truth. With imposter syndrome, only the negative matters - everyone else is smarter, making more money and doing a better job. 

"Wolf in sheep's clothing" 

Psychologists from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., found women identifying with imposter syndrome competed harder to keep up with their peers (even though they were probably already way out front). I ask Condren whether imposter syndrome, if it's kept in check, could ever be good for you.

"Women's willingness to be introspective and to sincerely devote themselves to lifelong learning is a positive attribute," she says. I start to agree, saying it's never wise to start believing your own press and think that imposter syndrome can save you from getting a swelled head. But, she warns, this humility is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing that can keep us from taking our rightful place at the top. It's a self-induced glass ceiling.

I decide Lynn and I need a challenge: Could we go three days without self-sabotage? Seventy-two hours where we don't blush when someone praises us, don't stay out of sight to avoid being spotted as frauds, don't seek validation from external sources, and instead believe in our innate abilities.

Day 1

I am asked to chair a meeting today. I hate chairing meetings. For one thing, being asked to "chair" gives me that twitch I get whenever someone turns a noun into a verb. For another, I don't like having the responsibility for the whole meeting on my head. But people keep asking me and for once, I accept. Young says I should learn how to reframe things - to think about how much I'm going to learn, rather than what I don't know how to do. "It may never go away," she says of the nagging self-doubt. "But it's all about finding ways to talk yourself down from the ledge faster." And you know, she's right. Colleagues tell me I ran an effective meeting. I take the compliment and don't blush.

I ask Lynn how she did. Condren had suggested a self-validation exercise I'd passed along. I told her to stand in front of a mirror and tell herself how capable she is. "I couldn't take myself seriously standing in my Winnie-the-Pooh pyjamas," she admits. "And the kids were snickering behind the door when they heard me talking to myself."

Day 2 of the Challenge


Day 2  "Staying out of sight to avoid being spotted as a fraud," according to Condren, prevents you from seizing opportunities that will actually show off your skills and lead to more chances to excel. So I give that speech I've been worrying about, in spite of my doubts about my expertise. It goes well.

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this, and I begin to wonder if this new boldness will be useful in other areas. I try it after dinner. My son is doing math and he has a question. This strikes fear into my heart. We have a pretty clear division in our house - I help with languages and history homework; my husband helps with math and science. But my husband isn't home. Over the years I have almost convinced myself I can't do math, despite respectable grades in high school. I could wimp out and tell my son to leave the question until my husband comes home, or I can try to help him myself. It takes awhile, but we solve the question together. And we get it right.

I decide to check in with Lynn. Young tells me there is a lot of evidence that women internalize criticism whereas men externalize it. "We often have the arrow pointed at ourselves," she says. Lynn tries an exercise today to help overcome that issue. She takes a pen and paper and resolves to write down any compliments she receives over the course of the day, to try to focus on accepting praise, rather than deflecting it, and to concentrate less on criticism.

"How'd you do?" I ask.

She looks at her blank page and says, "I'm a self-employed writer with a home office. There's no one around to compliment my work." 

Day 3 

Today is a banner day: I snag two opportunities to beat imposter syndrome into the ground. 

I've written a book and I'm trying to get an agent. Today, I get a nice rejection letter. "This sounds like a great project," the agent writes, "but the market for this type of book is really competitive right now, and I just don't have the time to give it the attention it needs." My first thought is, Yeah, I'll bet she says that to everyone, but I stop myself. The letter is actually addressed to me, and she refers to my book by its title. It isn't a form letter. I decide to believe she meant it. Self-esteem: one; imposter syndrome: zero.

I've been told that I should have a platform if I'm going to try to sell a book. That means I need, at the very least, to start a blog. I don't want to blog - I know nothing about it. Plus, blogging is an anathema to someone with imposter syndrome. What if I write something stupid? What if I can't keep up with it? I think about taking a blogging course, and then I remember my new affirmation: I am capable of self-learning. I take a book out of the library and save $250 on the course.

A Little Praise Will Do You Good

Lynn's final challenge is today. Condren says it's important to take time to celebrate each of our achievements before moving on to the next one. This helps us internalize our accomplishments, and makes it seem less like we're listing the achievements of a stranger when writing up a resumé.

I ask Lynn, "What did you do after your last black belt test?" She admits she just went home and made dinner. I set her the task of finally taking the time to celebrate it properly and then follow up with her.

"Well, I went a little overboard, I think. I realized I hadn't celebrated a lot of things - going all the way back to graduating from university. So I celebrated it all last night."

"All of it? What did you do?"

"Well, I rented Lethal Weapon, poured a glass of wine and ate pralines and cream ice cream out of the tub, while telling myself that I've done a good job with my life and I should pat myself on the back once in a while."

"Good for you! I'm proud of you."

"There's more," she says.

"What else?"

She hesitates. "I poured myself a second glass of wine."

Real progress, at last.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of More

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