a woman looks in a mirror
by
By Shelli Johnson
,
January 23, 2021

Feeling Like a Fraud

It was all too much. It was too big. What was I thinking?

In moments of self-doubt, when the fraud police are doing their investigating, all of this is forgotten, and my being here is chalked up to luck and my apparent skill for pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

“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

It was still dark out. It was December, and it was 6:45 in the morning. My Uber driver was helping me try to figure out where to deliver me as we drove in circles around the new and impressive Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.

I had been hired to give my “Epic Lessons Learned in the Field” keynote presentation to women leaders who work for the Arthur M Blank family of businesses. I snapped a few photos of the new stadium as we drove around it. As far as my three sons were concerned, this gig was my coolest yet, and they had requested I get photos.

With a few more minutes available to kill, I worried about what I had chosen to wear. I had on what I usually wear for these keynote presentations — jeans, a nice blouse, and cowboy boots. I don’t own any pantsuits and would feel awkward wearing one. I will wear a dress, but usually only for special occasions like weddings, etc. One time, when our youngest son was 4, and I came downstairs in the morning with a dress on, he remarked, lovingly, “I like your costume, Mommy.” You get the drift.

I wondered about the women leaders I would soon meet — “corporate” women who live in a city and work for a prestigious organization, and who likely earn considerably more money than I do (read: have more class than I do). I wondered if they would expect me to be more dressed up? I felt honored to have this opportunity, and I didn’t want them to view my being not very dressed up as indicative of the amount of respect I had for them, their time, and their decision to hire me as a keynote presenter.

Luckily, amidst the worries about my outfit, I remembered a bit from Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness. Brown wrote of a time she was about to give a big presentation and changed from the outfit she thought she should wear into the outfit she was meant to wear. Recalling this helped a little.

As my driver and I were about to part ways, I requested that he return in two hours to take me to my next place of work — Turner Networks.

Turner Networks. As I said it out loud, I sensed the familiar rush of panic I had experienced off and on in recent days. I could feel some sweat around my neck and my heart was racing. I wondered if I might be having a panic attack. I was afraid. Afraid I was going to be “found out,” that I may be pretending to have particular abilities that I didn’t really have. Both opportunities felt like big breaks for me, and I was wondering if it was a mistake that I had been hired.

By the way, every single speaking engagement I’m hired for feels like a big break for me. I struggle with self-doubt when presenting during various conferences in my home state of Wyoming, to leaders at Publicis.Sapient, or Johnson & Johnson, and even when presenting to middle schoolers in my small hometown.

But these bigger-name opportunities felt like an opportunity for me to see if I was, in fact, not a fraud.

I wasn’t a fraud that day and I’m not a fraud now. But what I am is human, and the experience described above is something most of us experience from time to time, especially when we’re stretching and daring to fail. We experience it whenever we’re leveling up and daring to do something bigger, or more high level than we’ve done before.

There’s a name for this experience. It’s called “Impostor Syndrome.”

Impostor Syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. The term was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is often dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.(Wikipedia)

Amanda Palmer is an artist, singer-songwriter, and author of a great book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. In her commencement speech to The New England Institute of Art class of 2011, Palmer referred to the Impostor Syndrome as a visit by “the fraud police.”

Explains Palmer: “The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grownups who don’t exist, and who come knocking on your door at 3 a.m. when you least expect it, saying, “We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing, and you stand accused of committing the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we’re taking everything away, and we’re telling everybody.”

“People working in the arts especially have to combat the inner fraud police on a daily basis,” explains Palmer. “And even if you’re a very happy, healthy, confident person, the fear of the fraud police is ever lurking.”

But back to driving in circles at the Mercedes Benz Stadium and my feelings of panic. It didn’t matter that I had been hired to give my presentation several times before at conferences and for organizations in Atlanta, Miami, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, London, and in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and other places. It didn’t matter that I had received favorable feedback and numerous testimonials validating my presentation abilities. It didn’t matter that all of the content I share is mine, or that I’ve worked very hard to create it, or that I’ve spent hours in preparation so I could present it to the best of my abilities, or that I believe strongly in the message I am hired to share.

In moments of self-doubt, when the fraud police are doing their investigating, all of this is forgotten, and my being here is chalked up to luck and my apparent skill for pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

I am visited by the fraud police often.

When a group of six people flies from their comparatively big cities into Wyoming to go on a guided wilderness adventure with me, I have moments of panic and self-doubt. In those moments of self-doubt, in my mind, my experience, expertise, and competence are downplayed and insufficient.

Sometimes before a coaching call, I doubt myself and my abilities. Two years ago I was coaching someone with Stage 4 cancer. It was meaningful work and I want to do more of it. Still, often when I was on a call with him, I’d think to myself, I don’t know how to do this.

Sometimes, before I hit “send” on an email I’ve drafted for someone I admire and respect and would love the opportunity to connect with, the fraud police show up and question my value and worthiness. Who do you think you are? Why would they want to connect with you?

If I want to deepen a particular friendship and do something extra thoughtful, I might hesitate due to the fraud police, who show up and question my ability to be a good friend. As a mother, I feel like an impostor all the time. As hard as I try to be the mother I want to be to my three sons, I often doubt my abilities.

I have endless examples of experiencing the Impostor Syndrome, but I’m thinking of a particular one. It was a decade ago when I was starting as a coach and keynote presenter.

A dear friend and champion of mine, Debbie, offered to host a brunch for women leaders at her home in San Francisco, during which I could test-drive my presentation. At the time, Debbie was chief of people at Mozilla, and she was/is connected. Her offer was generous. For this Wyoming country bumpkin to get the opportunity to present my message to corporate women leaders while launching my new business was a spectacular opportunity.

I would have been nuts to say No so I said Yes. But as the event drew closer, I started negotiating with myself and looking for a way out. It was all too much. It was too big. What was I thinking?

Fortunately, the value I place on commitment and keeping my word is high so I honored my plans and traveled to San Francisco.

On the morning of the presentation, as women starting arriving at Debbie’s and with just minutes to go before my presentation was to begin, I retreated to a guest room and became what can only be described as socially paralyzed. I was hunched in a chair trying to get myself together, to get in-state. But instead, I was freaking out. Panicking.

The fraud police were relentless. What if these women don’t find what you have to say compelling? What if they’ve heard it before? What if nobody but you cares about what you have to say? What if they gave up their Saturday morning to hear something that’s a total waste of their time?

Finally, it was time to present, so I had no choice but to come out of hiding. I entered the living room to give my presentation. I am pretty sure the sweat under my armpits was visible on my linen blouse.

Thankfully, the presentation went well. I had dodged yet another bullet.

All of the leaders I work with and/or coach, and — for that matter — all of the people I know well, have themselves at times struggled with the Impostor Syndrome.

Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist, a professor of the Harvard Business School, and author of Presence, a book I highly recommend.

In Presence, Cuddy explains, Impostorism causes us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us (in these fixations, we’re usually wrong), then fixate some more on how those judgments might poison our interactions. We’re scattered — worrying that we underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us, and what that will mean for us tomorrow.

The general feeling that we don’t belong–that we’ve fooled people into thinking we’re more competent and talented than we actually are–is not so unusual. Most of us have experienced it, at least to some degree,” says Cuddy. “It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather, it’s the deep and sometimes paralyzing belief that we have been given something we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and that at some point we’ll be exposed.

Cuddy says we’ll likely never completely shed our fears of being fraudulent. New situations may stoke old fears; future sensations of inadequacy might reawaken long-forgotten insecurities. But the more we are aware of our anxieties, the more we communicate about them, and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of whack-a-mole we can win. (By the way, after reading this post, be sure to check out Cuddy’s Ted Talk. There’s a reason it’s been viewed 47 million times.)

I’m including some statements below from a wide range of people who are far more accomplished than I am — people most of us would consider quite talented.

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. -Tina Fey, actress, comedian, writer, and producer.

“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” -the late John Steinbeck, an American author who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’” — Meryl Streep (recipient of 21 Oscar nominations)

One way I deal with the fraud police is to (try to) view their presence as something positive. After all, the impostor syndrome and the accompanying fraud police, typically show up when we’re stretching our skills and leveling up in some way. If you’re someone who wants to always be self-actualizing and learning, it is good news, then, when the fraud police stop by. It means you’re further developing yourself. (Obviously, this is a much easier sell when you’re not being investigated by the fraud police than when you are.)

By the way, in my humble opinion, no one is fearless. I always cringe a little when I see advertisements or articles encouraging us to be “fearless.” I think if we’re going to push our limits and dare to fail, it’s impossible to be without at least some fear. Sure, we can be fearless, but only when there’s nothing to fear.

As a response strategy for when I experience Imposter Syndrome, I first try to notice the sensation of it. For me, I experience a rush of heat and a racing heart. I start to sweat a little and I feel panicked. I hear the voice of my inner critic telling me I’m in over my head, that I don’t know what I’m doing, etc. I then acknowledge the fear and say to it (in my thoughts not out loud), “Oh it’s you again. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your concern.”

And I do appreciate it. When we’re leveling up, we’d be wise to exercise some caution and to pay attention because the stakes are high, whether they’re social, financial, or emotional. This acknowledgment enables me to quiet my inner critic’s voice and to get the fraud police off my case.

Valerie Young has spent decades studying research that looks at fraudulent feelings among high achievers. (Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Her website is ImpostorSyndrome.com.)

Drawing on the work of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., Young uncovered several “competence types” that people who struggle with IP generally follow.

The competence types are The Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist, and the Expert. To learn more about how to identify the various types of Impostor Syndrome, see this Fast Company article by Melody Wilding.

In closing, I almost didn’t hit publish on this blog post because my inner critic is telling me nobody will read it and that what I have to say is not valuable. That I’m an impostor.

But then I remember that I want to be courageous. To be so, I must do things that make me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. (Check.)

This makes me think of a favorite line from slam poet Andrea Gibson’s fantastic poem, Elbows.

“Brave is a hand-me-down suit from Terrified As Hell.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

Thank you for reading.


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Shelli Johnson, lives on the frontier of Wyoming, and is a life and leadership coach, writer, keynote presenter, and adventure guide. She is married to Jerry, and they have three sons. Shelli owns Epic Life Inc. and offers a variety of Epic programs that bundle coaching with a guided Epic adventure. She has programs for women, couples, leadership teams, and custom groups, including a new program Shelli is offering, called Epic Midlife Women, geared to women in their 40s and 50s. To see a personal invite from Shelli, or for more specifics about the program, check out this page.

This article originally appeared on Shelli's blog.

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