Feeling Like A Fake: Living with Fraud Syndrome

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

The prolific author Neil Gaiman once said, “The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.” Surprisingly, Gaiman suffers from impostor syndrome. Someday, when he least expects it, the “fraud police” will knock down his door and reveal him for what he really is: less than. Less than his sixty-seven published novels and comic books. Less than his Newbery and Carnegie medals. Less than his devoted fans and fond critics. If one of the most successful postmodern authors of the century admits to suffering from self-doubt, it begs the question: How many other people feel like a fraud?

The answer may surprise you. About 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers, across a variety of career paths.

So what exactly is this seemingly ubiquitous affliction? Fraud syndrome is not an empirically defined disorder. You won’t find its description within the pages of the DSM-V. It is essentially an extension of self-doubt. It is the tendency to attribute your accomplishments to good luck, fortuitous timing, or a lack of legitimate competition — anything except your own hard work and innate skills. Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who pioneered research on this topic, define it as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”

In layman’s terms, if you experience fraud syndrome, you may feel like you don’t deserve your success. At any moment, the-powers-that- be will realize you aren’t as talented as they thought. I interviewed Sarah, who recently graduated college with honors and was immediately hired at the job of her choice. She confessed: “I constantly fear that my boss regrets hiring me. Even though we sit down and talk about my progress from time to time, and she always seems happy with me, always gives me praise and constructive feedback, I often have that feeling of, ‘I’m going to be found out.’ When I talk to leadership at work, they tell me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m where I’m supposed to be, but it’s like I’m always waiting for them to come up to me one day and say, ‘Hey, you’re really not what we thought you were.’”

Ironically, fraud syndrome seems to be limited to successful people. Oliver Burkeman explains in his daily column: “True frauds and idiots rarely seem to experience it.” He goes on to suggest that moving up the ladder of success will only exacerbate feelings of self-doubt — you will be surrounded by a pool of increasingly more talented people: “Enhance your knowledge, and as you expand the perimeter of what you know, you’ll be exposed to more and more of what you don’t.”

Fraud syndrome can manifest in a number of cryptic ways. It could be that you can’t take a compliment. When a coworker says, “Awesome presentation!” You might find yourself thinking, “I wish! I’m sure everybody noticed that major typo.” You might preface a legitimately good idea with a self-deprecating caveat: “This might be really stupid, but I was thinking …” If you suffer from fraud syndrome, you may talk yourself out of asking for that raise or promotion, or avoid taking on the big project you’ve always dreamed of. You might dwell on the negative and ruminate over regrets. As when asked about her college classes, Sarah commented: “Even though I knew how hard I worked, and even though at the time I felt like I was doing the best I could, I still think I could have done better.” Ultimately, fraud syndrome can cripple your confidence, holding you back from being the person you want to be.

Feelings of self-doubt can also activate various parts of the brain. “In The Neuroscience of Self-Esteem, Self-Criticism and Self-Compassion,” Robin Nixon explains: “When our self-esteem is threatened — when we have a setback or come across someone that we perceive to be better than us — the threat-protection system goes into action. We may attack ourselves, put down the other person or ‘flee’ from the knowledge of our own faults.” Self-doubt can put us on high alert, causing us to constantly compare ourselves to others — and our failures to the successes of others — in order to protect us from potential harm.

Numerous studies have profound implications regarding the causes of fraud syndrome. One study by Bussotti investigated the family background of these so-called impostors and found that impostors were likely to perceive a lack of support, lack of communication, and lack of appropriate emotional expression among family members. High levels of family control, expressions of anger, and family conflicts were also present. A subsequent study by Sonnak and Towell concluded that parental over-protection was a factor in their typical fears. In other words, a turbulent childhood, deficient in openness and encouragement, could very likely lead to feelings of self-doubt later in life.

In addition, the studies suggested a moderate correlation between impostor fears and trait anxiety. Using a personality inventory, researchers found that personality profiles of impostors tend to be more neurotic than average. It is important to note that the traits of anxiety and neuroticism do not necessarily cause impostor syndrome, but a correlation does exist. We can only speculate as to whether these qualities are the source of fraud syndrome, or a consequence.

There are other, less empirical conjectures pertaining to the causes of fraud syndrome. For instance, there is the popular refrain of, “Fake it till you make it!” Many of us internalize this, mimicking who we think we are “supposed” to be on job interviews, at industry events, when networking with people in our field. We may persist in putting on this show of professionalism for so long that we have made it — reached our career goals — yet can’t shake the feeling that we’re still faking it.

Incidentally, it would appear that there are perhaps some advantages to feeling like a fraud. It is possible that a healthy amount of self-doubt can protect us from making mistakes. It can motivate us to work harder — though this sometimes means we may be overpreparing and overcompensating — in order to squelch our fears of failure.

The key here is remembering that there is an ambiguous boundary between a healthy amount of self-doubt, versus a debilitating and all-consuming preoccupation with feeling like a fraud. When we are wholly invested in keeping up appearances — while inside we feel disingenuous — we sacrifice the possibility of others getting to know us for who we really are. I interviewed a small-business owner in southern California, Cyndi, who is successful by all objective measures. When asked if she thought there was a disparity between how she views herself and how other people view her, she responded, “Yeah. I think they just don’t know me. I think people look at me and they think, ‘Oh wow she has a wonderful husband and this wonderful little family, and she’s got this great business, and she lives in this nice house.’” At a fundamental level, her fear of others figuring out that maybe she is not as capable as people think — maybe her life isn’t as good as it seems on the outside — creates a divide between Cyndi and the people around her.

The natural instinct is to ask, “How do I get rid of self-doubt?” When I asked Cyndi what she thought her life would be like if she didn’t have self-doubt, she replied, “I think every aspect [of my] life would change. I think I would be much happier. I wouldn’t have the panic and the fear and the sadness.” Interestingly, Sally Adee was able to experience something similar to this, albeit only for 20 minutes. She describes being hooked up to a device used to conduct “transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) in the article “How Electrical Brain Stimulation Can Change the Way We Think.”

Adee says, “I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. My brain without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head. I had certainly never experienced instant Zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at.” A possible mechanism is that the electrodes somehow reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain used in critical thought. This can silence self-critical thoughts which would in turn produce that effortless feeling of flow. Perhaps the most poignant question Adee asks is: “Do we make more ethical decisions when we listen to our inner voices of self-doubt or when we’re freed from them?”

While feeling like an impostor can sometimes motivate us to overcompensate by working incredibly hard, it can also lead to self-sabotage. In her book “Self-Compassion,” Kristin Neff explains: “Not only does self-criticism create anxiety, it can also lead to psychological tricks designed to prevent self-blame in the case of failure, which in turn makes failure more likely.” The foremost consequence of fraud syndrome exists in potentialities that never come to fruition — not only might we never embrace all of the myriad opportunities our skills and successes afford us, we will never really feel the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from acknowledging our own competency.

Sadly, most of us don’t have access to a tDCS cap. So, when you are plagued by an overwhelming amount of self-doubt, I would consider three important components of self-compassion. The first is to be mindful of the present moment — to observe what is happening right here, right now, without judgment. Instead of fighting with and running from your insecurities, mindfulness allows you to sit with your discomfort and let it exist. To experience this discomfort, from time to time is normal — it is human. Indeed, the second part of being self-compassionate is to remember that you are a human being. Human existence entails pain alongside happiness; moreover, to be human means that you will inevitably make mistakes. This brings us to the final facet of self-compassion: being kind to yourself. Making mistakes is hard, and life is not always pleasant. Give yourself comfort; be a friend to yourself, instead of a critic.

Maybe you should consider listening, even for a moment, to that co-worker who didn’t notice your typo, who was able to see an excellent presentation for what it was.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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