If You Really Knew Me

By Jeff Levy

While discussing a case with a colleague, the topic of feeling fraudulent arose.   The young woman she was working with was exceptionally bright, attractive, and accomplished, yet still she felt a sense of fraudulence.  She believed that if others really knew her, they would “find out,” and once she was found out, she would be rejected and shamed.  Logically this made no sense to her, but it felt so deep—so ingrained—that it seemed impossible to believe otherwise.

As we talked more about her client, I began to realize how many people I’ve worked with over the years who have also experienced this sense of fraudulence.  From the flutter in my stomach and pressure on my chest, I realized how much the theme of fraudulence has been one I have also managed for most of my life.  I know there is a component of feeling fraudulent that has pushed me to work harder and to succeed both personally and professionally.  I suspect, however, that there is a heaviness to holding this fraudulence that holds me back; that weighs me down because on some deep level I don’t believe I know what I’m doing.

The Impostor Phenomenon

I know I’m not alone—not only because of the work I’ve done with others who feel fraudulent in some way, but also because of all the literature about the idea of feeling like a fraud or feeling like an impostor.  Most commonly called “The Impostor Phenomenon” or IP, researchers as early as 1968 began to look at how and why this phenomenon existed.

It’s probably no surprise when first explored, the IP was experienced by many successful women (in the 1960’s and 1970’s), who attributed their achievements to factors outside themselves.  This makes sense given the time and the belief that professional success was more attached to men than to women.  Women who experienced success then, had more trouble believing it was attributable to their knowledge and skills, and were more likely to believe it was due to luck or to factors outside themselves.

According to Clance and Imes, who originally wrote about and labeled The Impostor Phenomenon, there are three defining features of impostorism. The first is a feeling that other people have an inflated perception of your abilities. Second is a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and third is a persistent tendency to attribute successes to external factors, such as luck or disproportionate effort.

If we fast forward 50-60 years however, The Imposter Phenemenon, or feeling fraudulent, is one that many of us experience regardless of gender.  More current research began to look at the idea of holding one or more marginalized identities; the extent to which holding an identity that is seen as “less than” contributes to our belief that our success is due to luck or factors other than our own intellect, skill or ability.

Marginalized Identities, Shame, and Fraudulence

Brandon grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb, attended The University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree, and went to Harvard Law School.  Despite his connection to these distinguished and well-respected academic institutions, and despite Brandon’s financial success, he lived in fear of being “found out.”  He came to therapy because of extreme anxiety, trouble sleeping, and a very limited social life.  “I’m afraid to spend too much of my time away from work,” he confessed in one of his very first sessions.  “I need to make sure I do as well as or better than anyone else or I’ll be fired.”

As we spent more time exploring Brandon’s anxiety about losing his job, he shared more about growing up. He was sexually abused by an older brother, beginning at a very early age.  He did not disclose this to anyone until after graduate school.  Growing up in a conservative, religious home, he learned talking about sex was not acceptable and feared saying anything about the sexual abuse would be even less acceptable.  During one session he shared that he was frequently beaten by the same older brother who abused him and who perceived Brandon as weak and ineffectual.

“I just assumed there was something wrong with me so that anything good that happened was luck.  Anything bad that happened was because I deserved it,” he said.  Early on I knew that to get any kind of approval, I had to work harder than everyone else and do better than everyone else.  And still, when someone would say anything nice to me, I dismissed it.  I knew that if they really knew who I was and what happened to me, they’d see I was faking it.”

Cassandra was a successful lawyer, and a partner in one of Chicago’s major law firms.  She worked exceptionally hard as an associate, and when she was made partner, her friends and family were proud of her.  She, however, continued to doubt herself and her abilities.  She’d always done well in school and at work, but because she was African American, she worried that people would attribute her success to affirmative action rather than to her innate intelligence, curiosity, and work ethic.

“I know people look at me and think I got to where I am because I’m black and not because I deserve it,” she shared one day when she was feeling particularly vulnerable after losing an important battle at work.  “And even though I can tell myself I’m smart, I still think that I’ll be ‘found out.’”

Over time, Cassandra was able to take more and more ownership of her success, but still struggled with how much energy it took to convince herself that she deserved her stellar reputation at work.  “I’m not only dealing with the glass ceiling because I’m a woman, she said.  “I’m also dealing with it because I’m black.”

With Cassandra, we worked on acknowledging that she can’t control how others perceive her or her success, but she can begin to acknowledge that her skills and abilities are innate, real and admirable.  We also worked on accepting that there may be people who will doubt her because of her gender or race, and that still doesn’t negate her keen intelligence and accomplishments.

When any of us grow up feeling marginalized in some way or ashamed because of something we have experienced, whether we are survivors of sexual abuse like Brandon; female and African American like Cassandra; or overweight, LGBTQ, adult children of alcoholics, survivors of physical abuse or neglect, or we have a sense of shame attached to other experiences or histories, we are more vulnerable to feeling fraudulent.  When we grow up dealing with the effects of shame or stigma, we often develop strategies to manage how others may see us and/or how we see ourselves as a result.

Overcompensating to Manage Fraudulence

With Brandon and Cassandra, one way to manage a stigmatized identity was by overcompensating in any or every way possible.  If we fear people will see us as somehow less than or undeserving, we compensate by doing more or doing better whenever and wherever we can.  Often, this manifests in academic achievement and professional achievement.  But it can also appear in joining every philanthropic organization we can find, being on every possible committee in our children’s school, or being the best and most committed friend possible.  If we can prove to others that we hold value, we can somehow prove that we are deserving, despite a deeper sense of feeling “less than.”

And while others may see us as kind, smart, accomplished, and deserving, this is only temporary reprieve from the strong undercurrent of fraudulence we may still experience.  These outward manifestations of our worth don’t necessarily change the way we see ourselves, and we may also come to believe that if others know “who we really are,” they will see us as the imposters we know we are.

When we have a sense others are struggling with a sense of fraudulence or are dealing with “the imposter phenomenon,” our inclination is to pour on praise and affirmation.  It makes sense that we’d want others to experience themselves the way we experience them.  The problem with this strategy however, is that affirmation remains external and in many ways, comes to support that the way to “pass” as valuable and deserving is to overcompensate in other areas.

I remember coming home from high school one semester and showing my parents my straight A’s.  This came as no surprise to them, since I couldn’t remember ever showing them anything else as far as school was concerned.  They’d consistently voiced their pride around my academic achievement and while never stated, I had a sense that this was what they expected of me.

As a teenager in the 1970’s, no one talked about being gay.  I’m not even sure the word was used that way during those years.  Still, I knew there was something very fundamentally wrong with me and I had to prove that despite this, I could demonstrate my worth through school achievement.  It was a concrete way I could somehow compensate for knowing that I was “bad.”  And while others might tell me how smart and accomplished I was, on a deep level I knew that if they “found out,” or if they knew “the truth” about me, I would be seen for who I was.

My mother was one of the most unconditionally loving people I have ever met.  She rarely gave advice or indicated that I was not good enough.  I think she knew, however, that there was something corrosive motivating my overachievement.  That same semester I came home with all A’s, after my father had left the room and my mother and I sat quietly, with a slight smile she challenged me:  “I think you need to bring home at least one “F” next semester.

We All Sometimes Feel Fraudulent

Although we may not be able to challenge our clients to fail at something, or we may not feel like we have the ability to fail, I’ve thought about what my mother was really saying to me many times over the years:  my worth is not attached to my accomplishments or to external affirmation.   Even if I was not so successful at school, her feelings about me wouldn’t change. One way we deal with feeling fraudulent or like an imposter then, is to be fully seen and accepted by another—hopefully many others.

It also helps to know that others also feel like impostors.  We are not alone.  We don’t often want to talk about our own insecurities, but we can help others who feel fraudulent by sharing our own struggles.  Admitting we don’t know everything and sharing our own feelings of inadequacy help make feelings of fraudulence a part of being human.

“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven 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

Related Links:
10 Steps to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome
The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 10, 2017