I’ve felt like a fraud countless times in my life but the most pivotal was freshman year at Cornell University. My brother, the genius, had graduated from Cornell in Electrical Engineering the year before I matriculated. He graduated with over a 4.0 grade point average. If he received less than an A+ his average went down. There I was rooming in Donlon Hall, the same dorm as his freshman year, in Ithaca New York, friendless and wondering what I was thinking leaving all my friends and family behind in suburban Wilmington, Delaware. This is the Ivy League! My dad isn’t here to proofread my papers. My mom isn’t here to make sure I get to class on time. And why is this campus so damn big and does every other student’s father work on Wall Street? Fast forward four years, working too many hours at Noyes Lodge, several all-nighters and a “2.0 to go” (a C average) and I made it through with lifelong friends and a love for upstate New York with its lakes and gorges. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I would falter.
I can blame my getting accepted to Cornell on my brother paving the way, or random luck or that they had a quota on accepting folks from the tiny state of Delaware. It certainly wasn’t my SAT’s or my GPA from my high school years based on the number of times I cut school. It wasn’t my parents bank account, my father’s connections as a high school history teacher or a legacy of Ivy League ancestors. Frankly when my mom called me at my after-school job of working at a discount retailers shoe department and told me that there was a thick envelope from Cornell in the mail, I was shocked and dumbfounded. Why the hell would they want a fraud like me? Well, it’s taken me a lifetime but I’m not a fraud. And neither are you.
Here are the symptoms of feeling like a fraud and what to do about it:
Perfectionist. Perfectionists feel that if they make even the tiniest of mistakes they will be unmasked. As Abigail Abrams wrote for Time, ““Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.” Rethink and recalibrate your expectations. It’s like planning a car trip, figure you will drive only 300 miles instead of 400 and it will not take 8 hours but 10 hours to get there. Embrace making a mistake and be open to feedback without shaming yourself. Reframe your self-talk diatribes into how you talk to your favorite family pet. Unconditional self-love can be a powerful tool in embracing your authentic self.
Natural Genius. The belief that everything should come easily and without a lot of effort. So, the minute anything takes time and hard work, you can throw your hands up and say, “There you go, I’m not good enough.” I remember that school work was easy in elementary school and my parents told me I was bright. Imagine how I felt when I got a C on a test in 6th grade math. I decided “whelp” my parents are wrong, I’m not bright. I learned many years later that this is what Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset. I have since embraced the growth mindset which focuses on hard work, constantly testing assumptions and investing in learning more. Mastery does not come without effort. Put in the effort, you are a constantly evolving piece of art.
Expert. As Abrams wrote, “Experts feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.” I can remember hiding in the back of a lecture hall at Cornell. I never wanted to be called on. I might be found out. You and I don’t need to know it all and it’s OK to ask a question. There were about ten years where I chased six different certifications and I finally realized that the investment of time in trying to be “the expert” was just too much and once I had a certification, I had to re-certify every 3 years. Yes, I learned a lot of skills and I’m a better writer and coach because of it, but I’m not an expert and…that’s OK.
Soloist. Being a soloist means that you can just go it alone and help is a four-letter word. I see new managers fall into this when they don’t know how to delegate and fear that if they do, they will be found out as lousy managers. So, they focus on keeping all the plates spinning and their direct reports feel micromanaged and diminished. In the remote working world this means that you end up attending every meeting without thinking through whether this meeting could be of value to someone else. This also has shades of perfectionism in it as well, since you might have the belief that only you can do this job. Reframe “help” as a way to invest in someone else and imagine the synergy that can be created by more than just one mind.
Superwoman. As espoused by Abrams, “Superwomen push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.” I am a recovering superwoman. There was a time when I worked full time, taught at a university part time, cooked nightly meals for my family and drove around eastern North Carolina attending marching band, football, soccer and track competitions. I needed to be the best mom, wife, daughter, HR professional and teacher. That time in my life is a blur and I ended up being spread way too thin and burned out. It’s hard to be present for anything when you are thinking about the next destination or event. I hung up my cape a while ago.
These aspects are just part of limiting beliefs that hold me back. I like Brene Brown’s outlook that we are all just trying our best. Being my best is being imperfect, learning, inexpert, seeking help and able to coast. You are not a fraud; you are trying your best as well and that’s good enough.