Dr. Fraud, PhD, Overcoming Feelings of Inadequacy

By Crystal Goodman
September 21, 2012 • comment(s)
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While currently in between jobs and adjusting to a new place, I have been doing my best to focus on my past successes in order to pave a new path for myself.  This journey has reminded me of just how difficult it is to always concentrate on the positive.  Unfortunately, feelings of self-doubt and fear of failure occasionally plague me.  As hard as I try to fight it, negativity infiltrates my mind as I think to myself, “I’m a fraud!” 

Ironically, the time that I most felt like a fake was in the first few months after I finished my PhD.  You would think that at that moment, I would believe that all of my hard work made me worthy of a terminal degree.  Instead, I began to wonder if the world of academicians would find out that a phony was allowed into their elite club.  Beyond my own issues with self-doubt, the anticlimactic nature of reaching the biggest goal I had set for myself up until that time hit me like a ton of bricks.  I think I expected fireworks, or at least an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.  In reality, I thought to myself, “This is it?”  And no REAL doctor would feel that way, right?     

Apparently, feeling like a fraud has an official name, and I am not alone in my self-deprecation.  The term “impostor syndrome” was coined by psychologists in the 1970s and is used to describe when people dismiss their achievements as the result of timing, good fortune, or the ability to convince others they are smarter or more capable than they really are.  Men and women experience impostor syndrome in equal numbers, but as a woman I know all too well how media continuously plants impostor seeds in the minds of females in particular.  In fact, my feeling of being a fraud sometimes extends beyond my professional life and permeates my role as a woman in society.  I have proven that it is possible to question whether or not I am a REAL woman when I doubt my maternal instinct, am mystified by the idea of work-life balance, or consistently fail at fitting into my skinny jeans.

No one is perfect all of the time; it seems obvious, but I have to remind myself during times of self-doubt.  Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”  If I allowed myself to get stuck in the fear of being a fake, I would seek out unchallenging work and never take a promotion.  Everyone who has ever achieved greatness has failed, and many have felt like phonies when they reached milestones on the road to success.  The important thing is that they kept going and did not let self-doubt keep them from accomplishing even bigger dreams. 

When the fraud monster starts to creep up on me I cope by uncovering the source of my self-doubt and recognizing that I am not alone.  Occasionally I feel like an impostor because I have unreasonable expectations for myself.  Other times I use self-doubt as fuel to motivate myself to work hard when I am anxious or procrastinating.  I might even employ self-deprecation to lower others’ expectations of me so they will be impressed when I do succeed.  It is important that I find out why I am feeling like a fraud so I can change my train of thought from worrying about failure to welcoming opportunities to learn and grow.   Oftentimes, I just need to take a peek at the select thank you cards and letters of commendation I keep in a box to remind myself that I have made a difference.  I also take great comfort in knowing that many people have felt like frauds at some points in their lives.  It was important for me to share my feelings of inadequacy with trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors; knowing that people I see as role models have also experienced impostor syndrome lightens my emotional rucksack enough that I can continue along a successful path.  


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Jamie's picture

I completely know what you mean about impostor syndrome. I suffer from it chronically! My accomplishments I seem to always attribute to 'luck' or 'being in the right place at the right time' and never my hard work and effort. It's a very real problem for women it seems. Thanks for the article!