Why We Feel Like a Fraud (and How to Stop)

“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

Any minute now they would find out.

I scanned the large conference room. The twenty-six project team members around the table discussed data analysis. Their voices were muffled by the thick fog of my anxiety.

My own throat tried to choke me, and my chest refused to expand. Sweat trickled down my side.

Breathe, just breathe. It’s going to be okay.

My eyes met my boss’s and he smiled at me across the room. I quickly looked down at my notes. My cheeks were burning.

I knew what was coming.

It would be my turn next to showcase my part of the project. I had been working on it for months. Starting early, staying late, slaving away every waking hour, perfecting every detail.

But I couldn’t hide any longer. Couldn’t pretend any more. I would be exposed.

In a few minutes they would discover that my efforts weren’t up to scratch. That I wasn’t good enough.

They would listen to my presentation and their faces would darken with disappointment. They would whisper to each other in dismay and ask me questions I couldn’t answer.

And then, someone would stand up, point at me and say, “You have no clue what you are talking about, do you? You are nothing but a fraud. A pathetic excuse for a scientist. You know nothing.”

Any minute now.

I clutched the edge of the table. Tears stung in my eyes and I swallowed hard. My intestines were churning.

I had to get away.

Leaping to my feet, I mumbled an excuse. I stumbled out of the room, heart racing, and made it to the bathroom.

And then I cried.

Why I Was an Imposter by Name but Not by Nature

I eventually managed to pull myself together. I washed my face, blew my nose, took several deep breaths.

And I returned to the fateful meeting, red-eyed and swollen. Feigning an allergic reaction to conceal my mortifying episode.

I presented my work.

And nothing happened. Nobody objected, interrogated, exposed. No fingers were pointed at me.

All I saw was friendly faces and approving nods. Some people even praised the huge amount of work I put in and the high quality of my results.

And yet, as I shuffled home that night, drained and numb, I didn’t feel like celebrating a success. Because all I could think was, “You were lucky this time. Next time they will realize that you are a fraud for sure. Then game over.”

And right there, on a gloomy November evening of 2007, it hit me. I had a problem. It was ruining my life, destroying my confidence, and sabotaging my career.

I had to do something about it.

As I arrived home, I googled “feeling like a fraud at work” and discovered that I wasn’t alone. The problem seemed to be so common, there was even a name for it: imposter syndrome.

And I displayed all the symptoms.

I doubted myself and my abilities, believing my skills and expertise always fell short of expectations. No matter how hard I tried, my successes seemed negligible, laughable compared to others. And I could never believe anybody who told me I did a good job.

Imposter syndrome was clearly the problem I faced. But the word “imposter” didn’t match up with what I experienced every day at the office.

I wasn’t maliciously trying to deceive other people, tricking them into believing I was more knowledgeable, competent, and successful than I was for my own fraudulent gain.

In fact, the opposite was true.

I didn’t pretend to be more than I was to further my career and take advantage of innocent people. No, I was hiding my weaknesses and shortcomings as well as I could. So others wouldn’t discover my devastating secret.

I just didn’t know it yet.

The Reveal of the True Reason Behind My Imposter Syndrome

For the next couple of years, I searched for a way to eradicate my imposter syndrome. I read self-help books, took personal growth courses, meditated, visualised.

And things improved.

After a while, the all-consuming panic of being exposed as a fraud receded. I managed to better compose myself in meetings and presentations. And I even started to accept praise here and there with an awkward smile and only a slight cringe.

But still, the stubborn, anxious voiceover kept playing in the background of my mind, every day of my life: “You are a fraud. And, one day soon, they will find you out.”

Frustration about being stuck in an endless self-degrading loop turned to anger about my inability to overcome my imposter syndrome. Why was I so horrified of being exposed?

My conscious mind knew that I was doing quite well. That I was good at my work. And that, even if my failings were to be uncovered, it wouldn’t be the end of my career.

Or my life.

Yet, I remained terrified of that one question that would hit my blind-spot. And I anticipated the accusing finger whenever my work came under scrutiny. Because my subconscious mind believed that being exposed as my flawed self was, in fact, the end.

I just didn’t know why.

Until, some months later in May 2010, I participated in a group hypnotherapy session. We were asked to retrieve memories of a scene in our past where our most damaging belief originated. And while I couldn’t conjure up the past, a limiting belief shot into my brain and made me gasp.

Because it explained all of my struggles with imposter syndrome.

The Heartbreaking Belief That Destroyed My Life and Sabotaged My Career

“I don’t have the right to exist.”

The brutality of the thought broke my heart and filled my eyes with tears. Why would I believe something like this?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it made sense. I constantly felt the necessity to work harder, be better, achieve more to justify my existence. To prove to myself and others that it was okay for me to stick around as long as I was useful.

Even though I was an illegal immigrant to life.

As long as I showed no weakness, made no mistake, and contributed more than my fair share to society, I would be tolerated. Others would overlook the fact that I shouldn’t actually exist. That I was some kind of accident, a glitch in the universal plan.

But being exposed as anything less than perfect would result in my temporary residency in life to be revoked.

And I knew, deep in my heart, that I wasn’t faultless, that I struggled. I only faked the perfect version of myself that fulfilled all the qualifying criteria stipulated in my provisional residence permit.

I didn’t have the required knowledge, expertise or success to permanently occupy a space in this life.

I was a fraud. Pretending to belong in this life when I did not. Every day, I desperately clung to the hope that I could blind everyone around me just one more day. But I lived with the constant terror that my devastating secret would be exposed.

Sure, my conscious mind understood that my fear was irrational.

What did I think would happen if I was exposed as a fraud with no permission to exist? Would I just cease to be? Vanish in a purple puff of smoke?

I knew it made no sense. Yet, the believe was lodged deep inside of me. And I was about to find out why.

The Disastrous Reason I Believed I Didn’t Have the Right to Exist

In September 2010, I consulted an energy healer to help with my, at the time, severe anxiety. I mentioned that I struggled with imposter syndrome and the belief that I didn’t have the right to exist.

And she looked at me and said, “Of course you do. Because you have no self-worth.”

It was the piece of the puzzle I needed. Suddenly, it all made sense.

I believed that I was inherently worthless. And that I didn’t have the right to exist as long as I had no worth.

So, my entire life was a relentless pursuit of more worth. All the long hours, the hard work, all the perfecting happened in the name of worth generation. To earn the right to exist.

But I was stuck in a vicious cycle.

I needed to gain wealth, love, abundance to have enough worth to receive a permanent right to exist. But I wasn’t worthy enough to deserve them.

I had to be a success, but I was terrified that achieving greatness would draw too much attention on myself. And the fact that I was alive without the proper permissions.

So, my inherent worthlessness made it impossible to claim the right to exist. And without the right to exist, I could never achieve what I needed to earn enough worth.

It was a hopeless, futile quest. Without prospect of a solution. And it left me only one option: to pretend, to be a fraud.

And hope nobody would ever find out.

The Impossible Conundrum of a Worthless Existence

I had no clue how to dig myself out of this rut. How could I accumulate enough worth to earn the right to exist so I wouldn’t have to feel like a fraud ever again?

I had hit a wall in my quest. There seemed to be no solution, only pointless rumination that spiralled in endless circles. Was I doomed to hide in the shadows, unable to ever rightfully claim my place in life?

I was about to surrender to my fate as an unwanted pretender, a slave to my imposter syndrome and worthlessness. But then my daughter was born.

And one realization changed everything.

The Key to Unlocking Your Worth

About three weeks after her birth, I looked at my little girl sleeping peacefully. Her chest moved in a healthy rhythm and a tiny smile played around her lips.

My heart filled with adoration for this wonderful creation, and I knew that she was valuable. That she had every right to exist in this world and deserved all the love, happiness, and abundance this life has to offer.

Yet, she had no achievements, no wealth or success to pay for her right to exist. She had never earned any worth. And she didn’t have to.

Because worth was the essence of her being, the core of her true Self. She was worth personified.

And so was I, and everybody else. Because true, inner worth cannot be destroyed. It is as constant as our cell structure, it doesn’t change when we fail, are criticized or make a mistake.

The realization was life-changing. The sudden relief felt as if I medium-sized mountain range fell of my chest. I didn’t have to prove my worth!

Society had taught me all my life that I needed high-flying achievements, perfection, wealth to deserve the right to exist. But they were wrong. My entire belief system that caused my struggles was flawed.

Because the truth was that, like my little daughter, I was worth.

As such I could never be worthless. I had the right to exist, to claim my rightful place in life and my happiness right here and now. Simply because I was alive.

And I finally had the cure for my imposter syndrome.

How to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud Once and for All

So, I started to affirm: “I have the right to exist. I am worth” several times a day. Every time I felt insecure, worthless, or like a fraud, I reminded myself of my infinite, inherent worth.

At first, my mind resisted the change. Worthlessness thinking had become a disastrous habit that my mind wasn’t willing to abandon without a fight. But I persevered.

And eventually, over a few months, I retrained my mind. I created a new, healthier habit.

I noticed that I didn’t feel inferior so often, that my confidence in meetings improved. I no longer felt apologetic for taking up space or bothering people. And I became less demanding of myself, lovingly accepting and respecting my limits because I knew perfection, or its absence, wouldn’t change my worth.

And one day, I realized that the fear of being exposed if I drew too much attention to myself was gone. And without that fear, I found it easier to stand up to others and defend my opinions. I even started to acknowledge and celebrate my successes.

Now, I am no longer terrified of the accusing finger pointing me out as an imposter. I no longer need to pretend to be more than I am. Because I know I am not a fraud.

I am enough. From the day I was born to the day I will die, and beyond, I will have the right to exist.

Because I am worth.

Just like you.

About Berni Sewell

Dr Berni Sewell, PhD is a health scientist, energy healer, and self-worth blogger. She is on a mission to make you feel good about yourself, no matter what. Grab her free “Healthy Self-Worth Starter Kit” to boost your confidence, release shame and self-judgement, and start reclaiming your life today.

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