Do You Ever Feel Like You’re a Fake, Fraud, or Phony?

ID-100261017“Phil, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I feel like I’m a fake. I’m not nearly the expert that my clients think I am. I think it’s only a matter of time before someone finds me out.”

This was the confession of one of my coaching clients. We were having dinner, and after a couple glasses of wine, he felt relaxed enough to tell me what he’d been bottling up inside for years.

This person is a trusted financial advisor to hundreds of people. He had been in business for over a decade and is well known and respected in his community. People like him and his work so much that they frequently refer him to their friends and family members.

If he were a fake, how had he fooled so many for so long? The truth is: he was anything but a fake. Nevertheless, he felt like one.

My client was suffering from a well-known condition called imposter syndrome, a mental phenomenon in which people are unable to recognize and accept their own accomplishments and abilities, despite all evidence to the contrary. Instead, they chalk their achievements up to luck. They’re convinced that they have somehow deceived others into thinking they are more competent or intelligent than they really are.

People experiencing imposter syndrome secretly feel anxious, depressed, or ashamed. They’re riddled with self-doubt and live with the constant nagging feeling that they’re somehow not good enough, (or smart enough, talented enough, expert enough, etc.). They also live with the anxiety that it’s only a matter of time until they’re found out.

Imposter syndrome is more common than you might think. Research has shown that up to 70% of people have experienced it at one time or another and that it is most common among high achievers. Here are some actual quotes from high achievers:

Actress, Kate Winslett: “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.”

Nobel Laureate, Maya Angelou: “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.’ ”

Actor, Don Cheedle: “All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.”

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization: “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

So what gives? Why are so many competent people tortured by feelings of inadequacy? The answers are complex, but there are a few common causes:

  • Generally speaking, people tend to magnify their own shortcomings and take their talents and successes for granted. In evaluating themselves, many high achievers focus on what they don’t know or haven’t accomplished. I had a client tell me the other day, “Anyone could do what I do for my company. It’s so easy.”
  • Some people were raised in families where there was a lot of pressure to achieve and their parents sent mixed messages, alternating between praise and criticism. People raised in these kinds of environments often spend their lives attempting to prove their worthiness by achieving, but deep down they believe they’re not good enough.
  •  Ambitious people often compare themselves with the superstars in their field, and feel ‘less than’ by comparison. I worked with a brilliant inventor who was extremely hard on himself. When I told him I thought one of his ideas was extraordinary, he told me, “I guess I’m ok, but I’m no Steve Jobs.”
  •  Some people feel they have to “know it all.” If they don’t know everything in their field, they feel they don’t know enough. I once worked with a 15-year veteran insurance salesperson who constantly worried that his clients would find out how little he knew about the technical aspects of insurance.

Aside from all the needless suffering imposter syndrome causes, there’s another big downside: it can stop people from taking action to achieve their important goals and dreams. They wind up settling because they don’t believe in themselves. That’s a real tragedy.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll talk about what you can do if you suffer from imposter syndrome. Stay tuned…

—-Image by Iosphere, courtesy of