The Innocent Fraudster
Updated: May 18
"It is pretty easy to soundtrack your life to the applause of others
Bouncing on Cloud 9s of praise and success
Or was it even success
Maybe merely luck
Best in the class they said
She works hard they said
First-class! they said
Am I an Impostor?
Am I a fraud?
I see them
And maybe I’m the last one to be aware
That I better beware
Because I don’t belong
What is my value?
Will I be exposed?"
- Taken from A Poem on Impostor Syndrome by Mary Agbesanwa
I recently received the best mark I've ever had over my four years at university. Obviously, I was ecstatic, especially as I hadn't thought that this specific piece of coursework was any good at all when I handed it in after an all-nighter and a rather stressful time with this particular module. Yet it didn't take too long before I started to really doubt if it was genuinely possible that I deserved this mark. Surely the lecturer must have made a mistake? There's no way that it could really be worth that grade - had he actually read it properly? This isn't the only time I've ever felt this way either. Similar feelings have arisen in various situations: getting society committee positions; passing flute exams; getting jobs; even after receiving praise over seminar contributions. So many times there is this feeling that I'm still not good enough to be included amongst the ranks of those who are truly talented or truly deserve what I was awarded in whatever capacity, even though I had earned it.
Psychologists call it Impostor Syndrome, Imposterism or Fraud Syndrome, among other things. The Google definition is "persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills". Now, I'm not one to self-diagnose based on mere internet research, but I can't say that I don't identify. It is estimated that 70% of us experience it, both men and women, with the highest rates being amongst millennials. I couldn't believe that the figures were so high when I read them - how is it possible that 7 in 10 of us struggle to truly believe that we have succeeded because of our own merits? And that it's not even specific to a certain group of people, but everyone?
In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr Valerie Young identifies 5 sub-categories of Impostor Syndrome. I haven't read it, but I found these categories helpful for the sake of processing. The following is taken from an article in Time (link at the bottom):
“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.
“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or training 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.
When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.
“Soloists” feel they have to accomplish tasks on their own, and if they need to ask for help, they think that means they are a failure or a fraud.
“Supermen” or “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 don't know about you, but I really identify with the first two in particular, and often the last one as well, although I'm not without experience of 3 and 4. I can view my day as pretty unsuccessful if I haven't achieved absolutely everything on my to-do list, even if in reality it would be impossible to do so without constantly moving at 100 miles an hour or completely frying my brain in the process.
I'm not kidding, my idea of a perfect working day (within the context of my current life of pure thesis-writing during lockdown) would be to get up at 7, get ready, etc, do a solid hour of prayer and Bible reading and then start work at 9. I would work for 6 hours with regular breaks, then go for a walk and maybe do some of my German course before dinner. The evening would then be spent reading a book, journaling, skyping a friend or watching Netflix before going to bed promptly at 11.
This sounds ridiculous, but it was literally what I planned for myself before I left Exeter. Of course, since I wrote that out all neatly as a timetable in my bullet journal, I've not achieved it once. I don't think any part of the 'perfect' schedule that I laid out for myself has been adhered to, let alone for an entire day. Since I rather optimistically wrote that, I have come back to Plymouth (which of course means running on a more similar schedule to the rest of my family); I have been awake before 9 am a grand total of twice (once being during the all-nighter for the aforementioned essay); the German course has hardly been touched.
So what is the solution to all this? Clearly, my plan for myself was nothing short of delusional, but nonetheless, the feelings of inadequacy can pop up a lot, often starting after I see 10:30 on the clock when I wake up. And of course, when we do achieve something, however big or small, logic dictates that we must get at least some of the credit, even if others helped out. Yet the figures are staggering, 70% of the population are apparently deceitful impostors who are secretly talentless.
There is, unfortunately, no quick or definitive fix. However, the internet tells me that there are things that can help. So, if you've identified with any of the above then heads up:
Try disconnecting from social media. It's a total mental health cliché, but it could really help. In a Forbes article I read (link at the bottom), the author highlights the classic-but-still-very-true reality that celebrities, 'Instagram influencers' and other prominent figures on social media, or even certain friends can have a huge impact on our view of our own successes and failures. The impostor in our minds convinces us that that there is such a thing as an achievable perfect life and that all we need to do is meet the right person, cultivate a certain aesthetic, buy certain brands, or simply start a blog (...yikes👀...) and we'll be fine and dandy from then on, but that we're not good enough to really get there and that what we already have is not enough. Coming off social media for a bit could be really helpful if you know you struggle with this!
Cut yourself some slack. You aren't perfect, nor do you possess super-human abilities. I know it's easier said than done, but seriously, chill. Expect great things of yourself, but not so great that they are genuinely unachievable.
Encourage others around you. You never know, they might be feeling the same way, or worse. Plus, encouraging others and creating a 'culture' of it will probably mean you're more likely to get encouragement back when you need it!
Focus on the facts. Whatever you feel, the fact is that your efforts and/or merits have meant that you have achieved something. You may have had help, you may wish you had done it slightly differently, but you have achieved something nonetheless. I may not have felt like the coursework I submitted deserved the mark it got, but the fact is that both the lecturer marking it and the lecturer moderating it have PhDs, they know what constitutes a good piece of work, and according to the university rules they must agree on a mark before sending out results. What's more, your talents are genuinely God-given. God crafted you, He thinks you're super, and His opinion is not shaped by human standards. He created you to be you, not anybody else, and He certainly does not make mistakes. Of course, there is much we cannot do without His strength, but the point remains. You may think I'm chatting rubbish - I know many people reading this don't believe in God - but I believe that this is also a fact.
Talk to someone. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Chances are, the other person will be able to empathise having experienced something similar. If not, then it'll probably still help to talk about it. Christian pals - we have a pretty great God and he gets you better than you get yourself. Pray!
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to understanding and dealing with Impostor Syndrome, and I'm absolutely not an expert on psychology, so doubtless there is a lot surrounding this that I don't understand. To be honest, I'm only just starting to process my own feelings about it, so talking about it is kind of a new thing even though I've been dealing with it for a long time. I really hope that if you identify with what I've said in any of my ramblings here that they have been of some encouragement, even if only to reassure you that someone else gets it. Of course, please do hit me up if you want to chat or discuss any of this!
Bye for now, amigos 👋
P.S. Please don't interpret this post as a cry for help, it's quite literally just an outlet for a few feelings that I thought might be helpful for some others as well!
A Poem on Impostor Syndrome by Mary Agbesanwa: https://medium.com/@mary_agbesanwa/apoemonimpostorsyndrome-d733455d40b3
Time article - Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here's How to Deal With It by Abigail Abrams, 20th June 2018: https://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/
Forbes article - Imposter Syndrome -- Why It's Harder Today Than Ever by Jeanne Croteau, 4th April 2019: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannecroteau/2019/04/04/imposter-syndrome-why-its-harder-today-than-ever/#583957dd9ac5