You have no idea how often the women I work with – either in coaching or in corporate – tell me they feel like a fraud. Or they’ll reference their imposter syndrome. Or they’ll be a little less direct with their language and say things like ‘I was probably the only option’ or ‘I’m not sure why they picked me’. Which is just code for saying they feel like a fraud.
And it’s also the reason that I recorded a podcast episode on the topic. You can listen to the episode here, or on your favourite podcast player.
So what’s the reason you feel like a fraud?
From my experience, there is one key factor that leads women to feel like a fraud. And it comes about from the fact that they haven’t yet stepped into a new identity. In the podcast, I focused on that identity as a leader or as someone moving into a more senior role. But these tips can apply outside work too – for instance, if you happen to be a newlywed, new mama, a fledgling entrepreneur, you’ve started a new sport or creative pursuit or you’ve just found yourself in an empty nest or you’ve recently retired. The tips on how to move past feeling like a fraud will apply in all these examples. But like I said, in the podcast I focus on the work context.
Often, women will get a new job or promotion before they’ve taken the identity of someone who has that job. They don’t yet see themselves in that professional role. For me, that’s at the core of feeling fraudulent. Until you can see yourself in the role, you’ll feel like you shouldn’t be there.
This situation can happen with any change of role. But I regularly see it when women get tapped on the shoulder for the role or they’re sponsored into a new position. They accept the role, usually taking a big breath while giving themselves a good talking to about the fact that, of course, they can do it. But deep down, they’re not entirely convinced that they can.
I also see the phenomenon when a woman gets an unexpected, large pay rise. They’re happy to take the cash, but are concerned on some level that they’re not worthy of the raise.
Either way, they’re in the job or they have the cash flowing into their account but they feel somehow like they’re not deserving of the situation they find themselves in. They feel like a fraud. They’re still back thinking that they need to do a whole lot of things to be worthy or that they need to be, do or have something else to be successful. That something else shows up in many different ways. It could be that you need to look a particular way. Or that you need to speak in a particular way, or present differently to what you do now. All of this goes back again to actually being able to see yourself in the role.
Regardless of the circumstances, one thing that almost always happens is that the woman’s self-doubt then shows up in the form of an inner critic who’s quick to point out all of the reasons they’ll never be good enough for the job or the pay rise. Or they’ll tell themselves stories about mistakes being made. Women can’t see how they can possibly live up to the perceptions that others seem to have of them. Everyone else seems to see something in them that they can’t see in themselves.
And this is where we need to be particularly careful. Because this is where our inner critic doubles down by deciding to ask why we’re even trying. I’ve seen these fraudulent feelings completely unravel women at this stage. The need to protect ourselves from the psychological risks of failure and judgement in particular means that the ‘why am I trying?’ question becomes all consuming. And for some women, the answer of ‘maybe I won’t’ becomes compelling.
In order to avoid the pain that comes when you feel like a fraud, I know women who’ve stepped aside or even quit their organisations entirely. Alternatively, their doubt and anxiety provide the perfect environment for a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the woman’s performance suffers as she avoids making the decisions required or lets others undermine her leadership. Or health issues crop up. Meaning women are sidelined while they rightly attend to their well-being. All of these scenarios can be devastating, for the women themselves but also for women in general. Because that’s how the myth that women aren’t cut out for the big jobs perpetuates.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to feel like a fraud. There are tools you can use to bridge the identity gap and lessen those fraudulent feelings. So let’s switch gears and get into some of those tools now.
3 tools that can help when you feel like a fraud
One: Start gathering evidence that supports the positive story
The story that tells you that you have transferable skills and knowledge. That you’ve got experience from the past that you can bring forward. That points to your previous identity transitions – for example going from being a student to an employee. The truth is, you’ve learned and grown in the past and you can do it again. And if you’re rolling your eyes about the fact that I’ve just mentioned gathering evidence yet again, please know I keep raising it because it works. If you can prove to yourself that you are safe and successful, it’s the fastest way to subdue your self-doubt. Being able to look at what you’ve actually done, and know that you’ve survived gives your brain concrete facts to work with and not stories, maybes or worries.
Ultimately it’s the doing that helps you build confidence. Think back to when you learned to drive a car, or when you had to pick up a new computer program. At first you might have felt tentative, anxious or even overwhelmed. But as you did the thing more often, the easier it became until it was second nature. And it’s not just me who believes this. There’s a school of thought – from Harvard business school – that we humans don’t think our way to a new identity. We act our way into it. And by being in the role we get see ourselves there and we can create that new identity for ourselves. So take those actions. Run the experiments. And step into the new identity that is on offer.
Two: Be patient
It can take time to feel fully comfortable in a new role. No matter how competent and experienced they might be, I always suggest that my clients and colleagues give themselves a full six months to settle into a new role. Similarly for a new identity. It takes time to feel settled and in control. Equally so when you’re needing to do a thing over and over again to gather evidence.
So be patient. And resist the urge to quit or step out. I know that feeling like a fraud feels dreadful in your body. And it’s no fun at all to be telling yourself nasty stories all day. But while stepping out creates some relief, it also comes with a new identity to deal with – that of the quitter for instance. And it comes with new regretful stories full of what-ifs. So remember to be graceful with yourself and to allow yourself as much time as you need. There are no shoulds allowed here. It takes time to build the belief that you deserve to be where you are. So take as much time as you need.
Tool Three: Borrow beliefs
Although I’m a big fan of women building their belief in themselves over the long term, there is nothing wrong with borrowing someone else’s belief in the short term. Regardless of the situation, there will be someone in your world who believes you deserve to be right where you are and that the very last thing you are is a fraud.
This is especially true in the leadership context were someone has probably appointed or promoted you into a role. Assume that they’re clever, that they know what they’re doing and borrow their belief in you. If someone else can hold the belief, you can too, and reminding yourself that if others think that you’ve got things covered then you probably have. It’s a much more empowering place to start from and means that you’ll bring an entirely different energy to the situation. It can be super helpful to actually sit down and ask for feedback straight up on why they appointed you or gave you the pay rise. Focus on their perception of your strengths so that you make sure they remain front and centre in how you show up day to day.
Do you have any strategies that you use when you feel like a fraud? I’d love for you to share your thoughts with all of us in the comments section below.
II’ll be back soon with more tips and tools for you to live your Self.Styled.Life. But until then, stay fabulous xx
Image credit: Haute Stock