How to stop feeling like a fraud
I worked in corporate sales for 12 years peddling data to Fortune 500 companies. My parents never could quite grasp what I did for a living and neither could my then-husband. They all agreed that it was wonderful that I made a great income at whatever it was that I was doing.
What I did was sell … numbers.
I was very good at what I did much to my surprise. Why? Because every time I walked into a client’s office, I thought they’d figure it out. They’d see through my thinly disguised deer-in-the-headlights feelings and realize that I was a fraud. More often than I’d like to recall, I didn’t quite grasp all the ins and outs of what I was selling. Explaining data analysis was on my list of things I liked to do right above having my toenails pulled out. What I truly wanted was be at home with my son, not hundreds or thousands of miles away in a client’s office.
This fraud feeling was visceral, and came and went, depending on the client. I actually liked (most of) my clients, and that’s one reason why I was successful. I also believed in the data products I offered them and made sure I had a solid team of real analytical geniuses behind me so they could explain what was going on and not me. Nevertheless, even with clients I liked, I often wondered if they would figure it out. Only one ever did, and she was a kindred spirit.
In 1994, I found an article published by Psychology Today entitled Feel like a fraud? (You’re not alone). In it, the article focused on self-doubt and self-criticism and how most fraud-ridden folks are just plain afraid they’ll fail – “or worse, succeed.” The article also uncovered the biggest fear a fraud has – that their friends and family won’t like them if they knew the real person behind the mask. Wow, I could relate to that.
After leaving corporate life in 2002, I tried a variety of things, each eliciting that “fraud” feeling all over again. It wasn’t until I started writing that the inner voices quieted. It’s not that I don’t still have my moments of feeling like a fraud, but they happen much less frequently.
Now I seek out things that challenge my writing skills and sense of self. Am I a perfect writer? No! But I know I’m competent and getting better every day. This clarity didn’t happen overnight, however. I had to reframe how I looked at my work and me.
Here are some things that have helped me move beyond these destructive feelings.
1. Stop being a perfectionist
This stopped me faster than a punch in the stomach. Having to be “perfect” wastes time, energy and depletes your self-esteem. Humans aren’t perfect. God doesn’t seem to have a complex about that fact, so why do you? What makes you so special?
2. Celebrate your talents
You have them, so rejoice in them. I don’t care if your only talent is loading up the perfect pencil holder with new pencils. It’s a place to start. Don’t lose sight of the things you do well because those things may be what will sustain you during bleak periods.
3. Revel in what you don’t know
Okay, this assumes you know what you don’t know. If you’re learning something new, give yourself a pat on the back for the new things you’ve learned and look forward to all the additional knowledge you’ll be gaining. This isn’t limited to book learning.
4. Look for opportunities to stretch
Yes, physically is nice, but I mean mentally, emotionally and freelancerly (I just made that up). Lollygagging in a comfort zone is safe, but it does get boring. Look for places where you can move beyond it, with low risk if that’s your style, or take a big leap and jump into something new. Just be sure you can handle it because it’s likely that not doing it passably well may impact someone else, too.
5. Surround yourself with people you admire in your profession
Soak up their wisdom, learn from their mistakes (yes, they made them), seek their counsel and give them the respect they’re due for paving the way.
6. Surround yourself with peers in your profession
Nothing is better than having someone to commiserate with. Freelancers generally “get” other freelancers. Go find people who do what you do but maybe differently. Share war stories, laugh about clients, ask for insight, give advice, be a friend. Believe me, there is more than enough work in the world, so don’t be concerned about some of these people being competitors. Humans are pack animals. We need our people around us to collaborate and cooperate with. Come on, you know I’m right.
7. Surround yourself with things that remind you why you do what you do
It was this action that saved me during my corporate years. Having photos of my son, pictures we’d taken on vacations, a stuffed Eeyore (to remind me that all my days weren’t like his) on my desk, were some of the things that kept me sane and moving forward. Today, my son is grown, and I still have Eeyore.
I work out of my home and have my two cats and dog to keep me company. They also patiently listen as I read my latest missives aloud without complaining. I’m surrounded by the things I love, and I’m grateful to be able to live this way. Find those things that make your heart sing and put a smile on your soul. You might not need them every day, but on the days you do, you’ll be glad you have them.
The fraud feelings won't go away overnight, but if you consistently apply these 7 principles, you will find ease in your life and a lot less judgment from your head.