Fraud, Feeling Like A

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Fraud, Feeling Like A

In 1919 the novelist Franz Kafka wrote a forty-five-page grievance-filled letter to his father—and never sent it. By then he was in his late thirties, but his memories of school still smarted. In the letter he complained bitterly about spending his childhood lurking about shiftily, feeling “like a bank clerk who had committed a fraud.” Each new academic accolade granted to the outstanding young student left Kafka feeling increasingly anxious, compelled to work even harder just to “avoid discovery.”

Are you faking your way through life? Have you fooled your boss into thinking you’re more talented than you really are? Do you worry about being found out?

Then you’re not alone.

In the 1970s two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, investigating this torturous experience called it the Imposter Phenomenon. They found it was particularly common among successful professional women, many of whom believed their achievements had been the result of accident or oversight. Some of Clance and Imes’s subjects even believed that they’d inadvertently manipulated or flirted their way into promotion, convinced they hadn’t earned their success (see: SUSPICION). Today, many successful men also admit to feeling like an imposter, and it’s particularly common among first-generation professionals or those embarking on a career change.

Feeling like a fraud is undoubtedly an unpleasant experience, with its creeping sense that your hard-won gains are fragile and your achievements might, at any moment, be snatched away. But as high-profile high achievers become more vocal about their own feelings of imposterism (in recent years the former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the novelist Maya Angelou have both admitted to experiencing it), it may be that feeling like a fraud is being recast as an inevitable growing pain—less something to buckle under than a feeling we must learn to bear. The suspicion that she’s a phony still flickers at the periphery of Maria Klawe’s vision. A renowned mathematician and computer scientist, and President of Harvey Mudd College in California, she argues that “if you’re constantly pushing yourself, and putting yourself in new environments, you’ll feel it over and over again.” The trick, she suggests, is to learn to anticipate it, and tolerate it when it washes over you. It might even be welcomed: a sign that you’ve shifted out of your comfort zone, and are launching yourself bravely into new worlds.