Feeling Like a Fraud

They’re going to find out I’m a fake

“It’s all just dumb luck” “Why would they choose me for the job?” “I don’t deserve this; I didn’t earn this. This has to be a mistake!” “God, if they only knew … “ These are some of the things that have gone through our minds after getting a job, achieving a goal, being praised for a job well done, or even just being complimented on a nice outfit.  No matter how talented we are, no matter how hard we worked to get there, there’s a part of us that feel undeserving. What’s more, it’s not just an evil voice that whisper these ugly things in our heads, but a feeling. A sick feeling in the pit of our gut that just won’t go away, despite our achievements. No, it’s not just you. I’ve been there, too. Yes, there is a term for it: imposter syndrome.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

According to Scientific American imposter syndrome is “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” In other words, you feel like you’re a phony, you’re constantly doubting and second-guessing yourself, and think everything you do is a sham. You are unable to accept your accomplishment, let alone enjoy it.

The term, imposter phenomenon, was first used by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe the feeling often felt by high-functioning women who felt their accomplishments were more from luck than their own hard work and ability. These women felt as if they were fakes, that they would be revealed as frauds.

When first “discovered,” health professionals thought this syndrome affected predominantly women, but now, after much research, they have found it affects men and women equally. It affects people of all genders who are high functioning and high achieving. Now, having said that,  women also deal with pronounced sexism plus internalized sexism which makes this an important topic for us to dig into here on the Women’s Center blog.

Why are women more susceptible to imposter syndrome than men? Perhaps it’s the conditioning of countless generations of women to be “modest,” to be “humble,” to be the caretakers and caregivers and to melt into the background while allowing the men to stand in front, to take charge, to shine. Perhaps it’s the millenia or more of telling our daughters and sisters and nieces that boys are “smarter than girls,” that we are “less than” our male counter parts, that we weren’t meant to be their equals. In Kate Bahn’s piece Faking It: Women, Academia, and Imposter Syndrome she writes: “a recent survey of undergraduates at Boston College, which showed that female students finished college with lower self-esteem than they started with. Male students, on the other hand, graduated with greater self-confidence (albeit lower GPAs) than their female peers.” No matter how much education we acquire, no matter how much more qualified we become, the feeling of inadequacy never leaves, instead, it just gets stronger.


Famous people who struggle with imposter syndrome

Here is a quote by Maya Angelou from the website theHUSTLE. Would you think she struggled with imposter syndrome?

“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.”


Michelle Pfeiffer (multiple nominee for Academy Awards and Golden Globe awards, successful actor, producer), Chris Martin (lead singer of the popular band Cold Play, song writer, producer), Sheryl Sandburg (COO of Facebook, former vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, named one of 2012 Time 100 most influential people, wife, mother) … the list goes on. What’s the one thing they all have in common? They all feel they’ve been putting on an act, that they are frauds, none of their accolades are earned.

How do you handle imposter syndrome?

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There’s power in naming so now that you know about imposter syndrome, how can you fix it? Well, there aren’t any magic pills that will make imposter syndrome go away. No genie in a bottle and a wish or o magic wand to wave over yourself. In other words there are no easy fixes that will make you feel gloriously confident and deserving of it all. There are, however, ways of coping and overcoming the relentless, self-damaging, at times, debilitating taunts.

There are the usual go-to tips: meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, healthy eating and lifestyle, and of course, that elusive ingredient, sleep. Yes, in a perfect world this would solve the problem, but for most of us stress and lack of sleep is the norm, so here are some other tips on how to manage your imposter syndrome. 

  1.  Don’t sell yourself short. The website Personal Excellence states: “Maybe you feel like a fraud because you don’t think you have anything good to offer … know that whatever place you are at in life now, you are here because you are ready for it.” Know that your being who you are is what’s going to give this job the uniqueness that only you can bring to the position. You are the only apple in a sea of oranges.  Or the only orange in the sea of apples.  Or the kiwi … or the grapes …  you get the picture.
  2. “Stop comparing yourself to that person”. As I’ve stated in #1 you are unique. Your accomplishments are unique. Thinking your way is not as good as someone else’s is not only self-sabotaging, it’s futile. You are different people, therefore, your way of doing things are different. You are not them; they are not you. End of story.
  3. Allow yourself to make mistakes. We don’t learn from our successes, we learn from our mistakes. Being wrong, making mistakes, is not a waste of time, merely lessons learned. Get upset, get angry, then get back up and use those lessons. Only you can turn the “wrongs” into valuable “rights”.


Self-doubt, anxiety, panic, fear, stress …    

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 Everyone has moments of self-doubt and anxiety. We are juggling school, work, for some, family, and many more issues daily. The world is full of things that bring on stress and anxiety, every minute, every hour, every day. The Women’s Center at UMBC is one of the places you can come and share with other women who are struggling with similar issues, experiences, and solutions and options with each other. If you feel you need to speak to someone on a one-on-one basis the professional staff members along with our student staff members, and those who utilize the Center regularly. Know that there are people who understand when you say “I don’t deserve this” or “It was a mistake” or “I’m a fake.” We are journeying, experiencing, and dealing with this very common issue. Please, don’t be afraid to share what you’re going through, even if it’s just with a pen on a sheet of paper. And if it’s keeping you from functioning in your daily life, please, seek counseling. We at the Women’s Center will help connect you with the resources you may need. Know that you are not alone in struggling with imposter syndrome. We are here to listen, and we will help any way we can.


Even More Resources:

From AAUW’s Being a Woman in STEM Isn’t Easy

Check out Feminist Fight Club from the Women’s Center library

From Everyday Feminism – a way to tackle imposter syndrome with an intersectional lens


I Claim Me

Harley Khaang

Harley Khaang is a UMBC returning women student and an intern at the Women’s Center. She is currently a junior and an INDS student, focusing on earning her degree in Communications Strategy.




My first day of school was Groundhog Day. I hadn’t stepped foot on a campus in decades, but there I was sitting in my remedial math class at 7 am (it was an 8 am class), shaking. Sure, it was February 2nd and brutally cold, as it should be, but as much as the blustery wind was affecting me, I was shaking mostly from fear and the overwhelming feeling that I had possibly gotten myself in over my head. It was a moment … I had a moment.

I got through the day, then I got through the semester. And despite the fear and the doubt, I managed to complete 4 more, graduate with an Associates in Arts and Sciences, and transfer to UMBC. During the 5 semesters at CCBC I noticed something interesting emerge: As education became more important to me and I was getting ready to transfer to UMBC as an undergrad, I began to notice resentment coming from several friends and family members. Just a short time before these people were supportive of my decision to go back to school, yet now they looked at me with contempt. Growing up I was taught that getting an education was the best thing you can do for yourself. So why was I losing support from friends and family? I was hurt, but what’s more, I was confused. Was I supposed to apologize for getting a degree, or stand up for myself and tell them to bug  off?  I didn’t know what to do. Why couldn’t I just earn my degree in peace? Why couldn’t they just understand and give me their support like they had been doing? I felt torn, truly torn.


As I was nearing graduation in 2017, I was also dealing with big changes in my life: I moved, dealt with health issues, and was accepted to UMBC. As if that wasn’t enough, I was dealing with never ending issues with phone companies, cable companies, my apartment management, to name a few. I had almost always avoided confrontations throughout my life. I let a lot of people walk over me because I didn’t want to face them and “start trouble”. I lost a lot of money because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of haggling with companies who had over charged me. I let a lot of things slide that I should never have let side, all because I didn’t want to be confrontational. Now, I was forced to take a crash course in Standing Up for Myself 101.

As I began to find my bearings I realized that maybe there was a reason for all the “confronting.” I realized that I wasn’t being confrontational, I was demanding what was wrong be made right. For the first time in my life I was standing up for myself. I was being my own advocate; I was finding my voice. Then I came across a brilliant article, and that tiny impetus to apologize for coming back to school disappeared quicker than I could say “poof”.

I received a newsletter from brainpickings with the tagline “Adrienne Rich on Why an Education Is Something You Claim, Not Something You Get.” My heart skipped a beat. In the piece, written by Maria Popova, I read that Adrienne Rich “delivered a convocation speech to a group of women at Douglass College titled Claiming an Education”. In that speech, Rich states: “One of the dictionary definitions of the verb ‘to claim’ is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. ‘To receive’ is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.”

I was at CCBC for 5 semesters before graduating. Out of the 5, I worked full time for 4 while attending school full time. It was exhausting to say the least. There were many things I had to “put on the back burner,” there were things I had to learn to live without, there were compromises I had to make, and there was not a single part of my life where a corner or two were not cut. I realize now, women like myself who go back to school later in life, often make our choices based on pacifying everyone around us. That act of keeping everyone happy can often keep us from achieving our education goals. I look back at those times I felt the need to apologize for “neglecting” my duties to my family by going, yet again, for another degree, and know that coming back to school was not an easy choice to make, but one I would make over again. The women I have met at UMBC, and especially at the Women’s Center, know exactly what I am talking about. We have had many passing discussions regarding this issue.  


Returning women students (undergraduate students 25 years and older) have a full plate and then some. In trying to balance work and family life, most of us have put ourselves last, minimizing our needs. Many of us who are returning women students are constantly on the go, working to find time for everything on our list of things to accomplish, all the while fighting money issues and guilt that we are not accomplishing enough. Many of us feel we are doing this alone, but that isn’t true. There is camaraderie to be shared with the Returning Women Students here at the Women’s Center. There is sisterhood among us who understand and feel the pain so common, and at times, deeply rooted in our psyche.

We have been there. We know; we understand. We got your back.


Since that cold Groundhog Day in 2015, I have realized, that for many of us returning women students, the recurring theme is self advocacy. We have a duty to ourselves to claim what is rightfully ours, in this case, our education. What I have come to realize in the past 3 years, and with the help of the recent discovery of Adrienne Rich’s amazing speech, is that self care = self advocacy. We have to be our own heroes because, most times, we will not be given what we want or deserve, even if we’ve earned the right to it. No one will give you what’s rightfully yours, you need to claim it. And at times, the process of claiming it means demanding it. I claim my education. I claim myself and my well being above all. I claim me. I hope you will claim yourself.  


For more information and further reading: 

Self-Advocacy: A Women’s Catch-22

Adrienne Rich On Why An Education Is Something You Claim, Not Something You Get

Stepping Up to the Plate

Time, money, leisure and guilt – the gendered challenges of higher education for mature-age students

More on the Returning Women Students Program in the Women’s Center to include our scholarship program (deadline is March 30th!!)