‘I’m a Fraud’ – What to Do When You Have the Impostor Syndrome

Girl with a drawing on her face

During my recent run of my Anti-Procrastination Course, I was working with my participants to uncover their inner resistances causing them to procrastinate. One of my participants, H, shared this belief: “I’m a fraud.” Even though she has this grand goal to build her coaching practice and host retreats around the world, there are times when she procrastinates in taking action because she feels unconfident about what she’s trying to do as a coach. She says,

“[I feel like] I’m a fraud. I feel I still have so much to learn to be a coach. To be recognized as an expert, I was instilled with the belief that I needed to have a lot of credentials under my name. I’m constantly reading and learning from others and sharing what I learn with others. I feel the ideas aren’t my ideas and that sometimes I use other people’s inspiration to express my thoughts and lessons.”


Have you ever felt this way before?

The Impostor Syndrome, a.k.a. “I’m a fraud”

Also known as the impostor syndrome, “I’m a fraud” is the belief one carries when they feel they are not as good as what others perceive them to be or the image they’re trying to portray. Someone who suffers from this syndrome carries a fear of being “exposed” one day for their supposed lack of skills and ability, even though this “lack” may well only be in their mind.

In case you feel that you’re alone in this, don’t! Psychological research has estimated that 2 out of 5 successful people consider themselves frauds while other studies have found that 70% of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. [Wiki] In fact, there are famous people who’ve openly talked about feeling like a fraud before, such as screenwriter Chuck Lorre, comedian Tina Fey, actress Emma Watson, and even veteran actress Meryl Streep and best-selling author Maya Angelou! Check these out:

“When you go and watch a rehearsal of something you’ve written and it stinks, the natural feeling is ‘I stink.’ I’m a fraud. I need to go and hide.'” ~ Chuck Lorre

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!” ~ Tina Fey

“I was in my hotel room, thinking, I can’t do this. I was just terrified,” ~ Emma Watson said of her reaction the night before giving a key speech at the UN’s New York headquarters

“I have written 11 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.'” ~ Maya Angelou

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?” ~ Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep. A 3-time Academy Award winner, she is widely regarded as one of the greatest film actors of all time — and yet she still feels the impostor syndrome

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the impostor syndrome is that it’s most prevalent among high achievers — meaning the people who should have the least reason to feel like impostors are the ones who spend the most time feeling so, whereas real impostors, say fraudsters or bullshitters, don’t. Strange, huh?

Needless to say, the impostor syndrome can lead to severe self-sabotage. For example in the AP course, a (different) participant shared how she constantly feels “not prepared enough” to start her speaking business (even though she really is), in turn leading to her constantly putting off her goal and exploring yet another degree, qualification to get “ready.” In the employment world, some people avoid applying for better jobs or pass up on promotions altogether because they don’t feel qualified enough, even though they really are. With business owners such as coaches and consultants and freelancers, they may procrastinate on marketing themselves and getting new clients because they’re afraid of being “exposed” for not being skilled enough.

If you have times when you feel like a fraud, I have 6 tips for you.


1) Make a list of your achievements

Many times, we are quick to cast doubt on our talents and achievements. We focus on what we lack, our inabilities, and how we’re “not good or qualified enough.” This subsequently creates the feeling of being a fraud even though we may already have the skills and talent to do something very well.

Before I started my blog Personal Excellence in 2008, I had my doubts on why anyone would read my blog or listen to what I had to say. Not only was I just 23 then, a n00b and way young to be any kind of a coach, there were already all these great self-help blogs and gazillions of coaches who had been building their presence for years! Why would anyone want to listen to me? I thought. I felt redundant and there was no place for me in this field.

As I thought about how I could differentiate myself, I decided to brainstorm on my unique strengths and past achievements. While I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything, maybe 1–2 lines max, I was shocked when I eventually came up with a full list of things that I had achieved through my own hard work and merit throughout my life but had somehow forgotten and swept them under the rug. Seeing this list was a pivotal moment where I thought, Hey, I can really do this. There’s really something I can offer to others. I subsequently didn’t feel any more self-doubt as I started my journey, and I believe this was partly why I could single-mindedly focus on what needed to be done to achieve quick results in my business.

Perhaps you may think, Oh, I haven’t achieved anything great; I’m not capable of anything (typical impostor syndrome thought btw). Here’s the surprising fact: no matter whether you’re 30 or 20 or even 10, you already have a set of achievements under your belt; achievements unique to you. The key here isn’t to compare yourself with others but to see yourself in your own light.

Here are 3 questions I challenge you to journal on (list as many answers as possible):

  1. What are your strengths? Drivenness? Passionate? Humorous? Witty? Hardworking? Committed? Genuine? Caring? Meticulous? These are things you have that no one else has. While they may seem natural to you, they are in fact a form of achievement because YOU have developed and stuck with them through your life.
  2. What challenges have you faced and overcome in life? We all have challenges that we face and overcome. What challenges did you face growing up? Teasing? Bullying? Self-doubt? Criticism? Anxiety? An angry household? A broken family? An oppressive culture? How have you dealt with these obstacles? These are achievements in themselves too. ♥
  3. What have you accomplished in your life? These achievements can be to do with your work, hobbies, relationships, health, and finance. Maybe you worked your way through odds jobs to pay off your tuition fees. Maybe you lost 15 kg and achieved a healthier weight. Maybe you studied really hard in school and won a scholarship. Maybe you worked hard to have the great relationships in your life today. These are all achievements!

Go deep into this exercise; I promise that you’ll be surprised by the results.

2) Stop selling yourself short


Maybe you feel you’re a fraud because you don’t feel you have anything good to offer. Maybe you feel that you’re just lying and pretending to be good when you aren’t. But you need to realize that whatever the place in life you are at now, you are here because you are ready for it.

For example, say you run a coaching business. You feel like a fraud because you don’t feel good enough to coach others (this is similar to what Participant H shared in the Anti-Procrastination Course). Perhaps you feel that you assigned the title of “coach” to yourself and no one has ever officially endorsed you as a real “coach.” Hence you feel terrified to market your work and put yourself out there, because, hey, What if someone realizes I’m a fraud, a phony?

Yet, consider this: What does “coach” (verb) mean? To me, it means to guide, support someone to greatness. Think back to your interactions with others in the past 10 years of your life. Have there been times when you helped someone move forward in their problem? Say, when you helped a friend deal with a bad breakup? Or when you helped someone work through a career dilemma? Or when you inspired someone to take positive action? Aren’t these real people you’ve helped? So why would you think otherwise and sell yourself short, when you’ve been invisibly coaching even before you started your coaching business?

Here’s a different example: Say you just got promoted to be a manager. Here, it’s a bit awkward as you are now leading people you used to co-work with. Instead of working at peer level, you’re now their manager who delegates work, critiques them, and manages their payroll. Because of that, some of your ex-co-workers feel disgruntled. Perhaps you feel embarrassed because there is a more senior ex-co-worker whom you feel should have been promoted over you.

However, recognize that you have been promoted for a reason. While you may feel that you aren’t good enough for this role, you need to trust that your managers have carefully evaluated your skills sets, past performance, and potential before promoting you. After all, corporate management doesn’t just flippantly promote people without reason! Your managers wouldn’t have put you in this role if they didn’t believe in you. And you need to believe in yourself.

So, don’t sell yourself short. Chances are you are where you are today because you have what it takes and you’ve worked your way here. So, why not make the best out of it?


3) Lose your expert hat (Know that you don’t have to know all the answers)

People who suffer from the impostor syndrome tend to feel like they need to live up to a certain role as an expert. And when they don’t, they feel like frauds.

To that, I say lose your expert hat. This means stop feeling like you need to know all the answers. For example,

  • If you run a blog on X, be okay with saying, “Hey, I don’t know everything on X. But I’m constantly learning and I’m here to share what I’ve learned.”
  • If you are a manager, know that you don’t have to know all the answers. Be ready to own up to mistakes and knowledge gaps when they happen. Then, strive to be better.
  • If you’re a coach on dating, health and fitness, etc., you don’t need to pretend to be a know-it-all. Chances are, there are things you don’t know that you need to research on further. And that’s totally okay.

Are you wearing an expert hat at the moment? Is it time to let it go?

Why is it important to lose your expert hat? Firstly, when you do so, it becomes clear that it’s no longer about your image but your craft: your work and the people you want to serve. Rather than get caught up with maintaining a certain image (which then becomes an ego game), you can focus on what matters. Secondly, when you stop obsessing about your status, you can work on improving yourself, including your knowledge and skill gaps. Thirdly, the reality is that no one can know all the answers because there will always be new things to learn. The best actors will always have new roles that stretch their acting abilities. The best doctors will always receive new patient cases they have never seen before. The best life coaches will face problems of their own. Even though I’ve been coaching for 7 years, I continue to get new client scenarios, and it’s partly because I’m constantly expanding my comfort zone to take on different profiles of people.

Don’t get me wrong in that you can still poise yourself as an expert, especially if this is part of your job scope. For example, the titles of a doctor, coach, consultant, etc. convey superior expertise. However, don’t lose yourself in it because it’s just a title at the end of the day. There will always be things we don’t know and it’s about (1) acknowledging our knowledge gaps and (2) continually upgrading ourselves to close this gap. Which brings me to the next tip.

4) Build your skills

Addressing the impostor syndrome isn’t just about self-assurance and telling ourselves we’re good enough. Sometimes, we may feel like a fraud because deep down, we feel a gap between others’ perception about our ability and our own ability. While tips #1 and #2 are about internalizing our accomplishments, this tip is about raising our ability. Because there is nothing more constructive than taking action to improve ourselves and become better individuals.

When I started my personal development business in 2008, skill improvement was huge on my list. It still is today (I don’t suppose self-improvement ever ends), but it was one of my topmost priorities when I begun. So much so that I had a scorecard of the skills I wanted to build for my work (coaching and speaking), my personal ratings of my skill level, and my plan to get better in them. For each skill, I had a workbook (an Excel document really) to map my progress. With coaching, I logged all my coaching sessions and would evaluate my areas of improvement for every session. I would work on these areas leading to the next session. On a macro-level, I developed an elaborate framework of coaching techniques and questions which I constantly reviewed and refined on a weekly basis. With speaking, I had a custom feedback form which I used to get participant ratings on how I fared on various workshop metrics: utility value, application of content, engagement level, etc. I would track my performance on these scores and target perfect scores for each workshop I conducted.

I did these rigorously for a good 2 to 2.5 years. By then, many lessons had become ingrained in me and I had developed a fair level of expertise, so it was no longer as valuable for me to do such intensive tracking. Today, I improve by studying the most successful icons, getting continual feedback from my clients/participants, and continually studying what it takes to help my clients achieve their next breakthrough in results.

For you,

  1. What is the area you’re feeling like a fraud in now? What are the 3 most important skills to excel in it?
  2. How would you rate yourself in each skill on a scale of 0–10, where 0 is the lowest and 10 is the highest?
  3. How can you improve yourself such that you are a 10 in each skill? Research perhaps? Consult industry experts? Go for further training? Talk to friends with more experience? Get more hands-on practice? Or?

As skill development is a life-long journey, the goal here isn’t to reach or stop at a particular point but to keep identifying new things to improve on. Read:

5. Focus on the value you can give to others

Girl in the field surrounded by light

Funnily, I probably have more instances of self-doubt now than I did when I started my blog with no visitors (which was never). I think a large part of it comes from (1) the insane amount of work I’ve invested in my website and content to date and (2) the desire to always raise my bar for myself and deliver better, more quality material to others. This then creates a certain pressure on the subsequent content I should create/post, and when I don’t live up to my ideal quality, I feel like a fraud. Another part comes from being regularly criticized and ripped to shreds by people, visitors, I don’t even know, which makes me feel like every single thing I write is always being judged on and I can’t ever write without somehow making someone, somewhere unhappy about what I wrote.

When this happens, I do the very thing I did when I started my blogging journey: I focus on the people I want to help. The people in pain. People dealing with life’s challenges. People who need and want help. And people who are eager and ready to better their lives. Then, I ask myself, How I can make a difference to them? Do I write an article on a topic they’re struggling with now? Do I conduct a new course holistically addressing their struggles? Do I open up for new 1-1 coaching clients? Or should I record a video on my channel? Then I get down to work. (In fact it is this very thought that led me to write this post.)

Impostor syndrome happens when you’re more concerned about your image, fears, and yourself rather than what you’re trying to achieve. Think about the value you want to bring to this world and then create it. Forget other stuff like fears, criticism, and naysayers because they are just noise that will be there no matter what you do.

How to deal with criticism:

6. Remember that everyone is learning and sorting things out too

A lot of times we see experts in their fields and we look at how great they are. We look at ourselves and we feel sucky for not measuring up. It gets worse in our social-media-driven world today where every update and photo is perfectly manicured and we only see the glittery and sexy parts of others’ lives — nothing else.

Yet, remember that everyone, including the experts, is still learning and sorting things out. Just because people aren’t writing about their struggles doesn’t mean they aren’t battling them. For example, beloved comedian Robin Williams hung himself last year (2014) at the age of 63; he had been battling depression for a while. Lamar Odom, former NBA player and NBA Sixth Man of the Year who won 2 NBA championships was found in a coma 3 weeks ago (Oct 13) at a Nevada brothel after an alleged drug binge (he is now awake and on the long road to recovery). Heath Ledger who played the Joker in The Dark Knight and won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was found dead in his home at the age of 28, from the abuse of prescription medicine. It was said that he had been battling drug addiction and depression leading up to his death.

For me, I have my own struggles as well. However, I haven’t been able to write about them much as they may involve other people and running a fairly public blog has meant that I need to be much more careful about what I write about today than 7 years ago. However, I do hope to loop you guys more closely in my life, my struggles, and everything and I’m just thinking what’s the best way to do this without unsavory problems. I do ask that you guys be patient with me as I figure out the best way to blend public domain with my desire to connect with you guys more personally.

There is always an “unsexy” side to the sexy, glamorous life we see of others. Rather than look at how “great” everyone is doing and beat ourselves down for that, how about we work on living our best life, sorting out our own stuff, and just being the best human we can be? When we stop comparing ourselves with others; when we stop looking outward for affirmation and fulfillment, this is when we realize there is someone right there waiting for us. This person is our inner self and it’s time to pay attention to him/her and work with him/her to be the best person we are meant to be. 🙂

I’ve spent a lot of time writing this guide, so if you’ve found this article helpful, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Let’s help everyone break out of their impostor syndrome and become the best person they are meant to be. Thank you! ♥

This is part of the Skills Development series:

  1. Skill Building 101:
  2. Add-on tips:
  3. Obstacles you’ll face:

Images: Girl with a drawing on her face, Meryl Streep, Matchsticks, Hats, Girl in the field

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