On Feeling Like A Fraud

“Tar and Feathers”  by Dan Colen


I once read that 90% of Stanford University freshmen believed themselves to be an admissions mistake. Only 10% felt worthy of being accepted. This was more than thirty years ago, so I’m not sure if that percentage still holds true. But the message I gleaned definitely does: it is extremely normal to feel like a fraud.  

The problem is—at least for me (and for the hundreds of people I have coached on this grueling topic)—it does not feel normal. It does not feel like a warped view of self that 90% of an over-achieving population happens to share. It feels true. When the message “I am a fraud” grabs me by the scruff of the neck, I am no match for it.  

For one thing, it doesn’t show up with that crisp clear phrase. It arrives on the sly, as a felt sense of shame, a creepy-crawly discomfort in my own skin. My mind is held hostage, forced to watch a litany of scenarios both recent and historical where I have made a fool of myself, over-stepped, mis-stepped, been frozen in my steps, failed. The message that gets piped in is that I am a fool, a failure. That I don’t know what I am doing and will be found out. Exposed. Tarred and feathered—a method of public humiliation no longer practiced, but that lives in our cultural DNA. I cower, and descend—right down the sinkhole.   

Apparently, we humans fear public humiliation more than we fear death. We are herd animals, tribal, and the specter of being ostracized equals a survival threat—if not in actual reality, then at least to our nervous systems. And worse than death (which you get to die from), public humiliation is something you actually have to live through, carrying its scars with you for the rest of your life.There are a few things I say to clients and friends when they are descending down the Fraud Sinkhole, that I also say to myself (my toughest client):

  • One) No one is scrutinizing you the way you are; they are too busy scrutinizing themselves. (On any given day, roughly 90% might be busily scrambling out of their own Fraud Sinkholes.)
  • Two) We actually don’t know what we are doing. We have never done this before. Even if you believe in past lives, we weren’t this exact person in these exact circumstances at this exact time ever before. We are all, in essence, winging it.  
  • Three) Give yourself a break. Who cares? So you make a mistake? You fail? Meditate on the definition of success that is: falling down seven times, getting up eight. (It’s not not falling down.)

The other night I woke from a very shitty Fraud dream, viscerally shaken. In the dream, my readers of this very blog had banned together out of love to save me from the humiliation of writing, saying en masse, “We believe you are a good person, so please, for your sake, don’t do this to yourself.” The tone was protective, trying to save me from embarrassing exposure, but the kindness did nothing to dampen the feeling I had of pure shame and humiliation. It took me hours to fall back to sleep. I happened to be running a workshop that week, for people who were battling with fear of failure, people who could not validate their own successes for fear of being exposed as a loser, a fuck-up, a fraud. I confessed the short version of my dream to the group—my intention being to demonstrate the prevalence of this kind of  internal message. But immediately, the lure of the sinkhole kicked in. I started to fear I was exposing too much and they all might want their money back once they heard they were being lead by a fraud. That’s the pernicious power of this message: that if we expose our fear of being a fraud, others will agree. Are we inviting others to bring out the vat of tar, the sack of feathers? Or are we taking a risk to share our vulnerability, in a way that creates human connection?

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