Fake it ’til you make it: living as a fraud

Living like #fakenews on heels
by Gabriela Cervantes

As a Hispanic immigrant, I quickly learned that I needed to work twice as hard to show I was half as good. However, no matter how hard I worked, it never seemed enough. As a professional, being a good Hispanic role model rarely paid off. Despite being published and earning a masters, I’ve been told to take a basic Writing 101 class because someone like me will never master the English language. I’m told that chance had more to do with my being the highest-ranking Hispanic in my company’s history than my years of long hours and hard work.

For a long time, I felt like a fraud, an imposter. Research shows that 30 percent of millennials suffer from imposter syndrome. And, if Oscar, Emmy and Tony award-winning actress Viola Davis feels like an imposter, what chance do the rest of us have?

“It feels like my hard work has paid off, but at the same time I still have the imposter, you know, syndrome. I still feel like I’m going to wake up and everybody’s going to see me for the hack I am,” she said, speaking backstage at the 2017 Academy Awards.

Imposter syndrome, which is when high achievers feel professionally inadequate, was first coined in 1978 by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. The term refers to those who feel like they’re fakes, that their success is due to great timing, luck or deceit, and have ongoing stress from fear of being “found out.”

The late Marion Sewer, former professor of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UC San Diego, and an internationally recognized leader in the field of steroid hormone biosynthesis, relayed her own story as a black woman with imposter syndrome when she was awarded the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute pre-doctoral fellowship. A mentor told her that “they always pick one black student,” so she should feel lucky to have been selected.

This sense of inadequacy can affect anyone, but it’s more prevalent among women. And let’s not leave underrepresented groups out of the equation: immigrants, minorities and LGBTQ professionals feel the weight of their daily “fraudulent” selves, all while accepting their success as accidental.

Obviously, not all successful women deal with imposterism, but many do. A 1984 study of randomly-selected American psychologists indicated that two out of five women feel like imposters in their career, and 70% of them have felt that way at least once in their life. Thirty years later, in 2011, those studies were validated and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.

For many of us who feel like frauds, it’s somewhat refreshing to know we’re not alone. Actually, we’re in very good company. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recalled a woman’s speech at her Phi Beta Kappa induction at Harvard called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” Immediately, Sandberg thought it was the best speech she’d ever heard. “I felt like that my whole life,” Sandberg said.

Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet once said, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.”

Even writer, comedian and actress Tina Fey once said:

“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!”

So what are imposters to do? We start by discussing it with others. That’s the thing with imposters. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to be found out, but we’ll never start feeling like regular human beings by feeling isolated in our experience.

Make a list of all our accomplishments. Once in a while, when looking at my awards, I remember to pat myself on the back. “40 under 40.” Check. “Women of Influence.” Good job! “Up and Comer of the Year.” Atta girl! That was all me. There’s no way one could get so much professional recognition and achieve so much by mere luck. If that were the case, imposters should be playing the lottery, not trying to win awards.

Finally, have a support system. Whether it’s friends, family, co-workers or other imposters, develop a network of people who are there to tell you how much you rock, even when you think they’re just being nice.

With previous calls for professional women to “lean in,” it’s so important for women to stop the voices of self-doubt and “own it.” Own your success. Own your achievements. Own your awesomeness. Go after your dreams. Get that new job. And if you’re going to be an imposter, then aim high and at least be Imposter of the Year.

Gabriela Cervantes is an award-winning marketer at a defense manufacturer and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.