Everyone Feels Like A Fraud

(And other life lessons I wish I’d known, by Ruth Ann Harnisch)


This used to drive me nuts about The Wizard of Oz. After the fire-throwing and flying-monkeys attacks, Glinda, The Good Witch, comes floating along in her pretty bubble and spills the secret of the ruby slippers. Dorothy learns she has always had the power to get what she wants, and has had it the whole time.

Dorothy: “I have?”

Scarecrow: “Then why didn’t you tell her before?”

Glinda: “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”

Wait, what? Glinda held out? This is the good witch?

Yes, Glinda sent poor little Dorothy careening through endless terrors and near-death experiences, then breezily announced that a simple heel-click and a few words would produce Dorothy’s heart’s desire. Just like that. I thought Glinda was just plain mean not to give the kid an option before scooting her on down the road.

Perhaps this is why, when any of the thousands of people I’ve coached ask if I know any shortcuts, I don’t use Glinda’s “she had to learn it for herself” method. I flat-out tell them.

And I tell them because I wish somebody had told me. As I write this, my life looks like the “happily ever after” part of the Cinderella story. But that came after a rough start in which I dropped out of college and became the third wife of my first husband. His cancer challenged us, and his addictions bankrupted us. Despite these ankle weights, I managed to have a barrier-breaking career in media. I was among the first wave of local television anchorwomen and radio talk show hosts. I was a feisty feminista in the buckle of the Bible Belt, the token progressive columnist for the conservative afternoon newspaper.

Then I married the handsome prince (in modern terms a “money manager”) and my story changed. I learned that big castles and big kingdoms come with big problems, and lo! I learned that problems are usually solvable, and the solution usually starts with something simple.

Many high achievers are not willing for anything to be easy at first.

Now, people come to me for help in dealing with their complex situations. They find themselves on a road fraught with flying monkeys and assorted witches. They may not dare to say it, but they hope I have some kind of magic wand.

It Can Be Easy

Clients come to me for speech coaching, fundraising strategies, or to work on a relationship, but deep down most of them really want help removing the obstacles that keep them from enjoying their lives. At some point in our conversation, I bring out the fairy dust. This is the magic they were hoping for. I ask, “Would it be OK with you if this were easy?” The answer is usually silence.

Surprise! Many high achievers are not willing for anything to be easy at first. Like danger junkies who have to feel death breathing down their necks in order to feel fully alive, some people have to work doggedly for what they have in order to experience fulfillment and satisfaction. If they don’t earn it the hard way, they don’t feel they deserve it, or they think it was too cheaply won. Either way, they don’t like it. The harder it is, the better it feels.

When we first meet, many of my clients seem to be trying to earn a life merit badge for being superbusy. I know! I spent decades believing “crazy busy” equals essential, important, working at capacity. That in-demand feeling became validation, affirmation, food for ego and soul (and wallet). I was hooked.

Clients tell me they are hardwired or were raised this way, and I was too. A few years ago, a health scare forced me to rethink the inescapability of our programming. I finally got it, really got it, that my packed calendar, endless to-do list, and perennial sleep deficit had become a matter of life and death. What really terrified me was not death, but the thought of suffering a severe stroke that would leave me at the mercy of diaper-changers.

Feeling overwhelmed, fearful, and exhausted are not a price you must pay in exchange for happiness. It can be easy, if you are open to it. I can take it easy because my “No, thank you” is rock-hard.

You may have noticed that the most irresistible opportunities show up at the most inopportune times. My clients ask, “How can I say no?” Unless you work out that “No, thank you” muscle, it won’t be strong enough when you need it most.

I had a chance to use my “No, thank you” muscle when I was offered the opportunity to be a guest curator of the TED conference bookstore. I looked at the email again. Me? Really? What an honor! Before I could blush, I saw the deadline for choosing books to recommend. I knew that I did not have time to do a good job unless I lost sleep or shortchanged other commitments. I declined immediately. I chose “easy.” And it was an easy decision.

Can you make your life easier by saying a firm and grateful “No, thank you,” refusing to take on more pressure, more deadlines, more work hours, more distractions, more dilution of your energy and focus? If you can’t bring yourself to say a firm no, would “Not no, but not now” work? Or must you make it hard by taking on more?

Today’s world works in collaboration—at least the smartest and happiest part of the world does.

If it’s OK with you for this to be easy, ask yourself these questions:

· Considering what’s most meaningful to me in life, what would help me enjoy my life more?

· Is it OK with me to put myself and my needs first? (Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.)

· Do I think I “should” do it, or can I find the reason I am choosing to do it?

If you make it your intention, you can indeed ease on down the road.

You and Your Ideas Need a Community

My generation of middle-class United States citizens got the message that individual achievement was the measure of success. And we also learned to be rugged individualists—never let ’em see you sweat, big girls and boys don’t cry, no thanks, no help needed, no help wanted.

While there are still some holdouts who believe success and well-being are a personal matter, that delusion has been shattered for most of us. Today’s world works in collaboration—at least the smartest and happiest part of the world does.

There is no clearer distinction between old-thinkers and new-thinkers. An alliance-based approach to life marks the modern. We play video games with strangers, communicate on social networks, fund businesses and charities with a click, gather online to find friends and solutions. Ignore this reality at your peril.

For the most basic stuff in life—love, birth, illness, catastrophe, death—people need community. Wherever there is a need, the best solution is a caring circle of people whose collective strengths can make the difference. Well-tended relationships are life’s greatest joy, not to mention the greatest insurance policy. We are there for each other when the chips are down. Perhaps if Glinda had made clear to me how much I was going to need help, and how much help I was capable of giving, I would have been less of a loner.

And I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on projects that didn’t have widespread buy-in from key stakeholders. If an idea doesn’t have a community, it’s not going to survive. If the idea-generator can’t inspire a solid core of support to bring the idea forth, the idea stands little chance of success. Before I invest in an idea these days, I want to know if it is already resonating with a passionate core community that will be its life-support system as it grows. If something were to happen to the idea-generator, is the idea positioned to survive without that person?

If an idea doesn’t have a community, it’s not going to survive.

Almost all of my unhappiest clients cling to an unshakable belief that they should do things for themselves, by themselves, despite being part of a healthy community of people who would be delighted to assist. Sometimes the greatest favor we can do for someone else is to allow them to help us. That’s how I learned to accept—and even ask for—help. I started out by “doing them a favor” by allowing them to help because I could see that it meant a lot to them. So I let them. And it turns out that help is, well, helpful.

Learning to be a gracious receiver opens the door to unprecedented opportunities. You won’t be able to enjoy them unless you can say a guilt-free “Yes, thank you!” to the offers life brings your way.

Everybody Feels Like a Fraud Sometimes

The Wizard really was a fraud! But there’s a difference between a deliberate misrepresentation and a perceived gap in competence. My clients include some of the most talented and successful people I’ve ever known. Yet so many of them feel as if they don’t deserve what they have, or aren’t as good as they “should” be. They downplay their own attributes while standing in awe of people no better than they. Peek behind the curtain, and it’s easy to see that all of these wizards feel—and are—only human.

Human beings are fallible by design. To be a perfect human is to make mistakes. We learn by doing, by experimenting, by seeing what works. I’ve learned that the happiest people are the ones who are the most authentically themselves. They are who they are, not trying to be anyone they’re not. They are comfortable in their bodies. They are at peace with themselves. When I exhibit symptoms of Imposter Syndrome—feeling as if I don’t belong where I am, that I’m not worthy of being where I am, that it will soon be obvious how much I don’t deserve to be here—I do a reality check.

The Wizard really was a fraud! But there’s a difference between a deliberate misrepresentation and a perceived gap in competence.

Sometimes I really do need to up my game: study more, have more conversations, learn new skills. Sometimes I need to get an objective opinion. Or two. Or more. And sometimes I simply need to recognize that almost everyone I’ve ever had a deep conversation with about this subject admits there are times they have felt like an imposter.

Should you “fake it ‘til you make it,” as some recommend? Yes, do fake an air of confidence until you can develop confidence. Yes, do fake a cheerful demeanor rather than being a sincere grouch. Yes, do fake your courage until you find it. But I beg of you, don’t fake in the face of demonstrable facts. Don’t fake with your spreadsheets, in meetings with your partners or your would-be investors, or on your tax returns. Don’t fake your competence, thereby torpedoing the efforts of others. If you’re faking the key skill sets, that’s not “feeling like a fraud.” That’s being a fraud. Stop it. Bad Wizard.

You Tell Yourself the Story

For most of my life, I didn’t know that humans could control their own minds. Thoughts came to me! What was I supposed to do about that? My brain activity seemed to unspool before me without any input from my consciousness. And then I discovered the power: I am not only the producer, writer, director, and star of the movie of my life. I am the editor.

I can choose what to think. I can interrupt thoughts of worry, blame, anger, selfishness, frustration, and fear. Especially fear. I can choose to replace unproductive thoughts with better ones. I can think of next steps and larger strategies. I can imagine better options, if I choose to.

Here’s what my editing process looks like:

· I halt unproductive thoughts as soon as I recognize that I’m having them—when all else fails, I sing “Happy Birthday” or whistle the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. Anything to derail the unhelpful thought.

· I no longer allow myself to wander alone down dark alleys of thought. I don’t want to watch gory true crime or listen to sad songs or read books on subjects bound to upset me. Real life’s tough enough. Why deliberately go places where my thoughts get mugged and dragged away?

· At my worst times, I reach for the happiest thought I can think in that moment. My young nephew died suddenly in June of 2013. Happy thoughts were hard to come by, but happier ones were within reach. Our family is here together to help each other. I will always have feelings of love when I think of him. I will treasure my own aliveness in this moment.

· I find the strength to hang on by reaching for a thought that is even just the teensiest bit better. If I can’t think of one, I ask for help. Sometimes the little-bit-happier thought is, I can get more helpful help than that. (And yes, sometimes help means calling in the pros. A confidante, a coach, a therapist—whatever’s needed for the job at hand.)

I can choose what to think.

In over forty years of talking with people as a journalist, a coach, and a friend, I’ve met people who made it through natural disasters, health challenges that should have been fatal, and the most heinous crimes people can survive. They survived because they would not allow their minds to stay in the dark places. Even in the midst of catastrophe, people can count their blessings and look ahead. It doesn’t mean they’re not heartbroken, doesn’t mean life won’t be challenging. It means they choose to take control of their thoughts and decide to enjoy even the fleeting moments of their lives as much as they can, while they can.

Coaches help their clients understand that life is the story you tell yourself. I remind my clients to tell themselves the happiest story that is true.

Be Kind to Yourself

It would sound particularly saccharine coming from a blonde with a wand and a trilling voice, so if Glinda had told me one of the secrets of enjoying life was to be kind, I might have gagged. But that was before I learned to recognize kindness.

The kindness of others had carried me without my knowing, until I had such troubles that I couldn’t help seeing that kindness was a form of pain relief unlike any other. Score one for “She had to learn it for herself.” The Dalai Lama says that kindness is his religion, all wrapped up in a single word, and I now know, intimately, that the kindness of other people is a bit of padding against the sharp edges of life.

Defend yourself at least as well as you would fight for someone you actually loved.

We have no idea of the secret suffering all around us. Almost everyone can use a little kindness, and I am mindful that gossiping or making jokes at someone else’s expense is not kind. In my youth, it was a badge of honor to deliver a sharply cutting remark, and that’s still valuable currency in many circles. I worked in newsrooms for most of my career. Hi, my name is Ruth Ann, and I’m a recovering snarkaholic.

I’m also recovering from seeing the world in black and white, right or wrong. This has required me to resign from the Supreme Court. Oh, you didn’t know I was the judge of everything? I used to be great at judging others, and I did my best work judging myself.

In her autobiography, actress Kitty Carlisle wrote about a daily ritual that was a secret of her serenity and joy. She looked at herself in the mirror every day and said, “I forgive you, Kitty.” When I first read that, I was unable to wrap my head around the concept of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness was a concept I had not yet learned.

I told my sister about Kitty’s ritual. She was as disbelieving, and aghast, as I was. “Could you ever do that? Could you say that to yourself?” my sister asked incredulously. “No, I can’t,” I said. “I tried and I couldn’t do it. So instead I say, ‘I forgive you, Kitty.’” We still laugh about that. And sometimes I still say, “I forgive you, Kitty,” while looking into my own eyes. Every time I do it, I’m amazed at how good it feels. When I learned to forgive myself for not being perfect, it was easier to forgive everyone else for not being perfect.

Now I stop my clients from speaking unkindly of themselves. “I’m so stupid!” “I’m so clumsy!” or “I’m so bad at that!” I interrupt their self-blaming rants, telling them I don’t let anybody talk about my client like that, not even my client.

Defend yourself at least as well as you would fight for someone you actually loved, such as your closest friends, your dearest kin, and your little dog, too.

Your Life Is Up to You

If Glinda had told me that my life was my responsibility, I would have argued with her. How could whatever is going wrong be my fault? It was obvious that there were plenty of other people to blame for everything wrong in my life, from the dent in my car door to the failure of my million-dollar investment. I could name them all for you now, except . . . the only person who made the choices was me.

Sure, I had collaborators, instigators, and antagonists. There were circumstances! There were reasons! And in the end there are no excuses. The first rule of relationships: the only person in the relationship you can change is yourself.

Whenever I think someone else is to blame for something going on in my life, I substitute my name for the other person’s name.

As it turns out, that’s true about my relationship with life and everyone and everything in it. Not only am I the only one I can change, but I’m the only one who can change myself.

Whenever I think someone else is to blame for something going on in my life, I use author Byron Katie’s suggestion to substitute my name for the other person’s name, and consider what truth emerges if I turn the statement around.

“My husband is making me crazy!” becomes “I am making me crazy!” or “I am making my husband crazy!” or “My husband is making me sane!”

“She should not have done that!” becomes “She should have done that,” or “I should not have done that,” or “I should have done that.”

It might take a few minutes (or years) to figure out why the reverse statement has truth, but I eventually recognize why I am accountable to myself for the situation. When I’m in disagreement with someone, I’ve learned to make “I” statements (“I feel so angry right now!”) instead of “You” statements (“You make me so mad!”) because I need to take responsibility for the story I’m telling. What other people say or do shouldn’t matter because the only thing I can control is my reaction to what happens. “I” statements acknowledge that my life is up to me, not some outsider.

If I’d been able to recognize how responsible I was for my part of everything I was unhappy about, I could have taken ownership of my problems and tried to solve them. Instead, I was under the illusion that my unhappiness was somebody else’s fault, starting with my parents and eventually widening the net to include everyone on the planet. Shout-out to some extra-hateful teachers, a couple of heartbreaking exes, and the bosses who know who they are. If Glinda had said, “You are responsible for how you react to everything that happens,” I wonder if I still would have had to learn it for myself.

Still Waiting for Your Answers to Come from the Sky?

The witches and the flying monkeys never stop coming at you. There are no original weapons against them here; you have heard all of this before. If you’re stuck, help is somewhere. Keep looking. It’s probably something simple, the “Now you tell me” truth that’s always a bit too late but somehow right on time. And just like with those ruby slippers, the action doesn’t start until you click your heels and say the words. There’s no time like now . . . there’s no time like now . . .

Ruth Ann Harnisch is a writer, an investor, a coach, philanthropist, and president of The Harnisch Foundation, which has given grants to hundreds of nonprofit organizations since its founding in 1998. She is a proponent of creative philanthropy whose unusual charitable investments have landed her on Oprah and the Today show. This is an excerpt from her essay, “Will the Lady in the Bubble Please Let the Cat Out of the Bag,” from The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women on Amazon Kindle.