Have you ever looked around at your life and silently thought “I hope they don’t find out that I am not who they think I am?”  Somehow you have weaseled your way into a position of authority or power, obtained a job or received an assignment calling for you to act and be something when deep down inside you are going, “who, me?”

I confess, I know that I have.  Many times.

My Feelings of Fakery

I have led an interesting and successful life full of fascinating experiences where I have had to “show up” and do something and be somebody when all the while a voice inside me is laughing at the strange irony that I am in the one in the outlandish (for me) situation.

For example….

In my long career with the government, I met many times with state governors, US senators and congressmen and other high ranking officials to represent the Medicare program and its position on some matter.  I showed up hundreds of times to give speeches to large crowds or to be interviewed by TV, radio or newspapers as the high ranking government expert.

In my college teaching career, I spent over 10 years teaching classes to hundreds of students  in the basic understandings of computer hardware and various software programs.

In my role as a minister, I have spoken at Sunday services, performed weddings and funerals, taught spiritual classes, led meditations, facilitated men’s retreats and more.

In my role as a writer, I have given talks, signed books and done numerous media interviews.

In my role as a radio show host, I have interviewed authors, teachers, filmmakers and United Nations officials.

All of this may sound impressive, but the key point I am making here is that no matter what I have done, there was some point in everyone of these experiences that a little voice inside myself labeled me as a fraud or a phony.  Some part of me  said “who are you to be doing this?”  Luckily, I was able to push through those feelings and “perform”, generally recalling the words of Woody Allen who once stated, “80 of success is showing up.”

I Am Not Alone!

So, have you ever experienced those inner questions? Turns out most of us have. Truth is, I am far from alone in having these emotions.

This past week, I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with actor Tom Hanks where he discusses this very feeling.  He describes it as a high wire act many of us walk as we feel like an impostor wondering when we will be discovered by others who will come in and take everything away from us.  He correctly points out that we all go though such a battle of “self worth”.

[Here is a link to an article about the interview and where you can play the full interview. The parts I am referencing are in the first few minutes of the recording (3-5 minutes) and midway through(17-10 minutes).]

Later this week, I was riding in the car with my wife who was playing a CD by some self help speaker talking about “impostor syndrome“.  What, I asked is this? Turns out it is a psychological term for this very sense that I have felt and that Tom Hanks was describing.

Wikipedia defines it as “referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

The article goes on to say that 70 percent of us have felt this way at one time or another.  If this is true, odds are that most of you reading this can relate.

Although Wikipedia discusses various therapies that can help, I have to take some solace in the fact that so far I have been able to push through my feelings and convince myself that I deserved to be where I was and do what I was doing.  In some ways, I was following the old words of  “fake it till you make it.”

Yet more so, my inner dialogue pointed out that I did possess the credentials, I did have the training and education, I had gathered the requisite experience.  In other words, I convinced myself that where I was really was “right” and that I was “perfect” for the role.  This is not some egotistical bombastic self talk, this was simply a statement of “facts” that led me to facing the false sense of phoniness.

Yes, to be clear, there are times when people are truly imposters. I don’t have a medical degree.  If I tried to pass myself off as a doctor, I would really be a “real fake”.  But most of the time, our sense of being an imposter is not justified.

Why Do We Believe This?

The question then becomes this — why do so many of us, in spite of our training and experience, question ourselves?  Why is it that when we are truly “real”, we think we are “fake”?  Why do we have this epidemic of low self esteem and poor sense of self worth?  Why do we frequently feel shame about who we are?

Most who have studied this come to the same conclusion as this mental health website article: “The beliefs you have about yourself often appear to be statements of fact, although actually they’re really only opinions. They are based on the experiences you’ve had in life, and the messages that these experiences have given you about the kind of person you are. If your experiences have been negative, your beliefs about yourself are likely to be negative too.”

This article describes what I have experienced personally and what I have heard from working in counseling numerous people through the years — our life experiences interacting with others, especially our parents and other important role models in our early years, have led us to absorbing negative feedback and happenings leading us to forming a negative false self image about ourselves.  These false self images become so influential in our self talk that their true source frequently becomes invisible to us.

In other words: We forgot exactly how we determined that we were not worthy of being great and experiencing wonderful things, we just “know” it’s true.

Time to Remember the Truth

One of the things that I do in life is work with the organization Centers for Spiritual Living.  It has over 400 communities around the world who teach classes in spirituality.  These classes don’t instruct anyone in any dogmatic religious beliefs.  Instead, the classes are about self empowerment — you can do and be and have most of what you really want if you put your mind and your actions to achieving it.

However, to teach self empowerment, one in our culture generally has to start with “un-learning” the disempowering messages we have all absorbed.  Hence, most of the classes  have to deal with our internal false thinking asking such questions as:  Why do we believe what we do?  What would we believe if we believed something else?

I sincerely believe the classes are beneficial but you don’t have to take a class to tackle your feelings of low self worth. You can start right where you are by doing the following:

Ask yourself, where in your life are you feeling like a fake or a fraud?  What is the self talk that comes up when you hear those voices?

Ask yourself, where in your early experiences did you hear messages or move through a meaningful life moment that might have led you to having that inner voice with that negative self message?

Ask yourself, what would you believe if you didn’t believe the negative self message? Create a positive alternative message to replace the negative one.

Finally, anytime that you hear the negative words appearing in your awareness, replace them with the new alternative message.  Repeat as necessary.

This may take some time and a lot of practice, but it is worth the effort in order to truly experience the joy that this life offers you.

Here is the real truth:  You are a unique and valuable person.  You have special skills and abilities that no one else has.  You are worthy of success and great experiences.   You can do anything that you truly set your mind to do. You are worthy — and you’re no fake, you are for real.

Remember it!

Mark Gilbert


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Photo credit: Iván Gil Photography via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND