Executive Career Coaching - Job Search Debugged

Are you a Fraud? Silence your internal critic.

By , January 23, 2012


I published this blog last year and it resonated with a lot of senior executives who, in their private moments, admit to feelings of being an impostor. Yesterday, I mounted my first photography exhibit and when it was finished, I was overwhelmed with feelings of self doubt. What made me think I had any right to pass myself off as a photographer? In dealing with these feelings, I confronted my own ‘impostor.’

I managed to shut her up by reminding myself that there are always people who are more recognized as experts but that my own efforts generate delight and pleasure irrespective of the efforts of much better photographers. Turning off my own internal critic was hard, but in the end, I did it and am now proud of the exhibit and my photo site.

Every time that critic tried to intervene in my appreciation for my own accomplishments, I shut her up with, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. You mounted the exhibition at the REQUEST of someone who thought they can make some money selling your work. Now, STFU.” Had to do it about six times before I was honored with silence and pride in my accomplishment. Hope you can benefit from the guidance below and get to the same place of calm.

“The Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” Wikipedia

Is your success just luck? Do you feel if people really knew, they’d know you are really a fraud and it is just a matter of time before they are found out?

Are you proving to yourself you are worthless and a victim by avoiding the proper steps towards finding a new job?

Or worse, do you overcompensate for your feelings of inferiority and take every opportunity to tell people you are a thought leader of grand stature and remind them of your accomplishments? Are you sabotaging your job search efforts to prove to yourself you are not who you appear to be?

Think hard on these: Do you accept poor treatment from your Board? When your team criticizes you do you immediately accept their attacks as true? Do you detect dismissive attitudes from your direct reports? Are you reluctant to be pro-active? And how comfortable are you negotiating your compensation? Do you give in too soon when you are collaborating to the detriment of your team? Can you ask for a promotion?

Do you have Imposter Syndrome? Take this test.
Dr. Valerie Young, Author of How To Feel As Bright and Capable As Everyone Seems to Think You Are uses a test to help people identify their tendency towards feeling like a fraud:

  1. Do you secretly worry that others will find out that you’re not as bright and capable as they think you are?
  2. Do you sometimes shy away from challenges because of nagging self-doubt?
  3. Do you tend to chalk your accomplishments up to being a “fluke,” “no big deal” or the fact that people just “like” you?
  4. Do you hate making a mistake, being less-than-fully prepared or not doing things perfectly?
  5. Do you tend to feel crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as evidence of your “ineptness?”
  6. When you do succeed, do you think, “phew, I fooled ‘em this time but I may not be so lucky next time.”
  7. Do you believe that other people (students, colleagues, competitors) are smarter and more capable than you are?
  8. Do you live in fear of being found out, discovered, unmasked?

A tendency towards imposter syndrome is exacerbated for some people by looking for a job. The stress of the unknown in a job search and all the rejection are hard for anyone, but for those with self-esteem issues (another characterization of the impostor syndrome), job search provokes damaging behaviors.

Dr. Young points out, “I would say to executives who are women or people of color seeking jobs in organizations where they would either the first or one of the few executives who are not male or pale, that it is especially understandable that they would experience feelings of fraudulence… being in the spotlight and having to often represent one’s entire group adds an additional burden to “prove” one’s competence in ways others do not.”

You have so little control over events and outcomes it adds to the feeling of worthlessness. There is nothing like the terrifying affects of powerlessness to make a person feel like a fraud. Those feelings are often circumstantial and do not have to be career limiting.


Some people react to these feelings with a need for perfectionism or self-aggrandizement. No one else can see the solutions they do and they are quick to say, “I wouldn’t have done it that way.”

When asked about interviews or job opportunities they enumerate all the ways the employer approaches their project wrong and make their own views the focus of their job search. Their never-ending stream of judgmental comments makes them unattractive and unemployable.

Nathaniel Branden, author of How to Raise Your Self Esteem writes, “…The true nature of self esteem is that it is not competitive or comparative. Genuine self-esteem is not expressed as self-glorification at the expense of others, or by the quest to make oneself superior to others or to diminish others so as to elevate oneself. Arrogance, boastfulness, and the overestimation of our abilities reflect inadequate self-esteem rather than, as some people imagine, too much self-esteem.”

Those convinced they are impostors are reluctant to change their methods of job search and often feel most jobs are beneath them so they don’t pursue likely prospects and often focus on jobs above their skill or experience level.

The impostor often feels they are so different from others, that the rules and processes others follow to land a job simply don’t apply; that they just need to ‘be themselves’ and they will get job offers. Of course, when the offers fail to materialize, it is because, in their view, the hiring authorities are not smart enough to ‘get it.’ And secretly, they believe it is proof of they are frauds which makes accepting the reality of their own accomplishments even harder.

They trivialize their accomplishments or worse, simply refuse to own them. These people complain, I can’t brag in an interview, that’s unnatural to me. And yet, the description of their accomplishments in terms of the employer’s needs is precisely the data required to land a job. Self defeating–but again, they prove themselves right.

Another aspect of the fraud syndrome is what I refer to as, “Magical Thinking.” Candidates believe their credentials are so strong and compelling, none of the traditional and proven job search techniques apply. They waste time on job boards and send resumes out randomly. They believe their blog and ‘name’ are sufficient to attract the perfect job. They maintain their comprehensive experience is so stunning that their phone will should be ringing with offers. The fact is, they have never hired anyone who used that technique nor have they ever heard of any executive who has. But they remain committed to failure-guaranteed activities. Their belief they are in fact a fraud and a failure is proven again.

Is this you? Technology professionals often manifest the syndrome by conducting interviews that stress what they lack, whether asked or not. Believing they are talking in the spirit of honesty and not wanting to misrepresent themselves, they mention skills they don’t have instead of focusing on what they do have that qualifies them for the job.

The self-fulfilling prophesy: Researchers have found the imposter syndrome often results in desire to avoid situations where people felt vulnerable. They believe the motivation is to avoid doing poorly, looking weak, being compared or judged. It is especially handicapping to feel you won’t live up to others’ expectations. Thus, they don’t engage in activities others have proven to work in a job search, such as networking, attending conferences and other personal branding activities.

They avoid or delay any activity that prompts comparison. Instead, they invent new approaches they are convinced are creative and ‘out of the box’ when in fact, they simply don’t work. They go to a mall to hand out their resume or they use LinkedIn to broadcast their frustration or worse, send out thousands of unsolicited resumes. Often, they are suckered into paying for dubious services, in fact whole industries have arisen to prey on people who feel helpless or fraudulent.

Taylor Lindstrom of MenWithPens, opines, “You may be afraid of success, but it isn’t because you don’t want it for yourself. It’s because you’re afraid other people don’t want it for you. And you know what? Screw ‘em. Your success belongs to you. And it’s nothing to be afraid of.” And I believe she is right. Many of my clients mention their parents never believed in them or encouraged them. They spend their lives hunched under the yoke of proving to themselves and their invisible parents that they are worthy, that they are not worthless. But, unfortunately, no accomplishment silences the voices and sadly, these people remain encumbered by ancient history.

Take Heart: Researchers discovered true imposters are unable to ask for help. By definition, if you are reading this, you are seeking help and therefore, you are not an impostor, or at least hope to recover from the syndrome.

To become more aware of impostor thinking, Dr. Young, suggests, “Look for stereotyping and self-defeating attitudes that can be reflected in speech, such as women prefacing sentences with disclaimers like “This may not be right, but…” and discounting accomplishments with “Anyone could have done it” or “It wasn’t much.” I’d add to that list, “I was just part of the team,” and “I was only a co-inventor.”

Evelyn Kalinosky of Forbes Women mentions these warning signs:

  • dismissive attitude when praised
  • feeling that peers with the same responsibilities are more mature [successful]
  • reluctance to accept new responsibilities or challenges for fear of failure [or making them highly conditional]
  • unnatural reaction to constructive criticism [even when asked for]
  • worrying that others will begin to realize their shortcomings [which they enumerate often]

Your job search suffers. A classic self-esteem/impostor self-defeating job search trick is the refusal to reach out to people who can help, or worse, to denigrate their wisdom or process. While at turns the individual hides their light under a barrel and then engages in self aggrandizing comments, they spurn the help from the very connections most likely to help saying, that won’t work for me.

Another common career-limiting behavior of those who believe they are impostors is the constant barrage of commentary, mostly unbidden, about how others do things wrong. Each time such a judgement is articulated, it says, “I am smarter, better and more creative than the dufus who did, said or invented that,” and it broadcasts the speaker’s low self esteem which often results in the listener walking away. Proof again; impostor.

Actions to counter feelings of being a fraud or impostor

  1. List examples and outcomes of accomplishments from your resume. Focus on the deliverable, the outcome.
  2. Don’t compare yourself with those younger and/or more accomplished than yourself.
  3. Take a full accounting of the you who has achieved the success you have today and define accomplishments out loud and on paper.
  4. Keep a list at hand of 3-5 significant tasks you excelled at and reread it every time you have to pick up the phone or otherwise interact with job leads.
  5. Brag to a loved-one about each day’s accomplishments, no matter how tiny.
  6. Create a daily to-do list of reasonable and achievable tasks.
  7. Remind yourself you are more than your career. Focus on those who love you.
  8. Stop complaining. You don’t need to hear all that negative chatter.
  9. Engage in your hobby to offset frustration and negative feelings.
  10. Forgive yourself for not being perfect.
  11. Forgive others as well. Be aware of every judgmental word you use and stop using them.
  12. Remove ‘deserve’ and ‘should’ from your vocabulary. Both are damaging and judgmental.

Need to kick start your recovery? Take baby steps. Accept your accomplishment for delivering on time. For finishing that paragraph. Acknowledge even the smallest glory. Take notes about every one of your accomplishments and read them frequently.

In my view, a real boost to ones self esteem is derived from setting realistic expectations. The first step towards that is forgiving yourself for those times when you don’t get it right. Not one baseball Hall-of-famer ever batted 1000. Yet there they are, in the Hall of fame. A few missed balls did not mean they are impostors and neither are you.

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2 Responses to “Are you a Fraud? Silence your internal critic.”

  1. Rita Ashley says:

    Grace, What you say is true. Probably human nature. What the article talks about is more extreme. On occasion, I work with executives who sometimes just can’t take credit for their accomplishments. Or worse, are reluctant to negotiate the salary or terms they need because they don’t see their own value. The feelings show themselves when employees accept poor treatment by the Board or colleagues and often handicaps their ability to be pro-active. Most of my clients have some touch of the syndrome, just enough to keep them human. And others, well, that’s what I am here for; to help them appreciate and articulate their accomplishments in the right way at the right time. I offer perspective. For writers and other artists, the temptation to compare with other artists is too easy and is often paralyzing. It is also useless. No matter how good we are, there is always someone we can spot that we feel is better. That doesn’t change the fact that our work is excellent, too. There can be many top tier performers.

  2. Grace says:

    I think almost everyone can identify with some of the things you highlighted here if we are honest. Most of us are our own worst critics. I have found that when I am starting something new, I often have the expectation of getting it right the first time. I want to excelerate the learning process, and since that is not realistic in most instances, those self doubt internalized feelings start to creep in. I have found that to just keep plugging away until your skills improve is the best way to go.

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