Are you a liar and fraud? I am…

by morgan · 13 comments

 

We’re going to do something really different today. I’m going to tell you exactly why I feel like a Liar and Fraud.

But first… I’ll give you some context that explains why this is going to help you, a lot.

According to research at Georgia State and other places, more than 70% of us have experienced the Impostor Syndrome. That’s the feeling that, no matter what we accomplish, we don’t really “deserve it.”

Worse, the more accomplished and highly educated we become, the statistically more likely we are to suffer from feeling like an impostor.

It is not healthy self doubt, it is corrosive self doubt. It saps progress – in careers, on grant proposals, everywhere.

It causes many of us to put up a shell of “perfection” and “strength” – a tough rawhide veneer through which few (if any) people ever penetrate.

To underlings and colleagues we put on the front of the “tough professor” (or the “tough postdoc” or whatever). We show no weaknesses, because we’re afraid that those will be the chink in the armor that finally exposes THE TRUTH of our incompetence and impostorhood once and for all.

This same thing happens with entrepreneurs. It is similarly devastating for them. It prevents taking risks. It prevents exposing vulnerability. It inhibits creativity. It saps likability. It makes employees hate working there. And it causes businesses to fail.

People in science don’t talk about this. Even my top grant writing clients are mostly mum about it. But whenever I see confidence issues (which I see a lot), I suspect that this could be an underlying cause.

And these confidence issues cause rejections. They cause failures. They cause problems with administrators. I know, because I’ve had all of those… and more.

Well, a really brilliant mentor of mine (and I don’t use the word brilliant lightly), the irascible Leela Cosgrove, gave me an assignment to help me overcome my daemons once and for all. I had already made tremendous progress on this front over the past four years, but still at times felt like a Liar and a Fraud (an impostor). It was sapping my progress and development in areas such as my book writing.

The exercise was simple: write about how and why you feel like an impostor, a liar, and a fraud. Get it out in the air. Post it publicly. Then, if people STILL accept you, you know that you have nothing to hide. And if they don’t accept you, you know who you’re dealing with and that you have nothing to hide, even from your un-friends.

My Liar and Fraud story is unusual. I know it will be shocking to and alienating to some people. That’s fine with me. I am not on this planet to please everyone, and neither are you.

I hope this inspires you to wrestle your own feelings about being an impostor to the ground, once and for all.

Here goes:

I am a liar and a fraud. Or at least that’s what I’ve thought through much of my career, first as a professor then in business.

 

I mean, really, who am I to teach others how to live a better life and write better grants? It’s not like I’m perfect. I have my problems. I have my struggles. I have my challenges. I certainly don’t know everything.

I spent 10 years of my life earning a PhD, another 4 years as an intern, and then 7 more years “proving myself” before my university anointed me as “qualified” to be a permanent member of the faculty.

That taught me one really bad, 21-year long lesson. The lesson was that in order to have authority, “they” have to give it to you in terms of certifications, fancy job titles, and all that shit.

But it’s BS. The authority never comes from the fancy title or degree. It comes from a FEELING of authority, from stepping up and being a leader. I see many professors who advanced further up the ladder than I did, who still have no authority with their students and peers. They haven’t built it up internally, so people respect them little more than if they were just a random person on the street. I thought that being a “tenured professor” would give authority, but it did no such thing. I was still the same person inside, feeling like an impostor all along.

So when I started my business, I asked: who am I to be teaching people skills in grant writing? What if I screw up? What if I say the wrong thing? Because of those fears, I played small. Really small. My first grant writing class was priced at $147. I was teaching people how to bring in $1 million dollar+ federal grants and charging them 0.01% of that.

I often felt like a liar and a fraud. But slowly, I got feedback. I was helping people. That grew confidence. Then more feedback. I was really helping people. There were a few big successes (and some failures, too). My confidence slowly grew.

But underneath it all was always that question: am I REALLY qualified to be doing this?

Because of that questioning, I’ve very often committed self sabotage. Many times when on the cusp of success, I’d do something “stupid” to let it all slip away. That’s why I previously had 5 unsuccessful businesses. That’s why, after working for 7 years earning the Tenure at my university, I gave it all up in one email to my boss saying “I quit.”

I didn’t feel worthy of success… at all.

Maybe that’s because of my deepest darkest secret.

Did I mention that I’m a transsexual – one of those guys who couldn’t hack it as a man and had the manly bits taken off? Yes, I’m one of those freaks like Dr. Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror, or that maniac killer from Silence of The Lambs.

No, I’m NOT ACTUALLY a serial killer and/or weird late night horror show freak. Nor was it that I couldn’t hack it as a man. It’s just that that he wasn’t me. I can’t really explain that. It just IS what I was born to and I had to deal with it.

So, that has made me sometimes (oftentimes), deep down, feel like a freak. Why would anyone trust me to help them if I’ve done that?

Worse still: I went from being a man to being a woman, yet I never got into all the girly stuff. I am still a geek. I still like doing crazy stunts in my kayak like going over waterfalls. I like watching sci-fi and action flicks. I mostly hate shopping.

So I don’t fit in with the girls, and I’m no longer “one of the boys.” It’s lonely.

Out of that loneliness I had to find strength. It was a matter of survival. I had to find massive strength, to pull me through the many suicidal moments. Massive strength to face all my scientific colleagues and to tell them what was happening to me and not loose my job. Incredible strength to tell my wife that I am really a girl inside, and risk loosing my marriage over the changes I was going through.

I had to find the strength to face each and every day as a person who doesn’t “fit in” anywhere – either with the guys or the girls. A person who has very few true friends who can relate to me.

Last year, I finally faced down the fears of sharing this. In front of a roomful of scientist clients – who had each paid me four figures to be there – I told my story openly. None of them rejected me. Instead, they seemed to have a deeper affinity, they saw me as more truly human.

Encouraged, since then, I’ve been learning, slowly, to come forth and admit who I really am! I am not a liar and a fraud anymore.

If nothing else, I have strength.

I am just now finally realizing the value of that strength (even as I get teary eyes writing this). I am stepping into the role that was meant for me – the Warrior Princess (like Xena) – who’s there to fight the difficult fight, whether or not people “like me” for it. I’m there to fight the fight against confusion, misdirection, overwhelm, and fear that’s been foisted on us in this world.

And that strength is what my clients need. The world is such a confusing, overwhelming place these days. There are so many messages, systems, formulas. And worse, there’s so much bad news and despair. But there are very few people who exhibit true strength, true leadership – especially in a gentle, serving way .

That’s who I am, inside, but it’s taken me 46 years on the planet to start owning up to it. I’m sure there are more hard battles to fight. I’m sure there are more confidence issues to face down.

But I will do it. Not just for me, but for my family. For my clients. For the world.

I am no longer a liar and a fraud. That was a deception that I allowed to be perpetrated on myself by bad beliefs. I am better than that. We are all better than that.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jo VanEvery

Great post. And even some of us born with the “right” bits don’t like the girly stuff :-) I won’t be with you on the crazy kayak stunts but there are plenty of occasions when I feel like I don’t fit in, too. Go you!

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morgan

Yeah, I’m weird about the whole kayaking off waterfalls thing. I got into it at a young age, and became an adrenaline addict :) Anyway, it doesn’t matter HOW we don’t fit in, it’s just that we don’t… and there are many like us. Honestly, I think that’s one of the great things about this period in history, more than ever “misfits” like us have great opportunities for just being ourselves! Not that it’s easy… but it’s a lot easier than it would have been in, say, the 1950′s… or the Victorian Era… or nearly any other time I can think of!

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BioTrek47

Morgan, you are a smart and BRAVE person! That’s all I have to say, that’s all I need to say.

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morgan

Thank you!

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Josie

WOW!!!!! Morgan, you are such a badass. I love your story and I think of you as Xena! Before and even more now!

I ALWAYS feel like a fraud. I have a recurring nightmare where I’ve accidentally killed someone and I spend the dream trying to cover it up and all the while feeling terrified that someone will “find me out”. Then I realized I think it’s because I’m afraid of being “found out” in science–that I’m not smart enough and have no idea what I’m doing. How do you NOT feel like that? Love, Josie

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morgan

Yeah Josie – this is a complex subject that often takes YEARS to overcome, but a few pointers:

- Remind yourself regularly of all your successes. BRAG to yourself about what you’ve done. Most of us are so forward-looking, always thinking about the next challenge, that we don’t take time to appreciate the great stuff we’ve already accomplished! We also think that “bragging is bad.” But it’s not, when it comes to bragging to yourself. Make a mental inventory and go through it once per day!

- Do this liar and fraud thing. Regularly. Write it down. Get it out of your head and exposed to the light of day. It helps you realize how BS the “trash” is!

- Realize that as you look around at your successful colleagues (myself included), at least 2/3rds of us have felt this way or do feel this way! You are not alone!

- Understand that self-acceptance is one of THE most important things you can do in this life!

I hope those help! Also, you can check out the books by Brené Brown, such as Daring Greatly.

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Karin Rengefors

Morgan – thank you for a great post, I admire you more than ever! And you don’t have to love shopping…
Oddly enough, these past weeks I have been suffering heavily of the impostor syndrome. I am currently reviewing some 60 proposals for a national science research council, and I feel like a fraud. Was the program officer in his right mind when he asked me? How could I possibly evaluate all these excellent proposals of people who are so much more gifted and accomplished than I? That is how I feel and it is very hard to be in the reviewer’s position for once! Karin

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morgan

Hey Karin, great to hear from you!
Don’t worry – you’re NOT an impostor! They aren’t doing a good job of their grants if they don’t present a strong case for themselves. So, of course they sound brilliant and accomplished! You are as well.
Yes, you are flawed. So am I, so is everyone! And it’s ok.
One thing I’d suggest is to focus on “what can I learn from these proposals?” rather than “am I really qualified to be reviewing these?” Look for successful patterns, and then apply those in your own…
Cheers!

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Iwona Grad

Hi Morgan,

Thanks for this personal post. It really makes you look more authentic, at least in my eyes. Is it really boyish to like sci-fi? I love it, together with some shopping :D
I have always felt like an impostor, with a “dark secret” of not doing enough and being lucky, or something of that sort. Sometime I think it is more of an ego thing than anything else.

Anyway, there is a fantastic TEDtalk of Amy Cuddy, of impostor feeling and, most important, how to deal with it: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html

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morgan

Hey “Iwona Grad” – thanks for the comment and the video link. Here’s another great Ted talk on the same subject by researcher Brené Brown: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

She’s also written several great books on the topic!

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Virginia H Huxley

Dang! How did you know???? I thought it was just me or that these feelings were a “girl thing” at worst. That most of my colleagues are suffering from the same syndrome explains a LOT!!! Thank you for sharing – you are a good person and you are right negative thoughts lead to negative outcomes. Here is to changing ourselves a step a time – and reaping the creative benefits.

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morgan

Thanks Virginia for sharing. It is truly the first big step towards “recovery.” i.e. by admitting that we suffer from these feelings, and sharing them openly, it helps us realize that they are just a head trip, and nothing more. So, congrats in advance on your recovery!

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A.M. Barrett

I just want to say, hat’s off, Morgan. A really amazing post.

Reply

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