The impostor phenomenon – Feeling like a fraud

“It’s all been a big sham.”

“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. They’re going to fire me — all these things. I’m fat; I’m ugly…”

Kate WinsletThose admissions by Kate Winslet [Interview mag. Nov 2000] were made after her Academy Award nominations for Titanic (1997) and Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Those kinds of impostor feelings are shared by a wide range of highly talented people, including many actors.

Michelle Pfeiffer said (in 2002) “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m really not very good. It’s all been a big sham.”

Nicole Kidman has said she often thinks, “They’re going to look at me to fire me.” And Don Cheadle said, “All I can see [in his performances in movies] is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud.”

Actor Stacey Jackson, in her Backstage/Unscripted article “Doubts,” notes that “A healthy dose of self-doubt isn’t always a bad thing. Ask your parents and friends if they have doubts about their professional abilities, and I’m sure the honest ones will say, ‘yes.’

“It seems silly now, but until recently, I thought that I was the only one who questioned my abilities. But teachers, consultants, lawyers, writers, doctors, you name it, they all have doubts at various points in their careers. Even brilliant actors doubt their talent.”

Doubt can keep us diligent

But, Jackson notes, “Doubts keep us diligent. Without doubt, I probably wouldn’t keep studying my craft and striving for better work. Fear of failure is a great motivator and it keeps our actor egos in check… doubt and passion is a powerful combination. It’s the mark of a determined actor.”

There are probably a number of personality traits that impact our self-doubt and feelings of being a fraud, such as perfectionism, holding very high standards for yourself and your work.

Matt Damon

English: Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2011 Venice Fi...

A number of years ago, speaking of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow said, “I think Matt places so much importance on being an artist or a good actor, and he’ll really beat himself up to get there. You always feel like he’s feeling: ‘I don’t deserve this.'”

And Damon admitted, “I just never know if I’m going to pull it off. I have terrible, grave concerns about my own ability.”

Some feel they owe their success to others

In her article The Impostor SyndromeValerie Young explains the concept of the Impostor Syndrome was developed by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes in a study called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women (1978).

“In a nutshell,” Young writes, “Clance and Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed.

“Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having ‘fooled’ others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women ‘knew’ themselves to be.

“Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being… Found Out.”

“You’re intelligent and successful… at least that’s what everyone says. So how come you don’t always feel that way?”

From site of the program by Dr. Valerie Young: Overcome the Impostor Syndrome.

Cognitive challenges can limit fraud feelings

One way to deal with fraud feelings, if it becomes too self-limiting, is to use a cognitive therapy strategy of “questioning the evidence”: Would a producer of director really make such an important business decision as casting based merely on your looks, with no consideration of your acting ability? Do your peers really make comments about your work that imply you are a fake?

There may also be deeper issues of self-esteem or fear of success that can help make us feel like a fraud. But all that kind of stuff can be improved with counseling, or just life experience and greater self-awareness.

Related Talent Development Resources pages:

Impostor syndrome

Self concept / self esteem articles

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