Issue #8: What if I'm a fraud?

I have this fear that I'll be "found out." My closest friends will realize that I'm at heart a selfish, mean, and boring person unworthy of their time and care. My partner will finally discover that I am less intelligent, interesting, and attractive than I have led him to believe all these years.

This secret fear of being an imposter has also plagued my entire academic and professional life. Freshman year, listening to my classmates confidently voice their opinions in seminars, I was convinced that the admissions office had made a mistake with my college application. At my first finance job, most of what I was scribbling down in meetings wasn't useful takeaways to share but phrases I wanted to google privately later (Leveraged buyout? IRR? Fund of funds?) I thought: If they only knew, they would be horrified that I had tricked them into thinking I was qualified for this job. Later on, even after years working at the same nonprofit, I worried that speaking up in meetings would reveal how ill-informed and inarticulate I was. At every opportunity, a part of me says it is, at best, a fluke; at worst, a grave mistake.

Now, I still regularly think: "I'm not a "real" artist, letterpress printer, writer, or entrepreneur." If people only saw Kwohtations' behind-the-scenes, they would agree. "We thought you were an actual artist," other artists would say if they saw my messy art files and childish sketches. "You seemed like you were running a legitimate business," other entrepreneurs would say if they saw my finances and internet search history. Even with this newsletter, I wonder: "What gives me the authority to write about feeling like a fraud and the audacity to think it's worthy of someone's time and inbox space?"

What if I don't deserve any of the amazing people and opportunities that have come into my life? What if I'm a fraud?

1. Check the evidence

Last week, I wrote about focusing on facts rather than feelings when anticipating unknown future tragedies. Similarly, when I feel unqualified or undeserving, I examine the evidence:

What is my fear?

I am not a real artist.

Why do I feel this way?

I didn't go to art school and don't have any formal art training. I don't know many drawing fundamentals, like how to draw in perspective or realistically. I'm also unfamiliar with many of the basic digital tools; I can use Adobe Illustrator, but not efficiently, and I'm pretty unfamiliar with much of the Adobe Suite and Procreate. Even if I am an artist, I don't feel like a very good one.

What is the evidence?

1. I make art, which is the definition of an artist.

2. I've sold thousands of products featuring my artwork, indicating that others see me as an artist and value my art.

3) Many artists that I (and many, many others) admire are valued for their heart and creativity and not just their technical prowess. A few of my favorites: Carissa Potter (People I've Loved), Christian Robinson (The Art of Fun), Louise Lockhart (The Printed Peanut).


The evidence shows that I am an artist. While I have limitations and shortcomings, this doesn't mean that I am not an artist or that I'm a bad one.

Sometimes, the evidence shows I am unqualified for certain opportunities or positions. For example, I had a potential opportunity to be part of a radio segment on talking to children about grief and loss. As I am not a mental health expert and don't have any personal experience in this area, I turned it down. Either way, separating out fact from feelings helps me navigate my "imposter syndrome" and make decisions accordingly.

2. Give other people credit

I'm not that good of a liar, and chances are, neither are you. Admissions committees, hiring teams, editors, and judges are generally smart, discerning people who have pattern recognition and processes in place to help them determine if it is in their best interest to hire / work with / help you. They know what they are doing.

Those personally close to you see you in many different circumstances - when you're hungry and tired, under stress, outside your comfort zone, one-on-one, and in different social situations. Most of us couldn't keep up appearances around the clock for years well enough to trick people into loving us.

The truth is, I am sometimes selfish. I can be sharp and irritable (see: hungry and tired), and judgmental. I am not as adventurous as I would like to be. My baseline anxiety is pretty high (see: this entire newsletter series). Those close to me know this already. I'm not fooling anyone. And I'm still worthy of love and care. Both things can be true.

3. It's not just you

"Imposter Syndrome" is not an official psychiatric diagnosis but a common psychological phenomenon that Psychology Today says 25-30% of high-achievers may have. While I appreciate that this term normalizes the experience of doubting our own abilities, naming it a "syndrome" makes it sound like an individual problem, and not also a systemic one.

Women, and especially women of color, and others from marginalized communities often feel like we don't belong because we are told in explicit and implicit ways that we don't belong. Systemic racism, sexism, and other biases still exist in institutions originally built by and for straight, white, heterosexual, cisgender men. These biases shape what behaviors and work are seen and rewarded as "professional" and "worthy." The lack of representative role models due to historical and current exclusion also exacerbates these fears of being not good enough and questions of belonging.

All that to say, imposter syndrome isn't a personal failing. The onus isn't only on us to internally navigate our insecurities; we need to acknowledge the cultural and systemic reasons behind why imposter syndrome exists for so many of us. We need to change external work environments to equitably value different individuals and their contributions.

Further reading: I thought this 2021 article, "Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome" by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey in the Harvard Business Review was really good and borrowed a lot from it for this issue. Recommend giving it a read!

Do you have your own story, experience, or advice about feeling like a fraud? I'd love to hear it! Just comment below.

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