Feel like an impostor?

What to do when you feel like an impostor or a fraud.

by Rachel on July 13, 2013

Let’s get something clear – I’m not talking about actually having committed fraud.

For that you should call an attorney.

I’m talking about when you feel like you aren’t qualified. Like you are playing dress up in business. Wearing someone else’s suit or heels.

Right out of college, I started at a very large firm. I was 23 and auditing a small healthcare company, we will call them “Company X”. This was my first audit as a full time employee (I had interned there as well).

Company X’s accounting staff consisted of the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and a couple other individuals. Very small. And looking back, not incredibly important.

Company X was so small that I dealt mostly with the CFO. I will call him Fred. CFO Fred.

For all my audit needs, questions, information, etc, I went to CFO Fred.

That was very unusual for a ‘first year’. At least up to that point in my brief week career. Usually I dealt with payroll clerks or other lowly peeps; possibly controllers. Not Chief Financial Officers.

During my testing, I found a mistake in the depreciation of assets. I loved finding mistakes. It is bliss. 🙂

The next part was not bliss –  I had to tell CFO Fred that he made a mistake calculating something simple.

I was nervous.  Terrified. I felt shaky and sweaty and was positive that it was going to go badly.Very badly. In my more dramatic nightmares, I was sure that he would demand for me to be fired.

These fears weren’t in the same ballpark as logical – but fears grasp onto whatever straws possible.

I felt unqualified to tell a man is his mid-fifties  or early sixties that he was wrong.

Why did I feel like a fraud?

I had all the necessities on my side:

  1. Authority. It was my job
  2. Truth. I was right. I checked it a bazillion times. 
  3. Support. I had the support of my audit senior (the person running the audit). 

 I felt like a fraud because:

  1. New. It was new territory. This was something I hadn’t done before.
  2. Age & Experience: The person I had to confront was older and more experienced than me. On some level it felt disrespectful to tell him he was wrong.
  3. Doubt: Constant nagging – If I was right – then why was I scared?

Once I started telling CFO Fred about the mistake, it wasn’t bad at all. He just chuckled and said “Oh, well, I will have to fix that”. I found out he was pretty good at being told he was wrong; he messed up a lot. I had to confront him about a few more issues before the audit was done.

The accusations of being too young, or too stupid or whatever nightmare I had imagined didn’t happen. I felt silly for being nervous in the first place. Looking back it seems strange that I would have feared the moment of telling him at all.

I have found this situation to be the rule, not the exception. My fears always greatly exaggerate reality. Doing what I’m scared of is never as bad as I fear.

Since then, any time I have gone into new territory, the same feeling of being a fraud surfaces.

More often than I am proud of I believed the voice. I have let it stop me from starting, from shipping, and from quitting things when it was time. It has caused me to procrastinate, be a perfectionist, and to flake out when I should charge forward.

I never feel ready to start anything.  

This wasn’t the first time I felt like an unqualified fraud in life – and it certainly wasn’t the last.

There are a lot of reasons to do what you fear, but doing the scary stuff JUST to learn it won’t be as bad as we imagine is reason enough.

Each time I do something I fear, I build my courage muscle. 

The fear will never go away. But my courage muscles let me act despite it.

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