Why it’s totally OK to sometimes feel like a fraud

The day had finally come. I had prepared for this party for ages, going over every detail in my head. The night before, I had bought myself brand new boots, hoping that being in a cute outfit would make me feel more confident.  Earlier in the day, my boyfriend had helped me pick the perfect dress. “Wear your polka-dot dress,” he told me. “It’s so you. You should be yourself.”

Fast forward to the party. There I was, standing awkwardly in my “me” dress, holding a glass of wine in my hand, neither of which were doing anything to calm my nerves. I had driven three hours to be here from Pennsylvania to New York. It was a party for a publication I was involved in, and I was SO excited for days leading up to this. I mean, I had been interacting with some of these editors and writers online for the past several months, and finally, I was getting to meet them in person.

But as I stood there, my excitement slowly transformed into a hard lump of fear and insecurity that lodged itself in my throat. I scanned the room. There’s someone who works at BuzzFeed. Oh, another person who works at BuzzFeed. New York Magazine. New York Times.

I realized I was the youngest person there, probably by several years at the minimum. At the time, I was writing sporadically for various publications, but didn’t have an official position with any of them. I’m only a 23-year-old freelance writer, not even a year out of college, I thought to myself. What am I DOING here? I don’t belong here! I’m a kid! I knew I had been invited to this party, but in my mind, it was like I had snuck in through the back window. Like I was an intruder. An intruder with no experience, who could never measure up.

I felt like a fraud. A child in a polka-dot dress from a small town in the middle of nowhere who had fooled all these professional New Yorkers into thinking that she knew what she was doing, but really, she didn’t have a clue. And now, after meeting these people in person, they HAD to know that I didn’t belong.

Nothing actually went wrong at the party. In fact, it was amazing to meet everyone, and they were all perfectly kind and sweet. But on the drive home, I never felt more alone and afraid. As I sat there in the car as my boyfriend drove me home from New York, I wondered to myself when I would ever feel like I belong in my industry. And for days after the party, I started thinking about all the times I’ve felt like a fraud (an overwhelming number of instances, really).

And I noticed a pattern.

Every single time I felt like an intruder, like I didn’t know what I was doing, like a clueless child, it was immediately after I had gone out of my comfort zone: when I started my job as a content manager of a health and wellness website; when I quit my job to be a freelance writer; when I began various new writing gigs; when I wrote the beginning of my first novel.

Feeling like a fraud is something that so many people face when they’re going after their dreams, but it can be the most isolating emotion, because the very nature of it means being positive that everyone else out there knows more than you do. But you can’t trust that perception. It isn’t the truth. In fact, it’s something much, much better.

It’s a sign you’re doing everything right.

After that party, I realized that feeling like a fraud is really a natural transition that everyone goes through after achieving a goal or trying something new. This “intruder” feeling is actually important, because it means you’re constantly stepping out of your self-defined boundaries, doing everything you can to be the best “you” you can be. If you never feel it, either you’re the most confident person EVER, or you’re staying in the safe little bubble you’ve constructed for yourself. And let’s be honest—most likely it’s the latter, because you’re human, and no one is 100% self-assured 24/7.

I thought back to the party with this new perspective, and I remembered one man about ten years older than me who was big in the social media scene. After I had imbibed a few glasses of wine, I admitted to him that I was the youngest person here, and that I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned next to my ear and said, “Want to know a secret? I’m in my thirties, and I have no idea either.”

I’ve felt like a polka-dotted child more than once since that party, but every single time, I think to myself: Can I think of anyone famous or influential who didn’t start out as a beginner? No one comes out of the womb assuming they know as much as the top people in a particular field. No one is born knowing everything they need to know, and this doesn’t just apply with publishing and writing. It applies with every single thing in life. Being human a learning process, and we’re all just wingin’ it as we go. And even when you come across someone who seems self-assured, odds are that they’re feeling just as nervous about their next step as you are.

Keep on taking steps, even if you’re a little unsteady on your feet. And next time you feel like a fraud, smile and rest assured that you’re doing this whole “life” thing right.

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