The peculiar phenomenon of feeling like a fraud in your 20’s

I quit digital marketing to write and somehow tricked someone into paying me for it.

This is what I tell people when they ask me what I do and how I ended up doing it — and it’s true, mostly. A couple years ago, I was sharing a cubicle and staring at dual monitors for ten hours a day at an office in New York City. My existence was reduced to Excel spreadsheets and kitchen gossip and fluorescent lighting and passive-aggressive phone calls from clients who only pretended to like us to get deliverables faster. I was unhappy and burnt out; and eventually, I left and moved home.

I usually tell people that I tricked someone into paying me to write because, even now, I feel like I’m getting away with something. It remains my default answer for those inquiring about how I ended up here, at HelloGiggles; and I often gush about how fortunate I feel, how very lucky, that I somehow evaded the fraud police and slipped through the cracks.

Objectively, this is silly: I’m a writer and I always have been and I probably always will be. But saying this feels like a fib, a childish idea — as though being a “real writer” is a tier that I have no right to claim. Yesterday, I cleaned my toilet and Swiffered a wig of hair and dust from under my bed. I did not work on the Next Great American Novel.

I know I’m not alone in feeling so unworthy. Regardless of what you do, “impostor syndrome” — the feeling that you’re perpetually getting away with something — affects all of us in ways big and small. In the past few years, this phenomenon has been prodded and analyzed; attributed to gender and generation; ripped apart and denounced as myth. If think pieces are any indication as to the state of the world, it turns out we’re all just a bunch of fakes terrified of being found out.

While by no means something that only affects young women, it does seem that impostor syndrome is especially prevalent amongst women in their 20’s. Appropriately, the term first seemed to gain popularity around the interwebs thanks to author Hannah Kent’s 2012 TED Talk, “Luck, Error, and Charm,” which sought to explore why women so often attribute their success to the aforementioned three factors. As Kent defines it, “The impostor phenomenon is when you suffer from feelings of fraudulence which are powered by fear.” She went on to discuss why it affects women so much more than men, citing plenty of research to back it up.

Brodie Lancaster later wrote about discovering Kent’s TED Talk in a beautiful essay for Rookie in 2014. Shortly after, The Hairpin published an Internet roundtable on the matter, hosted by the incredible Jazmine Hughes. The Toast‘s Mallory Ortberg flipped the concept on its head in a piece hilariously titled “Everyone Has Impostor Syndrome But You.” Even The Onion tackled the phenomenon in an article early last year, aptly titled “Today The Day They Find Out You’re a Fraud” — a piece that got straight to the heart of all my deepest, darkest fears.

“While experts agree you’ve been remarkably successful so far at keeping up the ruse that you’re a capable, worthwhile individual, a new report out this week indicates that today is the day they finally figure out you’re a complete and utter fraud,” it reads. “The report, compiled by the Pew Research Center, states that sometime within the next 24 hours, people will find out that you have no idea what you’re doing, that you’ve been faking it for years, and that, through continuous lying and shameless posturing, you’ve actually managed to dupe virtually everyone around you into thinking you’re something other than a weak and ineffectual person.”

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss impostor syndrome without discussing self-esteem: They are intricately connected and seemingly inseparable. Claiming that you deserve what you’ve been given means acknowledging that you have worked hard; that the things you’ve achieved are the result of effort. To acknowledge that I deserve my job would mean acknowledging the depth of my worth as human and professional. This is not something that comes naturally to me.

As women, we are taught from a young age to downplay our intelligence and talent. To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we are taught to shrink ourselves and make our voices smaller. It makes sense that those of us who have been conditioned to believe we deserve nothing will put those beliefs into practice.

Saying I’m a writer still makes me uncomfortable, in part because it’s a claim I assume others won’t take seriously. This discomfort ultimately has side effects: Most notably, it has taken all the pleasure out of my personal writing, which has caused me to cease doing it almost altogether. Can I say I’m a short fiction writer if I haven’t finished a story in years? Have I not finished a story in years because I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a short fiction writer? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? (It doesn’t matter, of course: Either way, I’m not writing that story.)

I still apologize when I pass along something I’ve written to another editor, overly apologetic to be wasting their time with whatever I’ve managed to spew on the page. In fact, I still get anxious when I have to share something I’ve written with anyone at all — the irony of which does not escape me, given that I’m a writer for the Internet.

Self-esteem can be a precarious business, especially when you still haven’t found your footing as a young adult. As a generation, we are constantly berated for being overeducated and underemployed. We’ve fought to overcome historic unemployment rates and a less-than-savory economy. According to the Pew Research Center, about 44% of college grads in 2012 were working at jobs that didn’t require a degree; 20% were underemployed at low-wage jobs; and about 23% were underemployed working part-time. According to Gallup, 14% of adults ages 24 to 34 and about half of adults ages 18 to 23 report that they are still living with their parents. From a practical point of view, it makes sense we might be a little bit insecure: Who can blame us for feeling grateful for what we’ve got — and paranoid that we might lose it to someone more deserving?

The internal voice of “impostor syndrome” is repetitive and grating. How could this have happened? How did I end up here? Surely there’s been some sort of mistake — and it’s only a matter of time until someone figures it out. But just like all forms of internalized self-loathing, it’s important we find the voice that counters it; that reminds us we are valuable and deserving and worthy of goodness.

“Impostor syndrome used to be something I would wallow in for days, weeks, or months. Now, I experience it in fleeting moments,” Ashley Ford wrote for Hughes’ Hairpin piece. “I had to accept that when I’m in a group of people I think of as above me, better than me, or smarter than me, I’m still in the damn room. There’s nothing to do now but rise to the occasion.”

Society will always celebrate the exceptions: The people who have accomplished things far beyond our reach, at less than half our age. These people are more than deserving of our praise, and we absolutely should celebrate them — but we shouldn’t forget in the process that we all have a little extraordinary in us.

Reader, in case you can’t find that countering voice, let me be the one to remind you: You are not a fraud. You are brilliant and you are irreplaceable and you are full to the brim with worth. Every time I say I’m a writer, it still feels like target practice; but I’m working on turning the words into muscle memory. Until the fraud police come and kick down my door, I’ll keep fighting and working hard for what I deserve — and I hope you do, too.

(Image via Never Been Kissed.)

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(Image via iStock)