Sunday, November 18, 2007

Smart Women and The Feeling of Fraud.

I felt like a fraud for years. This feeling of defrauding the world, of not being as smart or together as everyone thought I was, became the most intense during the five years immediately following my undergraduate degree: during my master's program, my stint in industry, and two subsequent years I spent as an instructor, teaching in an area not quite within my expertise. I always felt like I had to work harder to compensate for the gap between what people thought of me and my own self-assessment. I also always berated myself for not working hard enough at this endeavor, fearing that someone would catch on to my inadequacies and expose me to the world for the fraud I knew I was.

Then, for reasons I don't recall, I read Barbara Kerr's Smart Girls, Gifted Women. And I had a paradigm shift. I saw myself in those pages. The pattern of being certain that I was less phenomenal than everyone thought I was, and working hard to compensate for it--there it was. Other women did the same thing! Kerr reported that the result of this effort to compensate resulted in women in this position actually doing fabulous work.

I passed the book along to my sister and some friends, and they reacted the same way. They had secretly felt like frauds all along, and were as surprised as I was that this was really a pattern among smart women, that it led to our success. I mean, come on. I was in a full-time teaching position at a nice private college with only a master's degree. Clearly, I was doing something right!

So I gave myself a break and took stock of my accomplishments. I was shocked to see how much I'd driven myself to do out of fear. And so I decided to go ahead, get that Ph.D., and choose a topic not out of concern for seeming good enough or smart enough, but just something that I would enjoy and find rewarding on a personal level. So I did,and I continue to make fantastic accomplishments (publications, cool speaking opportunities, and a tenure-track job)--but without all that fear and self-hating. I seriously think that reading that book at the right time saved me from what would have been years of therapy.

I still have to remind myself now and then that I'm okay, that I'm not defrauding anyone. I still teach things slightly outside of my field now and then, and I just tell myself that even though I'm not the world's foremost expert in Subject X, I still know WAY more about it than my students, and so it's all good.

So, to my peeps who feel like frauds: You're probably much more amazing than you realize. You rock!