This week — Tuesday through Saturday — I will do a series on the impostor syndrome and the church, and I will be arguing that the Church is the one place where the impostor syndrome needs to end. This was originally written for a book but as the book developed, this chapter just didn’t fit so I am posting it here. Any footnote reference that appear in the posts will be completed on Saturday morning. By the time this series is over, Kris and I will be in Ireland for two weeks of speaking and traveling. (We are grateful for neighbors and family who are looking after our home.)
At lunch one day, three professors sat with two students to celebrate one of the professor’s thirty-eighth birthday. (No, it wasn’t mine. We celebrated my 38th a year or so earlier. Maybe more “so” than “a year.”) Out of nowhere a colleague asked us if we had ever heard of the “impostor syndrome.” We hadn’t so she explained it, and then we did what professors always do: we chatted about it and debated it and enjoyed the pursuit of knowledge and truth. I went home and did more reading. Here is what Wikipedia says, and I have edited the entry a bit (after all, it’s Open Source):[i]
The Impostor Syndrome … is a syndrome where sufferers are unable to internalize their accomplishments.
Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study or what external proof they may have of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced internally they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are actually frauds. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
This syndrome is thought to be particularly common among women who are successful in their given careers and is typically associated with academics. It is also widely found among graduate students.
The Impostor Syndrome describes persons who belong but who can’t internalize that they belong. They struggle to internalize their successes and their achievements and the place they deserve at the table. They might feel like they are “fakes.” Or they believe they arrived at their (genuine) level of success by “luck.” To guard themselves, they tend to “downplay success” when someone congratulates them. Some of them wonder if they got to where they are because of affirmative action only.
To be sure, elements of the Impostor Syndrome might be psychological and some very common self-doubt. That’s not the issue here. The issue behind the Impostor Syndrome is systemic. The impostor syndrome emerges from how we are socialized into this world in a way that says, “You don’t belong. You are not among the beloved.” Instead of internalizing achievements, some women internalize social stereotypes that whisper to them, “You don’t really belong.” Recently a female, scholar-friend sent me this e-mail from another female: “Even being a woman myself, I’m aware that I don’t value women as much as I value men. While I read many books by and about women or girls when I was younger, as I got older I somehow acquired prejudice against them. I even noticed that if I was enjoying a book and then found out the author was female I would be disappointed and immediately, on those grounds alone, think less of it. I’m starting to recover from that now, as I learn that being female or feminine does not make someone or something intrinsically worth less in significance, value, or virtue. It’s nice not feeling I have to distance myself from all things feminine to have value or BE valued by other people.” That’s the impostor syndrome.
Studies show that women struggle to become scientists and engineers and mathematicians because there is a social stereotype that women aren’t as good as males in those disciplines. When some women achieve success in those areas, their socialization history kicks in and makes them feel that they might actually be faking it or were just lucky or that they don’t really belong. When you are a woman sitting at a table of nothing but men, you might wonder if you belong. When the wondering becomes internalized, you’ve got the Impostor Syndrome.
For women to grow up knowing they can do anything they set their minds to accomplish, actually accomplishing that, and then encountering doubt about their success just because they are women is a travesty of justice. Here’s the take-away for us: The one place any form of the Impostor Syndrome should never occur is in the community of Jesus. The community of Jesus is designed to embody the Beloved Life, a community where love guides everyone to the table. But it does not always embody the Beloved Life, as the story of a group in India can illustrate. [tomorrow]