Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

No More Impostors 1

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]

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Ann F-R

posted June 1, 2010 at 2:06 am

Although your focus in this portion is more on women, I’ve seen this syndrome in men, too. I think women tend to speak more about their feelings where men express their sense of inadequacy in other destructive ways. I’ve seen folks turn on themselves with alcohol, self-effacing words, self-demeaning and self-sabotaging actions, and also turn on others to drive them away — frequently, the others they turn on are those who have tried to be more supportive and encouraging.
The systemic aspect of this is evident in those coming from disempowered communities – more disempowered by gender, race, economic status, social status, or ethnic affinity. Perhaps that’s why that perverse sense of dis-entitlement is more evident in women and minority or powerless groups.
From my perspective, it seems to be a function of the disconnection between who God says we are, and the slot that those enmeshed in worldly systems are comfortable fitting us in. Until we thoroughly differentiate ourselves from those within worldly systems (per Edwin Friedman), enter the Beloved Community that enacts God’s welcome, and constantly remind one another to believe from our heart’s depths our God-given identity, many of us get stuck feeling as if we’re imposters and not genuinely children of God, brothers & sisters of one another.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 2:08 am

Scott, this one really hits home. I was raised in a very conservative denomination which was a combination patriarchal and complimentarian. The community of Jesus is just where I learned to doubt my success. Without going into great detail, I’ll just say that I have always had a keen interest in the Bible and theology and have spent a great deal of time searching, studying and coming to an understanding that it’s really okay that I have this interest, perhaps even a gift, and am allowed to express it. When one is raised that a woman cannot teach a man, pray in front of him, or participate in any kind of leadership of men, the hurdles are very difficult to overcome, both emotionally and in one’s conscience.
I now have served in leadership and teaching roles in my present denomination, but the feelings of being a fraud, or really talentless continue to haunt. It is not easy to speak about because it just sounds like false humility or a plea for affirmation, but the doubt and feeling like an imposter is real. I don’t know how this can be overcome either personally or societally. I have two daughters and I am very intentional to not play up male and female stereotypes to them and to raise them in a church that is pretty good about it’s teaching in regards to leadership being open to men and women who are called by God. I don’t want them to have to struggle as I do. Nor do I want them to miss a call God may give them because they have been mislead about what limits God has placed on them.
How I have come to handle the doubts is by keeping before me the verse, “Do not grow weary in doing good.”, and Mother Teresa’s quote, “God has called us to be faithful, not successful.”.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 3:39 am

Yes! As a woman and a Master of Divinity student I can testify to this very real phenomenon. No matter how many awards, scholarships, and accolades I get (and there have been a surprising number of them), I genuinely believe that my next research paper, sermon, or comment will “out” me. I’m really just faking it.
Your conclusion that, “The one place any form of the Impostor Syndrome should never occur is in the community of Jesus,” is particularly potent for me as a pastor-in-training. Unfortunately, women are more accepted as leaders outside of the church than inside. I’ve been advised (by a female associate pastor) to not expect that I’ll make a career out of pastoring. Positions are becoming more rare across the board, and because I am a woman, I won’t be given a chance at most of those that remain.
Maybe the syndrome shouldn’t be found in the community of Jesus, but it seems worse among us than almost anywhere else. We unreflectively buy into the male leadership model.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 8:39 am

As a man, I feel this. The first time I heard of it, it was like someone had put words to some of the foggy thoughts in the back of the brain – those thing you think without naming. It resonated.
In the context of women feeling this in the community of believers, it seems this would be an important reminder for a pastor to intentionally address this from time to time. It may be that there are women in the flock who feel this deeply without realizing it or without verbalizing it.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 9:40 am

Guilty as Charged! The first time I heard of this syndrome was when a well-known and respected New Testament scholar used it describe himself. And this after he had just published a significant tome! I always have this nagging feeling that someday someone will pull back the curtain and discover the real person behind the great and terrible Oz.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 9:51 am

Most men who I have talked with about this can relate to these feelings, although they may hide them beneath a veneer of projected self-confidence. For the men I haven’t noticed any correlation between these feelings and careers in math or science. Rather, the feelings seem related to one’s ability to simply make one’s way in the world and in one’s chosen career, whether that be sales, pastoral work, entrepreneurship, law, or what have you.
I realize that women feel this way too, and that especially in math and science heavy fields or in seminary, there are social stigmas/barriers that may make the imposter syndrome even worse for some women than it is for most men. But at the same time I think many women feel more alone in this than they really are. From the vantage point of a historically disadvantaged group the historically privileged group may seem to have it all together and to be walking an easy road, when in fact the privileged group is just as full of neuroses and insecurities and syndromes as the historically disadvantaged group.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 10:34 am

I have a practical suggestion stemming from this:
We all know it is a good idea to praise others. In my experience if someone offers general, non-specific praise, of course I appreciate it, but it can also make me even more anxious, wondering how much is genuine and how much is them being duped. OTOH, if someone praises something specific (ex: I appreciate how you encouraged people to get involved in the discussion in class) I can take that to the bank and it is helpful and encouraging. I presume I am not alone in this. The take-away: find specific actions for which to praise others, especially those who might struggle with these feelings.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm

i feel like you described in the post often… trying to change my attitude. It is easier for me to see evidence of my incompetence than evidence of my competence. I am used to being invisible and feel that way often. I often feel that I don’t deserve or that if I speak up I am out of line or that I don’t know the rules. But again… trying to intentionally change my attitude because I have been confronted (gently, by those who care).
Blessed are those who care enough to tell me.

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Carol Noren Johnson

posted June 1, 2010 at 3:43 pm

This month I will be 66, certainly a certified senior citizen. I finally have concluded it is all for His glory, and that takes so much pressure off of me to feel adequate or get noticed by others. I would give a lot of warm fuzzies and expect some from others. Now I am so getting off of that pursuit, but just glad to affirm others.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Interesting post – I, too, can feel like an imposter – mostly as a female pastor. All the years I worked as a dietitian, I did not feel like an imposter – but interestingly enough, did feel like one when compared to the nutritionists in grad school who were going on for PhD’s (my master’s degree was ‘terminal’, because the program ended there).
It’s reassuring (and sad) to hear men feel this way, also. I think we need to build each other up in Christ in honest and specific ways, like Matthew said – and not tear each other down. When I’m thinking I’m better (or less than) someone else, I’m off track – that’s not the humility that Jesus spoke of.
It’s intersting to me that this syndrome is also common for those who’ve experienced the trauma as a child of having a parent with an addiction….I wonder if we could track this back to messages we’ve received from others (more than a passing comment but real restrictions). Do our brothers and sisters of color experience this because of racism they’ve experienced?
I look forward to future postings….

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posted June 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Totally guilty as charged! I am a PhD student in chemistry and feel like a complete imposter. This is partly as I am a woman and mother and doing things as non-traditionally as possible. But I think it is just part of the experience of being a grad student doing challenging research. So much of what we do fails that when something actually does work, we feel it must be luck.
I like the quote that opportunity is where preparation meets luck. All those failures are the preparation so when we do get lucky and something works, we recognize it and run with it.
But my imposter syndrome is greatest at church. I go to a patriarchal/complementarian church (as Gina #2 put it) and there is no where that I feel more out of place.
It is damaging to faith, because it makes me feel (and sometimes act) like a hypocrite. I have questions I would never voice and doubts I could never confront, because I honestly don’t even feel like I have a voice. Women should learn in quietness and full submission, right?
I think other women in my church are not nearly as bothered by this as I am, because no one else seems as uncomfortable expressing themselves, or maybe they all feel like imposters too.

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posted June 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Perhaps it’s pointless to talk about this as an individual disease. “You have diabetes. You should take care of that.” When an individual has a disease, or in this case, a syndrome, it is ultimately left to the individual to fix it or treat it.
With Impostor Syndrome, we all have the illness. Some of us may feel it more acutely than others, not because we suffer from more of the “badness” from the syndrome, but rather because we are more in tune with the inequality in the world.
My feathers ruffle when I hear people talk about this as a women’s syndrome, not because it isn’t. Please don’t hear me negating the very real pain that this causes in women. Unfortunately, if we call it a “women’s problem” we ultimately leave it up to women to fix it. “They need to listen to God…They need to see who they really are in Christ…They need to see that we are all equal.” But the truth of the matter is that this is not some abstract problem that no one can see, or that cannot be addressed. This is due to the way we structure our churches. Does our denomination ordain women? Do we use gender neutral language, or do we allow the “he” to remain instead of intentionally saying “she or he”.
This isn’t a women’s issue. This is a church issue. And if we all take active steps towards equality, the group of “Imposters” will gradually diminish.

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