What if we’ve been getting it wrong all along?
I spent most of my professional career living in constant anxiety, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Performance reviews filled me with fear that “this time they were finally gonna realize, I don’t even belong here!” I lived in constant dread that the gig was about to be up. But it wasn’t. I never got fired. In fact, I consistently got promoted, awarded, and advanced. This is not a carefully crafted humblebrag. I am telling you this to illustrate something you, that – if you are reading this right now – you probably already know very well: There is a rigid dichotomy between the internal and external realities of someone who suffers from impostor syndrome. You’ve felt it. Otherwise, you would not be reading this blog, right? People with impostor syndrome are driven to perform, people-pleasers, and perfectionists. And they live in a constant state of fear all. the. time!
Pop Psychology has given us a lot of input on overcoming impostor syndrome, and it goes something like this:
Overcoming through achieving:
According to one South African celeb, your ability to overcoming impostor syndrome is directly related to your ability to achieve success. According to her, what you need is to achieve and perform your way out of that crippling self-doubt.
Convince them. Or is it you?
She continues to advise that overcoming impostor syndrome is as simple as focussing on proving other people wrong. Because apparently either “they” (I don’t know who they are but I think from this article it’s men?) are trying to snuff out your light, or you are “afraid of being great”. So in other words problem is either you, or them, or maybe both? But either way, prove them wrong.
Rehearse your past achievements to boost your confidence:
Another well-known author who has sadly become popular among believers despite her wonky self-help theology and anti-gospel teachings, overcoming impostor syndrome works as follows: you need to remind yourself what you have already accomplished and convince yourself that you can do anything you set your mind to. Write a letter to yourself, from yourself, to boost confidence. Not kidding. This is the actual advice.
Have faith in yourself:
She goes on to say that – to overcome impostor syndrome – all the knowledge and the truth you need is already in you. Her advice highlights what, at the core, makes the self-help gospel bogus: That you can find the answers to what is wrong with you, in you. That you can be the problem and the solution, at the same time. Apparently, you don’t need any other kind of faith other than faith in yourself. But here is what is diabolical about this advice: Asking me to have faith in myself when a lack of faith in myself and my ability is exactly the reason I have impostor syndrome makes no sense. It sounds very Nike-ad-slogan-y, but it doesn’t actually change anything.
Most of what I’ve read about overcoming impostor syndrome has been about as fulfilling as eating donuts for breakfast. It offers an impressive rush of sugar that tastes (sounds) good, but does not deliver enough for a race run well.
- If my succeeding is the only thing that will prove that I am not an impostor, then surely failing will prove that I am one? If the list of victories is supposed to bolster me, then what am I supposed to do with the list of failures and losses, which are unavoidable? How am I supposed to look at them (and myself) if all of my wellbeing balances on the precipice of my successes? Is it any wonder people with Impostor Syndrome never try new things, because we are so desperately dependent on successes to keep proving us wrong about ourselves that the thought of failing at something paralyzes us so we would rather not even try!
- Overcoming impostor syndrome by proving ourselves to others puts the control of how we see ourselves squarely in their hands. Our boss, our colleagues, that group of moms that hang out in the carpark at school. When my whole aim is to prove myself to others, my work, my effort, my excellence all becomes fueled by what other people think. But the opinion of another is an uncontrollable, fickle, changeable thing that can never satisfy the soul-deep craving for acceptance we all carry.
What if it’s not our impostor syndrome that drives us to crave validation from others and from our achievements. What if our yearning for outside affirmation and acceptance is actually at the core of the issue and impostor syndrome is only its manifestation? What if we keep getting the wrong prescription because we keep making the wrong diagnoses about what is at the core of our condition?
- The core issue is not that we feel like a fraud, it’s that we don’t feel accepted and we are looking for that acceptance in the wrong place. All of our work and effort becomes about cultivating an image and manipulating acceptance because the fact is that we are deeply and intimately dependent on it.
- The core issue is not that we don’t have enough confidence, it’s that we are hoping to gain confidence from our competence. And don’t get me wrong, we should always strive for competence and excellence in whatever we do, but if we are doing that in order to just feel ok with ourselves our striving is born of wrong motivation. Not from faithfulness with our talents and gifts, but from a desire to construct for ourselves indestructible confidence. And because we are human, because we will make mistakes, because we don’t know everything, some days our competence will fall short and then our confidence will fail, again.
- The core issue is not that we are not able, the core issue is that we would rather rely on our ability over God’s. Because self-reliance is easier than faith, and control is easier than surrender. Popular advice on impostor syndrome puts us in a position where we need to boast in our strengths to have an identity when Paul says he boasts in his weakness in order to create space for God’s power (2 Cor 12 v 19). Why do you think Paul said that he counted every single accomplishment he had as a loss (Phil 3 v 4-7)? Because he knew that rehearsing our list of accomplishments as Rachel Hollis encourages us to do, will keep us from understanding where true worth is found.
- The core issue is not that we don’t belong, the core issue is that we have mistaken belonging for beloved-ness and given the determining power to decide on both to other people or worse yet, to our ourselves.
Imposter syndrome is a lie relating to our truest source of acceptance. Read that again.
As a Christian suffering with impostor syndrome, here is the question that I have had to face as I started understanding what was at the core of this struggle:
Am I truly convinced by Christ? Because at the heart of impostor syndrome lies my lukewarm conviction regarding the soul-deep acceptance I actually already have in Him.
The truth is that we parade out our trite lipservice-level grasp of the gospel right next the claims of the self-help gospel that we are enough (but at the same time we need to hustle harder) and that we should not worry about what others think (but on the other hand unless others don’t confirm that I am not a fraud I will continue to believe I am one). We live life with a bit of Jesus sauce over it – saying that Jesus is enough but spending our lives trying to prove that we are. These things cannot all be true at the same time. Is it any wonder we make no headway with our overcoming impostor syndrome?
Until we get real about what we really believe about what Jesus has done for us and what that means for every part of our lives, we will never overcome impostor syndrome. The self-help gospel has found in us the fertile soil of people who are always hoping that some person, thing, some system of success, some event or fixed future point will finally settle in us the age-old question of our acceptance and worth, will finally represent to us that point of arrival where striving seizes.
“But as long as you are waiting for the mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run? This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burnout. This is the way to spiritual death.Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the beloved. That is the truth of our lives. “
(Henri J. M Nouwen – Life of the Beloved)
Our beloved-ness is the message of the Gospel. Christ’s declaration through His death and resurrection is that we are loved perfectly and it is out of that truth that we are called to live, work, act. Are you convinced of this? Are you convinced of it daily?
“The Gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (Timothy Keller)
There is a reservoir of love at the center of our lives, streaming out of the One who calls us out of the darkness of putting our hope in other people and our achievements, into the light of a life lived as one loved perfectly and accepted fully – not because we earned it but because He paid for it. That is the Gospel, and that was enough.