Helping people who feel like impostors

What is the “impostor syndrome”?

The phrase describes the experience of someone who is unable to internalize or accept his or her accomplishments, and there’s a consistent fear of being exposed. These people think of themselves, “I am a fraud. I don’t deserve to be here in this role.” Ironically, evidence that should contradict their self-doubt tends to reinforce their fear rather than cause the fear to go away.

Take the example of a student with such self-doubts who is facing an upcoming exam. She is plagued with anxiety. In order to deal with the anxiety, she will either procrastinate or over-prepare for the test. If she over-prepares, she will likely to do well on the exam, receive recognition and praise from others, and experience temporary elation or relief. However, such successes will intensify her sense of being a fraud, rather than help her build an enhanced sense of self-confidence. Praise from others can prompt thoughts like, “Oh, now they think I’m an even better student than I really am. And when they find out I’m not, it’ll actually be worse.”

Thus, the cycle of anxiety, over-preparation or procrastination, temporary relief, and renewed self-doubt gets stronger.

Is impostor syndrome a form of humility?

It’s not humility. If you think about it, humility is seeing myself accurately. Humility is about knowing where I stand in the world with my shortcomings, my blessings, my gifts. I see all these things in a real, authentic way. At the end of the day, a humble perspective on myself is: “I don’t see myself as inherently better or inherently worse than I really am.” In contrast, impostor syndrome thinking is: “Oh, I can’t really do this. It is merely by chance or luck that I’m in the place that I am and have had the ‘successes’ that I’ve had.”

How long has impostor syndrome been recognized?

This phenomenon was first researched in the 1970s. Two psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, studied successful women in the marketplace. Originally they assumed that women doubted their abilities because of the culture at the time. Because successful women were not as common as successful men in businesses, these women thought, “I don’t belong here.” However, further research in the 1980s suggested that impostor syndrome is common. In fact, most of us experience it at one point or another in our lives.

How does awareness of impostor syndrome help pastors be more effective at coaching and training leaders?

Leaders in the church—especially lay leaders—are prone to experiencing impostor syndrome because we’re asking them generally to step into something they might not ever have seen themselves doing. Remember that one common manifestation of impostor syndrome is procrastination (avoiding risks associated with new tasks). The last thing you want is incredibly diligent leaders to be riding the brakes because they feel that they’re not the right person. You always want to help release those people from that so they can serve unfettered.

One of the best ways to combat this is to get people who are in the same situation—becoming new leaders—in a room together. Oftentimes in these training situations somebody says, “Hey, I feel like I have no clue what I’m doing.” And then other people in the room can empathize: “Oh good, I’m not the only one who feels that way.” If somebody has the courage to give voice to the problem so others find out they’re not alone, it completely reduces the shame factor. It also opens the door for people to think, “This person actually thinks he has no clue of what he’s doing. I think he’s amazing at what he does.” It also helps people in the group go a step further: “Okay, if I look at myself through the same lens, what do I come up with?”

How can pastors help people who struggle with impostor syndrome?

Help people to see themselves accurately. A passage of Scripture that’s really helpful for me when I’m feeling “less than” in any way is Colossians 1:21–23. Paul writes:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.

I look at that and say, because of Christ, I am reconciled. If I’m down on myself—and a lot of us experience seeing ourselves as “less than,” whether it’s called the “impostor syndrome” or not—here’s the truth: I’m a sinner. But if I really believe in the hope of the gospel, and if I truly follow Jesus, then I also must believe that I am reconciled to and without blemish before God. That is a huge thing to say. God has standards higher than we can even imagine, because He is greater than we can even imagine. But He has cleansed me in such a way that I stand before Him without blemish. That’s a truth that I will speak over people and myself. I will tell people, “The stuff you might be thinking in your workplace, or in your ministry, is actually small stuff in comparison to God’s grand scheme and the reality that God sent Jesus so that He could have a relationship with you. That’s your foundation. That’s your starting point. If you view your actions or inactions, or your successes and failures, in light of that, you will have a clearer perception.”

You’re going to find that a lot of Christians, as they look at their successes, will attribute them to God. That’s good. Yet, they should not deny whatever ingenuity or effort they put into their successes. I think they should cultivate a discipline of celebration and recognition. With some coaching, you can help them realize that they actually had a hand in their successes, too. They should do that in a way that’s not boastful, pompous, or arrogant. They are simply marking a milestone, which they have achieved by the grace of God.

If pastors feel like they’re impostors, what should they do?

I think pastors need to have a community where they can address this. There’s always an inner dialogue about what I’m doing as I’m doing it, whether I’m up on stage teaching or counseling a couple through a hard time. And I will be hindered if I’m not processing my self-doubts in a community that’s going to treat me with love and speak the truth in love, as Paul says in Ephesians 4. That might mean knocking me down a peg, or it might mean lifting me up when I see myself inaccurately. Either way, I’m going to invite my community to help me see myself more the way God sees me.

This post was originally written for on January 19, 2017