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


    Is Your Job Too Hard for the Wrong Reason?

    Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. – Matthew 11:28-29 NIV

    You’ve read these words countless times. You have heard multiple sermons on these verses. You may have even read a book that reflected on this passage.

    It’s a perplexing idea. Yokes aren’t known for being easy. Have you ever Googled “yoke” before? If you haven’t, you can do it now. I’ll wait.

    It doesn’t look very gentle or restful, does it? They look heavy, hard, and constraining. If you’re like me, working in the church can feel that way sometimes.

    I remember when I first started in group life ministry. I felt called to follow God’s leading. I stepped out in faith to see Kingdom impact and rely on Him.

    At the same time I was overwhelmed getting acquainted with the type of work and the reach of our ministry. It was a big change that hundreds of people were engaged in something I was organizing. I told someone once, “It feels like I have 200 bosses.” Lots of people with lots of opinions. I often felt tense and unsure.


    Group life ministry is especially prone to fatigue because you are presented with so many moving targets. Nothing is more complex and dynamic than relationships. Our response to that can be optimistic gumption or a great deal of stress.

    Maybe you’re feeling the stress. Maybe your ministry has you “weary and burdened.”

    In the very next chapter of Matthew, Jesus is confronted for picking grain and healing a man on the Sabbath. He bumped up against the additional rules and regulations the Pharisees had put on top of God’s Sabbath commands.

    God’s people were first called to a yoke of rest.  In an effort to please Him they added rules and regulations. They added weight after weight until a yoke of rest became a yoke of burden.

    What was your original yoke or calling from God? Think back to the infancy of your call to ministry. Go back in time and remember the specifics. Was God exact or was He elusive? Did he whisper or shout it to you? Did others speak into it and affirm God’s call? Get really specific and remember the exact moment.

    That was the yoke God called you to take. If we get really honest with ourselves we might find that the burdens we carry are decidedly not from Him. Our good intentions might lead us to add weights that were never intended. Those weights cause us to feel stress.

    For every ounce of stress in group life ministry, there is a pound of joy. We get front row seats to see what God is up to in the church. When we get back to the yoke God has given us originally we find rest. It’s exactly the rest so many of us desperately need.

    This post was originally written for on October 14, 2016

    3 crucial ways to care for the chronic worrier

    Anxiety and worry are challenging enough to work with as a care minister. When it becomes chronic and persists for weeks and months and even years, it can become wearisome. Worry has a ripple effect on care providers if we aren’t prepared and grounded in God’s truth ahead of time. Sufferers of worry need us to bring the light and truth of God to their troubled minds and hearts.

    As care ministry leaders, how do we support and shepherd worriers in a healthy and helpful way?

    1. Community

    Worriers have a tendency to alienate themselves. This only adds to the challenge because it runs against our nature. We are made in the image of our Trinitarian God who, by His very nature, exists in community.

    Connection with only God is not enough. John Ortberg, author and senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, asks, “Ever console or scold people hurt in human relationships that satisfaction comes from God alone?” If so, he says we should stop. He points out that “Adam’s fellowship with God was perfect, and God Himself declared Adam needed other humans.” It is vital to coach worriers in developing healthy community around them.

    Ecclesiastes 4:9–10 sums up the major benefit of community when it says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Your congregation members who suffer from anxiety will relate to the final part of that verse. Odds are they are familiar with falling down with no one to help them up.

    There exists a danger that an anxious person might develop a relationship with you, but with no one else. If you have a lot of experience in ministry, you’ll know to look out for this. If not, keep in mind you only have capacity for very few relationships like that. The same is true of your volunteers. Develop a culture of community that distributes care beyond the context of our care workshops and conversations with pastors and counselors.

    2. Expression

    Practically speaking, expression is a major challenge area for anxious people. The socially anxious person expresses little and rarely speaks about his or her true experience. The anxious talker never stops talking, but seldom drills down to vulnerable and important material.

    We see honest, searching expression modeled by so many figures in the Bible. The most prominent example is the book of Psalms. There are more lament Psalms than any other type in the book of Psalms. These prayers consist of the authors pouring out their guts and leaving nothing unsaid. Most of these laments have a turn where the author shifts the lament and pain into hope and an expression of faith.

    How much more grounded would we all be if we engaged in a truly honest expression of how we’re feeling, followed by a truly honest expression of faith? Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.” The greater the pain we are experiencing, the more we stand to benefit from being fully honest with God.

    If you combine our first point, community, with this practice, expression, things are taken to the next level. We are called to serve one another in our communities, but we are also called to receive help when we are in need. Galatians 6:2 tells us, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” When our congregation members are in physical or emotional need, we often need to coach them to be open to others helping and caring. Most of us are far more comfortable with being the helper than being helped by someone else. It is only when we learn to express need and help others that the church will “fulfill the law of Christ.”

    3. Faith

    Famed psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “A person can meet anxiety to the extent that his values are stronger than the threat.” Only by clinging to something greater than worry can we hope to combat it.

    There is nothing of greater value than Jesus Christ. He says in Matthew 11:28–30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God is well aware of the anxieties and worries that live inside us. He created us, and He searches us. We need to turn to Him, surrender, and teach others to do the same.

    The more we focus on our reliable Savior, the less we are able to focus on the worries of this world. Consider Peter’s short walk on water. It is when he took his eyes off of Jesus and focused instead on the source of his fear—the winds and waves—that he began to sink. As you counsel someone battling chronic worry, you need to teach that person the practice of faith. We all need to change our gaze away from worries and toward Jesus.

    This post was originally written for on July 28, 2016

    When to Interrupt Someone

    Volunteers in pastoral care ministries are generally the most caring people in our churches. While their big hearts help support people well, they bring challenges, too.

    Volunteers might be hesitant to interrupt. They may question their judgment on what situations merit interruption. Coaching your leaders on the types of circumstances to interrupt will help give them the confidence to lead strongly. Here’s a resource for what situations your leaders should look for and how to intervene.

    When something is outside their jurisdiction

    Church staff and leaders are famously bad at defining scope and limits of a volunteer’s role. We love to tell our volunteers whom to serve and how to serve them. We’re less inclined to tell our people whom not to serve and when something is not theirs to own. In ministering to hurting people with complicated, sensitive stories, this is especially important.

    It is wise for you to collaboratively construct a list of concerns and situations that cause a topic to leave a volunteer’s jurisdiction. Decide together with your volunteers. How should they handle these situations? When should they include staff? How would you like them to include others?

    Here are some concerns that will likely be on the list:

    • Risk of harm to self or others
    • Physical or emotional intimidation
    • Abusive language
    • High emotion

    When something leaves a volunteer’s scope, that person needs to sensitively inform others that a transition will take place. At Willow Creek we use specific language to convey care and set a boundary at the same time. We say, “You have introduced something too heavy for us to carry alone. I need to bring someone else in to help us carry this together.” This lets the person know that your leader cares deeply, is not going away, and needs to bring in an extra person.


    Over-talkers and nervous talkers suffer out loud. We all know what it is like to be in a setting with one or two of these group members.

    Nervous talkers generally talk too much only in the initial stage of a group (or one-on-one relationship). The fears we all experience in new relationships manifest in an abundance of words. Chronic over-talkers, however, show a pattern of dominating a conversation over the long haul.

    A chronic over-talker requires strategic and caring interruption. It will benefit everyone if your volunteers make the person aware of the dynamic and coach your volunteers in managing it.

    A good strategy to teach your volunteers is to invite someone to take a “breather” or to “push pause.” It is not a punishment for saying the wrong thing. On the contrary, it is an invitation to be still (Psalm 46:10) and lean into what others are saying. Your volunteers don’t need to draw attention to what led to the request. They simply need to invite the over-talker to follow the advice of James 1:19 and be slow to speak and quick to listen. Depending on the group member and the situation, they can do this in a number of ways.

    • Challenging: Jim, we have talked before about you getting yourself into trouble by talking too much. Take a few minutes to actively listen and find God in the ways unavailable when speaking.
    • Encouraging: I’ve found before that taking some time to intentionally listen is when I am most receptive to God. I think there’s even more for you in this conversation if you would open yourself up in that way, Jim.
    • Questions: Jim, right now are you asking more questions or speaking more statements? How would you rate your openness to God and others in this moment?

    Over-talkers generally know they are over-talkers. Most of the time they respect someone telling them the truth and offering to walk alongside them to a more positive outcome. It can be a great opportunity for a volunteer to take a relationship to the next level of truth telling.

    When conversation becomes harmful

    We value authentic expression in care ministries, but expression is just like language itself. It can be constructive, or it can be destructive. Do your leaders watch for the health and direction of expression? Do they know when processing turns from healthy to toxic?

    John Gottman, a prominent psychologist, has identified four communication patterns that predict divorce. They also lead to breakdowns in other relationships.

    These behaviors turn expression into a weapon and conversation into combat. When a participant employs these dynamics, it is time for your leaders to interrupt.

    Criticism: Character attacks on someone, whether they are present or not.
    Defensiveness: Using avoidance or excuses to dodge personal responsibility.
    Stonewalling: Withdrawing from interaction and shutting down.
    Contempt: Gottman defines this as when people are “truly mean” and verbally attacking or mocking. This is an extreme and should be dealt with abruptly.

    Encouraging leaders

    Finally, do not forget to encourage your leaders. Remind them that protecting a relationship from unhealthy conversation is one of the biggest ways to care for people. It is a way to cultivate a space for the Holy Spirit to do the work that we are all anticipating. Interrupting can feel uncomfortable, but if it encourages people to mature and makes your group experience safer and more enjoyable, it will be well worth it.

    This post was originally written for on July 20, 2016. 

    So you feel like an impostor...

    So you feel like an impostor? 

    Maybe you think you're just lucky to be here. Perhaps you feel like the vetting team that hired you made a mistake. You might believe that no one should ACTUALLY be taking you seriously. 

    If any of the above feel true to you, then you're having an encounter with Impostor Syndrome. 

    Here's how Amy Cuddy, popular TED talker & researcher, defines Impostor Syndrome: 

    Impostorism causes us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us (in these fixations, we’re usually wrong), then fixate some more on how those judgments might poison our interactions. We’re scattered—worrying that we underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for us tomorrow.
    — Amy Cuddy, Presence

    Sound familiar? If you're feeling this way in your current role this could sound eerily familiar. You know, the whole horoscope phenomenon. 

    If it is the case, please take a step away from the ledge. 

    Impostor Syndrome (and it's various different namesakes) has been studied since the 1980's. I have read reports that somewhere between 40 - 70% of people experience this mindset at some point in time. Women and minorities seem to experience it more. And generally speaking, the bigger the things are that you are doing the more likely it will be that you will feel like a phony inside - at least at times. 

    I am by no means immune to this. The phrase that often floats into my train of thought is, "I have no clue what I'm doing." It's interesting how correct that feels in the moment, but how completely absurd it looks when I type it out and see it in front of me. 

    Find reality. Don't fixate on false phoniness. 

    1. Check it out - Cuddy defines Impostor Syndrome as fixating on what others think of us. Don't waste your time on guesswork - check it out! Find a trusted friend in your workplace and ask them the questions you're already obsessing over. 
    2. Watch your language - What are your go-to statements when you're feeling like a fake? Write them down and examine them. Keep the truth and ditch the rest. Chang "I have no clue what I'm doing" to "I'm feeling unsure and could use some support." Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:8 to focus in on the good and true. 
    3. Remind yourself - How did you get here? Who were the people who built into you and released you to do your best work? Think about them because you might trust their judgment more than yours sometimes. 
    4. You've got status - You might feel crummy, but remember that you're actually reconciled and presented "without blemish and free from accusation" (Col 1:22). God accepts you in spite of your limitations. He loves you separate from your skills. He would want you to do the same.