Feeling like an impostor

May 12th, 2015

The man behind the sandwich shop counter gestured toward his neck as he inquired, “So, is that a real outfit?” My fingers brushed the cool plastic of my clerical collar while my brain attempted to process his question. “Well, I’m an Episcopal priest,” I responded. “Oh, yeah, that’s what I was trying to ask,” he said. Trying to diffuse the awkward situation, I joked, “I mean, I’m not dressed up for a play.” We both laughed. As I recounted the dialogue to friends, I added that I’m not a real minister; I just play one on TV.

The joke covers up an uncomfortable truth. Like many other high-achieving women, I often experience the phenomenon of Impostor Syndrome. Despite successfully navigating a rigorous discernment process for the priesthood and graduating from an academically challenging Divinity School, at times I feel like it was all a mistake. Some day, the other shoe will drop, and my bishop or clergy colleagues or parishioners will realize that I am not called to be a priest, that I am a fraud. If my congregation is growing in numbers and financial giving, it must have less to do with my gifts and skills as a leader and more to do with chance or changing community demographics.

Impostor Syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy where people are unable to internalize their accomplishments, often attributing success to chance or luck rather than hard work and giftedness. Sufferers minimize their successes in relation to their colleagues, in spite of external evidence of their competence. Those who experience the impostor phenomenon feel that they are frauds and have somehow deceived others into thinking they are smarter and more capable than they actually are.

These feelings have consequences, including a reluctance to ask for a promotion or raise, understating one’s own experience in speaking or writing and generally having higher stress levels. When you add in a structural bias against women leaders in fields ranging from academia to coding to religious leadership, many of us are shooting ourselves in the foot before we even get going. Those of us who are high-achieving with a streak of perfectionism do a disservice to ourselves and our contributions to our fields when we minimize and fail to claim our successes and accomplishments.

As a young clergywoman, these feelings are compounded when I look around and see so few colleagues who look like me. How did I manage to fool all of those people into letting me be ordained? At my worst moments, it is hard to believe that my community saw gifts of spiritual leadership in an inexperienced, young woman. When I do this — when we do this as gifted, talented women created in the image of God — we rob the world of our full God-given glory. When we minimize ourselves and our accomplishments, we refuse to allow God to work through and with us.

The impostor phenomenon, while prevalent in high-achieving women, is not limited to that demographic. Even Albert Einstein expressed near the end of his life that “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” As Jesus tells us, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16, NRSV). Impostor syndrome puts a bushel over our light, dimming it and reducing its glow, but God calls us to let our light shine brightly. By doing so, we give glory to God.

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