Honor, Shame, and Imposter Syndrome

Honor, Shame, and Imposter Syndrome February 20, 2019

Imposter syndrome is the belief that you’re “an inadequate and incompetent failure, despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled and quite successful.” You fear being exposed as the fraud you are (or at least think you are).

Credit: Flickr/Transport Pixels

Imposter syndrome affects countless people in a wide range of ways. Our job might be the most common area we might experience imposter syndrome. We think, “How in the world did I get this job, promotion, or praise from my supervisor? If they really knew….”

Parenting is another place we easily fall into the trap of imposter syndrome. The problem, however, is that kids are well-equipped to remind us and the world that we have not perfected the science art ultramarathon called “parenting.” Therefore, the compulsion internally to minimize what we do well only intensifies.

I’m not describing hypocrisy or deception. People in the throes of imposter syndrome have difficulty internalizing success and affirmation from others. I’m also not describing mere humility. Rather, imposter syndrome causes us to discredit whatever good thing we do and perhaps to question others’ judgment of us. A writer might say, “How do they like what I’ve written? They must lack knowledge on this topic or maybe they are just flattering me.”

Causes of Imposter Syndrome

A few factors exacerbate the problems related to imposter syndrome.

The first is one’s childhood. Someone who was routinely criticized when young will often struggle to trust the genuineness of others’ praise or acceptance. They might wonder why they “suddenly” did well in this area in life when they apparently had done poorly in all the years prior.

Second, Christians, in particular, are prone to suffer from imposter syndrome for several reasons. For instance, common teachings about our having a “sin nature” can foster the impression that we can do nothing well. Likewise, the desire to be humble can easily become a twisted view of oneself. The practice of deflecting encouragement or a sense of achievement creates a distorted sense of reality. We only see our flaws and so discredit evidence of good within us.

Dr. Valerie Young categorizes imposter syndrome into five types:

  1. The Perfectionist
  2. The Superwoman/man
  3. The Natural Genius
  4. The Soloist
  5. The Expert

In this Fast Company article, “The Five Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Beat Them,” she explains how these types differ and their effects. It’s well worth reading.

A Self-Fueling Fire of Shame

Because a fire consumes oxygen, it will eventually weaken and exhaust itself when depleted of oxygen. What makes imposter syndrome so pernicious is that it produces the fuel needed to perpetuate itself.

Consider what happens we experience some perceived “success.” The fear of being exposed as a fraud (contrary to objective evidence) drives us to work even harder and to strive for perfection. Accordingly, we will either hide our self-diagnosed flaws or live up to the praise we think we don’t deserve.

Similarly, someone who is proficient in a field or skill will wrongly suppose they must have all the answers; otherwise, they are idiots whose opinions should be ignored. Others subtlety think all skill and intelligence is natural or “God-given” rather than the fruit of hard work. So, they make excuses and quit when they experience failure, despite their prior track record of success.

The consequence is predicable –– shame.

We feel shame for not measuring up to some standard in our minds. We might feel shame because we think we are fooling people. We are ashamed of our self-perceived “hypocrisy.” We then feel shame because our lifestyles get out of balance and begin to neglect important areas of our lives, like health and family relationships.

Credit: Flickr/torbakhopper

What’s the relationship between imposter syndrome and public honor/status? Is this just low self-esteem or hurt pride?

Not at all. Imposter syndrome, in fact, is less about winning the approval of others and more concerns our ability to accurately perceive reality. In the name of “humility,” “excellence,” or “glorifying God,” we habitualize various distortions in thinking, including dichotomous thinking, negative filtering, etc.

We always feel like failures. The shame of “perpetual” failure deepens our shame of feeling like an imposter. With more hard work comes genuine achievement in a certain area of life; with it comes more acknowledge from others. Yet, imposter syndrome then kicks in and reminds us once again of the “frauds” we really are.

Honoring What God Has Done

We can take steps to counter imposter syndrome. For now, I want to highlight a couple of biblical responses that can help Christians who struggle with imposter syndrome.

Many Christians have long had the misconception that honoring God entails not honoring people (including ourselves). This notion is so patently false that one wonders how it persists in our minds. Think of the proud parents who enjoy honor when their child wins an academic scholarship after years of hard work (on the part of both child and parents). In this case, their honor is entwined.

Here are two ways of honoring God that also combat imposter syndrome.

  1. The Image of God

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Without delving into a full exposition of the doctrine, we can highlight a few ideas.

Humans have the honor of representing God as his “vice-regents” through whom God rules his world. Psalm 8 begins and ends with praise to God, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vv. 1, 9). The psalmist shows how humanity’s honor magnifies the glory of God.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:3-8)

Instead of linking God’s and our honor, we tend to polarize them. Consequently, Christians and Chinese, for example, talk past one another when it comes to the topic of human nature. When someone claims that people are born good, Christians become alarmed and miss an opportunity to find an area of agreement.

(On this point, check out Gregg Ten Elshof’s “Might Christians and Confucians Actually Agree about Human Nature?“)

As Christians, we can mentally translate this Confucian idea into biblical language. Essentially, claims that people are “born good” typically emphasize a particular point: humans have a great capacity for much good. This is precisely a lesson we can draw from the doctrine of our being made in God’s image.

  1. New Covenant

A central yet oft-overlooked promise of the new covenant is found in Ezekiel 36:26-27.

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Through Christ, God gives us new hearts so that we obey him “from the heart” (Romans 6:17). This truth is clear enough that I won’t belabor it with much explanation.

Instead, I draw this post to a close by summarizing a key takeaway: Because of what God has done in Christ, we can live genuinely God-honoring lives. At least in certain respects, we need not regard ourselves as imposters.

To deny the real goodness within us is to deprive God of the honor he deserves.


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