Most people call it “imposter syndrome.” Musician Amanda Palmer calls it “the fraud police.” Whatever you call it, it’s the deep, dark, unstated, often unrecognized fear that you’re living a lie. You’re a fake, a fraud, a phony. You don’t know what you’re doing – your career, your art, your religion, even your relationships aren’t real. And sooner or later the fraud police are going to show up at your door, take back all your credentials and accolades, strip you naked, and drop you in the middle of the town square with a sign that says “imposter!” around your neck.
I’ve been there. I still find myself there on my bad days.
It’s especially hard for people in the arts and humanities. My engineering work isn’t exactly black and white, but it has enough metrics that it’s usually pretty clear whether I’m doing a good job or not… though it’s quite possible to be doing a very good job and still suffer from imposter syndrome. Even professional athletes, whose lives are defined by scoreboards and statistics, can find themselves thinking “I don’t belong here.”
I think it’s worst for people in religion, whether they’re leaders or just ordinary people trying to be faithful to their calling. The loudest voices in our society scream there’s only one God and the second loudest scream there are no Gods. I’ve lost count of how many Pagan leaders – some of whose names you’d recognize – have confided that at least part of the time, they worry that they’re faking it. Not because they have religious doubts – which are a good and healthy thing – but because they fear they’re not as good or as deep or as authentic as the Pagan leaders with more books, bigger groups, or more intense experiences.
Here’s an article from Psychology Today that does a good job of explaining imposter syndrome, though not such a good job of telling you what to do about it.
As always, I’m a Druid and a priest who makes his living as an engineer. I’m not a psychologist. If you need mental health care, find a mental health professional. But I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome in my religious work, and I’ve learned a few things I think are worth sharing.
Imposter syndrome is a good sign
Read that section header carefully. Imposter syndrome is not a good thing – it’s a bad thing and we want to get rid of it. But its presence is a sign that you’re not arrogant and overconfident and think you know it all when you really don’t. And that is a good thing.
But imposter syndrome goes past genuine humility and the honest desire to continue learning and growing. Imposter syndrome lies about your own accomplishments and exaggerates the accomplishments of others. Taken to extremes, it can lead us to put our leaders on pedestals and rationalize away their misdeeds. That’s never a good thing.
We want to keep our humility and the desire to actually be right instead of insisting we were right all along. But we need to be very honest about our own skills and accomplishments. Devaluing them – to ourselves as well as to others – is just as dishonest as overvaluing them.
The inherent worth of every person
Whenever I start talking about imposter syndrome to people who don’t have it, the responses I get are predictable. “Stop comparing yourself to other people.” “Just be yourself.” “You’re just as good as anybody else.” “Accomplishments don’t equal worth.”
All those things are true. But to someone dealing with imposter syndrome, hearing them Is Not Helpful.
Imposter syndrome is not a DSM-recognized psychological disorder. But it acts in much the same way – people who have it can’t see what seems obvious to you. Simply telling them “this is bad – don’t do it” doesn’t work. So don’t.
Careful observation is the beginning
In the early days of the modern Pagan movement, authors were the stars. They were the experts who had the knowledge and wrote the books. Unless you happened to live in the same city, odds were good you’d never meet them. They were demigods and we mere mortals could never hope to compare to them.
Today authors and other leaders are far more accessible. Most are on social media, so we feel like we know them. They may even be our friends, to one degree or another.
But social media would be better described as social theater. We all show people what we want them to see and we hide what we don’t. I do my best to not build myself up as some super-pious Pagan (as do almost all the better Pagan leaders and teachers I know), but very few people ever hear about my spiritual difficulties and failures. We can’t put much stock in what people show us on Facebook.At the same time, teachers and authors can be inspirational to us. John Michael Greer and Thorn Coyle were very helpful to me as I was becoming a public Pagan. I worked one-on-one with both of them. They were very open about their Pagan work so I got an up-close look at what they did and how they did it. Later, when my practice started becoming more ecstatic, I sought out people who did this kind of work and I studied them closely – some of them became friends.
For other role models I simply examined their public work. In almost all cases I found good but ordinary people doing good but hardly earth-shattering work. Occasionally I found people doing unethical or abusive things I most definitely did not want to emulate.
When we feel like imposters because we think we’re not as good as the people around us, most times that’s because we assume they’re “bigger-better-more” than they really are. Careful observation can help with that.
Be scrupulously honest with yourself
From early childhood we’re taught to downplay our own accomplishments. Even if our parents don’t do a very good job of teaching us humility, other kids will. “What, you think you’re something special?” “Shut up, you obnoxious know-it-all.” Even if other people brag on us, we’re taught to politely dismiss them, lest we “get a big head.”
All this self-deprecation has an impact. If we tell ourselves something often enough we start to believe it. And so we genuinely think we’re no big deal, that our accomplishments were just a matter of good luck… and we know that luck can run out at any time.
Of course, some people are just the opposite – they think they’re amazing when they’re not. See the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a prime example. But that’s not what we’re talking about in this post.
For me, the first and most helpful step in overcoming this is insisting that I be completely honest with myself. Where have I had good fortune that could have easily gone the other way? Where have I benefited from unearned privilege?
But also, where have I put in months and years of focused work that finally paid off? Where have I gotten lucky only because I did what was necessary to put myself in a position where I could take advantage of a lucky break?
And perhaps most importantly, just how good is my work? How does it compare to other people doing similar things? I get upset over small mistakes in my paying work, but not when I see the same or worse from my colleagues. If I’m being scrupulously honest I have to recognize that what we’re doing is complicated and impossible to do perfectly – for me as well as for them.
Be honest with yourself. When you do good work, when your art is beautiful and meaningful, when you catch yourself living out your virtues in the ordinary world, acknowledge it.
“Yes, first grade me, at least for this moment, I really am something special.”
Do it anyway, no matter how it feels
Here’s the bottom line: if you want or need or are called to do something, just do it.
Whatever “it” is for you, just do it. And keep doing it. Because even if it feels like what you do isn’t good enough, you have to do it.
Being scrupulously honest with myself forces me to admit that my early years of blogging weren’t very good. Oh, I had a few nice pieces, but most of them were short and derivative. And I knew it at the time.
I kept blogging because I had something to say. I needed to write, and so I kept writing. I had no idea the blog would be picked up by the largest religious website in the world, that it would lead to two books, or that it would get me invited to speak at conferences and retreats across the country. I just knew I had to write.
What is it that you have to do? Do it. Keep doing it even though you feel like a fake. And while you’re doing it, re-read the previous two sections.
Because the worst part of imposter syndrome isn’t how it makes you feel. It’s what it makes you stop doing that you really want to do.
Watch “The Fraud Police”
This video is musician Amanda Palmer’s 11-minute commencement speech to The New England Institute of Art in 2011. Whatever you think of Amanda Palmer as a musician or as a performance artist, she is 100% right in this speech. I watch it at least once a year – it’s the best “urgent care” for imposter syndrome I’ve ever found.