Three and a half years ago I sat on a stiff-backed chair at the end of a row, shifting in my seat, nervous and excited, and surrounded by 20 people just like me. We were the incoming doctoral students at Trinity, and we were there for orientation.
Though the PhD is a terminal degree, we each looked as green and wide-eyed as college freshmen–anxious, uncertain, wondering how on earth we got there.
That morning, the Dean of the Divinity School spoke to us about the challenges ahead. He encouraged us to persevere, not to give up, to stay the course. He warned us that it would be hard, that some would probably fail. Then he described a pitfall I’d never heard of, though I immediately realized I had experienced it before.
He called it imposter syndrome.
As the name implies, imposter syndrome refers to the fear of one’s own inadequacy, that we somehow faked or fooled our way in to our successes, and that it’s only a matter of time before we’re exposed.
At it’s core, it’s the fear of not being good enough.
And I know a thing or two about that.
I’ll never forget freshman convocation, my first semester of undergrad. The President of my college cataloged the lofty accomplishments of the in-coming students. There were team captains, class presidents, community organizers, valedictorians, even a girl who swam the English Channel. That’s right, The English Channel.
I remember turning to the student next to me and whispering, “Uh, how did I get into this school?”
Since then I’ve experienced imposter syndrome many times at school. But imposter syndrome isn’t limited to students alone. I’ve experienced it in my daily life as well.
Though I’ve attended seminary, worked in ministry, and written for years, I still feel like I’m not where I should be spiritually. If you were to observe my real life–the way I spend my free time, the content of my conversations, my attitude when Isaac WILL NOT take a nap–I’m afraid you would quit reading my blog.
I’m afraid you would think I’m a hypocrite or a fake. An imposter.
I think a lot of Christians feel this way. We go to church and fear we don’t measure up. We’re not the Christian women, wives, mothers, employees, or neighbors we should be. There’s always someone doing it better. There’s always some standard of Christian discipleship that we’re never quite meeting.
And so we hide. We feel ashamed. We feel like frauds. And we fear being exposed.
If that’s you, you’re not alone. A lot of us feel like imposters too.
But I hope imposter syndrome does not become your dwelling place, because here’s the problem with it.
Imposter syndrome is not a problem because it makes us feel bad about ourselves or causes low self-esteem. Yes, those are certainly negative consequence, but there is something much bigger at stake.
In Luke 5, Jesus reveals his identity to Peter by filling his nets with fish. Peter had toiled all night long with nothing to show for it, then suddenly his nets were bursting.
When Peter witnessed this miracle, his eyes were opened. He fell on his knees and pleaded, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” (v. 8, NLT)
In that moment, Peter felt exposed. He felt ashamed. He felt unworthy. He knew the ways that he fell short, and his response was to hide.
But here’s what’s interesting. Jesus didn’t respond with something like, “Oh honey, you are perfect just the way you are!” or “You don’t have to feel ashamed around me! I’m Jesus!”
No, Jesus didn’t coddle Peter. In fact, he only briefly acknowledged Peter’s fears, before shifting the focus entirely. Jesus replied,
“Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (v. 10-11)
These words cut to the heart of imposter syndrome and its consequences. The Dean alluded to this same problem during my doctoral orientation, which is this:
Imposter syndrome is a distraction from action.
Imposter syndrome can stall and even paralyze you. The fear and inadequacy are like weights around your ankles that prevent you from running full speed. Imposter syndrome will keep you stuck on that boat with Peter, focused solely on your failures.
That’s why the Dean warned us about imposter syndrome. If we’re constantly living under a cloud of fear and inadequacy, we’ll never have the courage and the strength to complete the PhD. We’ll get stuck, refusing to take the risks that the doctoral process requires, unwilling to put our work out there until it’s PERFECT…which it will never be.
Likewise, imposter syndrome keeps our eyes fixed on our failure, inadequacy, and smallness. As long as we’re preoccupied with our inability, rather than God’s ability, we’ll live lives of fearful restraint with woefully small goals. We’ll never plunge deep into the waters of discipleship.
In other words, imposter syndrome stands between us and being fully devoted, Jesus-following fisher’s of men. It convinces us that we’re not good enough, or able enough, but Luke 5 reminds us that it was never about us in the first place.
2 Corinthians 10:5 declares,
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
When imposter syndrome takes hold of you, you take hold of it. Make it obedient to Christ, who died on the cross to justify your belonging. By the blood of Christ, you are not an imposter, but one who bears the very righteousness of Christ.
Now go, follow Jesus, and invite others to do the same.