The social science concept of imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon (IP) as it should properly be called, has been in the spotlight for a few years now. It was the topic of Facebook CEO’s Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 book Lean In, social psychologist’s Amy Cuddy’s 2012 Ted Talk, and Carl Richards’ piece in the New York Times. We’ve all heard the hackneyed expression, “fake it till you make it,” and IP can best be thought of as the deep seated anxiety that you will always be on the former end versus the latter. American psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes gave a more formal definition in 1978 when they coined the phrase:

A feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement…they are highly motivated to achieve, but live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.

In her recent article in Psychology Today, Carlin Flora is no longer asking what IP is, but where it comes from. She brings up predictors of IP that seem intuitive—low self-efficacy, maladaptive perfectionism, neuroticism, and cognitive biases that lead intellectual people to doubt their own competency. But the last predictor, introduced by therapist Tiffany McLain, seemed to strike a more resounding yet unexpected chord: shame.

It’s important to acknowledge that imposterism is associated with a deep sense of shame. Shame leads you to pull out, put your head down, and avoid others. When you’re flooded with shame, it’s hard to soothe yourself and connect with others.

Imposterism, McLain continues, is a deeply seated fear that one won’t be able to meet others expectations, which in turn, brings a deep sense of shame about one’s self.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 12.09.28 PMA fear that you won’t be able to be the daughter that your parents wanted you to be, the husband that your wife needs you to be, the mother that your kids deserve. A fear that your boss won’t think your job performance matches up with the degree that was listed on your resume, a fear that the songs you wrote aren’t creative enough for the audience to applaud at the end. A fear that you won’t know enough, be capable enough, or be able to love someone else well enough. And these things make us feel shame. Shame because we believe we should be able to do these things.

At this point, imposterism sounds pretty awful; but it’s also a very normalized part of being human. I agree with New York Times writer Carl Richards when he says that IP isn’t always a bad thing.

I think part of the imposter syndrome comes from a natural sense of humility about our work… When we have a skill or talent that comes naturally, we tend to discount its value…We often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value.

While all the “shoulds” of imposterism (that are closely trailed by feelings of shame) are a bad thing, I would argue that the feeling of taking on roles is not. Richards is on to something when he suggests that humans could use more humility rather than the endless self-confidence that popular media suggests is ideal—perhaps that obsession with self-confidence champions a form of narcissism that is what led our psyches to imposterism in the first place. Flora agrees with Richards when she makes her own positive remarks on imposterism, pointing out that part of being human actually centers around roles, and that those roles are constantly changing—wife, mother, student, boss. And with so much change, it would be nearly impossible to not “fake it till you make it” at least sometimes. She continues to say, “It’s not as much about getting rid of imposterism as getting comfortable with it.”

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Plus, the truth is that we aren’t capable of always meeting others’ expectations, nor should we actually want to. Ever waited on a customer who expected you to make their latte in the time it will take them to disappointedly look at your latte art afterwards? Ever had a date who expected you to show them around your town without walking more than one sixteenth of a mile? Ever had a TA who wanted you to learn college level calculus by him writing the answers to problems on a chalkboard? Maybe that’s just me. But the truth is, that others’ expectations of us may be selfish, sky high, or misguided at best.

And the second reason we can’t always meet others expectations is because our lives are full of, and will be inevitable full of, mistakes. Even Paul knew this, when he tells us in Romans: (7:18-19): “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Though we may desperately desire to meet the expectations of others, and may yearn to believe that we are capable of doing so, Paul highlights the tension inside. We cannot always do the things we want or ought to. I suspect Paul would agree with Flora–we are all too often the one who is “faking it” instead of “making it”. While that might sound like a depressing thought, perhaps it paves the way to who we are in Christ. Without him, we have nothing to boast about. Even our natural talents are gifts from him. So, while I’m all for healthy self-confidence, I wonder if the idea of optimistic self-betterment is really just a form of law that we cling to for self-soothing, one that more often than not backfires.

Perhaps DZ captured the imposter’s hope best in his recent article for Christianity Today:

A grace-centered view of the world takes for granted that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor (or spouse) when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope, therefore, lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms and in spite of undeserving. This kind of love, which is by definition divine, seeks out the unlovable and finds before it is found. It satisfies rather than introduces expectations. If the law commands that we love perfectly, the gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.