If People Only Knew That I Have No Idea What I’m Doing: Understanding Imposter Syndrome

A fascinating, not-so-recent article by Michael Bader over at Psychology Today titled “I Hope Nobody […]

David Zahl / 12.16.09

A fascinating, not-so-recent article by Michael Bader over at Psychology Today titled “I Hope Nobody Finds Out,” dealing with the phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome, AKA the deep, gnawing suspicion of one’s own fraudulence, particularly pronounced in executives of various stripes. I would be very surprised if this isn’t something that religious leaders don’t also suffer from – and for the same reasons that Bader points out in reference to “progressives.” Whatever the case, it represents a fascinating way of looking at the discrepancies between external and internal identity/reality, which plague all of us, leader or no. Discrepancies which we might say Christianity, at its best, heads off at the pass: i.e. yes, on some level we are imposters, but those are the only people God has to work with, the very ones he sent his non-Imposter of a son to redeem. If anything, the only real qualification for “leadership” in a Christian context is/should be the admission one’s lack of qualification. Witness the Apostle Peter, Mother Teresa, Father Sergius, etc. Of course, when the Gospel is twisted into a self-justification or moral improvement scheme, honesty is the first casualty, and genuine Impostership multiplies – as the newspaper tragically confirms. Nevertheless, MLK’s (reputed) words at the very bottom serve as a great encouragement to all of us incompetents, secret or otherwise. They reveal (!) what it might look like to live by grace, ht JD:

Over the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of coaching quite a few leaders from several different labor unions. Often, I hear some version of the following: “If people only knew that I really don’t know what I’m doing…” Such is the secret worry of almost every union leader I’ve ever coached. In this, union leaders are no different than others who have acquired some degree of authority, expertise, wealth, recognition, or power. Hardly a day goes by in my psychotherapy practice that I don’t hear some version of this feeling voiced by my patients, whether they’re professors, lawyers, or CEOs. Union leaders, however, seem to have their own special brand of what is commonly known as the “imposter syndrome.” Understanding this problem is crucial to overcoming it.

This syndrome should be familiar to readers. Psychologists and Organizational Development folks talk and write about it all the time. It has even made its way into the mass media, sparked workshops galore, and spawned its own organization! This state of mind is marked by the feeling that you’re not supposed to have the type of authority or competence that you actually have, that you don’t deserve it, that you didn’t quite earn it. You feel like you’re fooling others and that some day they’ll get wise and expose you. It’s a feeling that you’ve somehow snuck into a club in which you’re not a legitimate member. The club might be the club of “real leaders” or “experts” or “people who know what they’re doing.” Since you don’t belong in the club, you have to police your behavior so as not to draw the wrong type of attention to yourself, attention that might lead to your dreaded “outing.” You see others whom you imagine belong in the club who don’t have to be careful. You wonder how they do it. You go to sleep at night thinking, “How did I ever get here?”

For some, this sense of fraudulence is mild; for others, it’s chronic and intense. For some, it wanes with experience; for others, it is never-ending. In a room of such leaders, it floats around like a collective delusion. Everyone else is comfortable with what they’re doing and who they are-you are the only one who isn’t. It tends to be more prominent in women leaders because their personal insecurities are compounded by the sense that they’re not really welcome “at the top” because of their gender. They dismiss their real achievements and attribute their success to luck, contacts, or affirmative action.

The most interesting and important dimension of this phenomenon is not its existence but the ways leaders respond to it. Fraudulence, the imposter syndrome, survivor guilt-whatever you call it-is a feeling that leads us to be less than we’re capable of being. Or it leads us to fail to take legitimate pleasure and pride in our very real accomplishments. It leads some people to sabotage themselves when they get power, almost as if they are punishing themselves and thereby reducing the conflict between their ambitions and their guilt.

Dr. Bader goes on to recommend a few strategies for dealing with Imposter Syndrome. A few sound especially familiar (in a good way):

4) Self-Compassion: Deliberately cultivating an attitude of self-compassion is a crucial part of overcoming survivor guilt and the Imposter Syndrome. Such disabling feelings are harsh, unforgiving, and unfair. If your very value as a person is at stake when you act like a leader, you are holding yourself to an impossible and emotionally debilitating ideal.

5) Combat Perfectionism and Act: The story is told that during the marches and protests that the Rev. King led in Chicago, he reportedly told his fellow leaders one evening at their hotel, “I wonder what people would think if they understood that we didn’t quite know what we’re doing.” And the next day they went out and marched. Perfectionism is a defense against fraudulence (“if I get it perfect, I’ll be above reproach”) and is a spirit-killer. People have to act in the presence of uncertainty, in the midst of doubt, and in the face of potential failure. In addition, by acting as a leader, by “walking the walk,” it is possible, if one is mindful of the issues involved, to gather evidence that dis-confirms these negative beliefs. The old axiom, “fake it ‘till you make it,” is often one of the most powerful ways to correct a false belief.


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3 responses to “If People Only Knew That I Have No Idea What I’m Doing: Understanding Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Mr. T says:

    Dave – Thanks for posting this. Hugely encouraging.

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