Imposter Syndrome. This is the name that is given to that overwhelming feeling that you are a fake, a fraud and that you will never be able to be close to people, lest they discover the “real” (and clearly less acceptable) you.
Imposter Syndrome is not just bad self-esteem. It runs deeper and can be harder to identify. It is accompanied by thoughts like “don’t get too close to them, or they will know you don’t know what you are talking about.” It can make you feel like a fake in a room full of people with whom you should otherwise be able to be authentic. Imposter Syndrome can encourage you to give up on a dream or a challenge because you’ll “probably never accomplish it anyhow”.
Where it comes from can be narrowed down to just a few places, all connected to our childhoods. If you have parents who demonstrated emotional instability (high praise and abruptly negative criticism), you may be someone who deals with this. Having overly supportive parents could land you in the same boat. If your parents never wavered in their conviction that you could do nothing wrong, no matter what you actually did wrong, you may also find yourself dealing with imposter syndrome. Both extremes leave the child with a lack of constructive feedback on who THEY are because both extremes are focused on the parents’ needs. It leaves the child, and then the teen, and then the adult without a framework of how to understand their own worth, independent of others.
Imposter Syndrome And Ministry
Those in ministry exhibit signs of Imposter Syndrome at an unparalleled rate to other professions, and it leads to a few potential pitfalls:
An unhealthy focus on achievement.
There are never enough hours in the day to accomplish everything we need to do, right? Or is that just what we tell ourselves? In ministry, it can be easy to DO more and BE more. And since we are doing all of our tasks “for the glory of God”, it can be easy to convince ourselves that our pace and focus is noble. But for those with Imposter Syndrome, the root reason for trying so hard to maintain that pace is because they are trying to be “good enough”. They become convinced that the achievement toward which they are working so very hard will be the thing that finally makes them feel worthy of their titles, or worthy of what others think of them. Finally, they think, I can just stop running once I achieve (insert chosen achievement here).
An unhealthy focus on their public persona.
When we have a large number of students attending our program offerings, we feel accomplished and validated. Especially in the time of COVID, when everything we do is virtual, our exposure to what others in our profession are doing is at an all-time high. It can become disheartening to see another group maintain their numbers or have great luck with creative programming while we know how much of a struggle it is to get our own students to even log on. Because what we do in ministry is so personal, it can be very easy to tie our success in our profession with success as a person. And really, if the students are not signing on, then we are failing them, right? (No, we aren’t, but that’s what “Imposter Brain” wants you to think.)
Unhealthy boundaries and burnout.
For all of the reasons listed above, Imposter Syndrome can lead to ignoring our own families, our own needs, and ultimately burning out while trying to achieve something through our job that is unattainable, at least with those methods. The fulfillment that we have to chase is a fulfillment that we will never catch. Don’t we all want more than that for our lives?
The insidious nature of Imposter Syndrome makes it so that any accomplishment we have becomes further confirmation that we are doing a good job of fooling everyone. The lies we think we have told have been believed by others, and we must lie more to keep up the facade. While we authentically may be talented at an aspect of our job, we find it nearly impossible to believe that to be true.
So what do we do?
For people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, there can be a few ways to break through that barrier into a fuller, more authentic life and relationships.
5 Ways To Break Through Imposter Syndrome
- Speak up. Owning the negative self-speak that happens through Imposter Syndrome means breaking the shamed silence and owning your thoughts. Find someone, even just one person, with whom you commit to full honesty. Then, begin to name the thoughts that keep you trapped in this cycle.
- Separate feelings from facts. Your feelings are important and valid. In situations like imposter syndrome, however, they become taken as facts which negate the empirical facts of the situation. Separating the two will help you to see what is really happening
- Develop a new script. Your responses, especially internal, toward mistakes or failure can dictate how you see a situation. Remind yourself that failure in a task is not indicative of your worth as a person. Speaking that truth to yourself regularly will go a long way towards believing it.
- Reward yourself. Setting goals is good, as long as they are achievable and measurable. Set small, measurable goals for yourself and when you achieve them, find a way to congratulate yourself. It doesn’t have to be public, and it doesn’t even have to involve anyone besides you. By celebrating yourself will help to achieve a positive association with your accomplishments, instead of the added pressure of having to keep pushing and achieving.
- Deny the lie of the hustle. The great lie of “the hustle” is that it hangs your worth on productivity. You do not have to be productive; you only have to be YOU. Which is a highly achievable goal, once you are able to recognize who that is.
Imposter Syndrome can leave us feeling powerless and fraudulent. The good news is that you don’t have to continue to feel that way. For more information about Imposter syndrome, check out this episode of Ask A Therapist: https://youtu.be/M6-aJ9q_yi8
Kelly R Minter is a 20 year veteran of youth ministry, and an RMHCI in the state of Florida and operates Anchored Counseling. Kelly is currently taking new clients and can be reached via email. In addition to her work in counseling and the local church youth ministry, Kelly has been an advocate for youth involvement within the Florida Annual Conference of the UMC.