How Do I Battle Imposter Syndrome?
Today’s question comes to us from an anonymous young woman. “Pastor John, I thoroughly enjoy listening to these podcasts and find them exceptionally helpful for dealing with life’s challenges. My challenge is anxiety at work. I work in medicine. For some time, from school until now early in my career, I think I’ve suffered from ‘imposter syndrome,’ a phenomenon that commonly affects professionals, often females, with tendencies to be perfectionists, leading them to think they’re a fraud at their job, not good enough, and any success is by chance. I don’t trust my own talents and skills.
“Because of this, I experience significant anxiety before and during work, to the extent that I feel like I need to quit. This is really affecting my mental health, but not because I don’t enjoy my job — I do. I have prayed to overcome this, asking for help and for healing. Do you have any thoughts? Also, I recently came across a coach who specializes in ‘imposter syndrome,’ and she overcame it herself. Would it be wrong for me to seek help from a non-Christian coach?”
I’m going to save that last part of the question for another time, because the more I thought about what she’s dealing with, that’s what I feel like I need to address here. We can take up the issue of the proper or improper use of secular counseling later. Here are the four traits that I see in her life that need a biblical perspective:
- perfectionistic tendencies
- a sense that really, when she’s competent at work, she’s a fraud, an imposter
- thinking her successes and competencies really are just owing to luck
- anxiety that comes from all of this
Let me give what I see as a biblical perspective on those traits of her experience, and hope that this biblical perspective on each of these will bring some measure of liberation from a life of illusion.
1. Rest in the gospel.
I would call the imposter syndrome a kind of professional anorexia. In other words, what anorexia is to the body, imposter syndrome is to your competence. With anorexia, a ninety-pound, eighty-pound, 25-year-old woman (it might be a man, but it’s almost always women) stands in front of a mirror and sees an overweight woman. With the imposter syndrome, a competent, successful, responsible, helpful person stands in front of the mirror and sees an incompetent, irresponsible, unhelpful, fraudulent employee. The challenge in both cases is to overcome the illusions and live in reality with Jesus Christ at the center.
So first, perfectionistic tendencies: very often at the root of the felt need to always do better and to do more is the deep uncertainty of being loved and accepted and approved — most deeply by God, but also by other significant people in our lives, like parents or friends or supervisors.
Now, the biblical response to such a drive — toward doing more, doing better, being perfect — is not to discourage people from the pursuit of excellence, but to turn everything upside down. In other words, apart from Christ and his salvation and grace and friendship and forgiveness and acceptance — apart from Christ — we are constantly striving toward love, toward acceptance, toward forgiveness.
The gospel turns that upside down and puts acceptance and love at the bottom, from which we can then strive for excellence without the burden of “I’ve got to prove myself in order to get myself loved.” By grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of the work of Christ alone, we stand on the glorious rock of the forgiveness of our sins, our acceptance with God, the removal of our guilt, the canceling of our debts — all of it rooted in the love of God, who chose us for himself before the foundation of the world. That’s where life and every day starts. And then there is, of course, varying degrees of passion for achievement and excellence. But we don’t pursue it in order to get accepted, or in order to get forgiven, or in order to get love.
“Apart from Christ, we are constantly striving toward love, toward acceptance, toward forgiveness.”
So, I would encourage and urge our friend to step back and make sure that she has a true and real and wonderful and restful and sweet grasp of the gospel of Jesus: what he did for her on the cross, what her salvation is by grace through faith. Oh, it’s a very, very liberating thing to realize, “I can still pursue excellence, and yet not be strangled and anxious because of all the insecurity and fear that I can’t do enough to be loved. Life has been turned upside down; it’s been turned on its head. I’m free.”
That’s the biblical perspective on perfectionism.
2. Realize you’re not a fraud.
Second, she refers to a sense that she may be a fraud at work rather than truly competent, truly responsible and helpful.
Well, here is what fraud means. Fraud is an intention to deceive a person or a group, usually for personal gain, which puts the other person at significant risk. We don’t call it fraud when somebody thinks we have more competencies than we think we do, if we have no intention to deceive them, and if there is no evidence that we lack competencies that they think we have. If you come into work every day with a good will, not a deceptive will, and at the end of the day you are perceived as competent, responsible, and helpful because there’s been no evidence to the contrary, you’re not fraud — no matter what your feelings are.
3. Recognize God’s providence.
Third, she says that people with this imposter syndrome are prone to chalk up their competencies and responsibility and helpfulness to luck.
Now, the most natural response to this is to call it irrational, which it is. You go to work every day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and always perform at a level of competence and responsibility so that it causes your supervisors to approve, and your mind says that those several thousand moments of competency were strokes of luck — like you never had a bad hand in three thousand games of poker. That’s irrational. But all destructive syndromes are irrational, so what good does it do to say that? She knows it’s irrational.
Here’s an alternative to that response to this imposter syndrome and thinking it’s luck. I would suggest that you embrace this. Think hard and long about it, and preach it to yourself: there is no such thing as luck — period. There is no such thing as luck. What the world calls luck is God’s providence. So, what you’re dealing with is not several thousand professional instances of luck, in which you lucked out and proved competent and responsible and helpful by accident. That’s not what’s happening; there’s no such thing as an accident or luck. God, not luck, brought about those thousands of moments of competency and responsibility and helpfulness. This is a pattern of divine sustaining, divine support, divine help, divine guidance, which bears all the marks of a calling, a vocation from God.
Therefore, when you wake up in the morning and you feel anxiety that your luck might run out today, one of the answers is to preach to yourself, “There’s no such thing as luck. Stop thinking that way. It doesn’t exist. God has sustained me in all these thousands of moments of competency that I’ve been calling ‘luck.’ God has sustained me even if I am truly incompetent.”
“What the world calls ‘luck’ is God’s providence.”
I mean, imagine it: even if I am truly incompetent, truly irresponsible, truly unhelpful, God has chosen the thousands of opportunities to cause me to act as if I were competent, and were helpful, and were responsible, and he intends for me to see in this pattern a calling, a purpose, a design, because he’s faithful. It’s not luck; it’s God.
So, get up in the morning and say, “I will walk into this day not crossing my fingers that luck is going to run out, or won’t run out, but rejoicing — rejoicing in faith that my God is with me. He’s faithful. He’ll keep up his end of the calling.”
4. Root your confidence in God’s faithful care.
Which leads to a brief statement about anxiety. You can see the answer to anxiety is already built into the other three. Jesus said, “Do not be anxious.” And then he gave eight reasons in Matthew 6:25–34 for why not to be anxious. And all of those reasons are rooted in this — not that you are really competent; that’s not where they’re rooted. They’re rooted in this: you are of more value than the birds, and you are of more value than the lilies, and God is sovereign, and God is faithful.