My Struggle with Imposter Syndrome

Written by: 
Published:
August 14, 2022

I entered the seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in 1971 to get my Master of Divinity degree. What was supposed to be a mountain top experience sitting at the feet of theological giants for two years, instead turned into an unexpected wrestling match with fear. Even though my creaky car made the 885 mile journey, I apparently did not. By the time I drove onto campus, a serious case of self-doubt had begun to take root. I had no way of anticipating the difficult struggles that lay ahead.

Looking back, I now realize that I was about to experience what is called imposter syndrome. Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman observes,

Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges. But someone with [imposter syndrome] has an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes. Even if they experience outward signs of success—getting into a selective graduate program, say, or acing test after test—they have trouble believing that they're worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck. [1]

Sydney Hausberger, a Marriage and Family Therapist, describes it as, “Being worried that you may appear like a fraud or ‘imposter’ and fear that you will be called out for being ‘incompetent.’” She continues, “There is a cognitive dissonance between past accomplishments or actual evidence of your capabilities, and the belief that you are competent, capable, and successful.” [2]

Students entering higher levels of schooling and individuals taking on a new job can be especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome. The effects can range from mild to severe. The impact on me at seminary was definitely toward the severe end of the scale perhaps due to some hidden, unresolved insecurities from earlier in life.

Not having been raised a Seventh-day Adventist made me susceptible to the idea that I was not a real Adventist. The vast majority of students I met at seminary seemed to be born and bred in the church. And here I was presuming to enroll as a fulltime divinity student at what I considered to be Mecca, the holiest place in the denomination.

The larger seminary loomed in my mind the smaller I became. The more I exaggerated the glory of the place the more inferior and inadequate I assumed myself to be. Although I was a baptized member, I still didn’t feel that I was “enough”—good enough, holy enough, smart enough, biblically literate enough, dedicated enough to be a seminarian. I didn’t deserve to be there.

The effects of imposter syndrome first showed up in seminary when I chose to take an elective class from the renowned missiologist, Gottfried Oosterwal. He had served overseas as a missionary, lectured around the world, and written about his expansive vision for community involvement.

I purchased the textbook and did the advanced reading. I had never been exposed to such an exciting perspective on missions. My mind reveled in the new insights that lay ahead.

On the first day of class, I located the auditorium-sized classroom with amphitheater seating and chose a location about half-way back. Dr. Oosterwal entered and arranged his material at the podium. His white hair underscored the image of a wise, seasoned professor. After outlining the course objectives and reviewing the syllabus, he said the words that I remember as if it was yesterday, “At the beginning of each class, I will randomly call on one of you students to come to the podium and give an overview of the previous class from your own notes.”

My mind suddenly shouted at me, “You can’t do that! You’re too incompetent! You’ll fall apart up there! What will Dr. Oosterwal think of you then? It’s far too risky!” I tried to dismiss the thoughts as ridiculous, but their intensity gave them a credibility I couldn’t ignore.

After class, my mind fixated on that student review. I knew what normal fear of public speaking felt like, but I had overcome that long ago. During my years at Atlantic Union College, I was up front many times without any problem. I had given talks to groups of various sizes from a small theology class to campus-wide chapels with calmness and assurance.   

The unnerving thoughts that now assaulted my brain were something new. It felt like I was being overtaken by some deep, very strange, sense of dread. What was happening to me? Why now?

After a restless night, I decided it was indeed too risky to continue with Dr. Oosterwal’s class. I trudged over to the registrar’s office and dropped it with mixed feelings of relief and deep sadness.

A new terror now visited me. If this happened in Oosterwal’s class, it could happen in any course I took and this was just my first semester. How many times would I have to face the same dilemma? Every subsequent course I signed up for engendered intense anticipatory anxiety.

Surprisingly, my classes for the next two semesters didn’t have any up front requirement. Then one day my luck ran out. I was sitting toward the back at the beginning of a course that was required for graduation. The professor announced that (like Oosterwal) he would have students come up and give a review of the previous class. He told us to legibly print our name on a piece of paper and put it in a basket that students would pass to each other around the room. Names would be chosen from there.

“Oh no,” I thought, “what am I going to do now?” I estimated that I had about 30 seconds before the basket arrived at my desk. My mind raced, groping for options. There was no way I was going to make a fool of myself in front of this esteemed professor and so many of my peers.

I ignored everything else the professor was saying. That awful basket had my full attention. Six desks away. My heart raced.

Then the answer came in a flash of insight. It occurred to me that there were more students in the class than there were class periods so there was no way the professor would use all of the pieces of paper. By choosing randomly, he’d never notice if mine was in there or not. I quickly folded a blank piece of paper, held it between my thumb and first finger, put my hand in the basket, then crumpled the paper up inside my closed fist and drew it out. I passed the basket to the person in front of me.

Such a close call was emotionally draining. Some may call my action deceptive. I call it deliverance.

I had come to question why God would allow me to go through such an inner struggle. But the last minute reprieve I experienced that day gave me some much needed hope. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit who put that answer in my brain. 1 Corinthians 10:13 came to mind:

No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1Cor 10:13 NKJV, emphasis supplied).

The severest test of my unreasonable fear came late in my seminary experience. I had put off taking a certain required course as long as I could. With only months left in the graduate program, I had no choice but to enroll. My hand shook slightly in anticipation as I signed the registration form. The class was homiletics, which is about teaching preaching.

The course required each student to give a twenty-minute sermon while peers filled out evaluation forms. My assigned date was in five weeks. Before then I listened to other students give their presentations. They exhibited a calmness and confidence that made me extremely envious. “How can they do that?” I thought.

The date of my upcoming sermon loomed before me like a biopsy for possible cancer. The only outcome I could envision for my presentation ended in utter humiliation. I couldn’t sleep the night before. Just cat naps. Several times I felt like throwing up. I got up at 6:00 a.m., ate a few spoonfuls of cereal to settle my queasy stomach, dressed, and headed out the door.

After entering the classroom, I took a seat and watched the minute hand hit 8:00 a.m. The moment had come. The professor said, “OK, Mr. Johnson, you’re next.”

Weak-kneed, hands trembling, I trudged to the podium, put my notes down, and looked out at the eighteen seminarians staring back at me. To my great surprise, after a deep breath, a strange, almost mystical, calmness slowly took over. My mind pursued two tracks at once. One track was the homily, the other was a sense of amazement. After four minutes, I actually felt confident enough for my voice to be quite steady. I even looked up at the audience and smiled. It felt like flying.

I finished and sat down at my desk, marveling at what I had just happened. The professor offered a brief, on the spot, critique. “Thank you Kim. I have a question about a couple of your theological applications, but otherwise it was fine.”          

I felt like screaming, “Theological applications! Do you have any idea what just happened! Do you realize what the Holy Spirit just did for me? I survived! More than that I SUCCEEDED! I actually looked quite normal!”

Three months later, after completing all of my courses, I was more than happy to drive away from campus. I was assigned to intern at a church in Massachusetts where the pastor and his wife provided the kind of non-judgmental, caring environment where I could heal.

It wasn’t long before the effects of imposter syndrome disappeared. Away from the supposed Mecca of Adventism, I no longer felt the contrast between me and the exalted sanctity I had assigned to its precincts.

Surveys indicate that more than 70% of people in the U.S. have experienced Imposter Syndrome at one time or another including some notable individuals. [3]

Civil rights activist, author, poet, and Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou stated that, at times, she often felt like a fraud, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'" [4]

Academy Award winning actor Tom Hanks, shares, “No matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, 'How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?' "[5]

John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even he confessed that there were times when he thought, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” [6]

Former COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, writes about the time when she was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society at Harvard, “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled— believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” She also reveals that now, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” [7] Many other accomplished individuals have made similar confessions.

The scriptures tell us that during Christ’s ministry two of the devil’s strongest temptations began with the insinuation that Jesus Himself was an imposter. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Matt 4:3, 6 NIV).

The Savior was able to resist these strong temptations by relying on what His Father shared at His baptism, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17 NIV). Likewise, one of the best antidotes to self-doubt is for us to hear God speaking similar words to us today. God is well pleased with us just as we are. Full acceptance with nothing to prove, nothing to earn.  

There are also some additional points I found helpful in dealing with imposter syndrome that I wish I had known decades ago.

1.     Realize that just because you feel inadequate doesn’t mean you are.

2.     Stop trying to be perfect. Making mistakes is an inescapable part of being human. Just being yourself is more than enough.

3.     Don’t compare yourself with others. [8]

4.     Stop trying to please others. Just focus on the work in front of you. Wean yourself away from depending on external validation of your worth. [9]

5.     The way to stop feeling inadequate is to stop thinking you are. [10] Challenge thoughts of self-doubt. Ask where they come from. [11]

6.     Don’t assume that people who have to work very hard to reach their goals are not smart or talented. [12]

7.     Be as compassionate toward yourself as your best friend would be. Self-care matters. [13]

8.     Don’t assume anything as true about yourself without clear outward evidence. Learn to separate feeling from fact.

9.     Don’t pretend you are a mind reader and can know what others are thinking about you.

10.  Treat thoughts that begin with the words “What if?” as poison.

11.  If the symptoms persist and are interfering with your ability to function well, don’t hesitate to talk to a mentor, counselor, tutor, or friend. You have nothing to be embarrassed about! Seeking help is not a sign of weakness or failure. Seeking help is actually an indication of inner strength and courage.

For more on this topic, see the podcast Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam: “You 2.0: Befriending Your Inner Voice

 

Notes & References:

[1] Kirsten Weir, “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychology Association, https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

[2] Sydney Hausberger, “Imposter Syndrome: What It Is & What You Can Do About It,” June 1, 2021, Mental Health, https://sagewellnessctr.org/2021/06/imposter-syndrome-what-it-is-what-you-can-do-about-it/

[3] Jennfier Tzeses, “Do You Have Imposter Syndrome? Take Our Quiz and Find Out,” May 20, 2022, https://www.psycom.net/imposter-syndrome-quiz

[4] Ibid

[5] “Ten Famous People Who Deal With Imposter Syndrom,” https://kajabi.com/blog/celebrities-with-imposter-syndrome

[6] Shundalyn Allen, “6 Notable People Who Experienced Imposter Syndrom,” Jul 17, 2017, https://www.grammarly.com/blog/notable-people-imposter-syndrome/

[7] Rose Leadem, “12 Leaders, Entrepreneurs and Celebrities Who Have Struggled With Imposter Syndrome,” November 8, 2017,https://www.entrepreneur.com/slideshow/304273">https://www.entrepreneur....

[8] “You’re Not a Fraud. Here’s How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome,” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/imposter-syndrome

[9] Melody J. Wilding, “5 Different Types of Imposter Syndrome (and 5 Ways to Battle Each One),”

https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

[10] “Ten Steps You Can Use to Overcome Imposter Syndrome,” Dr. Valerie Young, Talent Development Resources, https://talentdevelop.com/10-steps-to-overcome-the-impostor-syndrome/

[11] Sydney Hausberger, “Imposter Syndrome: What It Is & What You Can Do About It.”

[12] “You’re Not a Fraud. Here’s How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome.”

[13] Alexandra Owens, “What Is Imposter Syundrome?” December 22, 2021, Psycom, https://www.psycom.net/imposter-syndrome

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Image Credit: Alex Motoc on Unsplash

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