What’s Behind Our Imposter Syndrome?
Written by Amy Isham, Australia
Amy Isham is a librarian with a PhD in Leadership and has taught undergraduate social science. Amy works at City Bible Forum as their Resource Manager, and is married to Pastor Luke Isham at St Kilda Presbyterian Church. In her vast free time, Amy enjoys reading fiction, drinking coffee, and gaming with her two children, Evie and Solomon.
Comedy writer Tina Fey and I have something in common.
Tina has won 7 Emmys, 3 Golden Globes, 5 Screen Actors Guild Awards, and 7 Writers Guild Awards for her writing and acting for film and TV. I, on the other hand, won first prize in a small folk festival once, beating out the other two contestants.
Clearly, our awards are not what we have in common.
But what we do have in common is the sense that we’re “imposters”, and one day, people will call us out for the “fakes” that we are.
Tina describes her experience this way: “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’”
Imposter syndrome is the constant nagging feeling that you don’t qualify for whatever position you have, that you aren’t good enough for whatever you’re doing and probably never will be as good as others. In some cases, it can start with thinking highly of yourself or your work, only to be disappointed when confronted with other people you believe to be superior.
I first felt the pangs of imposter syndrome when writing my PhD thesis. Every time I submitted a chapter, I was sure that I would be told to leave the program. Even after I graduated two years ago, I still feel like some kind of mistake has been made.
The heart of my self-doubt and fear
When I joined the programme, there were two other women in my cohort. They attended posh boarding schools and appeared to be leaders in their areas of expertise.
Meanwhile, I had dropped out of a public high school and spent a few years figuring myself out before going to university at age 20. I had been juggling small academic jobs with two small children and had to hide pregnancies and toddlers on teleconference calls. (This was before working from home became an acceptable norm due to COVID-19. Conference calls back then were very formal, and there was an expectation you didn’t have a child screaming or a dog barking behind you during these calls).
Among all of that, I had to carve out time to write papers so that I could be accepted into a PhD program without the required honours or masters that were usually expected.
I jokingly referred to myself as a “late bloomer”, but I was acutely aware that the area in which I was doing my PhD (a leadership course in regional development) was beyond what I had studied at university and beyond the work I had been doing as a part-time academic.
The heart of my self-doubt and fear was that I truly wasn’t in the same league as those around me. My supervisor even suggested that I might be the one in my cohort who wouldn’t make it. His comment galvanised me to work as hard as I could to prove him wrong. The frenzy of late nights, weekends, and working on holidays made me hypervigilant and anxious rather than productive.
Fighting against the spirit of pride and worthlessness
I soon noticed I was comparing myself to the other women in my cohort. I had to fight against feeling pride when I excelled in methodology and my colleagues struggled with it. Then I had to fight against feeling worthless when they managed to express themselves more clearly in their writing. While I was better at finding articles and could use the referencing software, they had social contacts in the region that would help with their data collection. The pendulum swung back and forth, over, and over.
I fought so hard against my perfectionism that I forced myself to leave nearly everything I did feeling “unfinished”. I couldn’t accurately perceive the quality of my own work, so I just had to go by the number of hours I had spent on it. I just had to call “time” on a project, because nothing I did ever felt “good enough”.
While thinking through this topic, I looked up “imposter syndrome” to see what online sources had to say about it. Spotify showed me a range of podcasts from psychologists to managers and aspiring entrepreneurs.
One podcast told me I should “believe in myself”, “put myself forward”, and “silence my inner critic”. Meanwhile, an article from The New York Times recommended staring into my face in a mirror and saying my name.
I didn’t find these solutions very satisfying as they seemed to require burying the feelings of panic and inadequacy, and not challenging those wrong voices. Looking at my own face in the mirror and saying my name made me cringe with embarrassment.
What I really craved was reassurance and guidance. I wanted to feel like I truly did belong, that I was good enough, and that there was nothing lacking about me.
Looking to what God has to say about success, failure, and achievements
However, I knew that as a Christian, scratching my itch for affirmation and reassurance wasn’t the answer either. I wanted to understand how God felt about successes, failures, and achievements in general. I wanted to be free from a constant awareness of my abilities, whether positive or negative.
So, I went to the Bible and Christian books. I had been finding solace in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs and The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller for a number of years.
I also found great comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, which I took to mean that any suffering I went through would one day benefit someone else who was also suffering. I felt like I was hard-pressed, but every time I went through a tough time, I would find that someone I knew needed the same comfort I received from God in my struggles.
At the same time, for work, I was developing a course with my workmate around the topic of finding our identity in Jesus, rather than in our achievements, which helped me examine myself further.
Working on this project made me see that “imposter syndrome” was a vicious cycle of perfectionism and comparison that led to overwork, and is characterised by mood swings that yo-yo between pride and shame.
I learned that I could become aware of the cycle and stage that I was in. This allowed me to develop a tool for myself to check in, breathe, and ask God to deliver me from it.
If you, too, struggle with constantly bracing yourself for someone to point out your deficiencies, or you find yourself working in a highly competitive industry, here’s a framework that I have picked up that I hope will be of help to you.
1. Diagnose the problem
Take some time to reflect on what triggers your imposter syndrome. What are you doing when it comes upon you? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you feel like a fraud because you are not performing well in your industry, or because of your own perfectionism? Whose standard are you trying to reach?
- Do you feel like a fraud when you compare yourself or your work to other people and their work?
- Are you overwhelmed with your current responsibilities? Does your work seem to spread into your home life, or do you lie awake worrying about a project when you should be relaxing or sleeping?
2. Suggested remedies to the above
The remedy to perfectionism
If you answered “a”, remember that God called you to a holy life that pleases Him, not to do everything perfectly on the way. Remember also that it is His work of sanctification that He is doing (Philippians 1:6).
The work God is doing in us may not mean that we win accolades in our industry but will mean we grow in perseverance, character, and hope.
The remedy to comparison
If you resonate with “b”, you are working hard to perform as well or better than those around you.
If we are constantly assessing our value against others, it leads to competitiveness that results in either pride or envy/self-pity, all of which are not good for us. In contrast, the Bible tells us not to conform to the world and reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:2-3).
Instead, we are to think of ourselves according to the measure of faith God has given us. God has called us to be distinct and set apart for Him, which means we put our faith and relationships with God and with others above all else, and in turn see our accomplishments not as a way to compete but as a means to bless God and others.
The remedy to overwork
If you answered “c”, then you may be in a cycle of overwork.
Andrew Laird, in his book, Under Pressure: How The Gospel Helps Us Handle The Pressures of Work, recommends we practise these “acts of resistance” to steer us away from the world’s habits of working too hard. These “acts of resistance” are:
- Practising humility and gentleness.
- Saying “no”.
- Switching off from work.
Practising humility can help us overcome the pressure to overwork because:
…a strange thing happens when you practice gentleness and humility. You actually begin to feel more restful, relaxed, at peace, and calm. Life doesn’t feel so pressured, demanding, and exhausting when you learn to live like the one who is “gentle and humble”. Being forceful and proud is tiring; being gentle and humble is restful.
When you finally figure out what’s at the root of your imposter syndrome, take some time to reflect on what the Bible has to say about your identity and purpose.
I’d love to say that I don’t struggle with imposter syndrome anymore, but I still do. It’s often a marker that I am either taking on too much (again!), caught up in a whirlwind of busyness beyond my control or simply not taking the time to check in with my perfectionism, comparison, or my old friend, overwork.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but I know it for what it is now—the temptation to find my identity in the things I do rather than in God’s mercy shown to me on the cross.
Yet my ongoing struggle means I can understand other people who are also struggling and provide the same comfort that I have received from God to them (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
 Jessica Bennett, “How to Overcome ‘Imposter Syndrome'”, The New York Times, 2018.
 Andrew Laird, Under Pressure: How the Gospel Helps Us Handle the Pressures of Work, Green Hills Publishing, 2017.
This article was originally published on City Bible Forum’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.
If you would like to further explore the issues of identity, self-doubt, and imposter syndrome, City Bible Forum offers this online course: “I Am What I Do: A Theology of Work and Identity”.
Back to HomepageBack to Homepage
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!