Sometimes when I’m wearing my clerical clothing I look in the mirror and think negative thoughts about myself. “Who are you to wear that collar?” I ask myself. “What makes you think you can lead worship? Who’s to say that when you preach, you have anything of value to say?” To be fair, I don’t think these types of thoughts are unusual among clergy types. But that doesn’t mean the thoughts are good thoughts. They rear their ugly heads from time to time and they can be challenging to suppress. When I took my Graduate Record Exam so that I could apply to attend the University of Notre Dame, I remember thinking, why am I here? What am I doing with my life? I’ll never pass this test! And this was after I already had three other graduate degrees! Still, Notre Dame required the GRE to be taken and passed within two years of the application. So there I sat in a classroom on 20th Ave. and Camelback Rd, taking the test that I would certainly fail. In reality, one cannot “fail” the GRE. It’s an aptitude test designed to predict how well a student might be able to perform in a graduate program. And needless to say, I was accepted into and eventually graduated from Notre Dame. What I’m describing is a condition that has been well-documented and it’s something that many people experience in their lives. What I’m describing is something called imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is in some ways connected to the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is when people who know little about a topic overestimate their knowledge and ability about that topic. But people who are very highly educated on a topic actually underestimate their knowledge and ability. Has someone ever said something to you about a topic that you know a lot about, and that comment sounded completely nuts? Or have you ever prepared for a talk in your workplace and thought there was no way you could share information with your team that they didn’t already know? That’s the Dinning-Kruger effect at work. What causes this is that we rate ourselves based on the company we keep. If someone has studied a topic extensively, then there’s a really good chance that they are surrounded by other people who are studying the same topic. I studied graduate level theology for five years, so I was surrounded by theology graduate students for that long. There were times when I thought I knew absolutely nothing! But because I have studied theology on the graduate level, when someone who has not studied makes some kind of a blanket statement about Christianity, I am easily able to recognize it. Often, that person truly believes they know what they’re talking about. At a certain point, people finally do regain some of their confidence, and they feel like they do, indeed, fit in.
Imposter syndrome sets in when we are qualified to do something, but for some reason we believe we’ll be exposed as frauds. It can cause us to try to be perfectionists. When we do make mistakes, they can feel devastating. It can be truly humiliating. What happens if we use the word “renounce” when we meant to use the world “denounce”? What happens if we use the wrong spelling of their, there, or they’re? What happens if we use “you’re” instead of “your”? Are we complete idiots? Probably not. We’ve just made a very common mistake that just about anyone can make. What can be truly bizarre about imposter syndrome is that our mistakes seem magnified, even if the mistakes made by others are things we can easily forgive or ignore. Why do we hold ourselves to a higher standard than to that which we hold others?
There are many factors that can lead to imposter syndrome. As is true for many of our psychological traits, our upbringing can contribute to whether we feel like imposters or not. Sometimes we’ve had a lot of pressure put on us by our parents growing up. Sometimes we put a lot of value in what our parents taught us, even though maybe we shouldn’t have. This is one of those things that can lead us to overconfidence in our knowledge and abilities. “Dad taught me about this when I was young!” we might say. Only to realize Dad had no idea what he was talking about. Other times, maybe we ignored things our parents taught us when we shouldn’t have. “Momma said there’d be days like this!”
Our journey must take us to that place where we can continue our ability to do self-discovery. It requires honesty with ourselves and a willingness to question. We can ask ourselves “do I really know what I’m talking about?” And if the answer is yes, then that’s great. If the answer is no, then that’s great too. We have to take a realistic look at ourselves and be ok with whatever it is we’re looking at. If it something we’d like to change, then we have to ask if we’re willing to put in the effort to change it. If it’s something we’d rather not worry about, then that’s fine too. It really is about trusting ourselves and becoming friends with ourselves. For instance, when I’m assessing myself about my preaching, I have to ask myself questions like, “Am I the best preacher in the Episcopal Church?” And I have to be willing to acknowledge that I’m not. But I can also ask myself the question, “Do I know how to preach effectively?” And I have to be willing to acknowledge that I can. Not to mention, someone doesn’t become a good preacher without preaching some bad sermons. How would I know what it feels like to preach a good sermon if I haven’t ever preached a bad one? I also have to be ok with knowing that a bad sermon now and then doesn’t mean I’m a bad preacher. I can’t go to a place of doom and gloom. It’s not all or nothing and it isn’t black and white.
There are things we can do when we’re feeling like imposters to shake those feelings. We can work on tasks that prove our abilities to ourselves. If I’m feeling like a bad guitar player, I can try to learn some new guitar chords. If I start feeling like the guitar isn’t a “real” musical instrument, then I can learn a new instrument. If I haven’t lost any weight by changing my diet and exercise patterns, I can look for other signs of progress like my blood pressure, heart rate, or sleeping patterns. If I feel like my manual dexterity is struggling, I can work on things like jewelry making or puzzles that require me to use my hands. Once we have a chance to take a genuine assessment of our skills and abilities, then we can proceed accordingly.
Chances are, we’re not “the best” in our field. Unless your name is Michael Jordan, you’re not the best basketball player on the planet. That doesn’t mean you’re not a good basketball player. There are plenty of good basketball players. Not being the absolute best doesn’t mean we’re not good and it doesn’t mean we don’t belong. We don’t have to feel like imposters, but that doesn’t mean we don’t. What are our intentions? Are we trying to fool someone and to pull the proverbial wool over their eyes? Probably not. Some of us might be, but most of us probably are not. We get to keep working on ourselves. We’re always works in progress. But just because we’re always working to improve, it doesn’t mean we haven’t already come a long way.