Cover Feature

Are You An Impostor?

Many people feel like their frauds. And for women, the fear is exacerbated, especially for those in leadership positions.

It doesn’t matter how much education, experience, or talent a person has. Many people have a sense that ultimately, they have scraped their way into a role that they are not really qualified for. They fear that at any time they could be “found out.” If you stop now and ask yourself, "Am I an impostor?" you may feel that same fear yourself. And if you are a woman, you are even more likely to think that your accomplishments are insignificant or unearned.

This phenomenon is called impostor syndrome. It is the diminishing of one’s own accomplishments, the inability to internalize success, and the ongoing fear of being discovered as a “fraud.” People struggling with impostor syndrome are unable to fully accept that they deserve their success, level of responsibility or opportunities. And counterintuitively, impostor syndrome is very common in high achievers.

People have been talking about impostor syndrome since psychologists Dr. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in the late 70s. The terminology has gained special momentum in recent history when Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, discussed it in her bestselling book, Lean In.

When someone with impostor syndrome is awarded an opportunity, like a promotion or more responsibility, they often attribute the opportunity to luck, chance, or timing. They are prone to feel guilt or fear that they will fail. Failure, like success, is often approached differently by different genders. In a psychological study of men and women, it was demonstrated that when men are asked to explain their success they are likely to attribute it to their qualities and skills. Meanwhile, women are more likely to attribute their success to working really hard or getting help from others. When the situation is reversed and men are asked to explain failure they are likely to respond with temporary factors, such as not being interested in the subject, while women generally believe they fail because they don’t have enough talent or ability.

This issue cripples female leadership and transcends any one field.

This common female response to success and failure is conditioned, not divinely inspired. Joshua 1:9 calls for the opposite of impostor syndrome, demanding strength, fearlessness and confidence in the fact that God traverses valleys and peaks with His people.

Sandberg’s personal story of her impostor syndrome experience, shared in Lean In, occurred during her senior year at Harvard Business School. She was privy to a keynote address by a female leader, Dr. Peggy McIntosh, which explored feeling like a fraud. Dr. McIntosh explained how people can feel guilty about recognition or praise and elaborated on impostor syndrome. Sandberg, like many people, related to that inclination to deflect compliments and attribute her accomplishments to external factors like luck or timing.

Many of our churches are filled with talented and accomplished women, who when congratulated on a well delivered homily or a challenging musical arrangement skillfully executed will deny their success or talent rather than internalizing the fact that God has blessed them with powerful gifts of ministry. When Sandberg left this speech on impostor syndrome she conferred with her Harvard-educated peers and her female friends joined her in acknowledging the brilliance of Dr. McIntosh’s speech. Sandberg thought it was the best speech she had ever heard, but her male peers could not understand why that would be interesting.

This is not an isolated experience of Ivy League graduate students. This issue cripples female leadership and transcends any one field. When thousands of political candidates with similar credentials were surveyed, 60% more men than women felt qualified to run for political office. Whether or not this correlates to church leadership would require comparable studies, but the gender differences in leadership attitudes suggest that church leadership is facing the same dilemma as corporations and political entities. There is incredible potential for growth within the church through the efforts and intellectual abilities of women. Female leaders are not being conditioned to have confidence in their leadership, even when their education, experience, and talent are on par with their male contemporaries. This is an opportunity for the church to look not to the solutions or statistics of secular enterprise, but to the church’s ultimate guidebook for counsel.   

Scripture responds to impostor syndrome in Joshua 1:9: "This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For theLordyour God is with you wherever you go." This is not a suggestion or affirming word of encouragement from a colleague or congregation member; this is a commandment from the word.

Whether you are a woman in a predominantly male field, a young person leading older people or you are in any situation that feels like it is more than you can handle, take heart. You are called to be courageous. Scripture advises that when those telltale discouragements of impostor syndrome creep in, women and men alike are to take ownership of their opportunities, their successes and wholeheartedly pursue the path God is unfolding before you for as he promised he is with you wherever you go.


Samantha Rideout, MPR, BComm, BA

Author of People Who Stay and Pieces, public relations professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, and registrar at The Salvation Army Heritage Museum, USA East.


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