“What’s going to happen when they realise?” I have just sent in a chapter about shame for a psychology book. I’m not a professional psychologist, and the editors are. I am convinced that they’re going to read it and laugh at me, and then – very politely, of course – tell me that they won’t be using the chapter. Why am I convinced of this? It’s not because there’s anything wrong with what I’ve written; but because there’s something wrong with me. It’s called imposter syndrome, and I’ve been dealing with it for years.
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you’ve managed to get into a situation you’re totally unqualified for or that you shouldn’t be in – and that one day, people around you are going to catch up to you, and you’re going to be found out and exposed. It’s extremely common with 86% of people under 35 experiencing imposter syndrome in the UK.
I’m sure it’s something that is particularly prevalent in Christian ministry; I saw it a lot (and experienced it a lot!) while at Bible college. There’s a feeling of “I can see why God wants all of these other people here – but somehow I slipped through the net!” I remember one time, having been a missionary for a couple of years, I asked a colleague with twenty years experience how long it would take before I would start to feel like a “real missionary”. “I don’t know yet,” he said, “I’ll let you know when it happens!”
There are a lot of similarities between imposter syndrome and shame: they both revolve around a fear of what the other person would think about me if they knew “the truth”, and they both play on the gap between the perception of identity and the reality of identity. The defences we use against shame – death to self, and a community of acceptance – can help us deal with imposter syndrome too.
But one of the topics I taught at Bible college was cultural difference and adjustment, and I can’t help wondering if imposter syndrome is actually a kind of culture shock. Let’s say you get a job in a role that’s new to you. It’s a different company with its own way of doing things – which means you’re operating in a new domain and you’re not exactly sure what the rules are. The language is different; when others say things, you miss bits because the people around you are using short-cuts you don’t know. They have a shared base of common knowledge and wisdom which you’re not privy to, so when you speak, you don’t know whether something you’re saying is already accepted as normal or if it’s completely off the wall. And of course, you don’t know what counts as competent in this new sphere, so you assume that everyone else is competent and that you aren’t.
That’s totally what it’s like to operate in a new culture! And so if I’m right, some of the tools of cultural adaptation can help to deal with imposter syndrome.
First, admit it and expect it. Name the problem once you spot it, and keep it out in the open. The people who really suffer from culture shock are people who aren’t aware of it and don’t expect to need any adaptation. Being aware of the problem and giving it a name is the first step. To be honest, the one time I remember specifically not feeling imposter syndrome was when I was asked to give a talk at a conference for a completely different discipline – I knew I actually was an imposter, so I wasn’t trying to fit in unnoticed, and I could relax and enjoy it! But when I’m trying to do my day job and I feel completely out of my depth, it helps to tell myself: “I recognise this; this is just the imposter syndrome talking.”
Second, be realistic and be honest. If you move to a new country, you wouldn’t expect to be functioning at full capacity straight away. It takes time to adjust. And if you don’t know the local language or customs, you’d probably ask someone some questions about them. Imposter syndrome tells you that you are supposed to know and you’re supposed to fit in already, and it’s that feeling that stops you from asking questions – which of course reinforces the problem. Instead of thinking “What will people think when they realise I can’t do this?”, turn things around and ask yourself “Why do I think people will expect me to be able to do this?”
Last, bond and unburden. The best way to deal with culture shock is to have both “local” friends (from the culture) and “foreign” friends who are also working on adapting to the culture. In a work or university situation, your “local” friends are those who’ve been around for a long time and know how things work; they can be people who answer the questions you think you’re “supposed” to know. The “foreign” friends are people in your cohort, who you can commiserate with, laugh together about one another’s mistakes, and help you to eventually realise that they are just as bemused as it all as you are.
Remember, with 86% of people experiencing imposter syndrome, the chances are that the only thing they’re better than you at… is hiding it.
What about you? What’s your experience with imposter syndrome and how have you dealt with it?