Imposter Syndrome is not Humility

Posted on March 24, 2016

imposterI was listening to a famous American preacher this month telling his audience why he wrote his current book. The title of the book suggests that the author doesn’t feel he has a lot of reason to be in the spotlight. In fact, many people have told him that he isn’t a big deal, and he personally agrees with them.

But then he made this statement:

“If they only knew how I really feel. I sit there some days and tell myself “So many people could do a better job of preaching and teaching. Some of them are in the congregation every Sunday.”

He used that thought to build a case for the power of humility. He waxed eloquent about how God loves to take broken and cracked people and make them into incredible stories to the glory of God. You could hear the congregation getting louder and louder as they affirmed the truth he was throwing at them. They began to believe they could be used by God.

All that is well and good. And I agree completely that humility is a foundation of God’s power in our lives. Without humility, we will never see the Lord’s plan for us. We will never know how his power could change us and others through us.

But what I do take issue with is the entire underpinning of the message. Unfortunately, this famous preacher is wrong about one thing. And that one thing is so crucial, he may be hindering others from finding the same path he did. In essence, he is confused about humility. Or maybe he isn’t…but what he said is confusing and I want to clear it up.

Here is the reality. That guy is a really good preacher. He effectively communicates truth and he keeps people’s interest as he does it. I’m a harsh critic of public speakers and I have to admit that he does a really good job. So, when he gets up and says his inner thought life centers on the idea that he is not a good preacher, that lacks all the qualities of humility.

It is actually called something else. Psychologists correctly refer to this as “The Imposter Syndrome”. Imposter Syndrome is an internal dialogue where the person believes it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out as a talentless fraud. Strangely, this is a condition that exists more with successful people than unsuccessful ones. It is estimated that 70% of the CEOs have this constantly. Though no surveys have been done of pastors and missionaries, I suspect from experience that most of the pastors of big churches have this thought pattern.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by  Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They noticed that many of the most successful people who came to see them for counseling exhibited many of the following symptoms:

  1. Every time they are praised, they fear they won’t live up to expectations.
  2. Fear that others will discover how little they know.
  3. The feeling they have to work harder than others to accomplish anything.
  4. They seek external validation, but don’t believe it when it is given
  5. They  keep their real life accomplishments secret from your peers.
  6. They attribute their success to luck
  7. They are always afraid others are more intelligent than they.

 

Imposter Syndrome robs people of joy. It takes their legitimate achievements, for which they should have great satisfaction, and vacuums all of the real joy out of it. Imposter Syndrome is one of a handful of successful joy-robbers that cause Christians to live less than a fulfilling life.

So how is this different than humility? Perhaps the confusion always arises because the word humility and humiliation are so close cognates to each other. But from a biblical point of view, these are almost opposite concepts. Humiliation has to do with Shame, and we are told there is “therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It cannot be possible for humiliation and humility to be connected to each other.

We are told in the Old Testament of the Bible that “Moses was the most humble man who ever lived.” Is this referring to the time at the Burning Bush when he told God he was not a good enough leader to go before the nation of Israel and speak on God’s behalf? No…the Bible tells us that Moses was the most humble man in the world “because he saw, as it were, God face to face.” Humility is about intimacy with God, a complete dependence on God for life, breath, and direction. Moses was humble because he kept returning to God to find out what God wanted him to do next.

In Deuteronomy 8, we are told the nation of Israel was humbled by God when he caused manna to be on the ground every morning. Every Jew had to collect a day’s worth of manna if they wanted to eat. How is that a humbling experience? When you have to depend upon God daily for  your food, you recognize your dependence on God. Humility is solely about dependence. Yes, to be dependent, you must know your own limitations. But that does not imply we must castigate ourselves and believe we’re imposters. That is not humility. It is actually so unhealthy.

Some of you may be thinking of Paul who said he was “less than the least of the apostles” and “The chief of sinners.” If you read too much into those statements you are going to fall into error. Paul wasn’t saying this to put himself down. He was saying it to show that no one can be disqualified to serve God because of their past. The past is buried with Christ in the tomb. We do not have to accept the shaming that goes on with Imposter Syndrome.

If you find that you have this condition, don’t explain it away like the preacher did. Ask God to show you the truth about your abilities. Ask God to speak into the idea that you’re a fake and a phony. You will most likely find God doesn’t agree with your imposter assessment.