Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.
In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.
That’s not a bad way of encountering life.
The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.
I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)
One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:
Oh no, I was no good.
My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.
Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?
I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:
If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.
Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:
You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.
But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”
you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible:
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.
Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.
And then God says:
Now I have put my words in your mouth.
And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)
I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:
Thy will be done.
One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.
A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?
And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:
I was afraid.
I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.
For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.
How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?
Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.
And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.
When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.
May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.