Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome 1: reading of this post

In my previous reflection I mentioned what Ignatius had to say in The Exercises regarding the evil one as an angel of light, and I used the word “imposter”. I have been pondering this word for the last few weeks, and it is one of those occasions in life where once a thought has lodged in your head, you notice it everywhere. Here, the equation that formed in my brain is imposter = desolation. I am sure there are many stories and cases where someone was not who they appeared to be, and who they actually were is much better, but right now, I can only think of superheros: Buffy, Superman and the rest, with their secret identities. Imposter syndrome I guess is like an inverse superhero, where our secret identity, as we perceive it to be, is not the “all that” that the world perceives us to be. Throw around also the concept of humility and false humility, and we have a right old tangle.

So, where are all the dots coming from that I have joined together on the title of this post? A reading from Jeremiah during morning prayer with Pray as you Go, a skim past of a social media post, I believe on Linked In, which suggested that Jacinda Adern, the prime minister of New Zealand, frequently experiences “imposter syndrome”, the challenges I am facing in setting up my own business as an online Chemistry tutor, and the admission to the business coach I have invested in to help me, that I need to be more up front about my skills and talents, and how uncomfortable it feels to do that. I remember from my Ignatian Spirituality Course in a discussion around the book “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed”, the tutor made a comment:

We can become attached to our smallness.”

A simple idea, that imposter syndrome is a disordered attachment and can result in us being afraid to use our talents for the greater glory of God.

Imposter syndrome 2: reading of this post

I am not a follower of celebrity status as a general rule, but from what I’ve seen of Jacinda Adern, I like her a great deal and I see her to be an excellent role model. One incident alone sums her up, and it is one of the COVID broadcasts she did to her country last year. She addressed the children of New Zealand and reassured them that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered to be essential workers and would therefore be able to continue with their work during lockdown. This still has the power to move me even now as I write it. With the severity of the pandemic, and the seriousness of the measures to be taken, and in her role in leading the way, she was not too busy or too important to take notice of the concerns and fears of the little ones in her country. In my experience as a parent, children infrequently express and identify their fears explicitly: they project it onto something else or express it by doing something “naughty”. For example, I knew my eldest was stressed as a young girl when she wrote on the walls in her room or on her furniture: I knew my youngest was when she took scissors to her hair. To me, these were clear signals that I had missed something and that I needed to take time out to sit and listen to my child. The something else that children project onto might seem trivial and unimportant to adults who are bearing the responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation. In watching Jacinda Adern reassure the children of New Zealand, it was not only that she saw and heard them, she cared about them and comforted them, rather than trivialise or ignore their concerns.

Imposter syndrome 3: reading of this post

In “God in all Things”, Gerard Hughes says:

What do you find attractive in the teachings of Jesus? Focus your heart on these things. An attraction is a sign that you are being called to live out these qualities in your own way, in your own circumstances.

God in All Things, Gerard W. Hughes

This statement was really important for me in helping me to discover the deepest desire of my soul. For me, it is Jesus Himself that I am attraced to and what I find attractive about Jesus is that He sees people; He sees who they are and what they need, and He gives them what they need to draw them closer to God, whether it is challenge, healing or direct invitation. The gospel stories are full of Jesus’ interactions where He is doing all this. Maybe I am moved by Jacinda Adern’s address to the children because she sees their fear and gives them something they need to not be afraid in these scary times.

Imposter syndrome 4: reading of this post

And then there is Jeremiah from St Patrick’s Day. When God says to Jeremiah:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Jeremiah 1:4-5

And Jeremiah answers God:

Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.

Jeremiah 1:6

So here is the subtext. God tells us that this is who He created us to be, and this path is the one He asks us to walk. And our response is no way am I good enough for that! Maybe there is even a bit of what will people think in there too. And God’s response:

7…Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,…

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.

Jeremiah 1:7-9

In the place where I grew up, insults and banter were all part of the humour, although at times I do have to say there could be a sharp edge to it. I had appropriated words like “useless” and “worthless” in my self description when I did something clumsy or idiotic, until one day my own spiritual director caused me to reflect on this self dialogue simply by telling me very gently and firmly that he did not like it when I used these words about myself. When he is as direct as this, I pay attention, because he has said something very important.

Imposter syndrome 5: reading of this post

St. Augustine said:

He loves each one of us as if there were only one of us.

We may experience God like that in prayer, but what if we were to truly believe it always, and live our lives as if it were true? What difference would it make? How would it be to remember the consolation we have in prayer at the moment when we feel that we are not good enough? I like Jeremiah. He talks about being overwhelmed by God, and he reveals his own imposter syndrome. I feel some kinship with him. Perhaps there is a fine line to walk. Humility is to know who I am, my own weaknesses as well as my own strengths. Perhaps the imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough, is the grace that keeps my heart open to my dependence and need for God. Perhaps it is that very knowledge that enables me to walk the path with Him, because I know for sure that it is not something I can do on my own.