The Common Good

Professional Women and Impostor Syndrome

I knew I was dreaming when Michelle Obama sat down across from me. I was wearing a formal dress sitting on one of the tall bar stools at our local pub, in the quiet back corner near the dartboard. And then Michelle Obama joined me at the table and I started telling her all about my book. Halfway through explaining to her about human trafficking, I thought to myself "I must sound like a complete idiot, trying to tell the First Lady about something I am sure she knows far more about than I do." And then the self-loathing started as I realized (while still dreaming) that even in my dreams I second-guess myself and feel like an impostor. And I wondered, why do I have to be pathetic even in my dreams?

Forbes magazine recently posted an article on the high number of professional women who constantly feel like they will be called out at any moment as frauds. They are convinced that they are nowhere near as intelligent as everyone seems to think they are, and so it is only a matter of time before they are revealed as frauds. The Forbes article of course pointed out how this self-doubt can be detrimental to the success of the business as a whole since when women feel like frauds they are less likely to seize opportunities presented to them. Impostor syndrome causes women to dismiss praise, add disclaimers to their statements, and constantly feel less intelligent or mature than their peers.

In short, to mirror the qualities and virtues of a nice and humble Christian girl.

So while business magazines list the dangers of women being plagued with impostor syndrome, I don't hear it talked about often in church circles. Self-loathing among women is common, but often it seems that the most vulnerable we can be with each other in Christian circles is to admit to the surface issues. "I'm ugly" or "I'm fat" are safe struggles we can share with each other. As hard as it may be to admit those feelings, at some point we realize that there isn't a woman out there who doesn't feel the exact same way. We can dismiss those issues as lies our culture imposes upon us and find affirmation and healing in the love of Jesus (or something like that). But it's harder to admit to being plagued by self-doubt issues like "I'm not smart enough" or "I'm not successful enough" in a church culture where humility is considered a virtue and women are discouraged from being successful to begin with. So in addition to being scared of being called out as frauds, in the church we fear being called out as prideful and ungrateful if we are honest with our struggles.

Many feminist theologians, though, believe that while pride may be a common sin of men, for women our sin is lack of confidence. Instead of trying to make ourselves into God, we feel so unworthy that we fail to give all of our gifts to God and this world. And yet, we still are instructed over and over again in how to be humble -- resulting in women staying silent out of fear of being assertive (prideful), putting disparaging disclaimers before all of our ideas, and shutting ourselves out of opportunities for success, pleasure, friendship, and service because we feel like it would be too forward of us to assume we are equal to interacting fully with our peers.

I know this isn't everyone's story, but I've seen it often enough to know it's out there. And it's generally a story told at the point of utter brokenness -- when people are beyond having expectations matter anymore. It's disturbing, though, that instead of helping people step confidently into who they were created to be, the church often instead brings people to the breaking point where they can be real only as they are ready to walk away from the church itself. There needs to be a better space for true vulnerability and for re-framing our understanding of virtue. Women shouldn't be praised for feeling unworthy or for denying that God gave them gifts. We shouldn't have to be conflicted between following God according to the world's definition and actually following God. This is about more than confidence and self-worth; it's about being truthful -- something I hope could actually be valued in the church.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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