Seeing imposter syndrome as an invitation

Imposter syndrome” is a familiar phrase to academics. It’s feeling like you’ll be found out as a fake, you don’t belong, you’re not good enough, you’re not as knowledgeable as people think you are, and you don’t deserve success.

"The Imposter" by outdoorPDF. CC BY-NC 2.0.
“The Imposter” by outdoorPDK. CC BY-NC 2.0.

If you haven’t experienced imposter syndrome during your career, you know someone who has: a colleague, a student, an advisee, or a mentee.

The imposter’s lifecycle

Like many of my academic friends, I’ve struggled with feeling like an imposter. It’s a feeling that crept back up last semester. My first book came out, and I wrestled with the Imposter throughout the writing and publication process. Then, just as the Imposter backed off, it returned.

Last week, I was on a five-day silent retreat, and directly after retreat, I attended my first weekend of spiritual guidance training. Silent retreat is a time I cherish and look forward to, and I was excited to begin training.

But for some reason, the Imposter was waiting for me in the silence. With my spiritual director’s guidance, I learned that anger and fear fueled the Imposter. I worked with this realization throughout retreat, quieting the Imposter.

I left the retreat for the training program. When I arrived, one of the program directors welcomed me with joy and warmth. My body and spirit knew I needed to be there. My spirit felt alive and eager. But my mind said, “Bolt. Grab your stuff and run to your car. You don’t belong here.”

Trusting inner wisdom

I was shocked by what my mind said but consoled that my inner wisdom–my body and spirit–knew to stay. And that inner wisdom quieted the Imposter, which was quite vocal during this first weekend of training.

Usually my spiritual life is imposter free. My body feels calm and energized when I’m rooted in my spirituality and when I’m with people who live a rich spiritual life. In these settings, my shoulders drop, my face softens, and I ease back. I feel receptive instead of defensive, protected from the Imposter.

Befriending the imposter

Instead of fighting the Imposter, which was my go-to strategy, I befriended it. Using the Ignatian principle of imagination, I saw the Imposter as an invitation to a series of questions:

"Open Door" by Alexandre Gallier. CC BY-NC 2.0.
“Open Door” by Alexandre Gallier. CC BY-NC 2.0.

  • Are there moments in my academic life where the Imposter is absent?
  • What is the Imposter inviting me to learn about myself and about others?
  • Is the Imposter more present when I’m around certain people or in certain settings?

For example, social media puts my Imposter in overdrive. So, after my first five-day silent retreat in 2017, I shut down Instagram, took a 20-month hiatus from Twitter, and deactivated my Facebook account, which remains one of the best and healthiest decisions ever. I’ve only recently returned to Twitter, and even now, I spend less than 30 minutes a day on Twitter. If I spend more than 30 minutes a day on it, I feel my spirit sink due to hate-filled messages from both sides of the aisle.

The Imposter can be a teacher and a foe. If it takes over, it can take us away from our core self, casting doubt on our decisions that we know to be true. Alternatively, it can point us to things that really matter to us. If we’re worried about being wrong about something, there must be a drive behind that—but what that drive is takes time to figure out.

The Imposter is an invitation to delve more deeply into areas where we feel comfortable and confident and out of areas that make us feel, to be frank, terrible. If we become rooted in areas of our lives where we are confident and guided by our inner wisdom, perhaps that provides the necessary foundation for the Imposter to step aside.

Questions to ponder

  • Have you struggled with imposter syndrome?
  • What might the Imposter be inviting you to? To walk away from something? To walk into something else?
  • How does the Imposter manifest? How do you know when the Imposter is present?
  • Do certain people and settings amplify the Imposter’s voice?
  • Do certain people and settings quiet the Imposter’s voice? How might you spend more time in those spaces?
  • How might you befriend the Imposter?
  • What areas of your life is the Imposter absent from? What might it look like for you to reside in those areas more?
  • Do you amplify someone else’s Imposter? How might you work to build up that person or people instead?

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