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‘The Impostor Syndrome’: how to deal with success

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome (Credit: Carl Richards via New York Times)

In a recent article for the New York Times, Carl Richards discussed his bouts with something called the impostor syndrome. As Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, the psychologists who coined the term in 1978, describe it, the impostor syndrome is the feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They go on to tell of how those experiencing it “are highly motivated to achieve” but also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

Essentially impostor syndrome is the idea that you are not really worthy of your success in life; that despite all the things you have accomplished, your success was more due to luck or happenstance than skill and hard work. As Richards notes, one of the areas where it is natural for us to doubt the validity of our accomplishments is when those accomplishments seem to come easily to us. Sadly, the fact that things usually seem to come easy because we have put in the hard work and training necessary to cultivate the gifts God has given us makes little difference when those doubts begin to creep in.

And the impostor syndrome is not just something felt by those with one or two defining achievements in their lives. Many of the world’s most successful people have suffered from it. Maya Angelou, for example, shared that “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” That she won three Grammys in addition to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award did little to ease those doubts.  

The thing about self-doubt is that it rarely comes from honest, Spirit-led assessment. Rather, we begin to doubt the validity of our accomplishments and the worthiness of what God has equipped and called us to do because we listen to the lies of the enemy rather than the truths of our heavenly Father. Now, that doesn’t mean that you are without weaknesses and things upon which you can improve, but it does mean that we must never let anyone but God be the ultimate judge of our actions and worth.

Unfortunately, we often compound the problem by equating such doubts with humility, thinking that it would be wrong to actually be proud of the things we have accomplished. While pride can certainly be a dangerous emotion, we often go too far in our attempts to avoid it. There is an important distinction between being prideful and being proud of what God has accomplished through us. The former comes when our actions are meant to glorify ourselves while the latter comes when we simply take joy in the fact that God was able to use us to bring him glory.

Charles Hodge puts it well when he says, “Christian humility does not consist in denying what there is of good in us; but in . . . the consciousness that what we have of good is due to the grace of God.” You can do great things for God’s kingdom because God has gifted and equipped you to do them. And when you doubt those capabilities, you do not doubt yourself so much as the one who gave them to you. Does that sound like the kind of humility the Lord wants to see in us?

So stop questioning what the Lord has equipped you to do and instead let those past moments of success remind you of all that he wants to do through you going forward. God has prepared you to do great things. Live like it.