‘Imposter syndrome’ is the self-perceived impression that you are incompetent, you don’t belong, you don’t deserve your success, and are about to be found out at any moment. It was defined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. The syndrome is particularly common in women – although there is a humorous anecdote by author Neil Gaiman about a certain astronaut and himself experiencing it.
The phenomenon can lead to cripplingly low self-esteem and an unhealthy work/life balance to “prove yourself”. As Christians, our knowledge that our identity is not defined by our works is a useful weapon for overcoming imposter syndrome.
I recently finished a PhD in the area of drug development. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia because of the competitive culture and constant sharing and challenging of knowledge. Throughout my studies, I often felt I wasn’t as intelligent as my colleagues thought I was. It would only take one tricky question in a presentation, and I’d be asked to leave the course.
I think you can experience imposter syndrome in the Christian life as well. Moving beyond the first realisation of your sin and need for God is a challenging key step towards faith. I have moments coming into church, a small group study, or even leading worship with nagging thoughts about the people around me not knowing the full story of where I am in my walk with God or the week I’ve just had. “If they only knew what I’m really like…”
The final part of my PhD involved what is known as the viva voce exam. Its format varies around the world, but in the UK, it requires being shut in a room with two appointed academics from your field who have closely read your thesis and proceed to quiz you on it. This exam is to prove you did the work and are worthy of being called a “doctor” of your chosen field of research. These discussions can last hours and cause a great deal of stress and sleepless nights for many PhD students – myself included.
My viva lasted two hours and passing it helped me overcome my doubts related to my PhD. I definitively showed I carried out the work detailed in my thesis and demonstrated in-depth knowledge of my field. No one can take that result away from me – although I’ve already had one nightmare about needing to repeat my viva. Overall, I feel far more settled on this side of the exam.
The night before my viva, my mum and I were taking part in a choir rehearsal where we sang a song by Fernando Ortega, and Keith and Kristyn Getty called “My Worth Is Not In What I Own”. It reminds the singer that their identity is not in earthly things but is rooted in God through the sacrifice of Christ. God knew I needed to sing that song before my viva to reassure me that however the next day went, he still loved me and didn’t judge me based on my knowledge of medicinal chemistry.
As Christians, there are two things we should remind ourselves of when we experience the niggle of imposter syndrome:
First: The truth that we aren’t good enough
We’re imperfect human beings, plagued by sin — every single one of us. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Our flawed nature and human hearts continually fail to do good (Psalm 73:26, Romans 7:15). No one is worthy of passing the requirements for righteousness.
Second: Jesus still died for us despite that
We so often hear or read Romans 3:23 on its own, but it forms the middle of a longer and far more reassuring statement:
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-24, NIV)
Despite our flaws, despite our failings, God loved us too much to leave us as we were. He made a way for us to be made right with him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Romans 5:8). There is nothing we can do on this earth to earn our place in his kingdom. We are undeservedly saved by faith, not works (Galatians 2:15).
So take heart: there is no viva exam for heaven. We don’t have to prove our love for God or our knowledge of his word to be made right with him. All he asks is that we recognise our failings, trust in him, and follow his ways. There are no imposters in God’s family.
Fiona Scott grew up in Perth and her studies have taken her to Glasgow, Basel and Brighton. She recently defended her PhD in medicinal chemistry. Outside of the lab, she enjoys writing about science, arts and everything in between. Examples of her work can be found at www.fionascottwrites.com . She loves being involved in her local church wherever she is (Perth Baptist, Findlay Memorial, Basel Christian Fellowship, Holland Road Baptist), particularly in the areas of music and homeless support. This article was previously published at Overflowchat.com, here, and is reproduced with their kind permission.