The Imposter Syndrome

8 comments Written on April 6th, 2016     
Filed under: Testimonies and Stories
Jo Ann Deasy is an ordained Covenant pastor currently serving as the director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh, PA.

DSCN4879 (1)An article recently popped up on my Facebook newsfeed entitled, “Do Women Everywhere Suck at Their Jobs?” by Katy Waldman (, Nov. 2013). Of course, I had to read it.  Luckily the subheadings clued me in to the fact that this was not really about the lack of qualified women in the world.  Instead, this article was about “the imposter syndrome.”  The imposter syndrome is “the phenomenon by which high-achieving careerists feel unqualified for their jobs, regardless of the positive feedback they earn” and it is particularly prevalent among women.

As I read the article, I was particularly struck by the research on how the imposter syndrome plays out in the workplace.  Waldman cites studies that “show that female employees apologize more…  because they have a lower threshold for thinking they’ve committed an offense.  They give themselves duller performance reviews, even when their supervisors rate them more highly than their male peers…” and “that most women don’t even apply for positions unless they’re certain they meet 100 percent of the prerequisites. (Men, meanwhile, tend to send in their resumes if they possess a mere 60 percent of the job qualifications.)”

I remember seeing the imposter syndrome crop up regularly in the lives of women seminary students at North Park.  Articulate, strong, capable women who would suddenly be filled with self-doubt in the pulpit or in an interview.  Women who would not speak up in class, who would sell themselves short and seek positions they were overqualified for.  And I began to reflect on how the imposter syndrome had effected my own life.

Despite always being near the top of my class in college and seminary, I never felt smart.  I don’t think I spoke more than two words in class during my first three years of seminary.  It didn’t help that I had been overlooked for several scholarships and awards because no one had bothered to look at my transcripts.  But it was the internal doubt that was the most frustrating.  I thought I had mostly gotten past all of that in my PhD program at Garrett only to have it crop up again as I was defending my dissertation, tears streaming down my face as I struggled to respond to basic questions, but the words would not come out.  And again as I interviewed for a teaching position, having made it to the final interview, the only candidate, only to freeze up as some older male faculty members began challenging my basic Christian beliefs.

I almost didn’t apply for my current job as director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools.  I didn’t think I was qualified.  It turns out I am more than qualified.  Actually my background, experience and education are just perfect for the position.  But I couldn’t see that as I read through the job description.  Even when others could.

So, how can you help women (and others) struggling with the imposter syndrome?  First, we need to name it.  Sociologist Jessica Collett writes, “Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe.”  (From feeling-like-a-fraud-youre-not-alone“)

Second, we need to give women clear feedback about their gifts and qualifications.  All too often conversations around women pastors revolve around the controversy that might arise as they try to exercise their authority.  People focus on biblical arguments about gender roles and women leaders.  But women need more people to focus on their gifts and abilities, their potential, and to name that for them.  To give them a reality check and stop letting them sell themselves short.

Third, we need to stop assuming that women are not ambitious or are not interested in a position just because they show doubts or don’t seem passionate enough.  Every year the graduating students at North Park would interview with the superintendents for the Evangelical Covenant Church.  I remember watching superintendents push male students to apply for more senior positions, solo pastorates, larger churches, but when female students showed doubts or concerns about various positions, superintendents and others assumed they were not interested.  Often they were not pushed in the same way.  When search committees interview women, they often walk away because women don’t seem passionate enough in the initial interview, but often it is just the imposter syndrome getting in the way.  Women need people to push them, to advocate for them, to tell them, to tell churches, to tell anyone who will listen how qualified they are, that they are worthy of being hired.

Finally, for those of you who feel like imposters, feel encouraged.  Apparently the imposter syndrome is most common among extremely talented and capable people.


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8 comments “The Imposter Syndrome”

As the mother of an extremely gifted “imposter” I have seen these effects both personally  and professionally.  I too am an “imposter”.  Thank you for naming this and giving actions to end the cycle.   

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Hi Jo Ann
– thanks for a well-written article. I’ve come across the concept of imposter syndrome only since starting my PhD really – though now I do look back and recognise it has played a part in my career thus far as well. Thanks for sharing – I hope it gets a wide readership across the ECC as it does impact both how people see themselves and how others might see them as well, as you say.

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Hi Jo Ann

Thanks for this article.  Great points, as a psychotherapist I find myself thinking about certain psychological phenomena that may also play into the story.  There is a research which has noted on a physical level, women tend to underestimate their attractiveness while their male counterparts tend to overestimate their own value in this department. I find myself wondering if this bluster can at times also infiltrate public speaking domains.  Studies show that men express their ideas more frequently in public settings than do women.  Women tend to share more in private settings.  Women have also been noted as presenting as more sensitive in picking up nonverbal cues.  Some researchers note that there is a more complex communication grid in female brains.  Females tend to socialize toward consensus and belonging vs men who tend to seek opportunities to differentiate self from the group.  One final thought and that is the possible presence of social anxiety disorder within these highly trained women which can present with symptoms that include expectations of personal perfectionism and an internal climate that can include critical self talk.  These variables may impair her capacity to risk judgement and possible rejection. Students in gifted programs have been noted to be more intense emotionally as their intellectual capacity informs the complexity of thought in this arena as well.  In conclusion, none of my references are intended to be completely descriptive of all men and all women, these qualities exist along a continuum between male and female, but some trends do seem to emerge and that is what I am hoping to communicate.  Okay brain race concluded.

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Great comments, Kerry.  This such a complex issue that shows up in so many different ways.  And I’m fairly certain social anxiety disorder was a very well hidden part of my story as well…  Often misinterpreted as depression.  So glad to “hear” your voice.

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Once again, JoAnn names something true that I have experienced without examining. Thank you.

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Thanks JoAnn – I can’t tell you how many times when I worked corporately and then in ministry that this has been true for colleagues who were interviewing for a job, a board position or ministry position. Truly being aware of this tendency and the power of naming this imposter are so important! Often we also need to remember that leadership could look different when women lead than when men do. Remind yourself as women leaders that different doesn’t mean better. Thanks so much for naming this for all of us and may we be reminded of this cropping up with each promotion or leadership opportunity that God leads us to. Women are truly called and gifted, believe it and move forward with a renewed confidence. 

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Such a necessary point of conversation, particularly in the Church. Thanks for sharing and provoking some reflection.

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There’s another form of this, too–when the woman believes she is qualified but she doesn’t believe that anyone else will believe it!

A secular book I’ve read recently that speaks to how to deal with impostor syndrome in our own lives is Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.  I’ve been ruminating on the idea that having been given the right to become children of God implicates a right to take up space in the world–without apologizing for it.  Even Jesus in his sacrifice chose to lay down his life; it was not taken from him.  He did not shrink into death.    When we think of the biblical truths of co-regency and co-heirs, of purpose and calling, none of us should shrink from living into those very high truths.

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