December 15, 1998
 Playing a Role and
Staying Whole

Overcoming Impostor Feelings
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Richard pastors a Midwestern community church which he helped to found eight years ago. During this time the fledgling congregation has grown to several hundred members, and features a dynamic ministry.

Richard was a successful businessman in the community before changing his vocation to pastoral ministry. Inside he still feels more like a businessman than a pastor. Almost weekly, too, he becomes frustrated as he struggles to formulate a meaningful sermon for his people, a task that continues to seem unnatural to him. He worries that his attitude falls short of the serenity that should characterize a pastor. The fact that he has to work so hard at producing an effective sermon convinces him, too, that his faith is not as strong as it should be.

Overall, Richard still feels like a fish out of water in his pastoral identity, even after eight years of fruitful ministry. He is considering leaving the pastorate altogether, and even confessing to his congregation that he has been play-acting to a large extent these past eight years.

Ironically, his congregation is extremely pleased with his ministry, and especially with the depth of his preaching. No one seems the least bit concerned that there might be some dichotomy between his public and private images.

Sheryl is a corporation lawyer in Atlanta. Although her colleagues esteem her work, she finds it hard to reconcile her successful white-color image with her poor rural upbringing. In her self-image she still sees herself as a poor farm girl. The first in her family to finish college, let alone graduate school, she continues to feel that she is out of her element. She worries that others will see her as a fake, or that something will happen to expose her to the world as incompetent.

Betsy and Henry have dated for three years. They have a supportive, compassionate relationship. They have talked often and enthusiastically about marriage, and Henry is convinced Betsy would be ideal for him. Betsy, though, sometimes feels that she is just going through the motions in their relationship, and that worries her. There are times when she simply doesn't feel supportive of Henry, and times when the romantic sizzle doesn't seem as strong as it should be. Though on one level Betsy wants to be married, she wonders if she is really cut out for a romantic relationship. Sometimes the role seems alien to her independent nature.

Richard, Sheryl and Betsy each suffer from an attitude of self-judgment which psychologist Joan Harvey terms the "impostor phenomenon." In If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?, she describes the plight of numerous individuals who have achieved success in various areas, yet are plagued with fear that they are not truly qualified for the positions or status they have attained. They worry that others have been fooled--duped into thinking they are more capable than they really are. They attribute their success to some factor other than true ability: luck, availability, charm, personality, hard work, parental influence, tokenism or an employer's need to fill a quota. They look upon themselves as frauds, and live in fear of others' discovering their true colors.

These are people, Harvey stresses, who are not genuine impostors but are truly adept in their areas of accomplishment, yet still are obsessed with fears of being incompetent.

Roles and Ideals

One of the factors which makes us subject to impostor feelings, Harvey notes, is that we have to take on roles in life--roles that sometimes do not fit perfectly with self-images we have long held. Some find the assuming of any role painfully uncomfortable. They are so concerned with being authentic and true to their inner self, that any change in outward identity seems unnatural. An example is someone who always feels inauthentic varying their mode of dress, and so wears the same apparel for formal and informal occasions alike.

Others feel comfortable in some roles but uneasy with others, even with roles which others believe fit them quite well. This is true for each of the individuals mentioned above. They are trying to accommodate themselves to roles which they fear do not fully reflect their authentic personhood or potential. The result is a sense of fraudulence, which drains their energy and makes them doubt they are where God really wants them.

Concern among psychologists with the challenge of accommodating ourselves to roles isn't new. Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote a groundbreaking and probing book on the subject in 1957, entitled The Meaning of Persons. Tournier notes that life requires us to take on a number of "personas," or "personages," which can never perfectly reflect our true inner self. Anxiety and guilt over the fear of deceiving others often result. While Tournier does not use the term "impostor phenomenon," which was coined in the 1970s by Harvey, his concerns are similar to hers in many ways.

I doubt there are many of us who do not suffer unfairly from impostor feelings at times, particularly when we're adjusting to new roles or responsibilities. As Christians, we're especially vulnerable to feeling fraudulent at such times, given our acute awareness of the inner sinful nature and the critical need for truthfulness in everything we do. "Thou desirest truth in the inward being," David declares in Psalm 51:6 (RSV). It can seem that assuming any role forces us to appear to the world contrary to how we really are--and thus to violate the biblical requirement for thoroughgoing honesty.

Add to this the sheer number roles we have to assume in any short period of time. In the past week alone I've taken on the roles of teacher, pastor, counselor, writer, song-leader, student, husband, father, son, son-in-law, shopper, homemaker, letter-writer, customer, friend, neighbor, restaurant patron, driver, business person (negotiating for yard work), computer hack (looking into equipment needed for the ministry), musical performer (planning for a Christmas presentation by our family), and member of a congregation (sitting through a worship service)--just to mention the ones that come to mind quickly. I'm sure your situation is no different; you find yourself "automatically" assuming numerous roles not only in a typical week but in a typical day. For the sensitive, thinking Christian, this means a constant struggle to reconcile who you really are with how you must appear to others.

Adjusting Our Self-Image

Fortunately, both Harvey and Tournier have redemptive advice to offer for this struggle. Harvey stresses that we need to redefine our concept of the self. We are too inclined to think of ourselves in terms of one facet of our life or personality. "I'm a homemaker." Or, "I'm an accountant." Or, "I'm an artist." Instead, Harvey argues, we should come to see ourselves as multidimensional, or multifaceted. We need to learn to think of ourselves in terms of our total mix of roles and functions, to become comfortable identifying with any of them and with moving in and out of each of them as the situation requires. This is not a denial of our authentic self, but simply a different way of understanding what the human self actually is.

Harvey warns, too, that we must be careful not to fall into an idealized self-image as we take on different roles. Too often, when we rate ourselves as fraudulent in a certain role, we are judging ourselves by an unrealistic standard which in reality no one could live up to. The woman who, like Betsy, fears she is being unreal in a relationship because her romantic feelings vary at times, misses the fact that these feelings are never consistent. Romantic emotions always ebb and flow, even in the best relationships--even in a good marriage. The important thing is to look at the pattern of feelings over time.

Harvey also makes the helpful observation that impostor feelings are most likely to strike when we take on a new role. The shy person, for example, who decides to make a concerted effort to be more personable and assertive, will at first feel he is being less than authentic in his manner of relating to others. Yet eventually his new approach to people starts to feel natural; he begins to own his new behavior and stops feeling he is merely playing a role, just as the skills of tennis or driving a car become second nature when practiced enough.

Tournier also stresses that we need to redefine how we think of the self and what it means to be an authentic person. While we each have a distinctive inner personhood, we cannot strip away the outward personas-like peeling off the outer layers of an onion--and expect to finally discover the true inner core of the self. Indeed, our personhood is reflected through the roles which we take on, and cannot be understood apart from them. The key is to choose those personas which best reflect the individual we truly are. Tournier notes,

"We must resign ourselves to this indissoluble connection between . . . the person and its personages. For we are not only one personage throughout our lives; we are innumerable personages. At each new encounter we show ourselves different; with one friend we are the serious thinker; with another, the wag; we change our demeanor to suit each new situation. We are even many personages at once. . . .

"The tension that always exists between the person and the personage is one of the conditions of our life, and we must accept it. It is part of the nature of man--indeed, it is what makes him a man."*

The Biblical Perspective

When we turn to Scripture, we find interesting support for the conclusions that Harvey and Tournier reach, and many other helpful insights besides.

To begin with, the Scriptures stress emphatically that genuine impostors do exist, and warnings about them permeate the Bible. ("Genuine impostors?" Well, that's the limitation of our language!) Examples abound of false prophets, cagey magicians, unscrupulous rulers, and religious leaders who use the guise of spiritual power to dominate others and further their own selfish ends. The Bible minces no words in condemning those who are real impostors, and in warning us to beware of their menace.

"Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely." (Lk 20:46-47)

On a less condemning note, Scripture gives examples of individuals who, with good intentions, entertained taking on roles which were not truly suited to their individuality. David wanted with all his heart to build the temple for God. Yet God responded that he lacked the right temperament for the task, which was to await the reign of his son, Solomon (1 Chron 17:3-12, 22:6-10). The demon-possessed man from the Gerasenes whom Jesus healed longed to travel with him; Jesus, though, told him that he should return to his home town, and tell everyone there what Jesus had done for him (Lk 8:38-39).

But at the other extreme, the Bible is flooded with examples of individuals who fulfilled God's will by taking on various roles--roles which probably did not seem fully natural to them at first, and in some cases may never have. We see graphic instances of individuals who were clearly uncomfortable with the early stages of a role into which God called them. Moses and Jeremiah were both frightened of public speaking (Ex 4:10-13, Jer 1:6; terrified is probably the better word in Moses' case). Gideon suffered from such low self-esteem that he was incredulous at the angel's assertion that he was the right man to lead Israel's army against Midian (Judg 6:15). We infer from the various times that Paul exhorted Timothy not to be afraid, to rekindle his gift or to apply himself to his pastoral task, that Timothy was timid in his pastoral identity, and may well have suffered some impostor feelings--this in spite of the fact that he is set forth as the prototype of a good pastor in the New Testament! (See, for instance, 1 Tim 4:12, 4:14-15, 5:23; 2 Tim 1:7, 1:8; compare 1 Cor 16:10.)

While Moses, Jeremiah and Gideon seemed to get over their initial uneasiness as they became acclimated to their roles, Timothy apparently continued to feel insecure and needed frequent propping up from Paul. It is interesting, though, that God never allowed these men to cave in to the awkwardness they felt; it was never a reason to assume they were not qualified in God's sight to carry out the role in question.

It's in the same spirit that the New Testament exhorts us in various places to understand our gifts, and to give our closest attention to developing and using them. To do so invariably requires assuming some new roles, both as we cultivate a gift and as we apply it in new situations. The chances are good that we will experience some impostor feelings as we adjust to new roles and identities that aren't yet natural to us. Yet never does the New Testament tell us to hold back from using our gifts because of these feelings.

Rather we are told emphatically, "If our gift is preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it" (Rom 12:6-8, Phillips).

And in case there is any doubt that it is okay for us as Christians to assume different personas in different situations, there is the extreme example of Paul, who proclaimed, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor 9:22). We have evidence that Paul sometimes felt profoundly uneasy in roles he took on (1 Cor 2:3-5). While he never declared that all believers are required to go to his extreme of adapting to diverse cultural situations, his example does suggest convincingly that some modifying of our outward persona is not only permitted, but will probably be needed as we seek to realize our full potential for Christ.

Role Playing in Scripture

Of greatest interest to me personally, though, are those instances in Scripture where individuals actually did play-act in order to make a point or accomplish a goal, and fooled others in the process, yet are not presented as being out of God's will in doing so. There is the moving episode where Joseph's brothers come to him in Egypt to seek grain during a famine; for some time he doesn't let on that he is their long-abandoned sibling, but lets them assume he is merely an Egyptian official (Gen 42:1-45:15). Then there is the incident where the prophet Nathan, with a straight face, tells David a fabricated story of a rich man who has stolen a poor man's only possession--a beloved ewe lamb--as a creative technique for leading David to a point of personal brokenness over his stealing Bathsheba and arranging for the murder of her husband (2 Sam 2:1-12).

Or consider the occasion where David pretends to be insane in order to escape capture by King Achish--foaming at the mouth and scratching at a gate with his hands (1 Sam 21:12-15). Here he acts in an unquestionably deceptive manner, and we might think he had to be violating God's perfect will in doing so. Yet, intriguingly, David wrote Psalm 34 to celebrate the victory God gave him in this incident, and in that Psalm he shows no remorse for his play-acting, but implies that through it God enabled him to escape capture by a tyrant. Particularly interesting is the fact that he also declares in this psalm, "Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit" (v. 13 RSV). This would suggest that he did not think of feigning madness in this case as inconsistent with living a life free of deceit.

Of course, the lesson of the incident is not that we have a license to behave in a deceptive way toward others as our general manner of lifestyle. But the possibility is not ruled out by Scripture, either, at least in certain extreme situations where we might be dealing with a fundamentally cruel or irrational person, and our where own safety or someone else's is at stake (compare Prov 26:4-5).

But, in a more general way, we can take encouragement from David's example of feigning madness simply because it's so extreme compared to the role situations where we typically judge ourselves as fraudulent. I think this incident helps us put our own situations in a more healthy perspective, and jars us into realizing that our own "role playing" is usually mild in comparison with the level of play-acting involved in this case. And David apparently was not acting contrary to God's will.

Living Boldly

In short, we need to learn to live the Christian life courageously. On the one hand, we should examine ourselves very honestly, seeking to understand our own hearts and motives as thoroughly as possible. We should boldly ask God to do whatever is needed to purify our intentions and to make our hearts pliable before him. As we come to recognize ways in which we are clearly living in a deceptive manner, or disregarding Christ's standards, we must make the changes that are necessary.

At the same time, we need just as courageously to take bold steps to realize our potential for Christ. We should seek to understand our gifts and temperament as best as we can, strive to develop our abilities, and look for the best opportunities available for investing our gifts and developing relationships. We should accept that in this process we will probably experience some impostor feelings at times, for with personal growth invariably come some journeys through untrodden territory. The fact that we feel less than authentic in a role doesn't necessarily mean we are sinning, acting contrary to God's will, or violating our true inner self. It may simply be that we aren't living up to our own unrealistic standards. There are times when we fail to live up to our own ideals and yet fulfill God's quite well.

Even when our motives are less than perfect, we usually give God the best opportunity to purify them as we stay in motion. God's pattern for the Christian life is that we do take on some roles. Here, we need to make the best choices we can and move on. I agree with Tournier:

"Instead of turning our backs on the outside world and concentrating on our own inner life, where the true nature of the person always eludes us, we must look outward, toward the world, toward our neighbor, toward God. We must boldly undertake the formation of a personage for ourselves, seeking to form it in accordance with our sincerest convictions, so that it will express and show forth the person that we are."*

Let us take heart, too, at this time of year in remembering that God chose to become man in Jesus Christ. In doing so, God took on a role. He assumed an identity that was foreign to who he had been from the foundation of time--first in the form of a baby, and finally in the form of an adult man with all of our humanity (Heb 2:14, 4:15). As we celebrate Chirst's entrance into history at this season, may we take heart to be creative and courageous as we take steps of faith. May the fact that God became human in Christ encourage us likewise to seek those roles and situations where we may best glorify him through being the individual he has made us to be.

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This article is adapted from chapter 15 of Blaine's Overcoming Shyness (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

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