The Impostor

Rev. Deanna Hayden is lead pastor at the Southwood Church of the Nazarene in Raytown, Mo. Deanna shares a helpful perspective about identifying and overcoming thoughts of self-doubt. 


“I’m thinking of withdrawing my name.” It’s what I confessed to my high school teacher, just a couple of weeks before graduation. I was supposed to be one of about 10 valedictorians who were receiving the honor as a result of getting straight A’s through four years of high school. But you know those AP classes? Several of the other valedictorians had taken lots of them, and I’d only taken two. Because of that, I was thinking I didn’t really deserve to receive the honor and considered just refusing it. My teacher, being the wise man he was, talked me out of that.

I hadn’t thought about that day in over 20 years.

About six years ago, shortly after I was elected the lead pastor of the beautiful congregation I serve now, I sat in my study in prayer. And a thought came to me: I have just tricked all these people into thinking I could be the pastor of this church. I tricked them into voting for me. How did I do that? I felt like an impostor, and wondered who would find out. It’s a thought that has presented itself to me in various forms over the years.

Then, a little over a year ago, I began the process of applying for a PhD program. I told myself—and continue to tell myself—it’s because I felt like God invited me to do it (which is true); not because I think I’m smart enough for it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I said something of that effect to some colleagues. At this moment, I’m in Manchester, England for two weeks as I begin my studies for the program. And although I’m gaining confidence, the thought still comes to mind.

To be honest, it’s a bit embarrassing to put all this out there. I wonder if I do it partly to receive affirmation. It’s kind of a fear I suppose, and part of the reason it’s taken me so long to post this. I don’t want that to be a motivator, but I imagine it might be.

Mostly, I’m making myself say all this because I’m learning how incredibly common it is. Last year, I came across an article called the Confidence Gap. It was about the difference in confidence levels between men and women. In it, a couple of rather prestigious businesswomen confessed to feeling like an impostor in their jobs. It was like the article read my mind, and I mentioned it to my husband, Ben. He casually said, “Oh yeah, that’s called the Impostor Syndrome. It’s common in highly intelligent women. I’ve got a ton of articles on it.” After giving him a narrow-eyed glare for not innately knowing my deepest fears already and so never telling me this before, I asked if he would please share the articles with me.

As I read, I learned this is a phenomenon which studies have shown to be prominent in successful women. It shows itself when a woman accomplishes something significant and then immediately attributes the success to an outside factor. Something outside of her control was the reason for her achievement, she thinks, because she couldn’t have otherwise done this. As a scientific study, there’s much more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.

I’ve discovered a couple of helpful things since then. First, this phenomenon is not exclusive to women. I’ve met several male colleagues who say they experience the same thing. Second, the more time passes, the more I’m learning to recognize these impostor-like thoughts when they come. I try to shoot them down when I see their wee, beady eyes. (That last part was a movie quote in case it sounded weird.)

So, back to why I’m saying all this. I mentioned that I’m learning how incredibly common it is. I figure, there are probably people out there like myself who have not encountered this information but do have these experiences. And it was helpful for me just to learn this is a thing. (It’s a thing. Google it.) So then I’m able to work on it.

Hopefully, as I learn to shoo away those impostor thoughts, I’ll grow in confidence. I’ll become a more confident, more genuine, more insightful pastor and student. If you are of the Christian faith, this is the part where the Holy Spirit does some miraculous refining work. I’m discovering God works really well with my self-awareness. And I hope if this is new info to you like it was to me, you’ll benefit from it too.

So back to your day, everyone. I’m sure there are things you have to achieve, you non-impostor, you. Let’s get to them!