H. Wallace Goddard & Barbara Keil
A new phrase has entered our conversations: Imposter Syndrome.
“Imposter syndrome is a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals. These individuals cannot internalize their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work, despite verifiable and objective evidence of their successfulness.” (National Library of Medicine website)
I wonder if there is a form of “Spiritual Imposter Syndrome” present in many Latter-day Saints. We are earnest saints, going to church, fulfilling our callings, and trying to live the principles of the gospel. We likely are seen by others in our wards or branches as sincerely being on the road of discipleship. Yet, many of us still have some level of anxiety about not doing enough or being enough. Perhaps we can’t get past mistakes we have made along the way or weaknesses we continue to struggle with. Maybe we doubt we are “celestial material” and are apprehensive about our chances of making it back to God’s presence.
Any of us who struggle with Spiritual Imposter Syndrome feel inadequate, which drains us of the joy of the gospel. Instead of the gospel being Good News to us, it might feel exhausting and condemning.
There is a doctrinal reality that seems to validate such perceptions. “Because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). Those are the sobering words from the brother of Jared.
Because of our fallen nature, we know that we fail often as disciples in spite of earnest efforts. Frequently we are not who we hope and strive to be. We put on nice smiles and our Sunday best clothes to go to church, but in our hearts, we know that we regularly try to cover our sins, gratify our pride, judge harshly, give grudgingly, and work furiously to manipulate the people around us (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:37). We know we are spiritual imposters, and we worry about being found out.
In spite of this painful truth about our condition in mortality, the Lord offers hopeful counsel and reassurance: “Nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours” (Doctrine and Covenants 78:18).
Is God serious? How can we be of good cheer when we recognize that we are spiritual imposters? How can we feel reassured when we know that we continually fall short?
A popular humanistic way of dealing with the discomfort of fallenness is to look within ourselves for a solution. One option is to try to convince ourselves that we are enough. We work on our self-esteem and rationalize our weaknesses. Another option is to energetically work to “fix” ourselves. We dive into accomplishing a checklist of spiritual practices so that hopefully we can redeem ourselves.
The problem is that neither option works. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves we are enough or furiously work on redeeming ourselves, in the end, a “natural man” or “natural woman” on their own remains an enemy to God. “The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever” (Mosiah 3:19).
How do we reconcile our continuing sense that we are spiritual imposters with His counsel to be of good cheer? It just doesn’t make sense!
Except…. God lovingly offers us a path that will actually be effective!
. . . unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added)
God offers us a partnership with the only One who was not an imposter—the only One who actually was perfect! We turn to Him. We submit to Him. We fully accept Him into our lives. We are able to experience our worth through the lens of His love. We are “enough” because we are His. We trust that we will be redeemed by His power.
Our only hope is to replace our sense of being a spiritual imposter with the confidence of knowing we are bound to Jesus who offers up His own perfection and atonement on our behalf.
Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. (Doctrine and Covenants 45:3-5)
Ammon knew exactly how to deal with Spiritual Imposter Syndrome. He sets the example for us.
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever. (Alma 26:12)
When we surrender all pretense of spiritual self-sufficiency and throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace (2 Nephi 2:8), He pays our debts, mends our souls, bestows glory on us, and purchases us a place among the noble and great ones. We sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:19).
The central message of all scripture is that the anxiety of Spiritual Imposter Syndrome has no place in the lives of disciples. The central message of all scripture is to turn to Jesus, to follow and partner with Him, so that we can be fully peaceful in His love and His redemptiveness.
Invitation: The holidays are a time we think about families. Sometimes we wish we knew how to strengthen our families. If you are interested in applying gospel principles and research discoveries to having greater happiness, a better marriage, and more effective parenting, get a copy of my new book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships—available at Deseret Book or Amazon. You might also get one for a friend!