How to Thrive When You Feel Like a Phony

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While some people believe the secret to succeeding when you don’t feel qualified is just to fake it, humility calls us to assess ourselves honestly and to act accordingly. As part of our series In Over Your Head, Charity Singleton Craig discusses biblical wisdom to help you thrive.

The summer after I turned twenty-one, I drove to Maine between my junior and senior years of college to become the director of a summer outreach program called Coastal Ministries. I had experienced a rocky summer with them the year before; somehow I survived. The ministry was young, but the vision strong. So they asked me to come back and be the leader.

When I arrived, I realized the job was too big for me. Churches in the area were supposed to have recruited a team for me. They found no one. Several pastors were to play an advisory role. They were hoping I knew what to do. With the whole summer ahead of me, and my twenty-one-year-old self drowning in the weight of responsibility, I did something I had rarely done up to that point: I quit.

In the years that followed, I repeated that cycle of becoming passionate about a cause or company, throwing myself into the work, and then quitting to avoid failure. In my first ten years out of college, I held more than ten jobs none lasting more than two years. I was a newspaper reporter, a weekend housekeeper, a corporate proofreader, a medical coder, a church secretary, an adjunct business college professor, a residence supervisor, a children’s ministry director, a full-time graduate student, and a library clerk. I lived in seven different cities and moved back in with my parents three different times while I was transitioning from one career to the next. I was grasping to find my place vocationally. Of course, from the outside it all looked a little different. In a society that venerates upward mobility, my frequent moves seemed like success, like I was following my dreams and taking advantage of new opportunities.

But I knew the truth. For all those years I was just in over my head.

Or was I?

Imposters Never Measure Up

Psychologists have a word for people who feel like they never measure up to the work they’ve been given. “Imposter syndrome” was first coined in the late 1970s to describe high-achieving women who continued to feel they were actually not very intelligent and had just fooled everyone. In a 2013 Pacific Standard article, Ann Friedman describes imposter syndrome this way:

… a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, “It might just be me but....” or “Not sure I know what I’m talking about....” If you’re pressed to step outside yourself and try to adopt an outsider’s perspective, maybe you can articulate what it is you feel you lack—or admit that you have the same concrete skill set as your coworkers of similar standing. But most of the time, the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.

While many of the well-known people who have confessed symptoms of imposter syndrome are women—Yahoo’s Cheryl Sandberg, actress and comedian Tina Fey, poet Maya Angelou—anyone who vacillates between outward confidence and inward self-doubt is likely stuck in the mire of feeling like a fraud.

Just Not Ready

But that doesn’t mean all people who looks at their circumstances and feel overwhelmed or under-qualified are suffering from an inaccurate view of themselves. In February 2015, when Jon Stewart stepped down as host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, thousands of fans suggested that actress and comedian Jessica Williams, a correspondent on the show, should be promoted as his replacement. When Williams demurred on Twitter, saying she was “extremely under-qualified for the job,” Billfold’s Ester Bloom suggested Williams was suffering from imposter syndrome. As often happens in cases of public disagreement, a brawl ensued on Twitter, issues of race and gender also emerged, and eventually, Bloom issued an apology. In an analysis of the circumstances and exchange, Slate’s L.V. Anderson summarized this way:

Her comments raise a broader point that's too often lost in a media landscape that fetishizes skyrocketing young careers more than ever: It’s perfectly OK for young people to feel like they need more time to learn how to do something.

In fact, that’s the other side of imposter syndrome, the characteristic that many of us would do well to foster in our lives and careers: humility. While false humility may actually try to benefit from self-deprecation (in another Slate article, Katy Waldman suggests that sometimes people become a “phony phony” to get “brownie points for being humble”) true humility is careful not to assume too much of oneself; true humility knows the limits of knowledge and ability.

Hiring for Humility

True humility is what CEOs like Luke Kanies, the chief executive of up-and-coming enterprise startup Puppet Labs, looks for when hiring members of his team. But in doing so, he has learned to expect the imposter syndrome that inevitably follows, the feeling his team members have that they don’t know what they are doing.

"Everyone thinks they suck at their job. Everyone has Impostor Syndrome,” Kanies told Business Insider in a recent interview. “Humility is one of things we hire pretty effectively for here. That encourages Impostor Syndrome.”

But he also wants to help himself and his employees deal with it, and he does that by talking about it. "Nearly everyone around you goes ... 'you too?' Literally, part of our onboarding is, 'Here's how to learn about Impostor Syndrome and here's how to help manage it,’" he said in the interview.

Remembering How Far You’ve Come

Being humble and talking about shortcomings sounds quite different from the often-suggested strategy of “fake it until you become it.” In a recent Fast Company article called “7 Ways to Fake Credibility to Build Your Confidence,” the author writes, “Whether you're new to a job you don't feel quite ready for, or need to prove you're prepared to take on a big promotion, sometimes you're forced to fake it. Self-delusion—tricking yourself into feeling more competent than you really are—is often productive, research shows.” The article suggests strategies for "faking it" such as speaking with authority and standing up straight and using visual cues as prompts in important presentations.

But the Fast Company article suggests that being true to one’s self and working with others who know more or have complementary strengths also can imbue confidence. As well, the article says, “When you’re feeling like a fraud, remember how far you’ve come.” That sounds more like the Apostle Paul than Don Draper.

Biblical Wisdom for Phonies

In fact, the Bible contains much wisdom for those of us who are in over our heads or just feel like it. With honesty, I can rightly assess myself and my situation. With humility, I can ask for help when I need it and admit when I was wrong. Sometimes that might mean quitting, but often it will mean staying and working through the difficulty. With love, I can use my position to help others, not just myself. My coworkers might feel like they are in over their heads, too. Together we can thrive. And with faith, I remember how God has provided for me in the past and will continue to lead me into the future. I can push up for air knowing God’s on my side.

My decade of moving to different cities and starting and quitting multiple jobs was followed by another decade of mostly staying put, of living in the same city and the working at the same job. It also happened to be a decade of personal trials and health crises. I sometimes felt in over my head at work, but I often felt in over my head in the rest of my life.

Seeing God’s hand at work in my life in those difficulties, witnessing how he pulled me up for air again and again, taught me the best lesson for survival when I'm in over my head: just hold on.