Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Imposter Syndrome and Other Untreatable Conditions

Passed along by my friend, Emily Hendrix,
this illustrates, for me, the struggle many of us face.
Does it help to know there is a name for your condition? Sometimes.

The Frustration of Undiagnosed Symptoms
Over the past few years, I have experienced a particular set of symptoms that strikes, inconveniently, for only between twenty-four and forty-eight hours in duration. Thankfully, I am debilitated by it for only about twelve of those hours. And whereas it had been happening more frequently, the increased severity of each attack has accompanied an increased interval between episodes. Still, there is a growing frustration since the average time between requesting and receiving an appointment with anyone in the medical community here in the remote mountains of northern California is between two and three weeks. So, attempting to diagnose what might have been happening a fortnight ago has proved to be an elusive objective.

Am I worried about what it might be? To some extent, yes. Certainly, of the seventeen or so potential diseases suggested by our friends at WebMD, MedLine, and the Symptom Checker on the Mayo Clinic’s site, none would be particularly welcome diagnoses. But when compared with the utter lack of diagnosis, at least there would be some comfort in knowing what treatment to pursue, or even that treatment were impossible. In fact, among my many conversations with the sick and dying, I have found ample testimony to this reality: it can be greatly liberating to know that there is nothing you are supposed to be doing about your disease, other than functioning the best you can, while you can, whenever you can.

Sometimes we feel like an imposter,
just because we don't quite measure up
to our perceptions of others.
The Freedom in Naming the Illness
Whatever frustrations I am experiencing regarding my physical health, they have until recently paled in comparison with certain aspects of my mental health. But there has been recent improvement on that front. Of course, we do face the same kinds of frustrations in seeking psychological diagnosis and treatment as we face in trying to see a physician around here. And actually the biggest element in the improvement has been the ability, finally, to name the greatest part of my struggle. In fact, I have found that many write on the subject, especially in regard to those of us pursuing advanced academic degrees. It apparently afflicts doctoral students the worst, not least because we are pursuing what many would call a “terminal” degree. (Though in my case, with a second doctorate still on the horizon…maybe I should call mine merely a “hospice-consult” degree.)

In any case, I strongly identify with what has been labeled “The Imposter Syndrome.” In short, I have allowed myself to vacillate between two aspects of pride. At times, I do overestimate the value of some of my abilities. That mode is actually helpful when called to intervene in crisis and trauma—an intercessor’s confidence is indispensible to those in need. More often, though, I underestimate my value as a person while simultaneously overestimating the eventual reaction people will have “once they realize who I really am.” The nightmare of being “discovered” persists despite the fact that I practice authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability almost constantly, and frequently annoyingly. Not only do I strongly recommend this to others, I sometimes enjoy the shock others experience when I pursue “playing with all the cards face-up on the table.” Not everyone wants to know every thought, every struggle, nor even every victory I experience. But if, in their discomfort with what I choose to share, they are encouraged to live their lives more openly, “being who they are,” then I still feel that even the worst of my “over-sharing” is a benefit to them (fulfilling the spirit and letter of Ephesians 4:29, which has long been a goal of mine).

To sum up, knowing that there is a name for this neurosis means that others experience it, too. It also helps to read the reflections of others so afflicted. The best treatment I have found is to allow myself to say aloud, “This is who I am.” Not to indulge my pride and hold myself in higher esteem than is appropriate, but neither to indulge my pride—just the same—and hold myself in lower esteem than is appropriate. Pride involves too much self-esteem just as much as too little. O, to be Goldilocks! and know what qualifies as being “just right.” But I feel I am getting there.

Even Greater Freedom in Naming My Faith
Now, about the physical disease, whatever it ends up being, about which I would ask you to pray.

You may have noticed that I did not name the symptoms I am experiencing. That is a result of the Pavlovian behavior reinforcement that causes me to wince at even the thought of asking fellow Christians to pray specifically and intelligently for any particular need. If you have never asked for prayer in a public worship service, or even a small study group, then you might be unfamiliar with the pattern. In short, any reassuring follow-up (that would later suggest that people actually had been praying for you) is extremely rare in comparison with experiencing the line that may form or even encircle you after the meeting in which you shared. These are not, generally, formed by people seeking to pray with you in that moment. No, these primarily include the amateur diagnosticians who recognize one or some of your symptoms as having some resemblance to those experienced by their friend or family member. What most often follows is a prescription to engage in and/or avoid whatever treatments or therapies did or did not restore their acquaintance to health. Still, this is far preferable to the gloomy prognosticians who recognize in your symptoms the path to dire consequences that befell their friend or family member. They seem unable to restrain themselves from describing in detail these consequences, whether they involve catastrophic dysfunction, cruel disfigurement, or culmination in death.

What does that have to do with the imposter syndrome? Plenty. Because the identity crisis within Christendom centers on this very issue. Many nominal Christians (i.e., those who claim the title of being “a Christian”) worry, and rightly so, about whether they really are a Christian—especially since there are so many competing definitions of what qualifies one to make such a claim. Usually, the solution to these existential doubts is offered by some well-meaning (or rabidly proselytizing) Christian or other—“If you were attending ‘The (Right) Church,’ then you would not be worried about being ‘A (Right) Christian.’” The correctness of any particular branch of Christianity’s vine, though, is variably defined, depending upon the venue. For some, the right church is a self-help society. Others see their purpose in being a political-action committee, or a moral-crusading cultural influence. I gravitate toward fellowshipping where there is a categorically-oriented doctrinal examination being pursued by a cadre of religious philosophers. But none of this means “we are the right church for you,” much less that you will be “A Right Christian” by attending with us.

So, what does make a church a church, and a Christian a Christian? At the risk of oversimplifying, let me suggest that at its core, no matter what accessorizing any Christian or church may choose as their particular style of “dressing-up” the gospel, we are called to be in a relationship with God through Christ. And if we claim to have a relationship, then we should be most clearly notable in our communication—our constant conversation within the most important relationship we will ever have. Whatever other “imposter” issues I may have, I have no problem, nor lack of confidence in saying, “I am a Christian.” How do I know? I converse with God. I do not merely talk about, nor only to God. But I engage in a dialogue that is enhanced by careful study of God’s word, illuminated as He has promised by His Holy Spirit, and made possible because of the atonement provided through the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Jesus Christ.

So, if you struggle with the imposter syndrome with regard to your identification as a Christian, simply ask yourself, “How is the conversation going?” (And…when someone asks you to pray for them, remember that they usually mean for you to take up the matter in conversation with God.)


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing so vulnerably. Hugs.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

You're welcome, and thanks for the comment, too...Unknown. :)

Unknown said...

The comment was from me, Karyn Sorenson. Don't know why it has me hidden!!

Jim Polensky said...

Thank you brother for your insights and logic. It is simple, yet we make it complex, when we pray for other or talk about prayer. We are so wrapped up in what we do that we forget that Jesus came for relationship with the Father, not to just improve what we do. Our actions come forth out of the relationship and thus His understanding when we fail. Blessings to you brother and I will be praying for you.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks, Jim. I greatly appreciate the comment and the prayer support!

Read Across America at Burney Elementary School: A Seussian Story

First grade teacher Ginny Casaurang leads her students in an exercise to sort real and imaginary words into two lists as they await their ...