In the 1961 film, The Great Impostor, Tony Curtis plays a bright young man “who hasn’t the patience for the normal way of advancement.” Based on a true story, Curtis’ character finds that people rarely question you if your papers are in order. He becomes a marine, a monk, a surgeon onboard a Canadian Warship, and a prison warden. This scenario was lived out again by Barry Bremen, nicknamed, The Late Great Impostor; a novelty-goods salesman who achieved a kind of flash celebrity in the 1980s as an impostor who slipped past security to shag fly balls in the major leagues, shoot baskets in the NBA and accept somebody else’s Emmy award on national television, all for the thrill of being someone he was not. What is it that is so attractive about being someone other than who we really are?
A psychiatric diagnosis
This phenomenon was documented in a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called “The Impostor Phenomenon among High Achieving Women” (1978). The impostor syndrome is described as a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with imposter syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds, and that they must therefore deceive others into thinking that they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
The impostor in all of us
The truth is, we all would probably rather be someone else. We all pretend in one way or another. We scream, albeit silently, “I just want to be someone who matters. I just want to be someone others can see. I don’t want to be invisible.” We all want to be more than who we really are.
The truth for me, is that sometimes I just want to be Princess Kate. I am not going to lie. Her life seems so much more important, so much more fun, and so much more intriguing than the day to day monotony of my life. Being a princess would make me feel like I have meaning and value, like I know what I’m doing and that people might like me for a change. Those precise feelings explain why I keep every hand written note of encouragement, why I favorite every tweet that expresses thankfulness for something I’ve said, and why I file away all the email I’ve received thanking me or praising me for a job well done. At some level, I need to be reminded of my value and worth in others’ eyes.
While it seems that everyone wants to play act, Christians seem to be particularly skilled at playing the impostor. It is exactly what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. When God created them, they were “naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). However, once they sinned, they began to hide. They became aware of their nakedness and “sewed fig leaves together” (Genesis 3:7). Rather than being fully transparent, they were ashamed and began to withhold things from each other and from God. And we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.
An impostor alternative
From the findings of the original study the following remedy was formulated. “Women who have used charm and/or intellectual flattery to gain approval from authority figures should spend time on increasing awareness of those times when she is being phony – when she does or says something she does not want to in the hope of gaining approval. She is encouraged to risk ‘being herself’ and seeing what happens. Usually the expected catastrophic expectations do not occur. Also, by eliminating approval-getting behaviors, the woman can begin to accept compliments from others regarding her intelligence as being ‘real’ and can internalize the external reinforcement she does receive. In the course of therapy, these clients are also encouraged to seek out people who will support them in their struggle to be authentic and not to depend on those who would be threatened by their abilities and achievements.” This is fascinating because it sounds like the gospel! Risk being yourself. Accept who you really are. Seek out authentic community. Don’t depend on others for your self worth.
Author and priest Brennan Manning insightfully commented on this internal struggle in his book Abba’s Child: “God weeps over us when shame and self-hatred immobilize us. Yet as soon as we lose our nerve about ourselves, we take cover. Adam and Eve hid, and we all, in one way or another, have used them as role models. Why? Because we do not like what we see. It is uncomfortable – intolerable – to confront our true selves. Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, explains: “And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing. We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public. And in time we may even come to forget that we are hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like. But God loves who we really are— whether we like it or not. God calls us, as He did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual makeup can render us more presentable to Him.” And that my friends, is the good news of the gospel! Lori is Director of Care Ministries and Women’s Support at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. She blogs regularly at lorileighharding.blogspot.com.