Imposter Syndrome

Once upon a time, I was considered a subject matter expert on issues surrounding homelessness.

I would lecture at universities. I’ve spoken to crowds of 10,000 people, taught police departments, consulted with denominations, and had waged war with a mid-sized city over homeless policy, and won.

There were articles about my work in Time magazine. The Christian Century. The Huffington Post. I had been interviewed on NPR Morning Edition. Al Jazeera. Fox News. My words had appeared in The Washington Post, as well as Ethics Daily and Sojourners, and other places I forget.

And I had years of front-line experience working with and among people experiencing homelessness. I’m not telling you any of this to impress you, but rather to impress upon you that when it came to issues around homelessness, I had ample evidence that I knew what I was talking about.

But none of that would stop the dream.

The dream was a recurring one that began to show up sometime in my sixth year of that work. I was getting invitations to write and speak at ever-larger events and platforms. I was invited that year to lecture at the NC Episcopalian Diocese Clergy Retreat. Basically, the then-Bishop of NC (who, incidentally, is now the Presiding Bishop of the whole freakin’ Episcopal Church) pulled every Episcopalian Priest in the state into a room and made them listen to me for three days.

Every person in that room knew more than I did about everything except homelessness. I am a very informal Mennonite, and they were all very formal and highly educated Episcopalians. They wouldn’t even let me be the guy who handed out their bulletins at the back of the church without some additional training.

The dreams began about six weeks before the retreat, and they still show up from time to time. The scene is always the same: The boardroom at the Episcopal Church across the street from the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh, NC.

It’s a beautiful room – I’ve been in it many times – and there is dark furniture and a long polished table and book-lined walls and large windows and heavy paneled double doors. And in the dream, I am standing at one end of the table, on the end furthest from the doors, and all around the table are folks – men, women, Black, white – wearing clerical collars, and I’m presenting… something. Whatever it is, they are listening and taking notes, and it seems to be going well.

Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a silver-haired white man in full clerical regalia strides two steps into the room, points at me, and roars, “Get him out of here!”. Suddenly, the people who had been listening to me leap up and drag me out in the hall, and then they go back into the room and shut the door.

Subtle, huh?

That feeling – the one that says despite all the evidence that says you actually do know what you are doing, you still feel like you are in over your head, and surely someone will notice and point it out to the world? They call that imposter syndrome. And I don’t think it ever goes away. At least, it never has for me.

There is probably a lot of social conditioning that goes into this. I do happen to know many silver-haired white men who wear clerical garb, and they seldom seem to exhibit signs of imposter syndrome. We should all pray to have the confidence of a mediocre white man. Having grown up economically poor, I absolutely have unresolved issues around class and status that things like wealthy churches exacerbate.

When we show up, we bring more than ourselves with us. I bring generations of working-class stigma and prejudice into any room I show up in, and no amount of outside praise takes that away.

These days, I write. A lot. Around 30,000 words most months. I have thousands of newsletter and blog subscribers. People pay money to make sure I can keep doing that. In addition to my writing for the web, I’ve been published in magazines, newspapers, and in books. I’m pretty good at this.

And yet, the other day when a friend introduced me to someone as a writer, I found myself self-deprecating, minimizing, doing the Zoom-equivalent of kicking the ground and saying “aww shucks”.

“I have a little blog”, I told them. Gone were the newsletter subscribers. Gone were the publishing clips. Gone were the books, the newspaper articles. Gone were the 20 years of effort that led to any of this.

I have a little blog.

My friend corrected me, said I have an amazing blog, and that she reads it daily.

Imposter syndrome. I just couldn’t even let her call me a writer.

Despite the fact that I, you know, write. A lot. And pretty well. (I wasn’t going to put that last sentence, because it felt braggy. Imposter syndrome even here.)

I don’t know what you do about it, but I know I’m not the only one. I still have the dream, but less often now – probably because I’m dealing with fewer old white dudes in positions of power. But that doesn’t mean I’ve gotten over it. Because I haven’t.

But I have gotten better at being willing to believe I’m wrong. That the evidence might be right. That I may actually be as good at something as other people say I am.

And that maybe I belong at that damned table after all.

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