How to Overcome “Impostor Syndrome” to Be a Better Jewish Leader

Inside Leadership

How to Overcome “Impostor Syndrome” to Be a Better Jewish Leader

White paper airplanes flying in formation behind a red paper airplane

At some point in our educational, professional, and even our personal lives, we may feel we are undeserving of our level of success or belonging with our peers or colleagues, often due to a hyperinflation of own shortcomings. Such a scenario is sometimes called “impostor syndrome,” and it can often be debilitating to our work as leaders. 

According to Kelifern Pomeranz, Psy.D., CST, “Impostor syndrome often occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability. The underlying fear is that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

Impostor syndrome exploits the part of the brain that fosters insecurity, telling us not only that we are inferior to others in our field of work or study, but also that we don’t even deserve to be among them in the first place. That voice, while loud, is usually wrong – and we don’t have to let it determine how successful we can be. 

Here are three techniques to help you stop impostor syndrome and be a better Jewish leader.

1. Know your divine potential.

One of the core tenets of Judaism is that we are all b’tzelem Elohim (created in the image of God). Doctrinally, Jews believe that our intrinsic nature is inspired by the sacred and the eternal – which is a pretty big deal. Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, inhis book Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), said, “If a person strives…to do what is in their power, God will aid them to accomplish what is beyond their power.”

Because Judaism posits that we are God’s partners in creation, we can quell our impostor syndrome by reinforcing that we are capable of anything to which we set our minds. We must remember that we’ve arrived where we are as leaders not out of sheer coincidence but because of hard work and devotion to the tasks at hand. We also should keep in mind that we are not only as capable, smart, and worthy as our peers and colleagues, but, if we believe it, we also are capable of exceeding our most grand aspirations.

2. Focus on the positive.

Most of us have a natural inclination to focus on others’ criticism of us, rather than their praise. One hundred people can tell us we’re awesome, but the moment one person tells us we aren’t, we choose to believe them over everyone else, reinforcing our own negative self-perception. As Katherine Hawley, Ph.D., explains:

People who struggle with impostor syndrome place too much trust in their own low opinion of their actions and achievements. Yet at the same time, they are too distrustful of other people’s good opinions, preferring to see these as evidence of false reassurance or poor judgement.

Additionally, criticism has more impact than praise. It hits harder, digs deeper, and lasts longer in our minds and hearts. (It’s the reason, too, I can’t tell you how many gold stars I received in second grade, but I can tell you exactlyhow I felt the one time my teacher disciplined me in the lunch line). 

However, we can overcome this inclination by conditioning ourselves to take praise more personally than criticism. The next time someone compliments you or your work, don’t downplay or shrug off what they say; let it sink in. Believe what they say and express your appreciation to them for acknowledging your awesomeness. Challenge yourself to simply say “Thank you!” whenever you receive praise; eventually you’ll condition yourself to believe it!

Inversely, when someone criticizes you, either view it as an extension of that person’s own insecurity (if given maliciously) or acknowledge it and view it as an opportunity for potential improvement (if given constructively). 

3. Remember: You’re among great company.

Two of my favorite anecdotes about impostor syndrome come from two brilliant Jewish authors, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Neil Gaiman.

“No matter how old you are, it always seems you’re never quite old enough to be a rabbi,” Rabbi Kushner muses in his book I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego. “No matter how devout, you’re never pious enough. Tough job, the rabbi thing.” 

If someone as insightful, scholarly, and spiritually disciplined as Rabbi Kushner can push through his insecurities and become a beacon of success, there’s no reason we can’t do the same. Whether our goal is to become a clergy member or to become more audaciously hospitable leadersin our communities, we are stronger than the voices that tell us we aren’t good enough.

Likewise, Neil Gaiman once recounted on his blogthat after meeting another famous Neil (Armstrong), he realized they shared occasional feelings of inadequacy despite their accomplishments, knowledge that made Gaiman feel better. “Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe everyone did,” he said. “Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.” 

Overall, I try my best to incorporate Gaiman’s philosophy in my everyday life. I do the best I can as a writer, as a man, and as a Jew, and I consistently remind myself that I am worthy of everything I’ve achieved. If you’re reading this post and doubting how much you deserve your success, remember that a person who thought just like you landed on the moon; imagine, therefore, what you are capable of achieving.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in the 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, OH, he holds a degree in creative writing and film studies. He grew up at Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church in Hamilton, OH, and converted to Judaism at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Named one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” Chris is passionate about Jewish studies, cinema, health and fitness, and bisexual advocacy in the LGBTQ+ community.

Chris Harrison

Published: 3/04/2019

Categories: Strengthening Congregations
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