Imposter Syndrome and the Cross-cultural Worker

by Craig Thompson on August 31, 2020

When I was a young elementary-school student, one of the highlights of my year was going to the store with a teacher-mandated list in hand to buy classroom supplies. Not only was there the possibilities inherent in blank tablets of paper, there was the just-oozing-with-creativity box of brand new Crayola Crayons. Not off-brand crayons, mind you, not last year’s crayons (with black nowhere to be found). No, I’m talking about the real deal, with sharp edges and their paper sleeves still crisply intact.

Every child is a budding Rembrandt when in possession of a new box of crayons (even if it’s not the coveted box of 120 with the built-in sharpener).

Those days are long gone for me. Now it’s more about digging into an old ice-cream bucket of crayons, many of them broken or missing their names. But, in spite of that, coloring is something I can still do.

For example, there was the time when we returned from the field and we were handed crayons and asked to draw a picture of what reentry looked like to us. My drawing was of me leading a group of other stick figures (my family) on an unfinished bridge over choppy water. One fellow returnee’s picture was of him pushing with much effort against an immovable stone wall. It was a great activity, as our pictures led to meaningful discussions about the transitions we were in.

Drawing can be good therapy, and cross-cultural workers aren’t the only ones who know that to be true.

In Inside Higher Ed, Irina Popescu writes about a drawing exercise that she gives to her college students on the first day of class. She asks them to draw a picture of their “imposter monster,” the ugly creature that tells them they don’t belong in college, that “lies in judgment,” reminding them that they’re not enough. When she first tried this, she was surprised at how seriously the students took the exercise, creating “careful representations of very real, frightening monsters.”

“Some monsters had three eyes,” she writes. “Others were family members whom students made into red-eyed ghosts. Others were ugly self-portraits of the students themselves.”

Imposter syndrome is alive and well in academe. It is alive and well among cross-cultural workers, too. Popescu was inspired to give this assignment because of the inadequacies she herself feels as a professor who’s a woman, a mother, someone who grew up poor, an immigrant. In your identity serving cross-culturally, what factors do you have in your life that feeds your imposter monster?

Are you too young? Are you too old? Are you single? Do you have too many children? Are you childless? Do you think you’re failing your family? Is it because you’re a female? Is your skin color wrong? Is your support lacking? Your faith? Are your language-learning skills not enough? Are your strategies coming up empty? Are you struggling with the culture? Are you homesick? Do you need more education? Are you unable to perfectly fulfill all your roles? Are you fearful of taking on more? Do you feel inadequate in the face of all the needs around you? Do you fall short of the biographies that have been your inspiration?

And all the while, do those around you seem to be doing just fine . . . no, not just fine, wonderfully well?

What’s the solution? Perhaps you’ve heard this common advice: Fake it till you make it. It sounds great. It rhymes! And it must work because so many people recommend it.

Fake it till you make it.

Um . . . let’s not do that. Let’s not put on smiles just to show our supporters that we’re always happy. Let’s stop nodding our heads so that others think we can speak their language. Let’s not say we’re “excellent,” “amazing,” and “perfect” when we’re far from it. Let’s not think we have to show the locals that we have it all figured out. Let’s not take on more than we can handle in order to impress someone else. Let’s quit imitating another’s life because they seem to be more successful than we are. Let’s not distrust others to the point that we can’t share the truth with them and possibly invite their truth in return. Let’s not act as if we know so much that we have no need to ask questions. Let’s not turn down help because we want to look as if we’ve got it all under control.

If you feel like an imposter, you’re not alone. We’re all, to a certain extent, in over our heads. And acting otherwise doesn’t make you less of an imposter. It makes you more of one. It’s funny how we’ve convinced ourselves that faking it is such a positive thing. Change the wording and here’s how it sounds:

Let’s pretend. Let’s bluff. Let’s lie. Let’s exaggerate. Let’s counterfeit. Let’s con. Let’s fool. Let’s trick. Let’s mislead. Let’s put on an act. Let’s wear a disguise. Will that really lead us where we want to go?

Rather, there’s another way, one that we’re familiar with, though we tend to forget it. It’s counter to much of the culture that surrounds us, but it’s part of a better culture that we aspire to, one that tells us to admit our weakness as a way to lay hold of strength. We’ve heard it before, but sometimes it helps to hear it from new, sometimes unlikely, sources.

Take, for instance, Dr. Francis Collins. He’s the former leader of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the NIH (making him Dr. Anthony Fauci’s boss). He’s the winner of this years $1.3 million Templeton Prize. And he’s a Christian. This past March, The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner asked Collins how his faith has changed over the years. He answered,

I think I’ve also arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life’s struggles. It took me awhile, I think—that sense that God is sufficient and that I don’t have to be strong in every circumstance.

One of my great puzzles when I first became a Christian is that verse, “My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” That was so completely upside down for me. Weakness? And now I embrace that with the fullness of everything around me when I’m realizing that my strength is inadequate, whether it’s coronavirus or some family crisis, God’s strength is always sufficient. That is a such a great comfort, but it took me a long time to get to the point of really owning that one.

And here are those words of Paul:

[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NIV)

Like Collins, let’s own that one, too.

(Irina Popescu, “Teaching through Imposter Monsters,” Inside Higher Ed, February 4, 2020; Peter Wehner, “NIH Director: ‘We’re on an Exponential Curve,'” The Atlantic, March 17, 2020)

[photo: “crayons,” by Matt Wengerd, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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