essays, Personal writing

Impostor syndrome as spiritual dilemma

Probably as many as 70% of graduate students suffer from impostor syndrome, and I am one.

According to a cursory internet search, impostor syndrome is a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”

On-Edge_Emma-Wilson_Contributing-IllustratorFor me, this fear centers almost entirely around my accomplishments as a teacher, since I am enrolled in a top program in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Persistently in classes, I wonder whether I have as much teaching experience as other students, as high quality experience, as trustworthy teacherly instincts, the same degree of love for the profession. What if they find out that I am “really” another kind of person than a teacher? Will they boot me from the program?

Another symptom of impostor syndrome is that, once we have it, no amount of external validation can diminish our sense of being a fraud; there will always be something more, or different, that we could do or have done, or that we suspect others have done.

It is useful for me to remember this second point as I look over my teaching experience, as it reminds me that if I hadn’t done what I have done, I could still manifest impostor syndrome.

After graduating from college, I spent a year co-teaching and substituting at my old high school; then, I traveled to Ecuador and taught English as a Second Language. After this, I returned to my old college and tutored writing for a year, then tutored writing at a different college for another year. These colleges were respectively private and public, so I practiced tutoring with hugely different student populations. Finally, I spent most of a year delivering special ed services and tutoring English as a Second Language at a public middle school. (A more elaborate detailing of my professional experience can be found here.)

As I revisit this experience, my mind finds every instance to tell me that I’m not a “real” teacher: after all, I only had my own classroom for one year! And it was outside the U.S., where students are much more submissive! I was never licensed by a U.S. institution! Most of my experience was tutoring experience, not teaching experience! And so on and so forth.

At the same time, I know that if I had taken a different path, impostor syndrome could still manifest:

1*FmXgSO0r693v1JED5mduHwSuppose that instead of majoring in English as an undergrad, I had majored in Education and gotten my teacher certification. Suppose that then, I had taught at a public U.S. high school for five years. Then I went to graduate school, enrolling in the very same program I find myself in now.

Had I done this, I could still apprise myself of all the things I hadn’t done: for one, I was only in one school the entirety of my teaching experience! That experience had no diversity! For another, I never tried tutoring! How do I know what I “really” like? More significantly for me, I never pursued full expression of myself as a writer, since full-time teaching leaves little space for this kind of intellectual life. What if I’m not “really” a teacher, but a writer? How do I know I’m not a fraud?

As I’m showing, the inner insecurity that defines impostor syndrome can rear its head in any kind of life, with any set of choices. It is not path-specific, but functions precisely by telling us that there are other paths by which we could have legitimated ourselves. In other words, imposter syndrome is the mind’s comparison of hypothetical paths, always to our detriment.

Laying it out in this way, one thing I have begun to wonder is if impostor syndrome in fact testifies to heightened spiritual awareness:

1*O9QHJ1YexRS9j7rNakhPOAComparing other paths in the way I do, there is a part of me that sees them as no less “real” than the path I have actually walked. This expresses a deep awareness of the nature of time and space, since after all, parallel universe theory tells us that all paths have in fact been walked: there is a Jackson out there who got certified as a teacher and spent the next five years teaching at a single school, never exploring himself as a writer. This Jackson has diminished spiritual awareness compared to the one who writes this post, because he did not experience as many transitions and thus had less breadth of experience. Nevertheless, I feel him; as the Jackson who writes this post, he seems no less real to me than myself, like my shadow when clarified by strong light.

It is my belief that impostor syndrome testifies to our felt sense of things like reincarnation, parallel universes, and cosmological oneness. At the level of our bodies, we feel more than ourselves; we are also the selves that could have been, and this immaterial empathy gives us a constant restlessness, an irretractable longing in our one life.

I also think impostor syndrome represents our sense of the slipperiness of materiality, the way in which no job title nor experience set can fully define us. As soon as I call myself a “teacher,” I also recognize all the parts of myself which this definition does not reach: I am a lover, political activist, spiritual seeker, and writer, not to mention a son, fiancé, and soon to be a father—all at different times and in different situations. Impostor syndrome means that no matter where I am or what I am doing, all these identities are present to me, as present as if I held them in my own right hand.


What do we do with this awareness? Try not to feel crazy, really. We walk through life, carrying with us a sense of all the other lives that could have been, knowing that no matter what we do, or who we are perceived to be, these fixed elements do not define us; we are so much more than can ever be grasped or expressed, a limitless awareness manifesting in glimpses to the deluded mind. Depending on our mood, this can be a peaceful realization; we can see all possible and present lives extend before us and feel grateful that ours is the one we have chosen. In other moods, the realization can be scary or depressing; we can feel alone, crazy, insecure, or, well… we can feel like impostors.

Have you felt this sense of multiple lives extending themselves before you, spiraling around your own? Have you run the thought-experiment of asking how you would feel about yourself if you had made those lives’ choices rather than the ones you’ve made in this life? Do you believe in the reality of parallel universes, of the omnipresence of space as well as time? If so, does this belief give you solace? Does it drive you mad? Does it do both, at different times? How do you counsel yourself when these feelings arise?

1 thought on “Impostor syndrome as spiritual dilemma”

  1. Instead of “heightened spiritual awareness” I think Imposter Syndrome may result to living a life in, what I have coined recently, and use in my classes at CalArts, as FEARLESS CREATIVITY. I define Fearless Creativity as the confidence to believe in your ability to use your intelligence, talent, and intuition to solution any creative challenge that confronts you, coupled with the experience to know there will be learning curves, new languages, possible failures, and more, as you proceed.  

    If we hold ourselves to an extremely high standard – then failure – and the fear of failure – will always be present. As we grow, and create new programs, experiences, or forms of education, we will always be delving into the unknown, and the unknown elicits — fear. 

    To your last list of questions: I try to welcome and embrace with respect and honor each time I have the sense of an energetic visitation from another dimensional place, as I find every one of those encounters serves to enrich my heart, soul, mind and, most recently, my ability to free associate in the creative process.  


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