Peeling Away the Mask: The Chassidic Guide to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Mallory Rosten
Essays 2020 / Finalists

You’re faking it, right? You’re successful, you’re good at your job, and you’re talented. At least, that’s what people say. But you have a secret suspicion that you’re not talented at all. All your success is some twisted mistake and it’s not too long before you’re found out. You’re a fraud. An imposter.

I know this because I feel like I’m faking it too. Some days I’m convinced I don’t actually know what I’m doing, and I’ve just tricked people into thinking I’m talented. I feel like I’m wearing a mask, and one day that mask will fall off and I’ll be exposed for the imposter I am. When I’m faced with a task, I panic that I’m not going to live up to expectations, and so I create a narrative that I don’t actually have the skills to be where I am.

Imposter syndrome is more than self-doubt or not knowing exactly what you’re doing. Everyone, at some level, is faking it. And some degree of self-doubt can be healthy. It can push you to work harder, to search for unconventional solutions. It prevents you from becoming complacent in your work. But when you have imposter syndrome, you incorrectly assess your abilities. For example, you think you’re a 3 at baking, yet you’re actually a 7. Everyone tells you you’re such a great baker, and you begin to fear that you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Those with imposter syndrome tend to be highly successful but are unable to internalize their success. They can’t match their internal standards to external feedback.

Approximately 70% of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in their lives.[1] Some may experience symptoms for a short time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job. Others may battle feelings of incompetency their whole lives.

The issue lies beyond the psyche. When drawing from Chassidic works such as Tanya, letters from the Rebbe, and two maamarim (Chassidic discoures), it becomes clear that imposter syndrome stems from deeply seated flawed beliefs about one’s place in the world. By addressing these fundamental beliefs, we can start to unravel the imposter paradox.

The Six Characteristics

Before we address the underlying issues, we must understand the syndrome. Dr. Pauline Clance, who first identified the syndrome in 1985, describes six characteristics of imposter syndrome, though all six are not always exhibited.[2]

1.     Imposter Cycle

The imposter cycle is the most common characteristic. Imposters are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle. When faced with a task, they feel extreme anxiety, and then overwork or procrastinate. Though they may succeed, the imposter denies their success is related to their own ability. When faced with a new task, self doubt creates a high level of anxiety and the cycle repeats. The imposter is stuck in this cycle because they strongly believe they will fail if they don’t follow the same working style. Repetition of success only reinforces feelings of fraudulence.

2.     The Need to Be Special, to Be the Very Best

Imposters secretly harbor the need to be the very best. They were often the top of the class throughout school, but in a larger setting soon realize that they are just one of many exceptional people. Because they are not the very best, they conclude they must be stupid.

3.     Superwoman/superman

eed for perfection. Imposters may set high standards for themselves and then feel overwhelmed, disappointed, and like a failure when they are unable to meet them.

4.     Fear of Failure

Imposters tend to be plagued by an intense fear of failure. This causes high levels of anxiety and is the reason why they may overwork or self-sabotage by procrastinating. Even though they’re sure they will be exposed as a fraud, they are deathly afraid of that outcome.

5.     Denial of Competence and Praise

Imposters can’t internalize success and accept praise as valid. They attribute their success to external factors, even discounting positive feedback and objective evidence of success. They see only the negatives, finding evidence or developing arguments to prove that they don’t deserve praise.

6.     Fear and Guilt about Success

If success is unusual among their family or peers, especially when adhering to a rigid view of success, imposters may feel guilty, like they don’t deserve their success when others haven’t been able to achieve it. They may also fear that their success will lead to higher demands and greater expectations. They’re uncertain about their ability to maintain their current level of performance and are reluctant to accept additional responsibility.

Despite all their efforts to achieve success, success doesn’t bring imposters happiness. More success brings on even more anxiety and fear. They’re uncomfortable with their achievements, and may experience burnout, self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, loss of motivation, and guilt and shame about success. Imposters may even self-sabotage to prove themselves right or avoid additional responsibility.

Misplaced Humility

The Talmud tells a story about a moment when the destruction of the Second Temple could have been averted. Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkilus faced a dilemma. He had been brought a sacrifice from Caesar that was cut by someone who wanted revenge on the Jewish people. If the Jews rejected the sacrifice, it could ignite an already delicate political situation. Yet Rabbi Zecharia ruled that the sacrifice couldn’t be accepted, lest it cause confusion about the proper halacha for sacrifices, and the one who had intentionally defiled the sacrifice couldn’t be killed, even though he would report it to Caesar, lest the people think that the punishment for bringing an impure sacrifice is death. The Jewish people were forced to accept the ruling of the Rabbi, angering Ceasar and sparking the beginning of our final exile.

The Talmud places the blame squarely on Rabbi Zecharia, stating “The humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkilus destroyed the Holy Temple and exiled us from our land.” [3]

This seems unfair. Rabbi Zecharia had no direct contact with Ceasar. He didn’t decide to destroy the temple. He was only trying to follow halacha. What does humility have to do with it?

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, taught that everything depends on the individual Jew[4]. Rabbi Zacharia was so humble that he believed his decisions couldn’t have an affect on the larger situation at hand. He couldn’t fathom how his halachic ruling could influence major events. Yet if he had recognized the larger picture, he could’ve averted tragedy.

In the case of both an imposter and Rabbi Zecharia, extreme humility is a blindfold. It obscures the true reality, that your actions have consequences. If you are so humble that you believe you’re not worthy of your success, that no matter how hard you work you can’t do anything right, you are lost.

Who are you to say that you don’t matter? That you are so lowly that your actions don’t have ramifications? If you couldn’t have an impact, you wouldn’t be here. At a cosmic level, every action alters the fabric of the universe. When you feel you are nothing you stop caring about your impact. It’s as if you believe that trash disappears as soon as you throw it away, so you start dropping trash in the middle of the street.

According to the Camel is the Load

There’s a concept in personality psychology called locus of control. You place your locus of control where you believe the power over your life lies. If you believe that you’re the main driving force of the events of your life, that you’re responsible for your successes and failures, you have an internal locus of control. If you believe that events just happen to you and your successes and failures are due to forces outside of you, you have an external locus of control. Studies have found that those with internal locus of control are happier. Unless religion enters the picture. Then, something funny happens.

People with an external locus of control who also believe in G-d are just as happy and successful as those who believe their life is in their control. People who believe they’re powerless without the additional belief in G-d tend to be less happy and successful.

Everything is orchestrated by G-d.[5] So at a cosmic level, your belief that you are not responsible for your success is correct. Except it’s not luck or a series of mistakes that brought you to where you are now. It’s G-d.

Imagine your life as a thread woven into a tapestry. The back of the tapestry is messy and frankly, ugly. It doesn’t look like anything remotely recognizable. But when you flip it over, the beautiful design is revealed. From our perspective, our lives appear messy and random. If you experience excessive anxiety and self doubt, it’s easy to believe that you’ve achieved your success through chance or mistakes. But you are exactly where you are in order to complete the larger design. If you have received a promotion or have been given an important task, it’s because G-d wants you to be there. Even if you think you don’t deserve it, it’s not a mistake. G-d placed you there because only you can complete that section of the tapestry.

This doesn’t mean that our actions are meaningless- on the contrary, we must do our best to take advantage of our position and reveal G-d’s light in the world.

What’s the difference between you and a camel? The camel driver didn’t make the camel. But G-d made you. He knows how much you can carry. So, He only gives you what you can handle.  If you have been given a great amount of responsibility it is because G-d knows you can handle it.

There once was a Rabbi who was an incredible speaker, inspiring many with his words. But he felt uneasy. He wrote to the Rebbe that all the speaking and recognition was bad for his ego. Should he stop, in order to preserve his humility?

The Rebbe answered that not only should he not stop, he should continue with vigor. So what if it fed his ego? He had important work to do, bringing Jews closer to Torah! His ego was nothing compared to his mission.

Once you find something you’re good at that improves the world, no matter how slightly, don’t stop. You owe it to yourself and others to continue. There is something greater than you at work.

Perfection is Impossible

After all this talk of cosmic alignment and divine purpose, let’s come back down to earth for a bit. It’s true that we have a divine soul and a divine mission. But we also have an animal soul.[6] This animal soul isn’t concerned with our divine purpose or improving the world. It just wants to have a good time, to make our ego feel better. This animal soul is intrinsic to being human. We are inherently imperfect. We will struggle every day. It is truly impossible to be perfect in thought, speech, and action. Stop seeking perfection- it doesn’t exist, at least, not while you are in a human body.

Instead, relish the struggle. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to do good, on the contrary, try even harder. And when you fail, recognize that failing is part of the process. How can you learn how to improve the world if you don’t make mistakes? How can you learn how to be a better person if you don’t first succumb to your animal instincts?

It’s not about being the best. Everyone has a specific mission; all you can do is focus on being the best at your specific mission. That is more than enough. You are enough- just the way G-d created you.

Practical Steps to Peel Away the Mask

These are all beautiful ideas, but how do you combat imposter syndrome in your day to day life? A mix of Chassidus and Personality Theory provides useful steps for overcoming imposter syndrome.

Talk About it With Others

As with anything, the first step is to acknowledge you feel like an imposter. Next, talk about it. 70% of people have felt the way you do at some point in their lives. Even those you admire, who seem to be inherently talented and perfect, most likely feel the same way.

Document Accomplishments and Celebrate Success

Seeing is believing. It’s easy to dismiss your successes when they’re not laid out in front of you. Document your accomplishments, even the seemingly small ones, like receiving a compliment from a peer on a task. And when you succeed, pat yourself on the back. Reward yourself.

Challenge Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts can ensnare you in a black hole of self doubt and loathing. When you have a negative thought, acknowledge it. But acknowledge that it comes from your animal soul, from the part of you that wants to drive you away from G-dliness. Make an appointment with that thought at a later time, and then challenge it. Is it really a fair assessment? Is it productive? If not, move on.

Practice Self Compassion

Pretend you’re talking to a close friend whose work you admire, and they tell you that they secretly believe they’re a failure, that they’ll never be good enough. What would you say to them? Extend the same compassion you would to others to yourself. Give yourself compliments. Acknowledge the good work that you do. Even when you fail or make a mistake, be kind to yourself. If you find yourself beating yourself up, ask yourself- would you talk to your friend that way?

Believe the Compliments others Give You

You may believe that when people compliment you, they’re either lying or have been deceived by you. Give these people some credit. The next time someone compliments you, write it down. Then read it again and again. Go in with the mindset that everyone who compliments you is being sincere. As with negative thoughts, challenge your harmful beliefs. Why would your coworker lie to you? Could you really have deceived them? Isn’t it much more likely they see your work for what it is, good? Believe them.

View Failure as an Opportunity

Many imposters fear failure so much it prevents them from even starting a task. Accepting failure must first begin with accepting that perfection is impossible. Once you do that, the next logical step is to realize that failure is natural. It will happen, and it doesn’t mean your bad or stupid or untalented. It just means your human. In the eyes of chassidus, failure isn’t just okay, it’s beautiful. Every descent is for the purpose of ascent.[7] After failure comes teshuvah, or return. You can always return to who you’re meant to be. The same goes for a failure at work. Let’s say your solution didn’t work. Now that you’ve failed, you can discover more nuances in the problem. You can view it from an entirely different perspective. You can return to the path with new information.

There’s a beautiful analogy that illustrates this concept. If you’re climbing a rope and then it breaks, you can retie the rope. Because it broke, it ends up being shorter than it was before the break. You’re that much closer to the top.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

It’s never easy to overcome imposter syndrome on your own, especially if it’s been ingrained in your thoughts for a while. Ask for help, either from someone who went through the same thing, or from a professional. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.

Don’t Give Up

We don’t study Chassidus, we learn it. When you study something, you’re simply memorizing information. When you learn something, it becomes a part of you. It’s not enough to read this article. Make these Chassidus teachings a part of you. Practice the steps. It won’t happen all at once, especially if you’ve been dealing with imposter syndrome for a long time. It’ll take work, and you may backslide into your old thought patterns. But that’s ok, because you’ll move forward stronger than you were before.

[1] The Imposter Phenomenon; Jaruwan Sakulku, James Alexander

[2] The Imposter Phenomenon; Jaruwan Sakulku, James Alexander

[3] Tosefta Shab. 16:7

[4] Keter Shem Tov 145. See also Bati Legani 5720.

[5] See Keter Shem Tov, Hosafot, 395

[6] See Tanya, Chapters 1 2.

[7] See Torah Or, Bereishisp. 30a.