Imposter Syndrome & The Spiritual Practice of Saying “I Don’t Know”
By Amelia Kriss I am not a religious person. Well, not now. I was at one point, and am humble enough to know that I could be again, though I won’t see it coming. As a life coach and a mental health professional, I spend quite a bit of time exploring the quandaries of values, purpose, and soul-level longing. Often, this brings me face to face with the spiritual lives of others, and with my own. I haven’t found this to be true with clients, but in casual “small” talk, I am sometimes skeptical of the “spiritual” label—especially when folks apply it to themselves nonchalantly in conversation—seemingly to cover for their own perceived heathen or shallow-ness, like a coat of flat beige paint. If there’s one thing I think I know about true spirituality, it rarely professes itself, and almost never in such general and un-ecstatic terms. And when it is alive in someone, as far as I can tell, it is almost never beige. I admit to a level of envy here—when I look back on my Southern Baptist roots, the world was rather black and white, but it was also deliciously certain. I knew things. And even now—last week—I sat chatting with a dear friend, a Shamanic healer, and witnessed the deep clarity in her eyes about the world to which she belongs. Covet is the word that comes to mind.
I have spent a lot of time wrestling with what it is exactly, that I so want and admire in truly spiritually devoted people. It has something to do with the certainty—the capacity to rest on the neatly untangled inexplicable—knowing the unknowable. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience with religion, but it was mine. At least according to my daydreams and childhood memories, there is a deep calm knowing that believers can access. And I imagine that many folks would say, “It’s not certainty—it’s faith”, and intellectually I understand that, but not in my bones. I have felt this same pull towards out-and-proud Atheists, too—I do not know how to be certain about these things, and somewhere I must believe that I should… So whether it was the erosion of my own Southern Baptist certainty over time, or that bit about Original Sin, or likely both, the hangover, for me, from what seemed like such a simple, comfortable framework for the world is the insidious fear that without that certainty I am less real, less true, less substantive. That maybe I’m just an unfilled vessel, a façade, an avatar of myself—that I don’t really know anything. Essentially: a fraud. And I’m aware, from my own experience as a human being and within mental health, that many of us wrangle this beast called Imposter Syndrome at least some of the time.
Then that perfectly bootstrapped, American, is-it-inspiring-or-insulting mantra lights up in my head like a marquis: “Fake it till you make it!”
And then this (maybe you’re familiar?):
WHAT IF IT KILLS ME? WHAT IF I CAN’T? WHAT IF I DON’T MAKE IT, EVERRRR?
They are going to find out. That big, scary, amorphous “they” that evidently indicts us all—you are going to mess something up and it will be so much more than a mistake. It will be the real-life-but-worse version of that recurring dream where you are naked at the movie theater, forever frozen and standing across from your laughing middle school crush, with popcorn in your teeth and, for some reason, you are holding a wild-eyed pet ferret. (I don’t know, okay? These self-humiliation fantasies rarely make any sense.) Most of us have been in situations where we are internally moving mountains to appear cool, knowledgeable, or legit, but we are actually terrified of being found out. Found out to be what, exactly? Human? Fallible? Imperfect?
It’s important to note here, that we’re all frauds some of the time. If you ever have car trouble, for instance, and I pop your hood and offer to take a look-see, you should definitely do whatever that Harry Potter spell is that reveals creatures for what they really are. But the experience of not knowing everything (or anything!), and the act of being seen in that, is a spiritual opportunity. Whether we are talking about empathy, allyship, or science: there is great power in seeing and saying what we do not know. I’m not saying that you should pose as a plumber, doctor, or psychic just for that gotcha moment: “haha just kidding I don’t know any of this”. (Just think of that busted toilet as an art installation byeeee.) I mean something even wilder than that: not hiding the places where you feel unsure, not claiming to know or understand everything, even in the areas where you are deemed an expert. Even when you feel insecure, when you are being evaluated, or when there is intense pressure for you to know. Some of the most powerful moments I ever have with clients happen this way:
“What am I going to do? Please just tell me what to do…”
“I don’t know.”
Here’s the thing: I could fake it. I could say: Yes you do! Of course you know! Journal about it! Meditate on it! TAME IT WITH YOUR CERTAINTY!
And sometimes I do—sometimes I do push folks to acknowledge what they already know; sometimes I ask them to investigate the question in earnest and see what comes.
But this is different. There is no amount of training that makes it so any of us can fully know unknowable (or subjective) things. This is where the imposter syndrome really binds us, I think: it sends an anxiety-scented letter to the inner critic, which you then scream at yourself internally until the sweat finally dries on your palms, (and sometimes long after): “You should know that! Why don’t you know that?!? Pretend to know! Convince yourself that you knoooooow—convince them that you know! NOW!”
This is the place where it all comes full circle for me. Religion, Spirituality, Mythology, Psychology, and certainly Psychotherapy & the quest for self-understanding—these all strike me as ways to both make meaning out of existence, and to help us each cope with the deep uncertainty and messiness of life. For me, the most sacred part of my life is the work I do with clients, exploring their own inner worlds—their hopes and their grief and what is meaningful for them. And in turn, crystalizing and evolving in my own. So that is my wish, I suppose, for all of us. Wherever we fall on the spectrum of religious or not, on all the many spectrums of our lives, that we open ourselves up to the places where we are not sure, where we do not (yet) know, and see these for what they could be: opportunities for curiosity, growth, and connection. Both to ourselves, and others. And that this allowance to not know, or not know for sure, to fuck it up or not do it “perfectly”, is the very thing that makes space for us to learn something, for us to in fact know more.
The last piece of this that feels essential to touch on in these times is this one: perfectionism and certainty and your commitment to right-ness will not teach you how to connect, how to truly show up—how to be in real solidarity with others. You do not need to do the emotional equivalent of “lawyering up” in order to build community, intersectionalism, and social justice. You need to do the opposite of that. Your vulnerability and authenticity about the nuances and privileges and blind spots that you DO NOT YET KNOW are what is needed. I cannot think of a better reason to sit your Imposter Syndrome’s posturing right down in the corner than this one: You do not have to know the experiences of others, but you should care about them, engage with them. (Good thing—because you cannot know the experiences of others, not like they can.) It is not your job to question or validate or evaluate those experiences. It is your job to listen. To acknowledge what you do not know, and to listen.
When I bitch to my brother or my husband or some other dude about getting catcalled and groped at the grocery store, I don’t need a 15-minute poser-logue about how they “understand”, and I certainly don’t need them to read aloud to me a handy hardcopy version of Twitter’s #notallmen. What I need is simple, and it can take many forms—something like, “damn, that SUCKS, you deserve to be able to search for your favorite wheat thin flavor in peace”. And maybe some reflection on if, or why not, they’ve ever felt threatened at the supermarket. The important part here, is that they acknowledge that they do not know this experience, and that even so, they know my experience to be real. This is the type of witnessing that leads the way to discovery and healing, one-on-one and across the board. This is the work for me too, as a cis-gendered white woman, a feminist, and an advocate for real-deal equality: to say I do not know, but I am listening. And I am learning. And it is also not your job to know for me. It is my job to learn, and to acknowledge the messiness and endlessness of that job. That, to me, is the spiritual practice of saying “I don’t know”.
When we are able to stand not knowing, when we can then perhaps ask “What’s that like for you?”, we are opening up to real connection. In coaching and therapy, in our communities and places of worship, in our relationships, and almost everywhere else: it is the questions that build the bridges—not the answers.
Amelia is a Therapist-turned-Life-Coach residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a Southern transplant out West, she brings a lot of down-home warmth to her work, as well as deep respect for each and everyone’s chosen path. Amelia coaches with a focus on self-acceptance and the belief that fulfillment is worth fighting for. She is especially interested in working with recovering people pleasers and nice girls who want more freedom, authenticity, and joy. At the moment, her favorite forms of self-care are toddler snuggles, intersectionalizing her feminism, and curse words. Find out more at ameliakriss.com.