MIRIAM: They say the beginning of wisdom is knowing what we don’t know, and I agree, but what happens when what we “know” doesn’t come from us? What happens when we completely depend on others to introduce us to knowledge, to confirm and validate it? And what if that inability to be our own anchor means we’re never enough, making us vulnerable and continually on the precipice of exposure as inadequate? This is the Impostor Syndrome, Mormon woman version, a syndrome that is ratcheted up by the fact I didn’t grow up like my priesthood-bearing counterparts who were raised to understand they had divine authority.
“Dad, I want to apply to Michigan State. I like the school and its academic options.”
This was me at 17, applying to colleges in my junior year of high school. He responded, “What’s the point of applying to Michigan? You know you want to go to BYU.”
I thought, “Do I?” I wasn’t sure, but now that he said it, I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t. He had gone there, Mom had too. So I said, “Okay, then.” He is my father, after all.
I applied to only BYU.
Two decades later, I love my life since I graduated BYU. Yet, now it’s clear that my instincts to go to Michigan State had a legitimacy worth exploring. Maybe I would have had a better academic experience there and a better spiritual experience at the LDS Institute. Maybe, by following those ideas, I would have been able to better form my own goals and priorities, regardless of where I went to school.
To my home bishop, “Should I break up with my boyfriend? Is that what God would want?” I had just finished my freshman year at BYU and was dating a young man who had not served a mission.
In all honesty, I didn’t want to be with this young man, but I felt extremely bound to the gospel principle of love and all it entails, including self-sacrifice. For me, first and foremost, my desire was to follow the covenant path that God wanted, and I’d been taught all my life to turn to my bishop in times of confusion. He encouraged me to break up, but he didn’t ask me what I wanted. In retrospect, what I needed to learn was how to respect my own wants. I needed my voice to be legitimate on its own.
To the bishop’s councilor, “But am I really worthy for the Celestial Kingdom?”
He smiled and very gently dismissed the possibility that I could be unworthy. I tried to take that to heart, but, in a way, it felt like a soft chastisement for me to have more faith. Yet now I know he had absolutely no concrete reason to say this. This was the first time we’d ever spoken one-on-one. He barely knew me or anything about me. Yet I still placed him before myself, as one having more insight, more connection to God, and therefore more spiritual knowledge about my own soul than I did. Why did what he said matter more than my hopes on their own?
This pattern of self-doubt started to change when I had teenagers, and when my male peers advanced into leadership. When my youngest children were in nursery, I stayed to support the teachers. Another ward member, Brother Mills, also stayed with his child, and I observed him demonstrate unflattering but completely normal lapses in patience, attention, and enthusiasm. When he was called to be the bishop the following year, I had this small humanizing insight into his character. As I observed Bishop Mills carry this new mantel, I appreciated his humility and candor. Sometimes he made mistakes, sometimes he lost his cool. I began to see that the divine mantel did not protect the holder from acting foolishly. And so, his divine abilities–and that of all the others before him–became less mysterious to me.
If I had been a Mormon boy and man, I might have gotten through to this epiphany quicker–many of my male counterparts seemed to. The experience of holding the priesthood at a young age would have made the priesthood mantel less mystifying. I now look back at when males in my life revealed the everyday banality of priesthood realities. They were, for the most part, very matter-of-fact about their own humanness regardless of the power they held.
I would not have minded having that insight for myself. Their remarks were casual, offhand observations that I can only appreciate in their significance now, looking back. I feel like a little girl who fell in love with the cheap, gaudy, plastic, imitation jewelry in the store window, saving up my allowance money so I could finally buy the overpriced items, never ever having enough money for them, but believing that they were the best things to have, because the sign said so. And no one taught me that I could question that. Never was my judgment enough. Never was my own power enough.
To be clear, I was happy to challenge anyone on a leveled, epistemological ground. Argue the logic of an idea? Sure. But that isn’t me, that’s logic. Challenge the consistency of an action to scripture? You bet, and again, that’s logic. But I never had that one thing in my holster that priesthood holders had.
How do they feel when they give a blessing? Or extend a calling? Or help someone through the repentance process? Or declare inspired counsel to me, my family, our ward, or the church?
I loved being able to use insights like “the glory of God is intelligence” to expand my knowledge, and thus shrink the unknown. Shrinking the unknown with established canon put my knowledge on a higher footing in a world where it was relatively low. But there was always still the abiding mystery of those things I would never experience, experiences tied to authority over truth and over me.
When I was younger, I trusted the gospel axioms: “Perfect love casteth out all fear,” “Men are that they might have joy,” and “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these,” etc. I felt they should, in their collectivity, cover the unknown gaps. Yet I also believed that my bishops or my father could know something about me that I didn’t. The unknown gaps for them were smaller and fewer, and were maybe even non-existent because they knew directly from God.
I wanted to be able to trust myself, but there was always that internal caution telling me that maybe what they know is more important than what I know. Because my knowledge could be foolishness, I felt compelled to go to men in authority.
Even if I had more concrete knowledge and worldly intelligence than one or all of them, they had revelation, and sometimes just believed they had had revelation, which still trumped my perception.
It has taken me a long time to reclaim my own authority as the only person with firsthand experience at my own life, the only mortal with firsthand observation of my soul. I am not an Impostor, I am the only one who can be me.
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4 Replies to “My Impostor Syndrome As a Mormon Woman”
Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed reading and pondering about similar issues in my own life.
Thank you! It helps to know that I’m not alone in these thoughts and experiences.
I have had similar experiences and the same fears. I trusted what priesthood leaders said before I trusted my own judgment. It took finding a huge gap in priesthood teachings before I started trusting my own connection with God more than the offhand words of a priesthood leader. I, too, wish I’d come to trust myself a lot earlier in life. This post is very clearly written and offers a way to define an experience a lot of women must have, without really knowing why they’re bothered.
“It took finding a huge gap in priesthood teachings before I started trusting my own connection with God more”
That is how it happened with me. It’s like being shaken awake from a sleep. And know that I feel more grounded in my own power, it feels like rebirth! Thank you for letting me know that this spoke to your experience as well!