How to Avoid Imposter Syndrome at Conferences

Reflecting on the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting, Nijay Gupta openly shares about the “imposter syndrome” that is quite common for both students and faculty in biblical studies.

In addition to these forthright comments, Nijay suggests six tactics for overcoming imposter syndrome at conferences. For those tactics, I’d encourage you to read Nijay’s full post.

“Imposter syndrome” is definitely something I should raise my hand to feeling at times too. And some of you have mentioned to me how you feel it in various ways as well.

So I’d like to take Nijay’s post as a prompt for another take on some of the same themes.

That is, I’ve generally found a helpful antidote to “imposter syndrome” to be, so to speak, “imposturing.”

Posturing and Imposters

When you attend a conference, of course, you want to make a good impression on friends and colleagues old and new.

When this normal desire goes to seed, though, it turns into the kind of academic “posturing” it likely won’t take you long to run into if you attend conferences with any sort of frequency.

Such posturing features prominently an interest in promoting your own work, knowledge, scholarship, status, position, prestige, institution, etc. to the exclusion of interest in others’.

There are at least two aspects to this as it relates to the issue of “imposter syndrome.”

First and most obviously, if you or I try to promote ourselves to others in overly inflated image, we know deep down we don’t measure up to that image. Imposter syndrome is a natural result.

Second and reflexively, if we compare ourselves to the public image of others, we will always find someone else with more or better expertise in some area than we have.

It will also always be possible we’ll run into or give a paper to a room with some seemingly omni-competent polymath in the audience who has an arm’s length worth of reasons we don’t measure up. This again is a fertile bed for imposter syndrome to grow.

Imposturing and Openness

The opposite—”imposturing” for the sake of my discussion here—though means neither the avoidance of speaking about our work nor somehow the building up of our own “self talk” in relation to that omni-competent polymath.

Instead, imposturing requires a fundamentally different orientation. It’s a kind of academic humility that requires not “thinking less of yourself” but “thinking of yourself less.”1

It may be a personality quirk of mine. But I generally find “imposter syndrome” to quiet down when I turn away from the question “What will they think of me?” and instead focus on the questions “What can I glean from this interaction? And what can I contribute that might enrich it for others?”

Rather than the one-way evaluative judgment in the first question, the second two create imposturing dialog. And the better dialog is, the more it puts its participants in openness toward each other and creates a bypass around imposter syndrome.2

Of course, that dialog might break down. A person you meet or a session you attend might not reciprocate your imposturing attitude and might instead go for posturing.

You can’t control that. But as Edith Eger reminds us, we can choose a different response to posturing—one that’s kind and gracious but that also says a firm inner “no” to specter of imposter syndrome.

You can still have an inner orientation toward dialog and learning even if that isn’t reciprocated.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it’s sometimes striking how some of the best scholars wear their scholarship most lightly.

It’s always particularly encouraging when those who are recognized as at the forefront of whatever sub-field clearly have an imposturing attitude themselves.

And perhaps this is something we should all strive to do more of—both for our own sakes and for the sakes of those with whom we interact.

What are your thoughts about imposter syndrome? How have you experienced it, and how have you learned to minimize it?


  1. This formulation is a very fine one. It is often but apparently mis-attributed to C. S. Lewis per the C. S. Lewis Foundation

  2. Cf. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method

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