Fraud Among the Faithful

This past week in Relief Society we talked about conversion. Specifically, we addressed that new converts need to feel not only converted to the gospel itself, but also the church culture. There is a new language, new rules, and new etiquette to learn. And often when converts do not feel like they understand or belong, they fall away.

I am not a convert, but in this discussion, I felt like I better understood myself and how I view myself in relation to the church community. I know the language, the rules, and the etiquette, but sometimes I still feel like I don’t really belong. 

“Imposter Syndrome” is a name for the sense that you are a fraud among your peers. It is a psychological term describing the inability to internalize one’s accomplishments. For me it is passing off my academic successes as luck or not believing my writing is any good despite what anyone says. Many of you have probably felt this in regard to careers or education. Yet, recently I’ve discovered it is one of the better ways to describe how I feel at church.

Generally in life, it is easy to imagine that everyone you interact with is taking a special interest in discovering your flaws, despite that notion being vastly untrue. But the extra layer with the LDS community is there are a lot of people who are actually judging you. We’ve developed a judgmental culture, especially in the central hub of Utah. We take notice when ward members’ attendance begins to decline. We notice when they post pictures or statuses of their participation in activities we deem inappropriate. And we tell ourselves that we don’t really care what they are doing because they have their agency. But if we truly didn’t care would we notice at all?

But there are some that take this to the next level. They choose to confront those they disagree with and point out the flaws they perceive in others’ faith. It may not be the majority of LDS church members, but few of us can say we have never experienced some sort of judgment from our peers. So the idea that people are honing in our doubts and shortcomings, that we are going to be discovered as a fraud, is founded in something a little more concrete than neurotic anxiety.

For me, this flares the imposter syndrome more than usual. I am fearful that someone is going to discover I am not as faithful as I may seem on the outside or that my personal beliefs don’t completely line up with what is accepted as correct by the masses. I’m worried that someone will deem me a “Bad Mormon” and that it will be held against me by other members and even leaders. And I am fearful of this because I’ve seen it done to others. I’ve even experienced it a bit myself.

It comes in forms of passive aggressive comments in Sunday School or as unsolicited advice and correction from strangers online. It comes when you’re told that your understanding of something is unfounded or apostate. You feel it when you express doubts and questions about doctrine or policy and you are told that if you were truly “faithful,” you wouldn’t have questions at all.

And then slowly, you start to wonder if you are actually wrong. And that you have placed yourself in a community where you don’t really belong, just waiting for someone to find you out. Then that fear keeps you from coming to activities and making comments during lessons. It tells you leaving after sacrament meeting is okay (it is). You start to get questions about whether you are even active anymore (yes, but you’re just trying to figure some things out). And for those of us more blended, this self-perceived fraudulence is almost invisible to the naked eye. You attend every meeting and party, silently wondering if you should be there at all.

You’ve developed your internal identity as the imposter in church. There are a lot of us, each remaining in attendance for different reasons. Some to appease family, some to work on our faith and understanding, and others because it’s simply too hard to let go. For me, realizing that I have doubts and concerns about a gospel I grew up loving was not easy to come to terms with. I’m supposed to know it’s true; I’ve been that taught since I was young. But the truth is I don’t know. I’ve even grown comfortable with the fact that I have questions. I’m just less comfortable with the idea of other people knowing I have them.

It’s easier to pretend you aren’t wavering or doubting. It’s easier to pretend to not have questions than to put them out for the public to see and criticize. So we conceal our doubts away and only reveal them in trusted company, only to tuck them back into their hiding place before anyone else can see.

Some of you have developed a surety and confidence in your personal understanding of gospel teachings, even when they don’t match the culturally accepted interpretations. You bear testimony of change, acceptance, and love. You preach of Heavenly Mother, inclusivity, and equality. You actively call out the cultural faults while in the company of people you know will disagree with you.

I hope to one day reach that level of certainty in my beliefs, if it is even possible. But for now, I’ll sit in the back of Relief Society trying to piece together what I believe. I am not a fraud or an imposter. I am just a human trying to figure things out. My hands are tired from frantically grasping to the truth I do know. And maybe one day, I will understand my place. I have to believe that I will; it’s the only way I can stay.

Comments

  1. Susan Paullin says:

    Read “The Sin of Certainty”
    Great book and will make you feel better about your insightful appraisal.
    Uncertainty can be a blessed state.

  2. authenticism is difficult true, and you won’t make any converts to your home-brew doctrine most likely either, but an applaudable path to pursue.

  3. It gets worse. Soon you start taking part in academic communities and feeling like an imposter because you are Mormon. Then you start hanging out with academic Mormons and feel like you are an imposter because you aren’t academic and Mormon in the right proportions. Then you make some post-Mormon friends and feel like a phony apostate. Pretty soon you realize that you are a peer group of one, and as long as you aren’t faking it for your own benefit, it’s all good.

  4. It does not have to get worse. Doubts are part of the process of actively trying to grow in your faith. We all have growing to do; we hear general authorities who express that. I think the superficial culture of the church (new etiquette, new language, new rules) can become a substitute for faith in what is true. If we are really focused on the principles of the gospel, the important aspects of our language and our etiquette and our rules (or we could perhaps better just stick with the commandments) will fall into place. Our language will be virtuous, our etiquette will stem from love and compassion, and our rules will be the correct principles of the gospel. We won’t be perfect in those, but we will feel our weakness not in relation to the other mortals around us, but in relation to the standards the Lord would have us attain. And then we will understand that he gives us weaknesses so that we can strengthen each other as well as ourselves.

  5. For me, realizing that I have doubts and concerns about a gospel I grew up loving was not easy to come to terms with. I’m supposed to know it’s true; I’ve been that taught since I was young. But the truth is I don’t know. I’ve even grown comfortable with the fact that I have questions. I’m just less comfortable with the idea of other people knowing I have them.

    Amber, this is a lovely expression of the mental state of someone recognizing that they are actually uncertain of, and are working on figuring out, their own identity…while in the midst of a community whose premise is a shared identity! It’s a hard thing. There’s no one way of processing it, or one best way, but if your way has allowed you, at this point in your, to feel at least some (if not total) comfort with the doubting and working you’re going through, take heart: I’ve known multiple people in my life who only get that stage after decades of adult and professional life. It’s a blessing to get to this point as a graduate student, I think. Keep on striving to discover your own self!

  6. Your average Mormon says:

    This is a beautifully written post. I love the ideas you’ve expressed. I feel the same way. I agree with @Susan Paullin, read “The Sin of Certainty”.

    When I feel like an imposter, it’s usually because I’m looking for outward validation (or invalidation) of my behavior, beliefs, and personal relationship with God. When i forget about everyone around me and just focus on my relationship with God, I can more easily shrug off other people’s judgements. But I’m not very good at that yet. Maybe someday it’ll come more easily, but it takes constant personal reminders.

  7. Thank you for an excellent description of imposter syndrome. From what I hear, it’s all too common. In lots of places, but the Mormon community is a big one.

    I had a nice experience about 20 years ago, when talking with a slightly older couple, both academics, both well respected in multiple communities, the wife Mormon (for I don’t know how many generations) and the husband not Mormon at all. Knowing a little about my relative inactivity and angry and disgruntled feelings, the wife asked me “are you still Mormon?” (Made sense to me.) The husband laughed and without affectation or emphasis said “of course he’s Mormon; he can’t not be Mormon.” That line, from a respected outsider, struck me at just the right time in just the right way and stays with me 20 years later. Since then it’s never been a decision or a judgment, from inside or out. Just a fact. I’m a Mormon. Add and delete adjectives if you like, but it won’t wash off.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Many years ago I moved with my young wife from the South back to the suburbs of Salt lake. I never felt like a Mormon imposter in the South, we were all just trying to survive and help each other. Of 200 homes in the new ward boundaries, 175 had members in them. The ward missionary committee of 35 people was larger than the non-LDS target population in the ward. I lived right next door to one of the non-members and was assigned to convert them.

    He didn’t seem interested but I was friendly and did not push at all. Some of my periwinkle had overgrown one of his flower beds. I could use some ground cover in a shaddy spot on the other side of the yard and offered to dig it out for him as soon as it cooled off. He agreed, not taking gardening very seriously.

    One hot Sunday afternoon, his attractive part time live-in honey was out there digging up the periwinkle in earnest. If I wanted any of it I needed to declare the ox in the mire and get out my shovel and get to work. She wore short shorts and a tank top that became sweat soaked and slightly transparent as we worked and chatted together while my neighbor sat in the shade with a cold beer.

    Sometimes unchurched people in Utah will test you out by creating moral dilemmas. At least I think that is why she pulled off her shirt and continued working topless.I guess I was supposed to go running into my house in shock or preach to her. I decided to ignore her half nakedness and continued to chat with her as if everything was completely normal until the task was complete; her new flowers were planted and my beloved periwinkle were rescued. Some of the neighbors wandered by and noticed the Sabbath violation and worse going on in the side yard. The gossip lines must have soon been buzzing. My neighbor sat there grinning and I just had to make a comment: “Sure is some nice scenery around here today,” (pause) then pointing to the towering Wasatch mountains. He laughed so hard he fell off his lawn chair.

    I soon found out just how judgmental the good Mormons of Salt Lake could be. I also found out from my neighbor who was my friend from then on that he was raised Mormon but left the church as a teenager and never looked back. The missionary committee released me and was disappointed that one of their targets was reluctantly transferred over to the perfect committee in the sub-group deeply (and pretty much hopelessly) inactive which was where he wanted to be- as long as “the church” left him alone.

    I think what we do transcends what we believe or try to “share” with others. Conceptual double-mindedness or doubt is less of a problem than inconsistent actions. Members of that ward seemed to be firm in their beliefs but clueless on how to treat the few among us who wished not to participate.

  9. My mental health vastly improved when I decided I didn’t care about being “found out,” and decided to just be myself. It’s not easy to flip a switch like that–this came at the end of a long hard process of grieving. But it’s so much better.

  10. This is a great, honest, post, Amber. I always have mixed feelings in discussions like that. It’s undeniably true that converts have an easier time if they are “converted” to the culture as well as having been converted to Christ, but I’m uncomfortable with the way saying they should be converted to the culture can appear to put culture and Christ on the same level. I think it’s our responsibility to pare back our what we consider “gospel culture” to what is really essential, and that we welcome new influences and be willing to change everywhere else. And that’s basically my reaction to the kinds of things that can result in imposter syndrome. “You don’t think I’m a good member because I posted some pro-Obama thing on Facebook two years ago or something? Tough. I know what the scriptures say about the doctrine of Christ and nothing–especially not your political opinion–can separate me from the love of Christ. I identify with Edwin Woolley and his statement about owning the church just as much as Brigham Young did.

    But that’s about church membership/culture. When it comes to salvation/testimony, I think a little (emphasis on little) imposter syndrome can be a good thing (as long as it comes with a heavy enough emphasis/reliance on grace that it doesn’t devolve into works-based despair). I think it’s important to be able to empathize with those for whom faith is hard, and to recognize that one’s good works as an active church member do not assure us of salvation or even make it more likely that we’ll be saved than a repentant sinner that finds it hard to make it to church or serve in callings. God cannot tolerate sin, but if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. How can that not make us uneasy? The only hope we have is grace.

  11. Jack Hughes says:

    Thanks Amber. Imposter Syndrome is especially relevant to those of us who have OCD/scrupulous tendencies.

    I grew up in the church, but always felt like a cultural outsider. I used to get overcome with anxiety about not being “good enough” or “righteous enough”, until later in life I realized that none of that cultural stuff really matters, and also finding out that many of the supposedly righteous, stalwart church members who testify with certainty are also some of the most inauthentic, phony people I know.

  12. Would it be easier for you to be open if there was one other person in your congregation who spoke out with non-traditional or unorthodox views? Maybe there is someone in your group who shares similar ideas, but is also afraid to speak out. I suggest finding a way to be open. If you do, YOU will be the one that is making it easier for others to speak openly.
    If everyone with dissenting views is silent, we create a false perception of homogeneity. This makes people like you feel like imposters. Someone has to be the first one.
    I’m reminded of a Shel Silverstein poem.

    Masks

    She had blue skin,
    And so did he.
    He kept it hid
    And so did she.
    They searched for blue
    Their whole life through.
    Then passed right by–
    And never knew.

  13. My experience is that people are generally less concerned about my beliefs and doubts than they are about my loyalty. If they know I’m committed, that I feel myself to be one of them, that I’ll show up with a casserole or stay to clean up after the party, they’ll tolerate a fair amount of unorthodox belief. And it turns out that in bringing the casserole and talking to people while we clean up together, I come to love them enough to keep some of my heresies to myself, not because I’m afraid of what they’ll think of me, but because I don’t want to make _them_ uncomfortable.

    And it helps that I live in a perfect ward…

  14. As a former Bostonian, you do live in a perfect Ward. And I completely concur on your thoughts. The more time we spend serving together the better we appreciate the quirks and ignore the idiosyncrasies of the friends who surround us in the pews. There are many Sundays I wish we performed the “passing of peace” as part of our liturgy due to the symbolism it represents and the bond it tends to generate when thoughtfully done.

  15. hopeandhiraeth says:

    Amberhaslam, I enjoyed reading and considering your thoughts, I found your piece interesting, honest, and insightful. Also very far removed from my own experience. I couldn’t relate much to this statement, “But the extra layer with the LDS community is there are a lot of people who are actually judging you. We’ve developed a judgmental culture”. I hasten to add that I believe you. I believe your report that this is an actual thing that you’re up against at church. It sounds horrible, like being stuck inside an episode of Lizzie McGuire on loop. I’m wondering what’s so different about our church experiences. I’m certainly no stranger to the thrills of social anxiety, rejection, bullying, insecurity, etc. But not at church. I think there are 3 big factors which contribute to my feeling of belonging and acceptance at church. Not trying to imply these are absent from your experience, just saying they are significant in mine: 1. I belong to a small congregation (about 40 active members) in a European nation. Nobody is unappreciated. NOBODY. We need each other. We know that we are so fortunate to have a congregation in our area. If our branch were to shut down, we would have to travel 40-60 minutes to get to the nearest neighbouring unit every Sunday. We are so dang thrilled when somebody walks through that door. Quirks, questions, whatever – we feel grateful for the addition of their strength to our community. It’s such a blessing to have people to associate with, and worship with. 2. I joined the church at the age of 16, after investigating the church for 18 months. I was really blessed to have a good group of caring LDS people around me during those years. They genuinely accepted me, allowed me to ask questions, encouraged me to explore answers, and included me in everything without expecting anything of me, or requiring me to believe first. It would be cool if every Latter-day Saint could be treated like an investigator for at least a month, if not forever. When you’re an investigator, people just want you to feel welcome, supported, and discover that you are a beloved child of God. 3. With such a small membership pool in my area, church means service. It’s hard to be an outsider when you’re needed in the inner circle. We do discuss the gospel of course, but mostly we are busy doing it. As it says in James, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”. Our church reality is that each one of us is valued, needed, and powerful in our ability to contribute to the happiness of the people around us in a real way. And there is a lot of love, acceptance, and deep spiritual learning that comes that way. When we sacrifice in meaningful and united service in the name of Christ, He is with us. His wisdom and peace fill us. His patience and humour fill us. We see each other and ourselves as we truly are: glorious and beautiful and exquisitely unique. And we can feel that the Great Plan of Happiness is real, because we are living it. If you’ve made it to the end of this, thanks for reading. And thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts. If you were a member of the local branch of the church here, I can tell you that we would love you for your light, openness, and earnestness. No doubt you have many people around you over there who love you for those talents as well. Maybe more people than you know :) I’m sure there are loads of people around you who need you, and don’t care what questions are in your heart when you come to their aid.

  16. This is where I am at, also. I had a faith crisis and the pendulum swung from certainty that it was all true and all right, even the parts I didn’t feel comfortable with-to certainty that it all had to be made up. I am back in the middle. Somedays I miss my certainty of the teachings I hear at church, but I am mostly at peace. I am okay with being unsure and soaking in the parts I love and that stir my soul. I feel like an imposter sometimes though. During testimony meeting, teaching others in classes things I am unsure of myself. I won’t surrender my mind again though, and that feels right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s