Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Impostor Syndrome After Conversion

Let's get in some deep psychological stuff today. Let's talk about impostor syndrome. Sometimes (okay, maybe a lot), I feel like a Jewish impostor.

We'll start with a visit to my Inner Monologue:
After 10 years in the community and almost 3 years after Conversion 2.0, I still wonder if I was really, totally sincere. And if I wasn't, am I still Jewish? Will I have kids people think are Jewish, and they'll get married and create an intermarriage without realizing it? Do I really believe in Gd? Am I doing mitzvot for the right reason? When I fail to do a mitzvah (or blatantly do something wrong), is that evidence that I wasn't serious? Am I a fraud?
As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I've been known to ruminate a bit. A whole lot of a bit. I also believe that people with OCD tend towards hypermoralism (not just about ritual observance, as a Redditor talks about - funnily, I never thought about connecting hypermoralism to OCD rituals related to religion since it's mental v. physical).  That doesn't mean I act "really morally" all the time. But it does mean that I think a lot about my motives and the moral implications of the actions I take, especially after the fact in the middle of the night. As you know, there are often several moral angles to any situation, and I may be scrupulous in one kind of morality and not another. Or maybe I just had a bad day or something triggered a different fear and led to an overreaction. But I'm always working on my own morality and whether my actions are in line with what I "preach." 

Impostor syndome is a really common psychological problem, if you've never heard of it. It's (surprisingly?) very common among the most successful people in our society. I had never heard of it until I saw a video of Tina Fey discussing her struggles with it. Of course, I can't find that video now, but here is a similar quote:
"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud!' So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud."
That quote comes from the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. I don't think women are more susceptible than men, but that's the focus of the book. I haven't read it (yet), but here is a great quote of how the author describes Impostor Syndrome:
You're “always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel as if you’ve flown under the radar, been lucky or that they just like you. If you dismiss your accomplishments and abilities, you’re left with one conclusion: That you’ve fooled them.”

And boy, does that describe conversion sometimes. LifeHacker suggests that Impostor Syndrome is actually a good sign. Would I rather not have it? Yes. But thanks for making me less like a failure, LifeHacker. A for effort.

While I may struggle with these questions more than the average bear, I think impostor syndrome is alive and well for many (most?) converts at one point or another. You've "made it," but what now? 
Quoting a prior blog post: A very wise rabbi once told me that a common problem with converts is that they fail to realize "there's no there there."
We often focus on the goal of conversion without making longer-term goals beyond conversion. Then the mikvah happens, and we're supposed to just start living as a Jew. That's a huge shift of your self-perception from the person struggling to get in the door to being Average Jewish Joe. Compound that with still feeling like the same person you always were, and you can doubt whether "the change" happened:
Who am I? Where do I belong? Do I fit in? Is this the right place for me? Have I fooled even myself?
My conclusion is that it's normal. I don't believe there is a real "change" at the mikvah in our self-perception. Change happens so much more gradually. You may "feel Jewish" long before you enter that mikvah or you may struggle to "feel Jewish" for the rest of your life. All I know is that I feel like me. Just Skylar. (And that's a major part of the philosophy behind why I don't go by my Hebrew name, speaking of overthinking things.) I happen to be Jewish. Perhaps that is closer to what FFBs feel?


  1. Thank you for the bravery in posting this. I have these feelings all the time. There is a certain pressure in the Frum world to up the ante as a convert. That is, to be the most frum. It's very frustrating because you work work work to fit in and then post-conversion you can't help but think, is this really me?

  2. I can understand why someone might feel that way. Especially after going through a previous conversion, only to find out later that it wasn't "real" in the eyes of most Orthodox Jews and the State of Israel. And in light of current threats by some misguided fanatics to retroactively invalidate conversions of, it seems, anyone who disagrees with them in any way.
    I guess this is where faith in the wisdom of the rabbanim you trusted with your conversion comes in. After all, you daily trust some rabbi, somewhere, with making sure the food you eat is kosher. You trust a rav with the sale of your chametz before Pesach. And the rav knowingly accepts responsibility for your aveiros if he makes a mistake. (Think of the Impostor Syndrome some rabbis must struggle with!) That is one of the reasons it's so difficult to convert - because whatever you do from that point on can reflect on your conversion rav and beis din.
    So, unless you know of some reason to doubt their expertise and diligence in handling your conversion process, try to relax and focus on who you are today, and where you go from here on. That's enough of a responsibility.

  3. Thank you Selkie for a thoughtful comment, I have doubts constantly and it is crippling, yet I don't know who I can talk with about it

  4. Interesting. I know the conversion and ba'al teshuva processes are not the same, but as a ba'al teshuva I also feel like an imposter sometimes. Actually doubly so, as not only am I worried FFBs will 'realise' I'm not as frum and knowledgeable as they expected (or as I feel they expect, which is not the same), I'm worried other BTs will realise I had a traditional (rather than purely secular) upbringing and accuse me of being an 'imposter' BT!

  5. I felt that way before conversion, as I started to feel more comfortable within my community and then would think "but they must ALL KNOW I'm not really a Jew!" As soon as I left the mikvah, I suddenly felt more validated, like now I could assert my presence without doubts because I was a Jew, not just a Jew wannabe. I noticed this when I suddenly became vocal in Shabbat morning Torah study, whereas before I would have thoughts and opinions and keep them to myself, so self-conscious of what others might think. I did feel self-conscious for a while about learning rituals and holiday observances or when people were talking about family traditions and passed-down recipes and I couldn't participate in the conversation. But I've since gotten comfortable with my status as a Jew-by-choice. I've learned that I have not been judged within my community (except by a few Orthodox who don't see my conversion as "real"), that I've been welcomed and embraced, and that my fellow Jews actually value my opinion as someone who was not born into the tribe and has a different perspective and appreciation for the faith and culture. They actually appreciate that about me and don't want me to try to blend in. That's led me to be more comfortable expressing curiosity or asking questions. It's made it so that I can say, "It makes me a little sad that I don't have a 'grandma's famous challah' recipe that everyone else seems to have," and immediately five women offer to teach me to make challah with their family recipe so that I can have one of my own to pass down. I'm different for being a convert, but I think that brings richness to my experience and to those around me.