The post is part of the series: The Four Horsemen of Spiritual Ego.
Am I compassionate enough? Have I experienced a satori? Have I had a kundalini awakening, or was that indigestion? Am I as Zen-like as I should be, considering how much I meditate? Am I betraying my divine essence by buying new clothes? Does my anger or lack of love and light make me a fraud? Welcome to the world of spiritual imposter syndrome, feelings of fraudulence in a spiritual context.
Spiritual imposter syndrome causes unworthiness, fear of not being good enough, or concerns about not having much wisdom or insight to contribute. It creates unattainable goals, harsh self-criticism, or unfair comparison. There are four main causes of spiritual imposter syndrome — misconceptions of being a ‘spiritual person,‘ collective spiritual bypassing, projecting gold, and focusing on spiritual experiences, not practice.
Misconceptions of being a ‘spiritual person’
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”Steven Furtick
The label spiritual person implies there are unspiritual people. You can’t segment the spiritual into the unspiritual, no matter how much the ego may enjoy it. Sure, some people have a deliberate spiritual practice, others don’t. But spirituality is inclusive, not exclusive, and has nothing to do with yoga postures, meditation, or knowledge of the chakra system. That doesn’t stop people from having preconceived ideas about what makes a spiritual person.
Spiritual imposter syndrome comes from comparison to an idea. That is reinforced by individuals or communities that share ideas of what a spiritual person is like, from what they wear, to the activities they enjoy, to how they respond to being insulted or cut up in traffic. This plays out unconsciously, and is enforced by spiritual correctness. You won’t walk around with a checklist. But when faced with a choice, you might ask yourself: “is this what a spiritual person would do?” Any time you don’t match up, inferiority might creep in.
Awakening doesn’t mean becoming a carbon-copy of a set way of being spiritual. But when faced with expectations or misconceptions, it can be hard to feel like you belong. Acting as a spiritual person becomes a facade. Authentic awakening is a peek into your true nature, which encourages the flourishing of individuality, a unique translation of the divine, refracted through the once-in-a-lifetime prism of you.
Solution: don’t let anyone decide your path for you. Allow your practice to saturate every interaction, every movement, every choice. Allow spirituality to be who you are. Allow your open heart to erase illusionary separations between spiritual and unspiritual people. The core qualities of spirituality are love, compassion, and acceptance — extend those qualities to yourself when you feel unworthy.
Collective spiritual bypassing
“In Buddhist sanghas I’d say the quality of personal relationship is often not much better than it is in any other group, and sometimes it’s a lot worse because people are pretending to be more spiritual than they actually are, because they haven’t integrated their practice into their personal life.”John welwood
Spiritual imposter syndrome is also caused by denying or resisting difficult emotions, thoughts, or behaviours that don’t qualify as spiritual. When experienced, they’re translated as personal failings. That’s exacerbated within communities where these qualities are judged through collective spiritual bypassing. The more people that do this, the more the group’s identity forms an implicit or unconscious idea, and the more likely people are to self-censor, to appear spiritually correct.
Comparison is futile. If someone is spiritually bypassing or suppressing their emotions, it’s difficult to tell. You’ll never know what their authentic subjective experience is like, although intuitively, most people can sense a lack of congruence. Always trust your intuition. When witnessing behaviour that doesn’t match the person’s self-proclaimed status, try to avoid cognitive dissonance or justification — let their actions speak for themselves.
A skilled teacher will meet a student when they’re at. A teacher embodying compassion will identify when someone is unjustly comparing themselves, or trying to meet certain standards. Equally, all of us on the path have the responsibility to notice when we are comparing to others as a form of judgement, either superior to, or inferior to, both of which are linked to spiritual narcissism.
Solution: Learn from credible teachers or traditions whenever possible. Always be vigilant of spiritual ego and a sense of superiority. Remember the principle Buddha’s approach to mindfulness: a curious, relaxed, and non-judgemental approach to all feelings, thoughts, and sensations. Don’t rush to move past your psychology or trauma, and ignore those who label negative emotions as unspiritual.
“Inner gold is the highest value in the human psyche. It is our soul, the Self, the innermost part of our being. It is us at our best, our twenty-four-karat gift to ourselves.”Robert A. Johnson
Most of us instinctively link the shadow with darkness — undesirable traits or urges that are deemed evil, wrong, or shameful. Few realise the shadow also contains unexpressed gifts and talents, the highest version of ourselves. Inner gold is our divine essence. Because of its godlike nature, harnessing its power is intimidating. When our highest potential conflicts with our conscious self-image, we’re likely to project those qualities onto others.
How many of us feel worthy of our own divinity? Our godlike qualities? Harnessing this power feels like a big responsibility, and it terrifies the ego. It’s much more palatable to keep this potential in the shadow. Pedestalling teachers or peers who seem more advanced is one way of projecting gold. What we often don’t realise is that the very qualities we’re attracted to, and admire (or are jealous of) are qualities we possess, but have disowned.
Solution: Become aware of the process of projecting gold. What teachers do you pedestal or look up to? Can you relinquish your projections and acknowledge that this person is reflecting your potential? Relinquishing projection is a process of alchemy — meditate on those you idolise and the reasons why, and reflect on how to integrate those golden qualities within.
Focusing on experiences
“One should not be content with mere discipleship, initiation, ceremony of surrender, etc; these are external phenomena. Never forget the truth underlying all phenomena.”Sri Ramana Maharshi
Accessing higher levels of consciousness can unlock psychic or mental capacities, such as extrasensory perception, visions and insights, clairvoyance, energetic highs, or intense bursts of synchronicity or divine guidance. All of these are experiences — nothing more, nothing less. As discussed in spiritual narcissism, without vigilance, these experiences become rocket fuel for the ego’s sense of self-importance.
“Psychic vanity in many and strange forms constitutes a most seductive snare,” writes Grace Knoche, “binding the aspirations to the personal level instead of freeing them to respond to the call of one’s deepest being.” In the Pali Canon, the Buddha scolds sages for demonstrating psychic powers in public. Yogananda, too, noted that “spiritual advancement is not measured by one’s outward powers,” and that siddhis can be the downfall of many yogis who become attached to them.
When people get caught up trying to measure experiences, or compare their experiences to others, they risk spiritual imposter syndrome. Comparison and inferiority is enhanced by those who share such experiences with a sense of pride or superiority.
Solution: Focus on your spiritual practice and try not to be swayed by novel experiences: within yourself or others. Forgive yourself for being caught up with overexcitement if you experience the miraculous, this is a sign of innocence. Whenever you feel pulled in the direction of psychic vanity, ground yourself to avoid reinforcing an ego-based self-image, and get back to work.
Revealing the only imposter
In an age of social media, there’s pressure to portray the perfect lifestyle. Each of us has a responsibility to be open and honest about our behind-the-scenes, to paint a realistic portrayal of awakening. That starts with self-honesty. It’s natural to compare ourselves to people we admire. Role models on the path are motivating. But making ourselves less than projects the gold of our spiritual potential.
Nothing in the external world can validate a sense of inferiority without giving power away in the process and forgetting that true power lies within. Attempting to compensate for inferiority by becoming ‘worthy’ is a trap of spiritual narcissism. The solution is to hold the pain and insecurity and to realise that which holds is much, much greater than that which is held.
The four horsemen are to be celebrated for revealing distractions and false promises, for bringing light to the shadows. Without spiritual bypassing, you integrate, accept, and embrace the human experience. Without spiritual narcissism, you taste true transcendence, true devotion, and true service. Without spiritual correctness, you allow your uniqueness to thrive.
When all of this is revealed, it becomes clear the ego is the only imposter. Without that, you know who you truly are.