Becoming the Woman in the Mirror

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M_Leah

Every time I look in the mirror I receive a jolt. Who is this woman staring at me through eyes marked by a spray of smile lines, with hair the colour of antiqued pewter? It’s not the signs of age that shock me—it’s the overall effect. The woman in the mirror looks mature in all senses of the word. She certainly doesn’t match the image I have carried of myself through most of my life—the image of someone young, a child even. Someone who giggles and speaks in a sing-song voice. Someone gentle and mistake-prone and completely lacking in authority and wisdom.

But the grey hair and smile lines have started to dupe the outside world. Apparently, they think I have something to say, as evidenced by the number of invitations I am starting to receive to share “my wisdom” at conferences and gatherings.

Case in point: I was invited to speak at a conference on the other side of the continent by a prominent and well respected writer and thinker. He had invited other prominent writers and thinkers. And, he had invited me. I was so honoured and thrilled to meet him, I forgot to be incredulous. Then I checked the bio pages on the other speakers’ websites. All were men. All had PhDs. All had published numerous books. One man’s accomplishment list, detailing awards, honorary degrees, and published papers, was so long I had to click the downward scroll tab for at least 10 seconds. I ordered a few of my fellow speakers’ books so as to be in the know. The first one arrived a week later—hardback, Oxford University press, and with such heft it could easily double as a lethal weapon.

And so, naturally, I felt like an impostor. Like a little girl who had dusted talcum powder in her hair, put on her mother’s business suit, and snuck into an erudite adult world to which she didn’t belong.

I whined about this to my husband who related my feelings of insecurity to a mutual friend—a woman who happens to hold a PhD and has taught classes in women’s studies.

She said the most common phrase women use when describing their entrance into arenas of influence is, “I feel like an impostor.”

Hearing this helped. It helped a lot, actually. I suddenly felt part of a sisterhood of women coming out of the shadows, taking their place in the world of ideas and innovations and activism.

So I went to the conference. All by myself, way across the continent, to take my place in this circle of clever men.

And I made mistakes, even childish mistakes. The first night I was speaking in a graduate level writing class and launched into a story about one of my heroes, Maya Angelou. As an aside I said, “I think she lived in this part of the world.” To which all the students in the whole class exclaimed, nearly in unison, “Here! She taught here. At this university!” Oh, right. How could I have not know this!?

The second mistake occurred after our conference presentations, when all four speakers and our moderator gathered on stage to informally riff off each others’ talks. A lanky and uber successful African American young man, who I very much expect to become President of the United States one day, asked about the political influence of the organization I was representing. The truthful answer: virtually none. But “none” isn’t a very powerful, nor inspiring word so I bluffed, then floundered, then totally lost my train of thought—completely. Total blank. On stage. In front of everyone.

And then, I laughed at myself on stage, in front of everyone. I admitted that I was just BS’ing and that our work wasn’t the least bit political—this wasn’t our calling.

Neither was it my calling in that moment or throughout the conference to put on an aura of authority. I realized this most poignantly from my fellow speakers. The author of the scholarly tome spoke in gentle tones and created a relationally spacious community out of our little group through his thoughtful questions and active listening. The guy with the accomplishment list as long as my leg laughed and joked in the most delightfully self-deprecating way that it was no surprise to learn later that his His Franciscan pseudonym is Brother Coyote (aka, the trickster).

I think the quality both these men embodied is humility. It seems that this is a virtue that stands in radical contrast to insecurity. By their invitation and example I realized we all—women and men alike—are called to the same thing: humble strength. We are called to bravely show up, despite our inner imaginings. We are called to share our stories without posturing or crippling self-criticism. We are called to cast out wisdom, gained by experience and evidenced by grey hair and wrinkles, like seeds that they might flower in the world.

_______________

Image credit: Les Chatfield

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Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo is the author of Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community, a book Eugene H. Peterson called “remarkable” and Margaret Atwood called “clear-sighted and humorous.” She likes to read (and write) wise and winsome stories that inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world. She can be found online leahkostamo.com and @leahkostamo. She ministers with the Christian conservation organization, A Rocha.
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo

Latest posts by Leah Kostamo (see all)

  • Saskia Wishart

    This insecurity of feeling like an imposter is so relatable, and isn’t it true that we sometimes feel we need to be something other than ourselves in order to justify our presence, we need to ‘not make mistakes’ even though of course we do!

    Congratulations on all the opportunities coming your way Leah, it is exciting that you get to be the female face up there representing your version of – Humble Strength.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Saskia. Yes! The point isn’t to suddenly become Wonder Woman, but to just give out of who we are — mistakes and all. 🙂 Blessings in all your own opportunities.

      • Kathy Cooke

        Hi Leah,
        Wonderfully said! I am 51 and finally getting to know the woman in the mirror and beginning to accept her. Fear keeps me in the shadows although I know deep down that God calls us to “Share our stories without posturing or crippling self-criticism.” Thank you for sharing yours.

  • Sandy Hay

    Oh Leah I can so relate to the imposter thought. Fortunately I’ve forced myself almost to hear God over me. Although I wouldn’t word it quite the same way, This is exactly how I feel: ” I suddenly felt part of a sisterhood of women coming out of the shadows, taking their place in the world of ideas and innovations and activism.”

    • Leah Kostamo

      Hi Sandy. Thanks for commenting. I so agree — we need to hear what God is saying about us and let that be our truth about ourselves, which will give us the courage to step into places of influence.

  • Your story is startling to me. Haven’t had a “what? you too?” experience quite so vivid in a long time. The word that slithers through my brain is “fraud!”
    Some time ago I was chatting with a couple of young women after Sunday service, and it dawned on me, as we were talking … “These women are looking at me with respect and are listening to my words with expectation of something wise.” The only way that I knew to respond was with an arrow prayer to God for words and for a spirit of tenacity that will keep me holding onto Him so that when others come looking, they will find HIM and His wisdom — and the slithering words (“fraud!” “imposter!”) can be retired!
    I am very appreciative of your transparency in describing both the highs and the lows of your stretching experience.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Michele. Yes, it is so weird when you realize you’ve somehow become one of the “elders” (whether b/c of age or wisdom) and younger ones are looking to you for guidance. Thank God we have God!! to help us be that wise women the younger women think we are! 🙂 I remember my 90 year old grandmother telling me that even at that advanced age she still felt like a 13-year old inside. 🙂

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    Oh. My. Word. I can relate to it all, Leah. Thank you for this completely inspiring, encouraging post. It will definitely be one I’ll keep in my “encouragement” folder.
    P.S. It also makes me want to proudly display my grey hairs (*grin*).

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, Nicole! Methinks there are a whole army of us bravely stepping out of the shadows. And, shall we coin a new phrase? “Grey is the new black!”

  • oh Leah, how true and so beautifully said. Thank you for sharing your story, and please keep speaking and writing and showing up!

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thanks, April. Lovely to “see” you here. And I’m so glad you’re one of the women who is showing up too!

  • Sarah Joslyn

    I get this. The feeling that I am an impostor interrupts most of my days. I love your wisdom here and I just wish I could have been in those discussions to listen to you. I have a feeling that when we meet in person we will discover we are kindred. xoxo

    • Leah Kostamo

      Amen to that, Sarah (the kindred bit, not the feeling like an impostor everyday bit! :)). Looking forward to meeting you one of these days (and getting a tutorial on tiny house building should our farm ever move in that direction).

  • Bev Murrill

    I really love this, Leah. It’s such a powerful post for every woman who wants to but feels inadequate. Dammit! We’re ALL inadequate, even those with the PhDs and those with the penises… none of us have anything to offer except that the God of Grace and Miracles determines that we should have something to say and that people will listen to it!

    Love love love it! Good job!

    • Leah Kostamo

      Preach it, Bev! (By the way, your comment made my husband laugh — in a good way :)).

      • Bev Murrill

        :+}

    • Best. Comment. Ever. 😉

  • You know what? You writing about your fears and about making mistakes and learning to become the woman in the mirror, gives me permission to do the same. I’ve certainly made some really stupid mistakes. I mess up Calvary and Calgary, for example. 🙂

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thats a good one — Calvary and Calgary. Where are the real time editors for speakers? It’s a minefield! So glad to be on this journey with women dependant on grace!!

  • Anne Schrock

    Thank you! Hearing this gives me so much courage as I try to find a job. I say no to so many places and opportunities because I am convinced my lack of “credentials” will make my coworkers resent me. But I have a deep passion for people and I want to use your example to be brave and honest.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Way to go, Anne! I once taught high school and I was the only one without a teaching certificate (long story how I snuck into that gig!), but what I learned was that passion and natural talent and humility can carry you a long way — a lot further sometimes than credentials can! Blessings on your journey!

  • Evi

    Thank you Leah! It’s been a relief to read about your experience. It makes me feel less alone in my feelings of inadequacy and also about the wrinkle-thing ;-). You make perfect sense out of the tumbled thoughts that run through my head ever so often.

    Thank you for directing me to “SheLoves”. So far I’ve been reading along quietly but this time I just had to let you know how much I appreciate your thoughts and your writing. Although we haven’t seen each other in ages and are thousands of miles apart I still feel we could pick up right where we left.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Thank you dear Evi for commenting. Yes, I’m not quite used to the wrinkles yet (don’t you always expect to see your 20-year-self in the mirror every time?). And yes, SheLoves is a wonderful community of women and yes YES! I know we could pick up right where we left too. 🙂 Blessings, friend.

  • Charlene

    Your article is so timely. Impostor has been haunting my thoughts lately and I am encouraged to know that it is right on cue. It seems to be part of this season of life. Thank you for casting seeds of wisdom my way!

    • Leah Kostamo

      You’re so welcome, Charlene!

  • Lisha Epperson

    I’ll be 50 on my next birthday and will meet with the director of admissions at Union Theological Seminary next week. I’ve been a full time home educating mom for the past 14 years. I was shocked when the director responded to my lengthy email and thought surely she’s just entertaining little old me. Every insecurity floods me, because I’m not important. I hold no degrees or lengthy list of awards and citations. Why would she bother meeting with me?
    Gosh I saw myself in your words and I’m grateful for it. I’m going to humbly show up. This was a gift. Thank you.

    • Leah Kostamo

      Go get, em, Lisha! I was a home educating mom too. I think there’s an extra bit of challenge for those of us whose circle of influence has been made up of people under the age of 15 — makes us feel like we won’t be taken seriously in the adult world. Much grace to you in your next steps!

  • Like @lishaepperson:disqus I homeschooled for 14 years, though that ended over 10 years ago, but those insecurities can hang on like cat hair on black pants. Thank you for being so honest, for connecting with us in that, and reminding us we aren’t called to be perfect blooms but to plant seeds.