We’ve all been there: The new job or recognition or relationship that we just can’t enjoy because we’re plagued by self-doubt, certain that we don’t deserve this and that, as soon as they find out, we’ll be exposed for the frauds we are.
Impostor syndrome is nothing new. St. Hildegard of Bingen struggled with it in the Middle Ages.
Hildegard (1098-1179) was one of the great geniuses of her age: a poet, composer, herbalist, historian, theologian, botanist, and playwright. But she was so plagued by impostor syndrome that she hid all her brilliance for decades, certain that her informal Latin education meant she couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute.
The tenth child in a noble family, Hildegard was more than just a precocious kid. By three years old, she was receiving mystical visions (though she didn’t tell anybody). At the age of eight, she was sent to live with a 14-year-old anchoress named Jutta, who was to provide for Hildegard’s education.
Unsurprisingly, this 14-year-old was unable to offer everything that the young genius needed. A visionary herself, she gave Hildegard a strong religious education but didn’t teach her the intricacies of Latin grammar. This rudimentary Latin education nagged at Hildegard for years - though her later writings show profound mastery of the language, she always felt like an imposter.
In adulthood, Hildegard became a Benedictine nun and was the leader of her religious community by the time she was 38. But while she studied much over the years (and learned even more through her visions than through her reading), Hildegard kept it to herself. Even when God himself ordered her to write down her visions, Hildegard hesitated. However brilliant she might be, she didn’t have the credentials that would earn the respect of the men who ran the world. When she finally did begin to write, she prefaced her famous work Scivias with an explanation of her delay, saying, “But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility.”
Once she began to write, though, she was soon making up for lost time. She wrote about her visions, of course, about the Saints and Scripture and prayer and theology. But Hildegard was no one-trick pony, and now that she had found her voice she was using it on every conceivable matter. She wrote music that’s still performed today. She researched botany and natural history. She wrote about morality and medicine and even invented a completely new language, written in a completely new alphabet.
Many were initially suspicious of this “ill-educated” woman setting herself up as an authority. But Hildegard’s evident holiness and brilliance made it hard for them to silence her, particularly when the Pope got ahold of some of her writings and asked her to leave her cloister and go out preaching - a thing that was utterly unheard-of for any woman, much less a cloistered nun. Hildegard went on several preaching tours through Germany, no longer uncertain in her gifts but proud to be the woman God had made her to be, whatever the naysayers might have thought.
It was this confidence in her identity in Jesus that empowered Hildegard to voice uncomfortable truths, to correct bishops, an emperor, and even the Pope. But by that time, she was far from the timid genius she had been well into middle age; she was a woman alive with the certainty that God had made her good. She didn’t need men’s approval. She didn’t need credentials. She only needed the gifts she’d been given by the Creator of the universe. Those were plenty.
Hildegard continued to struggle against her detractors, men who were threatened by her brilliance and suspicious as a result. They eventually put her and her monastery under interdict (refusing them all Sacraments) because she wouldn’t bow to them on a matter of governance. But by this time, Hildegard had no difficulty standing firm in what she knew to be the truth. She held fast under this persecution and was ultimately vindicated - both in life and in death. St. Hildegard of Bingen was eventually canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church, a genius who overcame self-doubt because of God’s love.
If you struggle with feelings of inadequacy, you’re in good company. Take a page from St. Hildegard of Bingen’s book and choose to believe the truth that in Jesus you are enough.