Thursday, July 10, 2014

Impostor Syndrome

I found myself in a long late-night discussion on the phone with my daughter last night about Impostor Syndrome.  Impostor Syndrome, according to the Wiki, "is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be."

Because she works in a software firm where there are few women, K has initiated a "Ladies Lunch" where they discuss topics of interest related to their roles as women in the workplace, and yesterday's topic was Impostor Syndrome.  Apparently lots of women, particularly, find their success at work is impeded by this one (see this excellent article in The Atlantic about The Confidence Gap) but at some point in the conversation I pointed out that in some ways Impostor Syndrome can be a gift.

Consider this: if you don't believe you know everything you need to know, doesn't that impel you to learn more?  If you don't see yourself as an expert, aren't you more willing to listen to the opinions of others?  While my "success" in life hasn't been all that great, many of the things I have been able to accomplish came about as a result of my struggles with IS.

When I knew I knew stuff, but was concerned no one would believe that I knew what I knew, I took courses so I could "have more authority."  And each time I did that new revelations occurred and new directions emerged that had little or nothing to do with what I went in to learn.  It was all good!

In what I think is a particularly curious coincidence, my reading this morning about creative blocks (in Lois Robbins' delightful little book, Waking up in the Age of Creativity) brought me this paragraph:

"When we are reluctant to exert influence we may simply not believe that we have anything of value to offer.  If we do think so, we are held back by a fear of being thought pushy or aggressive.  These inhibitions can be traced historically to hierarchical religious consciousness: only the expert, the priest, or teacher has access to truth.  All of what we learn must be handed down to us by "sovereign knowers" -- those in whom truth is invested by divine authority or by institutional credentials.

In a creation-centered theology, contrastingly, we all have the potential of being "sovereign knowers" because we are each an expression of the divine...  As we learn to work cooperatively instead of competitively, we will overcome this block and feel more comfortable about exerting our influence."

I'm not certain it occurred to me before that some of my reluctance to accept my own expertise had its results in my religious background; I had always assumed it was tied up with being the only child of two critical parents.  But it makes sense, really: not only did I get those messages in church, but how my parents raised me was largely formed by Augustinian spirituality: children are born in Original Sin, and the parent's job is to teach them to control and repress all their sinful desires, thoughts and activities.

No wonder it took until my 50's to get to the point where my creativity could surface! And no wonder I have trouble asserting myself as an artist -- though I've been an artist all my life, I've only had 5 or six courses in this particular kind of art, and have only been doing it for a couple of years so I have no authority: I am an impostor!

So, yes, I find it hard to sell myself, my work, and my ideas -- that's the bad side of IS.  But look at all I've had the chance to learn and do over the years!  All in all, not a bad life...

2 comments: said...

Thanks for sharing the article on the confidence gap. Such impact from the way we were raised and the general male / female stereotyping.... I read your blog just another every day., such wisdom and insight. Thank you. You are amazing. Go forth with bold confidence!

Diane Walker said...

Thanks so much!