Friday, February 22, 2013

Impostor Syndrome

Things I need to stop caring about:
1) What other people think
2) That voice in my head (some writers call it the Inner Editor)

You know that voice, yes? The one that tells you that you are not good enough? That no matter what you do you will always be deficient; that everyone else knows something that you don't, that you are incapable, somehow, of functioning in the real world among people.

Honest - XKCD

Impostor syndrome, says MIT quoting Wikipedia, is "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments". For many girls, a cult of modesty and self-effacement exacerbates the problem. Talking about your achievements, or simply remaining unworried when your friends are freaking out about something, is perceived as being arrogant/aloof/incorrect.

The MIT article to which I have linked above emphasizes impostor syndrome in academic settings, but the concept applies to any situation where you compete, in/directly, with other people. There's always temptation to back down, to give up rather than risk being exposed as lacking. To say "I'm just not good at X" instead of continuing to bluff or, better yet, work hard at whatever X is and gradually improve.

Flip side: never saying, definitively, "I am good at Y". I think I do this one rather often. Instead of saying "I'm good at math"* I say, "I really like math."

*Typing that, I felt a stab of worry - "Do I sound like I'm bragging?" But you know what, forget that, I'm making a point. I was about to type the following: "I'm probably justified in saying 'I like' rather than 'I'm good at' in this case, because relative to many other people I am not 'good at math'. At a math competition I attended earlier this month, my team (we had some of the smartest kids at the school) got smoked by ten-year-olds."

Back to impostor syndrome. I've read (probably in a Jim Collins book) that successful people generally attribute their successes to luck and their failures to their own shortcomings. An attitude of accountability surely helps in life, as well as an honest assessment of your weaknesses. Yet surely it is not healthy to blame yourself for everything, and surely there is a line between useful and useless paranoia.

I have certain phrases and words to which I return over and over. If you've been reading this blog for a while you might have noticed some: dark waters of the mind/sink in is probably the most prominent. But I don't think I've spoken of one written on an index card on my wall:

Fear complacency.

Double-edged sword and all that - constantly chasing new accomplishments will lead to burnout. But as long as you're pursuing something with your full commitment, you stand a chance of doing something worthwhile and outrunning your fears that you're not good enough. If you do work that justifies you (I think I'm quoting someone there), then does it really matter how you feel while you're doing it?

Of course it does. But when your mind is full of something you're working on, there's no room for petty doubts and existential crises.

I realize that I'm swinging from one unhealthy extreme to another. Being humble is good; so is owning your successes; so is not getting too attached to them. As always, Aurelius must have the last word. I've distilled his philosophy into one word:


+Italian for "you will suffice".


What I've been listening to repeatedly this week:

Little Drop of Poison - Tom Waits

1 comment:

  1. Damn I like that song, I hate my inner editor :/ Thanks for wht you post I really enjoy it. Please check out my blog if you get time :)