Friday, November 09, 2007


A CHE column on 'impostor syndrome' among academics, the sneaking feeling that all your teaching and research is really phony. It's something to which I have, by temperament, strong and recurring temptations, but I have a somewhat cynical attitude toward the sort of treatment that seems suggested by the article.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the sneaking feeling really is always at least partly right. The reason you've had the success you've had really is partly due to sheer dumb luck; it is indeed partly due to a bit of finessing on your part. You really are partly a phony. That nagging feeling that you don't understand your subject as well as others tend to infer? It's partly right. Those of us who feel it feel it not because we are silly but because there really is some truth to it. The 'partly' and 'some' is in each case key.

'Impostor syndrome' is actually the intellectual version of the moral disease of scruples. Scrupulosity is hard to eradicate because the reasoning involved in it is not wholly wrong: we do constantly come up short, we always could do better, we have a lot of sins, we can and sometimes really do sin in small matters, and there are more gray areas that are difficult to evaluate than we could hope. But the attempt to feel as virtuous as others seem to think you is exactly the wrong medicine for it; either it just aggravates your scruples or it turns you into exactly the sort of sinner you are inclined under scruples to think yourself, namely, the hypocrite, who really does sin even in apparently innocent matters.

So it is here. Faced with this feeling, the right response is not, I think, to try to "Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are," which really just leads your self-ideal highjacking your self-image (or, worse, other people's ideals highjacking your self-image). The right response is to start thinking through how completely absurd it would be for anyone to feel as bright and capable as everyone else seems to think they are, given that everyone else is a completely incompetent judge in this matter. It's the whole idea that you should feel as bright and capable as everyone seems to think you are that's the problem. Trying to get you to "Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are" often just aggravates the situation, since it forces you to recognize more and more that people really have no clue who you are, but assumes that they should, and the feeling is quite often a sense of this very disparity. The other danger is that it might make you completely into the sort of imposter you're worried you might be.

The first step, I think, is to recognize that it is a pathology of reason, a warping of your judgment by a combination of internal and external factors; and the best way to handle it is not to try to force yourself to regard yourself as bright and capable but to figure out what those factors are, and deal with them. What I find helps me is to remember that worrying about it is a distraction from my real interests, and that it does not in fact matter if I'm bright and capable at all: what matters are things like truth and justice, and the sort of person I want to be is the sort of person whose devotion to these things is so great that he is willing even to be a fool for them. I'm sure others would have to focus on other things.

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