Impostor Syndrome

Art by BadComixByAnna

I’ve recently been watching Haters Back Off, a show about a young woman who’s below average in every respect, but who believes she’s perfect. It’s so uncomfortable that it makes me literally feel sick, and yet I can’t tear myself away. My husband has been laughing at me because I insist on watching it, and then I’ll fast-forward through half of every episode to avoid the most embarrassing parts.

I think I’m drawn to the premise, because I envy people who can have so much confidence. It makes life hell for the people around them, but it seems that those kinds of people always get more than is their due because they live out that childish maxim: “shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars”.

It’s not to say that all confident people are incompetent, but only that there are a lot of competent people who underestimate their competence. And in stark contrast to the people who are unjustifiably confident, who believe that they are entitled to more recognition than their talents actually warrant, are those who believe that any success they earn is a mistake and that they’re pulling off a big con on the people who trust them.

One of my favourite quotes is: “a man with a watch knows the time; a man with two watches is never sure”. Which is to say that the more I learn, the less sure I am of my understanding of anything. And while I won’t defer to someone who I know has less knowledge than I do on a subject, I’d never claim to have a complete understanding of any subject. Basically, I’m the kind of person who, if someone asks me for the time, will recommend that they get a second opinion from a wall clock because I can’t be sure of the accuracy of my watch. Unfortunately, vacillation is not a personality trait that people want in a lawyer or a doctor or a plumber. People prefer conviction, even if that conviction is feigned or borne of ignorance.

A friend of mine – a born cheerleader – suggested that this kind of false humility was as much a moral failing as false bravado, in that it permits unqualified people to go unchecked, to assume positions of power, and run like bulls in a china shop destroying the good work of other people. He framed it as an ethical responsibility to project confidence that is commensurate with one’s knowledge.

I believe that learning to be confident is a skill like any other. It can be learned and it must be practiced. And we can start by making attempts at it with smaller matters. Just last week I offered some offhand advice to someone, and she took strong exception it. I almost felt bad until I realized that I was doing her a favour so that she wouldn’t put herself in legal jeopardy. And so, for the first time in my life, I said: you can do whatever you want, I have no skin in the game, but I know what I’m talking about. She did take the advice, and to her credit she even thanked me later when it came to light that I’d been correct. I won’t lie: it felt HORRIBLE in the moment, but I would have felt far worse in the long term had I not warned her.

So: assert yourself; save a life… or at least save someone a big pain in the ass down the road.

Posted in: Progress

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