Taking oneself seriously

I don’t really feel qualified to talk about imposter syndrome since it now has its own philosophical literature (Katherine Hawley: here). I do, though, have experience of it with students and colleagues and try to counteract it. It helps to be able to understand the thinking behind it. Now that I have grey hair, I might match the stereotype of a philosopher to some extent but I’m all too aware of the less visible ways in which I don’t meet that stereotype. I have often felt like an outsider and doubted my worth.

In academic circles, the problem is not simply feeling that one doesn’t deserve the markers of success one has already gained. There is also a lack of confidence and inability to take oneself seriously. If you don’t, others are less likely to do so too. In contrast, it’s not hard to find those whose self-confidence far exceeds there true ability, enabling them to sound sure of themselves and authoritative. As the cliché goes, it’s all the wrong people who have imposter syndrome.

I try hard to concentrate on the content of a person’s verbal utterances rather than their manner of delivery. This is an attempt to ignore matters such as regional and national accents versus English received pronunciation, hesitancy and tone of voice. Of course, you can’t be entirely unaware of those factors, and you don’t want to be since the disparity between content and delivery allows you to identify those whose confidence level is unjustifiably low.

Why bother? For one thing, it helps academic progress if we consider what people say rather than way in which they say it. In doing so, we then take others seriously and this in time allows them to take themselves seriously too. If they can do so, their confidence might come closer to matching what they offer, encouraging them to speak more freely.

This might sound like a worthy and noble academic ideal. There’s nothing wrong with that but in addition it is so absolutely joyous to see someone have their moment of realisation and awakening when they start to take themselves seriously. I’ve seen it in students and I’ve seen it in early-career colleagues. New entrants to academia often don’t realise just how good they have become. When that’s true, there’s nothing more beautiful than them seeing it. I’m aware of the social justice element to this, too. Lack of confidence and imposter syndrome are not merely individual pathologies: they have social determinants such as class, race, gender and disability. It’s a privilege to see those from traditionally disempowered groups demand a voice and assert that those factors should not and will not matter.

1 Comment

  1. Ruth Groff says:

    Yes. Thank you for this lovely, insightful post.


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