Imposter syndrome seems to be the child of the moment: it appears that many of us in academia – or para-academia in particular – believe themselves to be on tender ground, as though they will imminently be unmasked as the frauds they consider themselves to be.
I would like to talk not about this general atmosphere, but about something specific to do with it: how we react to and remember criticism and praise. Humans can respond in a multitude of ways to both of these eventualities: and I think it’s worth assessing how you do so, so that you can become aware of the consequences.
The most functional response to criticism is to learn from it. One of the risks of stretching your abilities is that you’ll make mistakes that you’ll have to learn from – so the person who is always learning and pushing themselves is logically far more likely to make errors. That’s not to say that someone consistently cocking up is consistently trying hard: personal striving is not a necessary condition of error. But it does put the nature of errors, and the criticism which results from them, into a more nuanced and subtle light.
Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, you won’t respond well to criticism at all. A bad reaction to negative judgement might result in a number of different behaviours – rants on social media, to friends, fits of weeping and self doubt or, if you’re me, a distinct sense of failure, the end of the world, and belief that any ability and skill that I have ever exhibited has just been thoroughly undermined. Fortunately, I can usually be persuaded out of the doldrums, and time itself gives room for reflection and a more objective assessment of the situation.
The consequences of your responses can be severe. If you tend to shut down, like me, you might find yourself loosing track of the other things you have to do, not wanting to do things you know you have to, or getting anxious and consequentially making other errors. So knowing how you respond and learning how to manage it is crucial if you are to make a success of yourself.
In many ways, the reaction to praise can be more peculiar and ambiguous. It certainly is with me. I hope that there are some people out there who can take praise well and who presume that what is said is precisely what is meant. It is logical, after all, to assume that people are telling you the truth.
But I get the impression that most people I know don’t behave that way. I certainly don’t. Whilst I’m often secretly pleased and develop some kind of phantom big-headedness when someone says something kind, more often than not I’m also chronically embarrassed. There are several reasons for this. One is that I don’t believe I deserve the praise. Another is that the person giving the positivity is just being kind to spare my feelings. The final reason is that I’m fairly egalitarian about happiness, and don’t want other people to feel upset because I was more successful than they were, in whatever situation. Which is a product of my own jealousy when those other people are in turn more successful than me.
Sometimes, of course, I do feel like I deserve praise. When that happens, I know danger is coming. Because either I’ve been over confident, or in denial, about the work I’ve produced, or the praise I finally receive does not come anywhere close to the proclamations of genius I’ll have been hoping for.
My personal responses to both negative and positive feedback are, then, a complex mixture of arrogance and self-denigration. Neither of which are particularly good, and which I’ve had to learn to control in order not to turn into an impossible nightmare of a human being.
I’m not telling anyone to change their responses. I know I can’t help how I feel, so I don’t expect others to be able to. But I do think that we need to be aware of the ramifications of those responses on our personal futures and on the people around us. You might think that your success is only make-believe: but the consequences of your behaviours are always real.