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The Cure for Imposter Syndrome Isn’t Confidence

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Imposter syndrome is the gnawing sense that one isn’t good enough to be in the social position one is in. How did I get this far? I’m not even that smart. When will everyone find out that I don’t know what I’m doing? Common in graduate school and high-pressure careers, these thoughts and feelings cause numerous harms. Below, I’ll outline some of the harms of imposter syndrome and their sources, focusing on academic settings. Then I’ll turn to some thoughts about what we can do to mitigate them. While imposter syndrome can be described as a lack of confidence, I’ll suggest that the best approach on an individual level has little to do with trying to be confident.

Let’s start by identifying some of the harms caused by imposter syndrome. First, imposter syndrome causes epistemic problems — problems in how we form beliefs. These issues occur at the level of the individual and the community. The person who has imposter syndrome does not believe in their own ability to succeed in the high-pressure environment they’re in.

At the individual level, these beliefs distort our understanding of our own (and others’) work. When another person’s praise is filtered through my own insecurities, my doubts prevent me from receiving their testimony about my work accurately.

Imposter syndrome also inhibits community-building in departments, workplaces, and fields. People are much less likely to share with each other and learn from each other if each is convinced that closer scrutiny will reveal that they don’t belong. This lack of community-building is its own harm, and it also contributes to epistemic problems in the community. Simply put, the community misses out on good work from those who are too insecure to engage with others fully, reducing overall learning and progress. Finally, imposter syndrome is unpleasant and distracting. It is exhausting to think that one doesn’t really measure up to one’s position.

There are structural contributions to imposter syndrome that make it difficult to eradicate on an individual basis. Feelings of inadequacy often arise in conditions of scarcity. When there are not enough full-time jobs for all the graduates in one’s field of study, the sense that one must be at the top of the class in order to achieve one’s goals is understandable. These structural considerations intersect with considerations of justice and public identity. Did I receive this opportunity because I’m a woman? Would I have gotten in if I didn’t look good for department diversity? Do I even belong here? What is often cast as an individual psychological issue is exacerbated by larger-scale issues one cannot directly control.

A harsh climate can also amplify imposter syndrome, such as a department that rewards taking cheap shots at others, or one that encourages hierarchical thinking and discourages collaboration. Departments — and the individuals they comprise — have a duty to support an environment that is welcoming rather than isolating.

This duty is not only a moral duty of care; but, given the epistemic problems caused by imposter syndrome, it is also an extension of an academic department’s commitment to intellectual flourishing.

On an individual level, one might think that working on one’s confidence is the way out of imposter syndrome. Consider the grad student who feels they never quite deserve the praise their work receives. If they could just have greater confidence in their own abilities, they would be able to accept others’ praise as evidence of their abilities, right?

This answer is, perhaps, half right. Feeling confident in your abilities (to the extent that one can affect these feelings directly) would help reduce imposter syndrome. But confidence is not unshakeable, and it’s difficult to gain. Most of us are familiar with the trope of the person who exudes confidence to cover over deep insecurities. It doesn’t work. Burying one’s insecurities doesn’t get rid of them, because darkness is their natural habitat. The person with imposter syndrome is not well-suited to perceive their abilities accurately, and forced confidence is unlikely to succeed.

The best way out may be a counterintuitive one. I suggest that the antidote to imposter syndrome lies in cultivating the virtue of humility. Following Aristotle, we can conceive of a virtue as a character trait (or tendency to act) that lies between two extremes, both of which are vices. Humility is proper regard for oneself, avoiding both the excess of bravado (regarding oneself too highly) and the deficiency of self-doubt (regarding oneself too lowly).

Proper regard for yourself depends on a proper understanding of who you are. In a climate that pits colleagues against one another, it is easy to see yourself as an individual who needs to prove their worth, rather than as a member of a community who already belongs because of your common purpose. Likewise, it is easy to find your identity and self-worth in your professional successes, which can breed a deep insecurity and sense of precarity. Viewing yourself as a whole person (a trustworthy friend, a beloved sibling, an adventurous cook, a curious listener…) eases the anxiety surrounding your professional success.

So how does one cultivate humility? As ever, the best advice may be to practice. Surround yourself with people you can learn from, which is not difficult in most academic departments. Ask them about their work. Practice taking joy in their successes. Ask questions without regard for how they reflect on your intellect. And wrestle your sense of worth from your academic accomplishments. Consider the possibility that professional accolades needn’t be a load-bearing part of your sense of self.

Has the humble person given up the possibility of confidence? Not necessarily. Confidence is not the opposite of humility, but one of its natural results. As C.S. Lewis says in his essay “The Weight of Glory,” “Perfect humility dispenses with modesty.” When your work is satisfactory, humility allows you to be satisfied with it — both in the sense of giving you permission to feel satisfied and in the sense of clearing the way of self-doubt so as to make satisfaction in your own work possible. We cannot all be the smartest person in every room, but perhaps with practice and a shift in focus we can be content with that.

The Scourge of Self-Confidence

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Our culture is in love with self-confidence — defined by Merriam-Webster as trust “in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” A Google search of the term yields top results with titles such as “Practical Ways to Improve Your Confidence (and Why You Should)” (The New York Times), “What is Self-Confidence? + 9 Ways to Increase It” (positivepsychology.com), and “How to Be More Confident” (verywellmind.com). Apparently, self-confidence is an especially valued trait in a romantic partner: a Google search for “self-confidence attractive” comes back with titles like “Why Confidence Is So Attractive” (medium.com), “4 Reasons Self-Confidence is Crazy Sexy” (meetmindful.com), and “6 Reasons Why Confidence Is The Most Attractive Quality A Person Can Possess” (elitedaily.com).

I will argue that self-confidence is vastly, perhaps even criminally, overrated. But first, a concession: clearly, some degree of self-confidence is required to think or act effectively. If a person has no faith in her ability to make judgments, she won’t make many of them. And without judgments, thinking and reasoning is hard to imagine, since judgments are the materials of thought. Similarly, if a person has no faith in her ability to take decisions, she won’t take many of them. And since decisions are necessary for much intentional action, such a person will often be paralyzed into inaction.

Nevertheless, the value that we place on self-confidence is entirely inappropriate. The first thing to note is that behavioral psychologists have gathered a mountain of evidence showing that people are significantly overconfident about their ability to make correct judgments or take good decisions. Representative of the scholarly consensus around this finding is a statement in a frequently-cited 2004 article published in the Journal of Research in Personality: “It has been consistently observed that people are generally overconfident when assessing their performance.” Or take this statement, from a 2006 article in the Journal of Marketing Research: “The phenomenon of overconfidence is one of the more robust findings in the decision and judgment literature.”

Furthermore, overconfidence is not a harmless trait: it has real-world effects, many of them decidedly negative. For example, a 2013 study found “strong statistical support” for the presence of overconfidence bias among investors in developed and emerging stock markets, which “contribut[ed] to the exceptional financial instability that erupted in 2008.” A 2015 paper suggested that overconfidence is a “substantively and statistically important predictor” of “ideological extremeness” and “partisan identification.” And in Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, published at the start of the second Iraq War, the Oxford political scientist Dominic Johnson argued that political leaders’ overconfidence in their own virtue and ability to predict and control the future significantly contributed to the disasters of World War I and the Vietnam War. And of course, the sages of both Athens and Jerusalem have long warned us about the dangers of pride.

To be sure, there is a difference between self-confidence and overconfidence. Drawing on the classical Aristotelian model of virtue, we might conceive of “self-confidence” as a sort of “golden mean” between the extremes of overconfidence and underconfidence. According to this model, self-confidence is warranted trust in one’s own powers and abilities, while overconfidence is an unwarranted excess of such trust. So why should the well-documented and baneful ubiquity of overconfidence make us think we overvalue self-confidence?

The answer is that valuing self-confidence to the extent that we do encourages overconfidence. The enormous cultural pressure to be and act more self-confident to achieve at work, attract a mate, or make friends is bound to lead to genuine overestimations of ability and more instances of people acting more self-confidently than they really are. Both outcomes risk bringing forth the rotten fruits of overconfidence.

At least in part because we value self-confidence so much, we have condemned ourselves to suffer the consequences of pervasive overconfidence. As I’ve already suggested, my proposed solution to this problem is not a Nietzschean “transvaluation” of self-confidence, a negative inversion of our current attitude. Instead, it’s a more classical call for moderation: our attitude towards self-confidence should still be one of approval, but approval tempered by an appreciation of the danger of encouraging overconfidence.

That being said, we know that we tend to err on the side of overconfidence, not underconfidence. Given this tendency, and assuming, as Aristotle claimed, that virtue is a mean “relative to us” — meaning that it varies according to a particular individual’s circumstances and dispositions — it follows that we probably ought to value what looks a lot like underconfidence to us. In this way, we can hope to encourage people to develop a proper degree of self-confidence — but no more than that.