Friday, July 25, 2008

Entitlement and the impostor syndrome

Responses to my post yesterday have got me thinking about what Artichoke tells me is called Impostor Syndrome (BTW Artichoke's is one of the few pseudonymous blogs still in my reading list).

So let's look at this for a moment.

Until recently, my drive to work every morning took me past a private high school. In spite of the head teacher's protestations to the contrary ("our student body represents wide socio-economic diversity"), the student body is drawn largely from the haves and have yachts. I am fairly confident of this, because I made enquiries there when looking for schools for my own sons, and I know what it costs. There is a pedestrian crossing (with traffic lights) across one section of the road, and an elevated pedestrian bridge across another, so that the boys can cross in safety. Nevertheless, many of the boys choose to ignore both these provisions and cross the road in between the heavy traffic. Many is the time I have had to slam on anchors to avoid a tragedy. The boys themselves make no effort to look before crossing - they simply step out. They make no acknowledgement of those who have had to stop for them. They seldom bother even to look in the direction of the motorist. On one occasion, when it had been a little too close for comfort, I hit my hooter. The child in question laughed at me. There is no aggression, no middle finger, no "Yeah, what of it?" defiance. Simply what appears to be an assumption of entitlement.

I wonder if that doesn't come with the territory of being privileged. Almost all these kids are male (they only have girls in the post-16 section of the school). Most of them are white. With the exception of those on scholarships, they are from wealthy homes.

The comments on yesterday's post seem to indicate that the being male bit is no defence against impostor syndrome (although a handful of comments hardly constitutes a valid sample), although there seems to have been a fair amount of research that indicates that it is more prevalent among women.

I have a view that socio-economic conditioning might also play a role. If you have been raised to 'know your place'. If your parents, grandparents, etc. were manual labourers, you might grow up with the intrinsic and extrinsic expectation that you, too, will work with your hands, rather than your head. I wonder, for example, if those on scholarships at the school I waffled on about earlier don't often experience this sense of impostor-ship. Even your own parents might be somewhat put out if you get 'ideas above your station'. My first brother-in-law (ex-brother-in-law? brother-out-law?) was the sixth of eight children... and the first to want to finish high school. His mother wouldn't hear of it. All his siblings had left at 16 and gone to the railways to get a trade. He was not to think he was any better than they were. He should go and serve his apprenticeship and get a railway house like the rest of them! My sister was never approved of by the other wives, because she had 'airs and graces'. Actually, my sister is a pretty down to earth person without a single air or grace, but I suspect her comparitively high level of erudition made them uncomfortable. They were very 'I told you so' when the marriage failed, and rather relieved to see the back of her.

I wonder whether there might not even be an ethnic/cultural factor in societies where prejudices exist (I guess that might well be everywhere!). I was marginally involved in the establishment of an affirmative action programme within a company in Cape Town in the early 90's. It was an exciting time in South Africa, and it was a wonderful challenge to seek out the diamonds in the rough among the previously disadvantaged communities and offer them development opportunities previously witheld from them. Watching a person blossom as they see their horizons expand... well, can there be anything more rewarding? Of course, where people from these groups were promoted to supervisory and management positions, there were all sorts of hurdles to overcome. Not only were the employees unaccustomed to reporting to, say, a black woman, but the new supervisor/manager had to be sympathetically supported to overcome what I now recognise as impostor syndrome. Sadly, this find-and-develop approach was seen as being too slow. There were not enough quick wins. So a window-dressing approach was adopted, and people were appointed left and right on the basis of gender and skin colour... which was a tactic that had been applied before, only this time it was a different gender and a different skin colour than before. The transformation was fast and largely unsupported, which meant that Impostor Syndrome became like the elephant in the corner that everybody carefully avoids mentioning.

If you hear something said often enough from early enough, you begin to believe that it's true. Similarly, if you never hear something said at all, you are likely to assume that it does not apply to you. It's why so many parenting books advocate that we do not tell our children "you are naughty"/"you stupid boy" but rather, "that was a naughty/stupid thing to do".

So I reckon that Impostor Syndrome might be the outworking of all our stereotyping, and shaking off the conditioning of a lifetime that tells you you are unworthy... well, I guess that might take another lifetime. Or perhaps an epiphany like Janet seems to have had (see her comment on my post yesterday).

As to why it should be so prevalent among 'gifted' people... well, that's a mystery to me! Perhaps I'll understand it better when I've read the books jammasterjay recommended.


artichoke said...

Re: If you hear something said often enough from early enough, you begin to believe that it's true. Similarly, if you never hear something said at all, you are likely to assume that it does not apply to you.

This article is not about imposter syndrome per se BUT deeply connected and provides a disturbing insight into your original post .... In the Burning House

Anonymous said...

Seen this one? An online questionnaire
I think most people suffer to some extent, not a gender thing really. I used to think mine was due to my dyslexia but now I'm not so sure. Pressure of being felt to under-perform is certainly part of it. I feel a blog response coming on :-)

Anonymous said...

@artichoke What a harrowing story and how well it reflects what I was saying. I have a personal testimony as well - nowhere near as gutwrenching, but I'm afraid that it would come across as too 'bring on the violins' so I'll spare you the details.

@nindah Thanks for the link. I hadn't seen it before, and I'm not sure if I'm glad I now have ;o). I won't tell you my score, but it was high!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Karyn. The analogy is amazing. How do you think of such things? I am guilty of calling my kids things I shouldn't. I will be more careful, thanks to you. One thing, I would like to share. It is possible to break the conditioning and start thinking that we do deserve things and praises. A very relevan issue but often ignored. You are a brave woman, brought it out and sorted it out wow!

Graham Wegner said...

And here I was thinking I was the only one that felt this way.

Anonymous said...

@graham - Nope. I take heart in the fact that enough people feel that way for it to have become a named syndrome.

That said, I would like to point out that I have previously chastised you for doing yourself down. Like many teachers, you seem to yourself as "Just a teacher..."

Tell me, when you phone home and your wife answers the phone, do you say "It's only me"? Only the most important person in her life. Only the person she has chosen to spend the rest of her life with.

I know from experience that none of this is going to change the self-doubt you feel. But we need to stop repeating these subliminal message from us... which is kinda weird coming from me, since I roll my eyes at NLP.

Graham Wegner said...

@karyn Actually I always say, "It's just me" to Joanne on the phone!! But it's more of a "relax, you can be yourself and not watch what you say" type of statement!