Who Do You Think You Are?

This is not about the TV programme of the same name. I would not be a good contender for that because, at least on one side of the family, I know quite a lot about my antecedents so I doubt they could dig up surprises about my grandparents (as a child I lived with two of them right up till their deaths and we had a filing cabinet of even earlier diaries dating back to the 1880s or so). On the contrary, this post is about how you view yourself – either as a person or a professional – and how that may square or jar with how others see you and the comments they make to you in person.

There are of course the inappropriate and/or ambiguous comments such as

‘you look stunning in that dress’

when you’ve just given a major talk at a conference, that variously come across as just creepy or as an unwelcome come-on that costs energy to deal with. I’m not wanting to discuss those either. There are the genuinely uplifting ones that make you feel good about yourself: ‘you chaired that meeting really well’ for instance, or ‘that was an illuminating paper of yours, I learned so much’. These are of course the ones each of us treasure, but which perhaps come our way less often than we might like. But the ones that are either hard to deconstruct or that simply don’t fit with your personal assessment of yourself can be somewhat disturbing, provoking reflection or anxiety upon occasion.

I have written in the past about the word ‘passion’ or ‘passionate’ ascribed to a presentation. For me, as I explained nearly a decade ago now (gulp, how time flies) in that relatively early post of mine, I find that word uncomfortable. I hear it as implying that I was excessive in my style of presentation, not entirely lady-like and therefore that I was in some senses transgressing. Many people might hear it and react to the word differently. Perhaps when people have said that I was passionate I really should have taken it as a compliment and the sneering I hear beneath the veneer was just because the speaker had a cold. I don’t know. Others can judge when that word is tossed in their direction whether to be flattered or not.

Then there are the words and phrases that are even more obviously gendered such as feisty or not a shrinking violet, as well as the ones that are somewhat unpalatable but may contain more than a grain of truth –

‘you talk too fast for a non-English speaking audience’

is one such I recall after speaking at an international conference. I’ve written before about the gendered ones that may turn up in a letter of reference such as hard-working and conscientious; you’re not so likely to hear about them since they won’t be directed actually at you. I hope such gendering of references is getting well-recognized even if not (yet) eradicated.

No, the ones I am thinking of are the ones that are positive but just feel as if they should be addressed to someone else. My late mother always used to find it funny that her National Trust coach trip companions attributed a good sense of direction to her. In practice she knew (as did we all) that she was useless on this front, but she had once found the way to an out-of-sight café on one of their excursions, and ever afterwards had a reputation for being able to find her way around. That statement definitely (and rightly) contradicted her own sense of self.

For me, in a professional setting I find it bizarre to have ‘poise’ attributed to me at a time when I know I’m quaking in my boots or otherwise in bad shape; or to be told that I had managed a difficult companion well on a committee, when my sense was that I hadn’t a clue how to shut them up and had, on the contrary, permitted them to dominate the meeting to everyone else’s detriment. Sometimes I stop to think if that action – whatever it was – was noticeably better than average then I need to recalibrate. Because, of course, when someone praises you and you think they are being ridiculous the answer is probably you are suffering – yet again – from impostor syndrome. We should not forget this, nor that a large proportion of us suffer from it. I am reminded of this by a conversation I had recently with a Churchill alum, an award-winning alum I should say, although from a world far removed from HE, who explained just how often they felt that disconnect of impostor syndrome. Just because they have won multiple awards in their field does not make the underlying anxiety ever go away.

So, the next time someone compliments you and you feel ‘who, me? I’m rubbish’ remember you are not alone. I have no advice to give you, since impostor syndrome seems (from my own experience) to lurk permanently just below the surface, except remember that that sensation does not equate to being rubbish. It probably relates more to a proper sense of humility and is to be preferred to its inverted alter ego the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This term comes from psychology and (as Wikipedia puts it) ‘comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability’. We all know a sprinkling of people like that.

Sometimes in talks I like to conclude with the cartoon of a professional woman (although gender is probably pretty irrelevant here) which has the punchline

“Finally everything is going great for me – except my ability to deal with success.”

Be you junior or senior, whatever tasks you are trying to take on, however much you succeed and people are telling you that you indeed are doing so, that sense may continue to skulk in your sub-conscious and pop its ugly head up with monotonous regularity. If someone is telling you unpalatable truths such as your speed of talking is excessive, listen and learn. If someone is paying you an unsolicited and freely-given compliment I am sure the wise course of action is to accept it gratefully and try to absorb the message into your sense of self (although in my mother’s case, this would undoubtedly have been the wrong thing to do). More generally, and particularly in the world of higher education where compliments are by and large hard to come by as the competitive streak dominates, they may have a point that you should attempt to internalise. However, as my Churchill alum and I would agree, this is a lesson hard to learn however senior you may be. Impostor syndrome does not go away with seniority; we just get better at masking it.


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