Do those two qualities sound mutually exclusive to you? They’re not, though quite a lot of people think they are. In fact, they complement one another to an extent that only experience can adequately illuminate.
No, no political blather today. This is more important.
I’d bet that most of my Gentle Readers have heard or used the term impostor syndrome at some time. It’s a fairly common affliction, especially among young adults who find themselves in positions of authority and responsibility they hadn’t previously imagined they’d ever occupy. Here’s a concise definition-description of it:
Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.
To put it simply, impostor syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don’t belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.
Mind you, some people feel like frauds because they are frauds. But they’re not impostor-syndrome sufferers, merely individuals aware that they’re not what others take them to be.
Impostor syndrome is more common today than it was a century ago, for a reason that will surprise few: back then prepubescents and adolescents were given significant responsibilities, and were expected to meet a relatively high standard in discharging them. The practice allowed those young people to build confidence in themselves. By the time they became adults expected to look after themselves, they’d had enough tests of their ability to trust that they would rise to any challenge adult life might present them.
Those young folks of a century ago were also aware that their contemporaries were undergoing the same sort of maturation-through-responsibility. Johnny on Apple Street would know that James on Pear Street bore a burden comparable to his own – and that James was meeting his responsibilities quite as adequately as Johnny. This inhibited young folks against comparing themselves to one another in a haughty, preening fashion. Even if their responsibilities were quite different, each knew that the others’ parents expected roughly as much from their kids as those kids were capable of doing. The “parental network,” whose main communications medium was the midafternoon kaffeklatsch among neighborhood wives, kept things roughly balanced.
Thus, while the adolescents’ confidence in themselves built steadily, their awareness that their burdens did not differ significantly from those of their peers kept them humble in the best sense: they viewed one another as equals, equally deserving of respect. Neither impostor syndrome nor arrogance was significant among them.
It’s hard to do anything of substance if you lack confidence. Indeed, a lack of confidence can paralyze you, such that you can’t even bring yourself to start. But there’s no “royal road to confidence,” any more than there is to geometry. Confidence comes from testing oneself against challenges, and overcoming them.
Contemporary youths don’t get enough such testing. They tend to enjoy a much longer period of sheltered non-responsibility than did their ancestors. Combined with this are the many technological advances that have simplified and eased the tasks young folks do face. Consider only one: research for a term paper, performed at a library or two, compared to research done via Google.
But among our social maladies, behavior that expresses arrogance rather than humility is equally serious. How ironic that it proceeds from the same source: a lack of testing! For it’s easy to over-assess oneself if one is never tested. From there to deeming oneself superior to others is a short journey.
I find myself wondering whether the “self-esteem fad” of the most recent decades has its roots in the above.
If you’re wondering why this is on my mind, it’s because today is the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Angelicus of the Catholic Church, the saint to whom I feel the greatest attraction. (Settle down, you in the peanut gallery; it’s because he and I are both compulsive writers.) He sought the religious life from an early age, against the wishes of his wealthy family. According to several accounts, his parents and siblings tried everything short of red-hot pincers to dissuade him from becoming a Dominican friar, including imprisonment in the family castle and repeated temptation with prostitutes. Needless to say, Aquinas withstood it all, joined the Dominicans, was eventually ordained, and today is celebrated as the most important Catholic intellectual of all time.
Clearly, Thomas Aquinas was confident in his calling to the religious life. He was equally confident that he had contributions to make to Catholic thought. If he ever wavered while being tested, it is not recorded. Yet toward the end of his life, he wrote something that also expressed a profound, even transcendent humility:
While he believed that reason and logic made the best arguments for the mind of man, Aquinas was also devoted to prayer. He never shirked the execution of his monastic and priestly duties. Pious exclamations dot the margins of his work, and he was transported by heavenly visions. When he set down his pen on December 6, 1273, after receiving such a vision, it was with words that should strike at the heart of any who dare scribble on a sheet of paper and think it good: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”… But the simple reality is that Aquinas came to recognize the vanity of all intellectual accomplishment, no matter how great. All that matters, ultimately, is the Beatific Vision. His last words were a simple prayer. He had lived and worked, he said, in obedience to the Catholic Church, and if he had ever erred by ignorance, he trusted to that same Catholic Church to correct and forgive him.
[H. W. Crocker III, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church]
In the Beatific Vision, we are all humbled to dust, for what temporal creature can claim any stature to compare with that of our Creator? Yet we are also exalted and urged to confidence, for we are made in His image. Our gifts of perception and reason are the greatest of the tools He gave us. They allow us to make sense of the world around us. But even more than that, if properly employed within the Vision’s premises, they enable us to make sense of our relation to Him: a relation whose elucidation by Thomas Aquinas has never been surpassed.
May God bless and keep you all.