Imposter Syndrome Among Confidence, Humility & “Virtual Prophethood” (ugh)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 58 seconds

I was trying to explain to my mom the meaning of “impostor syndrome” the other day, and how she contributed to my impostor syndrome. I once even wanted to work with a group of women tho research it as an Autoethnography and then had problems with the ethics approval because of the risks of doing so and how it might expose ppl not involved in the research itself, or harm the researchers.

In any case, I do have a story to share here that is not risky to myself or anyone else, and I want to explain how it all works. So many academics have impostor syndrome, but it is much stronger if you are a minority of some kind, where few successful people in your field look like you, or if you are constantly diminished with microaggression from others, and you cannot help but internalize some of that, no matter how aware you are that people are wrong. You start questioning yourself. The crazy thing about impostor syndrome is that even when you succeed, you keep wondering if you really deserve your success, or if people really know you well and maybe if they knew more they would uncover that you are not really as good as they think you are. It is kind of crazy, but so many in Academia experience this. I mean, just the fact that someone who does not have a PhD or recently got a PhD competes to publish in journals with people who have 20 years experience… that is kind of amazing and intimidating, right? And even really widely published people can get a journal article rejected, as you saw in my recent series of blogposts.

I also want to share this: I have been keynoting and doing invited talks for the past two years at a rate that is really high (success!) and sometimes beside some really well established older white dudes as the other keynotes, but that situation makes me question on two fronts: if I am the only woman from glocal South, only woman of color, only woman keynote, is it just that I am the token diverse person they chose to hit two checks with one person (woman, global South, check check)? The other front is that these are all virtual keynotes. I had been invited to keynote a bit before the pandemic, but most of it was f2f and much of the time I said no. I question whether the virtualness leads to more invitations because they know they won’t have to pay my plane ticket and stuff? Because now I am starting to get invited to in person events without any honorarium, and covering plane ticket and hotel truly is not enough to cover the expense of travel for someone like me – privileged to have a fulltime salary but in a country where the currency has recently been devalued against the dollar and all kinds of restrictions on credit cards and foreign currency come into play.

And so where do confidence, humility and virtual prophethood (ugh) come into play? Well, I am generally confident, even when I’m not confident, if you know what I mean? I appear more confident than I am inside, both in my speaking and in my writing, but I generally don’t bullshit and I usually think or believe I know what I am talking about. But I also have a lot of humility about the limitations of what I know and what I can do. I became more and more humble while doing my PhD, and working globally is another reminder because you get exposed to so much more. One of the reasons I write in accessible language is that I struggle with reading theory that is not worded in accessible language so I don’t want to do that to others, but also because I want to be able to understand what I am writing myself! One of the reasons I do my keynotes interactively is not only because it is more engaging and fun and just plain good pedagogy, but also because I believe we all have something important to learn from one another and I will enjoy the keynote more if I learn and everyone else learns from the entire room and not just me. This seems like a no-brainer. One act of confidence and humility I did recently was to have a feedback form for my keynotes. I share it after each keynote and usually one or two people will fill it out, and I get really useful comments on what people liked and what I can do better, and I know that one person is not really representative of all the people who attend these, but I have over 50 responses over the past few months, and so there are trends across keynotes, and the focus is almost always on my keynoting style, so if anyone ever tells me again they want me to talk at people in a keynote ever again I have plenty of evidence that people like my way of doing it, and also quite a few recordings to show it off. But i did get an annoying comment the other day, and it is not a critical comment, but a hyperbolic one, and it is bothering me.

The annoying comment was by someone who called me a “virtual prophet”. And it annoys me for several reasons. First, because as a practicing Muslim I do not like people using religious terms like this about a regular human being, and I also would not like to take responsibility for passing on a message like I am preaching or proselytizing or whatever that does not sit well with me. It also annoys me because many people have great “messages” but they do not speak as often or as eloquently or do not get invited to talk and this bothers me, and it is not fair to listen to louder or more eloquent voices. And honestly, I think this kind of hyperbolic praise is harmful in how it plays on someone’s ego. It can get to someone’s head and make them believe themselves to be something way more than they deserve. No one is a prophet. none of us are prophets. Many of us who speak loudly in public suffer internally and within our institutions and people who advocate for social justice struggle to get their voices heard and their ideas implemented. I wish it was different but it is not. So don’t call me a virtual prophet. I know you meant well, but it has been bothering me so much and I hope no one does that to anyone again. And many people who speak in idealism are not walking their talk, so that elevation is not even deserved at all. Talk is easy. Action is hard. Praxis is hard.

Image of rose and its reflection in Water from Pixabay

Added later because I read it later!

This quote from adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy:
“The work of promoting and protecting one personality is as different from the work of organizing as holding one’s breath in is from an exhale.”

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