Selective Amnesia and the Imposter Syndrome

My father once recited Rudyard Kipling’s If to me. I loved it and resonated with every line in that poem. But some of those lines I hold fast to. One of them is: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same:”

Because of that line, whether it is a personal win, a loss, a success, a failure, an achievement, something to be proud of, or something to be ashamed of, I savour it or stew in it for a day, maximum two, then I forget about it. When I say forget, I mean I wipe it from my mind. It is as if it never happened. Unless I am reminded of it. And if I am, like a Mogura Tataki game, I hammer it down, with a vengeance. I don’t let success or failure linger, stick or settle. I move on from it. Good or bad, the moment is over. It’s a clean slate moving forward.

But behaving so strictly with myself leads me to Imposter Syndrome, that pervasive, persistent sense of incompetence we feel about ourselves. It does not matter if we have awards, accomplishments or acclaim from others, in our own eyes, we suck, we sucked and we are going to suck. What we did never seems good enough. We can only appreciate our own shortcomings and have great difficulty acknowledging our strengths.

There are times I tire of not being able to shake that feeling of inadequacy. There are times when I would like the simple pleasure of savouring my petit accomplishment and feeling worthy of myself. But it’s difficult. Because I impose selective amnesia over whatever I do, feelings of unworthiness constantly dog me because I feel I have accomplished nothing and have wasted my life.

But as much as there is that part of me that longs for that sense of satisfaction, there’s that other part of me that strongly resists savouring the pleasure of my accomplishments – to treat them the same as my failures i.e., to forget them completely. Because I know that if I savour what little success I have too much, it will lead me to the opposite of the Imposter Syndrome, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That effect describes when we overestimate our abilities about something, especially when we have no or low abilities to do that something.

I prefer to call the Dunning-Kruge Effect the Asshole Syndrome because it pointedly and more vividly makes the point. I am infected with the Asshole Syndrome when I think too highly of my own efforts, abilities and accomplishments. It invariably leads me to make the mistake many intelligent people are prone to make – thinking intelligence is a zero-sum game, which means if they are intelligent, it means others do not. It has the tendency to infect those with a high degree of intelligence.

Suppose you hear me pompously spouting out rubbish, speaking condescendingly to another, or casually dismissing someone, that’s the Asshole Syndrome in effect. And I apologize in advance.

If there’s one thing, worse than suffering from Imposter Syndrome is suffering from Asshole Syndrome. With Imposter Syndrome, we just beat ourselves up. But with Asshole Syndrome, everyone else gets beat up. When I slip into that mode, I can feel myself getting complacent about myself and my abilities. I start thinking too highly of myself and less of others. I don’t feel the need to improve. I coast. After all, how does one improve on perfection? That’s what makes the Asshole Syndrome dangerous, the complacency and dismissiveness it breeds.

I used to vacillate between these two states when I was unable to inhabit the middle ground between them. These syndromes are not an intellectual choice but an emotional and psychological state we slip into if we are not vigilant over ourselves.

Of late, I have embraced my Imposter Syndrome. I think it is the ‘healthier’ of the two syndromes. If I cannot arrogate the middle ground, I choose to err on the side of thinking myself incompetent. I have come to accept the default position of being inadequate and unworthy and in doing so, I have discovered relief and respite from the need to be more than I think myself to be. If I can’t, I can’t; if I can, I can.

The Imposter Syndrome also accords with my outlook professionally and personally.

Professionally, as a lawyer, I am only as good as my last case. Nobody cares about a winning or significant case I did ten years back or even yesterday. All that matters is what I can do for the client now. To be and stay sharp for the now, I have to prove myself over and over again. There are no free passes for a professional. So, there is no point in remembering my past successes and glorifying them. It’s over; it won’t win me my next case. Instead, I might lose my next case.

Thinking about how great I thought myself back then does not help me in doing great work now. The past is the past and it is over. Previous success is no guarantee of future performance. To insulate myself from the anxiety of ‘success’, I cultivate amnesia if not discount greatly whatever meagre success and accomplishments I thought I achieved.

Professionally, I approach my cases with the Zen idea of a Beginner’s Mind i.e., I assume nothing and possess no preconceived notions about anything be it the facts or the law. To have a Beginner’s Mind is to have an empty mind. I know that doesn’t sound ‘right’. But an empty mind does not lock me into a particular mode of thinking or come to a conclusion too quickly. An empty mind has immense space for me to listen carefully and sensitively. An empty mind allows me greater freedom to think about the problem and to entertain solutions no matter how absurd at first glance.

A full mind has no room for possibilities.

Personally, thinking of myself as inadequate and unworthy drives me to be adequate and worthy. it compels me to prove myself with each task or responsibility given to me. Those feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness instil in me humility and a determination to improve. Those feelings keep me grounded, reasonable and sharp, always. When I am arrogant and complacent, I get sloppy, lazy and confuse my opinions with reality.

In embracing my Imposter Syndrome, I learn not to take too seriously the nasty things my mind tells me about myself and the fantastic things my mind deludes me about myself. And in not taking my own thoughts too seriously, I treat the thoughts and opinions of others the same. I do not need the adulation of others. If I do get it, that’s nice (and then forget about it). If I don’t, that’s nice too (and then forget about that too).

Those who know, know; those who don’t, don’t. It is what it is.

In inhabiting my Imposter Syndrome, I feel a greater sense of freedom to speak what’s on my mind, in my heart and occasionally, from my bowels; to speak the truth as I see it and not pander to vested or self-interests, including my own self-interest. I am focused on the real instead of other people’s notion of ‘right’. That freedom comes from the belief and sense that whatever I am going to say or do is not worth anybody’s time and is of little importance but I have one life to say it, so I might as well say or do it.

If you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, don’t panic, calm down, stay quiet, recall your past accomplishments (if that helps) and listen carefully to others in the room. The closer we listen, quite often, we tend to discover the imposters in the room and very often these are the ones that suffer from Asshole Syndrome.

The irony is those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are likelier to be the complete opposite of how they feel and think themselves to be. They are the ones that live the line in Yeat’s Second Coming that goes: The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.

Because the best of us are aware that the more we know, the less we actually do which leads to a lack of conviction; whilst the worst of us are full of passionate intensity because they lack the nuance and humility of real knowledge. But often, it is those with Imposter Syndrome that go on to achieve great things that transcend them compared to those with Asshole Syndrome that are lost to time.

Of course, don’t take that from me because I don’t know anything and have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

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