Doubts: Acts vs. Narcissism

I suspect we all harbor doubts, but these people clearly don’t have enough to do.

Working to prove one’s self to one’s self may be admirable, but attending workshops in which you learn how to talk yourself into thinking you are competent seems like a waste of a lot of people’s time that might be better spent actually (if neurotically) doing something. (Chronicle linked by A&L – with, I suspect, some irony.)  Faced with the eternal worth of literature and the fleeting worth of even pretty good literary criticism, it is small wonder that academics have moments of doubt.  Still, this rather self-indulgent exercise doesn’t seem like a long-term remedy.

One of the hardest workers at my old business was clearly driven and thus terrible at delegating. She was, however, tireless in her industry and obsessive in her desire to get the orders done right. This pleased me and gave her a fleeting sense of accomplishment. Sure, we’d all have been better off if she weren’t quite so driven, but I can’t imagine such a workshop helping her – her doubts were real, just misplaced.  I suspect that is often the case.  For instance, she left the job and her husband for another woman – I hope she has found peace. If not, I bet she’s getting a hell of a lot of work done.

9 thoughts on “Doubts: Acts vs. Narcissism”

  1. Academics feel like imposters? Considering the sad shape of most academic disciplines out side the sciences, maybe they should.

  2. Hmmm…is the inability to delegate generally caused by doubts about self-worth, or is it caused by inability to trust others? I had tended to think it was the latter, but maybe the former can play a role, too. Can both these factors exist simultaneously?

  3. They found that about 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.

    When you have something that effects 70% of the population I think it stops being a syndrome and starts being “normal.” I see this a lot. Researchers find some kind of dysfunction while studying people with severe impairment and then while studying further discover that a large segment or even a majority of the general population exhibits the behavior to some degree. It never seems to occur to the researchers that in most people the supposed dysfunction is actually part of the normal checks and balances of healthy cognition and that the impairment that attracted the attention in the first place results from a normal process running out of control. In most people, the process helps instead of hurting.

    For example, up to a point, depression helps people more realistically evaluate the capabilities and the likely outcomes of their actions. Depression following a major negative events, such as the death of loved one, or a negative action, such as an accident that resulted from carelessness, actually helps people cope better long term. Every healthy individual will experience significant depression at some point in their lives and that is a good thing. It is only when the depression mechanism gets jammed on that disease results. One could honestly say that a majority of the population will experience depression at sometime in their lives but only in a minority of around 10% does depression become an actual dysfunction that would qualify it as a disease.

    It is a skill, she says, that many old-fashioned males treat as such, but that people with the impostor syndrome regard as a character flaw.

    The opposite of feelings of being an impostor is the self-optimistic narcissist. It has nothing to do with being male. Many people at the top of their profession exhibit this personality trait to a higher degree than others and in many fields like sales and politics, almost all the members exhibit the trait. Self-optimistic narcissist are often classified as hypo-manic. They tend to think that they personally rarely makes mistakes and that any negative events in their lives result from the actions of others. They believe they will only succeed in the end. Such a mindset helps people excel in fields like sales in which individuals must face failure after failure in order to reach the rare but rewarding success.

    I think it revealing of the contemporary academic mindset that such a universal human trait is considered the trait of “old-fashioned males.”

    I think that each type of work has a personality type that succeeds best at it. People prone to self-doubt and depression might well gravitate to academics because their depressive nature makes them better analyst and their work output can be relatively episodic.

  4. Shannon – the diseases of fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome are seen by some to be hypersensitivity to the normal vagaries of living in the human body. I see something similar here, perhpas its not that the abnormals have some abnormal pathology, it’s jsut that they are hypersensitive to it.

    Interesting I see “scholar, scholar, scholar” in that article. We just don’t need as many scholars as we produce in our University system, and much of what they produce is worthless, so I’d say this is reality sneaking through their defenses.

    Introducing “researchers” into that sample would have skewed the results. Scientists, even photon counters and bottle washers, believe that they are an essential part of advancing the cause of human knowledge, which often leads to an unbelievable degree of arrogance.

  5. David Foster: My sense is that, at least sometimes, an inability to delegate may come from the drive to prove we are totally necessary and without us the whole enterprise will fall apart. That may be a gender thing; that may be a small percentage – but I have seen it often and in management styles I see every day.

    We all want to feel “used” in a positive sense – sometimes that moves into neuroses. I say that as someone who was never much good at it. And since I’m pretty sloppy, I generally assumed my workers would do a better job than I. And often they did.

    I understood that worker, who came in as a manager at my business, because I was like her in many ways. When she abruptly quit, I found (what I had known but refused to recognize and should have done something about) that even full-time employees didn’t know how to do basic jobs because she’d never trained them – or let them do the jobs after I’d thought they were trained. It made for a disastrous year.

    John Jay:

    I suspect that those of us who teach numerous comp & chron surveys feel happier than those “scholars.” No one wants to teach courses with a heavy grading component, but the act of reading and grading student papers does mean a certain engagement, a sense you are doing a necessary job.

    Here’s a contrast that illustrates the difference between scholars at a research university and teachers at an open admissions junior college. At the nearby research school, no one taught the first half of American literature this fall. For various reasons none of the senior faculty wanted to or did. A basic course for undergrad majors and even non-majors was simply not taught. (Of our eight lit courses, first half American is the most popular.) Usually I teach three of these lit courses, but I was only given two because of the intense need for freshman comp students. (Many didn’t get lit in the fall and the classes were unusually large here.) I’m not complaining, because I was asked to do what was needed. Meanwhile, my freshmen classes have graduating seniors in them because the research school (wanting to be a research school) won’t let students with the hours of juniors or seniors take freshman English, though they do require it for graduation.

    This may appear off-topic – but I don’t think it is. We feel that what we are doing may be boring and even irritating, but it is a job that needs doing. I doubt that the “scholars” described in that article saw the need – or if they saw the need felt it was their responsibiilty. So instead of applying their skills in a useful way, they are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending that getting a Ph.D. in education means you are a scholar.

  6. Ginny,

    I find it interesting that a status hierarchy exist in academia in which puts “researchers” and “theorist” on top and teachers on the bottom. Teaching is arguably to core function of the articulate intellectual yet most academics seem to spend their careers trying to escape that role.

    I think you will find that most people who cannot delegate suffer from a perfectionism that makes them mistrust the work of most others. They never quite feel others will do the same quality of job as they. Such perfectionism is a benefit for people who work on task alone but for managers it can paralyze. You can also see the opposite personality, people so mistrustful of themselves that they delegate everything with no oversight.

  7. John Jay,

    I think it less a matter of hypersensitivity and more a matter of the hyperactivity of the underlying neurological mechanism. Fibromyalgia for example appears to result from the hyperactivity of pain receptors in the spine. Anti-convulsant medications that reduce neural activity have proven effective in alleviating the symptoms of the disease.

    In the case of mental illness, I think we have many neural mechanisms for attaching emotional “weights” to events or thoughts. These weights allow us to decide when to take action. Depression activates in a healthy manner after we encounter a severe negative event of some kind. It prevents us from taking action and helps us analyze what might have gone wrong. (People with minor depression people have a more accurate assessment of their capabilities and actions than the non-depressed). Optimism on the other hand prods us to take action and risk. In bipolar disorder, the brain oscillates between the hyperactivity of both systems. In the depressive phase, the suffer essentially hallucinates that they can do not right. In the manic phase, they hallucinate they can do no wrong. In both cases, decision making is severely impaired because the basic mechanism that attaches emotional weights to events and thoughts becomes divorced from external inputs.

  8. “I think it less a matter of hypersensitivity and more a matter of the hyperactivity of the underlying neurological mechanism. Fibromyalgia for example appears to result from the hyperactivity of pain receptors in the spine. Anti-convulsant medications that reduce neural activity have proven effective in alleviating the symptoms of the disease.”

    That’s an open question and experts debate it on both sides. Remember that many anti-convulsants (gabapentin and its derivatives especially) are extremely good anxiolytics. And benzodiazepines (the calssic anxiolytics) are sometimes used as anti-convulsants. Anti-convulsants generally work in neuralgias such as Diabetic neuropathy by damping down signals in nerves that generally do not carry pain, but hitology on tissues from FM patients do not show any of the physiological effects of that kind of nerve damage. Since many of the drugs used to treat FM would work on either postulated mechanism, it’s hard to tell which is the predominant one. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.

    I know a couple of FM patients, and they are whiners in other areas of their lives, so I am probably overly cynical in putting so much weight on to the hypersensitivity explanation.

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