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Be Excellent

February 4, 2018

be excellent

When they finish their doctorate, many people say, “I don’t feel like a doctor.” This feeling can continue for a year or more, even into their first faculty gig. It’s especially prevalent in women and minorities. It’s called “impostor syndrome.”

When I finished my doctorate by successfully defending my dissertation on January 25th and my chair told me I could now call myself “Dr.” and use PhD behind my name, I owned it. I feel like an effing doctor. I worked hard for it. I earned it. But that’s not why I feel like a doctor.

I feel like a doctor because I’ve been treated as a peer by people who do carry that title for the last several years. I believe that is the decisive factor. How others treat us influences who we feel we are.

Our sense of self is conditioned by the behavior of others, behavior we can very rarely control. This has huge implications for issues of race, gender, class, orientation, ability, age, and so many other factors.

A few years ago, I worked with a group of student leaders who were predominantly minority and the first members of their families to go to college. They came from poor high schools that did not fully prepare them for college. They all worked outside of school, often in low-paying jobs (like fast food) with bad managers.

Staff wanted them to do well, but in attempting to give them advice, the students felt disrespected. Staff members’ behavior had unintentionally mimicked how the students had been treated by teachers and supervisors of the past who clearly did not respect them. The students were conditioned to perceive disrespect because they had been treated disrespectfully so often.

Moreover, the people who treated them this way in the past also exercised power over them. The students protected themselves by closing off relationships with people who treated them that way, which was a good strategy at the time, but not effective in the new context. They now had the opportunity to step into their leadership roles, tell the staff how they wanted to be treated, and improve communication in the long-term. First they had to overcome old habits (which I’m happy to say they did).

People with imposter syndrome often have more power than they believe they do. They fail to exercise it because they cling to old ideas of self that are conditioned by how others have treated them in the past.

For years I was limited by an old notion of myself as a student. I was a “bad student,” a trouble maker, the kid who was “smart but…” I expected my teachers to abandon me and, at a certain point in the relationship, I would begin to sabotage it. My behavior was conditioned by how others had treated me in the past and I was clinging to an old understanding of self.

The last few years, I have finally shed that identity. I have seen through it and I didn’t do it all by myself.

There were three primary factors that helped me overcome my impostor syndrome. First, my Buddhist practice gave me the cognitive framework I needed to understand the nature of my identity as conditioned, conditional, and changing. Second, my wonderful peers and colleagues valued me, which helped my value myself and grow into my own expertise. Third, good teachers stuck with me and helped me understand my old patterns in new ways; they affirmed that I was not only a good student, but a worthy scholar.

In respect to the second and third points, these people helped me by acting as spiritual friends on my path. By presenting a new set of conditions, they helped me let go of old attachments and identities and form newer healthy ones – while simultaneously gaining a deeper understanding of the conditionality of that identity.

Sometimes I see things online that say “You get the love you think you deserve” or “How can others love you if you don’t love yourself?” Encouraging people to love themselves more is well-intentioned.

I also believe these ideas are total and complete bullshit. We are social beings. We are entirely conditioned and interdependent. Telling people they only get the love they think they deserve is like telling them “It’s your fault other people treat you poorly.” That’s horrible and also completely untrue.

On the one hand, the student leaders saw the disrespect they expected, even when it wasn’t there. I didn’t see the support of many teachers who helped me because some of them hadn’t. We perceive what we expect, and we need to become mindful of how limiting that is.

On the other hand, be really do need other people to treat us well in order to begin to believe we deserve to be treated well. Sometimes we have to demand it ourselves, and other times we are fortunate enough to find people who do it despite persistent self-limiting behavior. Either way, people overcome impostor syndrome when they are repeatedly treated like the experts they are.

To paraphrase Bill and Ted: be excellent to each other. Even if someone isn’t an expert yet, treat them with respect now so that they can grow into the kind of experts we need to face the urgent problems of the world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 5, 2018 4:50 pm

    Congrats Dr. Monica, do you get more money now?

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