The importance of community for balancing self-doubt and omnipotence

When we are at our strongest and most resilient our sense of needing others diminishes. It feels, rather deceptively I have found out, as though we are the masters of our own destiny. As both an academic, and in the past as a student, I have had times when things just feel under my control, that I am behind the steering wheel  and I can make things go my way. Whilst this can feel wonderful at times, I have come to see that without awareness it can have negative side effects. Firstly, I no longer have a sense of how much others contribute to my life, I lose sense of their contributions, whether personally or professionally, rendering me unseeing and ungrateful (not completely perhaps but it certainly reduces my capacity to be so).

More recently, I have noticed that this sense of personal power also significantly diminishes my capacity for compassion for others – I can sort my life out so why can’t they? The last sixth months have taught me much but how this sense of control and self-determination is deeply illusory and that I can be good and generous and kind and work really hard but that this does not make me immune from that which I fear.

This got me thinking about higher education and how as both teachers (and increasingly for students) there is considerable pressure to build up a personal ‘brand’ to prove our ‘expertise’ and I worry that this pressure leads to us having to appear more sure about what we know and what our skills are than we perhaps actually are. I am concerned that the creation of personal brands over values our strengths and forces us to move too quickly from unknowing, that place of exploration and openness, to ‘expert’.

There is a balance here though. When I feel vulnerable I look at my staff profile, research gate, blog, whatever it is, and feel like a complete fraud – trying to work alongside people who I revere and feeling unworthy of doing so. Whilst when feeling powerful and in control I am perhaps a little more seduced than I should be, by the sense of knowing exactly where I am going and believing it is completely within my power to ensure my ‘success’. I don’t expect that this dance between deep doubt and naïve certainty will end anytime soon, but I have noticed how community can help me navigate the choreography rather more skilfully.

I have particularly noticed this in recent months, how friendly conversations with colleagues can make me feel valued even if I am struggling to see my own self-worth. How reaching out to help someone else can help break unhelpful thought patterns. One thing that has stood out however, about the contemplative pedagogy community in particular, is that it helps me manage not only vulnerability and insecurity, through its warmth and generosity, but it also helps me to notice and be mindful of when I get a bit too sure and confident. The depth of open questioning and exploration and the value given to others’ contributions is a healthy counterbalance to the need for a personal brand that puts forward a successful, coherent account of ourselves as self-made individuals.

I am therefore hugely looking forward to the upcoming contemplative pedagogy event at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh organised by Iddo Oberski. It will be a rare opportunity for emails, phone calls and skype meetings to be swapped for hugely valuable face to face interaction. A time to explore my uncertainty and questions, help others do the same and as such come to know myself in connection with others, as part of a community, rather than as a lonely individual trying to shout louder than everyone else on twitter!

Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

Best wishes Caroline




4 thoughts on “The importance of community for balancing self-doubt and omnipotence

  1. The ‘imposter syndrome” is the price we pay for being reflective practitioners.
    My greatest strategy is to act with integrity (in work and in life) and I find this a powerful personal guide and a real support.

    PS I am feeling most jealous that I can not be in Edinbrugh!


  2. Thanks for sharing this, Caroline. Like you and others, I have struggled with this issue. What has helped me is being aware of my genuine strengths and limitations professionally and personally. Also, asking for help when I need it has been beneficial. Help is very helpful! 🙂


  3. Hello Caroline, it has been over a year since I last made contact with you and it was so beatifully refreshing to open up and read your story today. I am currently wading through the deep waters of solitude in exchange for finding out how I am ‘expert’ and am so touched and relieved to hear that you share this same experience. I will be making an active effort to join this community more often now… this was step one:) Thank you, Stephanie


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