Embarrassed by success

Do you sometimes find your (academic or clinical) success embarrasing? Even when you know it’s well deserved and you are proud of what you’ve done or achieved?
I do feel that way. I am at times so deeply embarrased I want to sink through the floor. I know I’m not the only one (I’ve googled and found others posting about this), but I am not sure how common this is (I didn’t come across that many posts…).

I’m writing about this sense of embarrasment because from talking to rising star clinician academics I have begun to wonder if this is a collective barrier to AHPs’ success. Let me explain what I’m thinking…

As a background, I am a person with a good dose of confidence and self-worth, and a healthy, relaxed relationship with success. I’m open about what I am good and rubbish at, am excited to see other people succeed, and am keen to celebrate success (my own and that of others). I’m fairly often heard concluding “I’m a genious!” when I have come up with a good idea or solved a challenge, and often heard saying to others “You’ve done brilliantly here!”.

But every now and then, there is a situation where I am profoundly embarrased by my success.

An example. I’ve got a PhD. I’ve had it for years and it doesn’t feel novel. I absolutely know I worked my butt off for it, and I know that on various quality criteria it was a very good piece of work. I’m healthily proud of it, and feel happy when I think about it. So, when it’s just me and the PhD, I’m quite comfortable about it. But as soon as it becomes something that other people pay attention to, when people say to me “You have a PhD?!” I am absolutely mortified. Even if people are nice and positive about it.

Similarly, I am an Honorary Consultant AHP, a title that I firmly believe reflects my role, knowledge, skills and competencies. Internally, I feel pretty neutral about it (“it’s just what I do and where I am at this point”). But I find it incredibly difficult to say my title out loud. It’s not a common position for an AHP to hold, and I am embarrassed to admit to being one of the few people who do.

Just to be clear, I don’t have the imposter syndrome. I know my skills, knowledge and achievements robustly justify my PhD, working as a Consultant AHP, and so on. I am very confident I am not faking anything, and I know I am well competent within my roles. So what is it then?

Wikipedia says that embarrassment is “an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself (…)” where this discomfort is socially constructed. For example, we tend to experience situations as embarrassing when we think we have been exposed for doing something that is: (i) inappropriate considering the social norms and expectations; (ii) inconsistent with role expectations; or (iii) out-of-sync with a social identity. Apparently the evolutionary function of embarrassment is to signal to others that we want to comply with the social norms.

And this is where I get concerned. Do I, or we collectively, hold a social norm that success, expertise and high achievement are outside the acceptable scope and norm of being an AHP? Outside the identity of being a good, conforming AHP? That success is something that positions people outside our social group? My own experience would seem concordant with this. As would the stories of other rising stars – about keeping their lights hidden, playing down their knowledge and skills, minimising their achievements, and disclosing their titles and qualifications only reluctantly.

Yet we, collectively, need success, expertise and achievements. We need people who push the boundaries and drive our field forward. We need all talented people to belong to our group, and to openly share their successes and expertise.

I’m now explicitly challenging myself, and others, on this. When I find myself, or others, trying to hide or apologise success I bring that succees to light. If I sense that those with success and talent are made to feel ‘otherness’ then I try to be brave and challenge it. I am trying to weed out my own feelings of embarrassment. Because I don’t want to comply with any social norm that appears to place success outside AHPs.

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