In an article (https://www.lionsroar.com/beginners-mind-of-imposter-syndrome/) Zen teacher, Gesshin Greenwood struggles to find the line between humility and self-criticism. With her permission, here are her words.
Humility is a value that exists in all sects of Buddhism across the world. However, I think in the West we have yet to really come to terms with how to enact humility in a healthy way. As women in this culture, especially, we are conditioned from a young age to be quiet, to defer our needs, to make ourselves small so that the men around us can feel important. This conditioning is combined with the explicit cultural value placed on self-actualization, career success, fame, leadership, and self-promotion. It is no surprise that when we experience career success, we instinctually feel we are somehow wrong and undeserving of success. Psychologists have identified this as “imposter syndrome”—the feeling that we do not belong in leadership positions or deserve material success. . . . How do we know when self-criticism and imposter syndrome are masquerading as beginner’s mind? What is humility in our practice, and what is self-flagellation?
Since humility is acknowledged as an essential quality of good leaders, this is an intriguing question to ponder. Clearly the true nature and value of humility is a worthy issue for Right Use of Power practitioners as well as Zen priests. Greenwood continues.
Humility and self-flagellation are indeed two sides of the same coin. They are intimately close. On the flip side, of this critical voice one can find a meaningful question. The question “Who do you think you are?” can be a sign of self-hatred if the tone is particularly biting, but asked in a different register, this question opens possibilities. “Who are you?” is a question at the heart of Zen practice. When self-hatred sounds in our heads loud and clear, if we recognize it for what it is, we can transform the criticism into an opportunity for further insight. “Who do you think you are?” becomes “Who are you? What are your values? How do you want to be in the world? What is your contribution?”
Feelings of unworthiness and self-criticism are closely connected to a wholesome impulse towards improvement, creativity, and steady motivation. Suzuki Roshi famously said, “In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities; in the mind of the expert there are few.” True beginner’s mind is expansive. It allows for infinite possibilities. . . . Self-criticism, on the other hand (the voice inside us that says we are terrible spouses, terrible meditators, etc.) is narrow and heavy. It weighs us down and limits possibility. So although the words we use to criticize ourselves sound a bit like humility, the tone, feeling, and end result are quite different. If we catch the cruel voice in our head early enough, before it has had a chance to wreak havoc on our sense of self-worth, we can be alerted to an opportunity for introspection and questioning.
Thank you, Gesshin Greenwood. I’d like to add that authentic humility is one of the keys to staying connected to those with whom we have a role power differential. One of the shadow aspects of role power is that it can reduce empathy through the sense of disconnection that can come from high role power social distance. Humility is the essence of connection. Humility in its cruel self-criticism form, turns us inward and weakens the self-confidence, strength, and wide perspective that we need as leaders. There is wisdom in differentiating humility from self-cruelty and the imposter syndrome.