Subscriber OnlyCulture

It’s good to have notions: Why the Irish culture of humility fails the psychology test

Unthinkable: People who refuse to accept praise are at higher risk of depression, according to the Irish psychologist Geoff Beattie

Geoff Beattie is not someone you’d suspect suffered from self-doubt. An academic high achiever, he has written more than 20 books and has presented TV shows, including acting as on-screen therapist on the UK version of Big Brother for a decade.

But the psychologist, who grew up in a loyalist working-class neighbourhood in north Belfast, says he has periodically struggled with impostor syndrome.

In his latest book Doubt, he recalls an incident at university where he had his “most intense feeling of being an impostor”.

He had just arrived in Cambridge and was presenting a paper when he suddenly froze; Beattie had been expecting it to be an audience of students but the hall was packed with illustrious academics, including one Nobel Prize winner.


Once he had finished his presentation, a question came from the floor.

“It was the question that I dreaded, it would expose me fully,” he writes. “It was partly the way the question was phrased. The speaker began, ‘Surely, you’re not saying...’

“Somebody jumped in and then another. ‘No, of course, he’s not saying that. Only a fool...’ I wanted to put my fingers in my ears.”

A lot of schools and churches teach us that [we] have to be careful not to become vain and one should have a degree of self-deprecation

Speaking to The Irish Times via Zoom from his home in Salford, in the north of England, Beattie laughs now at the absurdity of the situation, but it was torture at the time. “I just fell silent… I didn’t say a word, and that was bad enough but what was also bad was this was a seminar I was required to attend once a week. I didn’t say a word for a year, and I thought: I cannot do this again.”

Doubt has been a constant companion for Beattie through life, which he is quick to highlight makes him very normal. When he goes to the gym, he has a habit of checking his locker three or four times before leaving the changing rooms. When he makes a decision, he frets afterwards about the path he didn’t take.

What is strange, he says, is many psychologists “ignore doubt completely”. They talk more frequently about uncertainty, anxiety or fear of failure “but they do not link these up to talk about doubt itself – that core part of our mental life”.

Even impostor syndrome is generally viewed as a niche subject in psychology, having first been identified by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a landmark paper in 1978. “For years it was thought to be primarily woman-based but it looks as if men often suffer from it as well,” says Beattie.

Blending autobiography with a swathe of research, Doubt makes this abstract concept both tangible and less worrisome. He weaves in stories from his own life to great effect, including a poignant episode from his childhood when he sat on a Belfast hillside in pouring rain trying to figure out reasons for studying either Latin or biology as he could pick only one at school.

“What people always say is make a list of pros and cons, and I made a list but because I’d no one to advise me it was daft: it was Ben Hur [under] Latin… If someone sat down with me and explained to me the career paths of biology versus Latin it would have made it easier.”

Is that one way of dealing with doubt: getting good information before making a decision?

“I think it’s partly about information but the whole point about doubt is that so much of it is about emotion as well… It’s not as if we have a rational system and an emotional system – the two interact,” says Beattie.

“The point about choosing Latin, in my view there was a glamour associated with it, and it was emotional because my dad (who died when Beattie was 13 years old) would listen to my Latin so I’d a really personal connection with Latin.”

Beattie shies away from life-hacks but rather encourages people to embrace the complexity and paradoxes of doubt. It can be a force for good as well as bad, he points out. Doubt drives scientific discovery but it can also be “weaponised” against truth.

Optimism is correlated with good mental health, Beattie adds, but too much positive thinking “is potentially very dangerous when it comes to discounting serious risk”. The fact that successful entrepreneurs “tend to be highly resilient optimists” helps to explain why many of them downplay global threats.

Once you start internalising praise you then develop a very optimistic outlook on life and think: This is me

A startling research finding, at least for Irish readers, is that an inability to take a compliment is bad for you. If you grew up in Ireland you’d be programmed to deflect acclaim lest you be accused of developing “notions” (see Bono). However, “it looks as if, from a psychological perspective, what’s really good is if you can accept all the praise and more importantly internalise the praise”, says Beattie.

“Once you start internalising praise you then develop a very optimistic outlook on life and think: This is me, I can do this in the future in different situations; it makes you more resilient.

“Of course, a lot of schools and churches teach us that [we] have to be careful not to become vain and one should have a degree of self-deprecation in one’s life. But there are a couple of problems with that,” Beattie explains. “The first is some people are well suited to doing that, and one reason is because they have impostor syndrome and think the praise is not justified.

“The second thing is… people who don’t internalise praise and good information about themselves, but do the opposite and internalise the bad information that sets up a psychological state for the future; you can predict people who are going to suffer from depression later in life.

“So there is a lot to be said for, when someone says something good about you, say: Okay, thank you, I’ll take that.”

If you make a mistake attribute it to the situation; attribute it to the interaction. Don’t always blame yourself

As for impostor syndrome, Pauline Clance identified two common origins. One, Beattie explains, is growing up in a family where “you are told another sibling is the bright one” and you are pigeonholed as something else. The other is being told from a young age “you do so well and it’s so effortless – and then you think: Hang on, these people don’t realise I’m doing all this preparatory work”.

He highlights further research showing impostor syndrome “is all to do with monitoring your behaviour so closely that you’re listening to every single, small mistake you make and you think other people are listening as carefully”.

“No spontaneous speech is going to be perfectly fluent, or perfectly articulate,” Beattie says. “You just have to be less anxious about it. And this is the big take away from psychology: If you make a mistake never internalise it. Don’t say it’s because I’m stupid, I’m inadequate.

“If you make a mistake attribute it to the situation; attribute it to the interaction. Don’t always blame yourself.”

Beattie took the advice himself when dealing with that excruciating experience in college. After wallowing in self-pity for a while, he vowed to prepare better for the next seminar.

“I thought the fact that there was something I knew I didn’t know had to be the cue for me to find out more – because, like a lot of people, sometimes I kind of rush through things. I suddenly thought I need a depth of knowledge and understanding to feel more confident,” Beattie says.

“I could rehearse what people are going to say and what my response would be, and that is how I dealt with it in the end. It sounds so pathetic really – all I needed to do was do a bit more work – but once I’d done a bit more work I suddenly had that confidence back and could deal with it.”

Doubt: A Psychological Exploration by Geoff Beattie is published by Routledge