Photos by Andrea Piacquadio and Nathan Cowley, found on Pexels

How To Overcome Impostor Syndrome (And Not Get Caught Up In Dunning-Kruger Effect)

Vasily Myazin, November 17th, 2020

The Two Opposing Psychological States

Have you ever felt like you were overqualified for a job? You are an expert on many subjects, and they gave you a mechanical, monotonous task that almost demeaned your ability. You did it all correctly, and for some reason, your boss still didn’t acknowledge your accomplishment. On the contrary, he found several things to criticize. What a dick!

There’s a fancy name for this feeling. You were dealing with the Dunning–Kruger effect.

Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Wikipedia

How about feeling underqualified? You said you could do it, but when you got to it, you had that sinking feeling that you would embarrass yourself and others. You delivered the results, you got massive praise, yet you still felt like you didn’t do a good enough job and let others down. Your peers thanked you. Your boss recommended you for a promotion. At the same time, you couldn’t shake off the feeling that you somehow tricked them into believing in you.

In this case, you were experiencing Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud.” Wikipedia

Despite ample external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve what they have achieved. Individuals with impostor syndrome incorrectly attribute their success to luck or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are smarter than they perceive themselves to be.

Why It Is Essential To Keep Track Of Where You Are On The Mental Scale

Living between those states can be a grueling reality. If you are like me, you’ve experienced both of them on the regular. If you are a victim of your mind that loses coordinates of common sense, it can be highly taxing on your daily energy and mental health.

Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence. Metacognition is thinking about one’s thinking; it refers to the processes used to plan, observe, and assess one’s understanding and performance.

For me keeping the daily energy levels high and have peace of mind are among the top priorities in life. That’s why I must go through regular exercises in self-assessment. Where am I on the scale at this moment?

For example, who am I to pose as an expert writer on the subject? I’m just a guy with enough motivation to research the subjects, skim Wikipedia, type up an article, and publish it for the world to see. Are there more prominent experts on this subject than me? Yes. Did my reader already know about these topics, and reading my article was a waste of their time? Possibly. Yet, I believe it should never be a reason for me to lose motivation and resort to inactivity.

Become Better At Self-Assessment

I cannot overstate the importance of being self-aware. It’s one of the keys to harmonious living. Ask yourself questions that will help you self-assess where you stand on a given topic.

We can use some ideas offered by Nancy Chick of Vanderbilt University. Ideally, I would take some time to write down my thoughts answering the following questions.

  • Preassessment: “What do I already know about this topic that could guide me while performing the tasks at hand?”
  • The Muddiest Point: “What is most confusing to me about the tasks I need to work on today?”
  • Retrospective Postassessment: “Before evaluating this subject, I thought it was... Now I think that it is...” or “How is my thinking changing (or not changing) over time?”
  • Reflective Journaling: “What about my process worked well that I should remember to do next time? What did not work so well that I should not do next time or that I should change?”

If this approach is too scientific for you, you can simply add the self-assessment idea to your mental toolkit. Keep it less formal. Remember to pause your busy work once in a while and think about your approach to getting things done. Simply ask yourself: “Am I competent about what I’m doing, and whether or not I am — am I open to feedback and learning?”

Vasily self-assesses
Vasily self-reflects until reaching a perfectly balanced state. Photo by Nick Buneev

What Improved Self-Awareness Will Offer You

With raised self-awareness, you will begin noticing areas in your personal and professional life where you’ve been staying mindless of your objective state. Simply put, you thought you were excellent where you weren’t and believed you sucked at things you were actually fantastic at.

It can be quite unsettling to gain awareness of your mind’s tricks and short-comings. Countless times I experienced a sudden (or gradual) realization that I was not cut out for the job. I was then faced with either appealing to the stakeholder to transfer it to somebody else or to grind it out, bury myself in books, and raise my competency. Both are tough choices as they require you to battle with your ego. However, the consequences of skating through towards a mediocre result (or a downright failure) can lead to a much larger frustration for everyone involved.

If you apply self-assessment as a regular exercise, your day-to-day life will gradually improve. It will lead you to better decision-making. You will waste your and other’s time much less. At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. I don’t believe I will ever fully understand if I’m genuinely great or kind of subpar at anything, but at least I will always have the means to analyze my efforts.

Psychology is fascinating. Do you have any examples of when you felt this way? Let me know by email or on social media.

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