I am a fraud. An impostor, a con, and a fake. I'm a sly, deceitful, piece of scum. It's only a matter of time until I'm found out to be the loser that I am. Soon soomeone will tap me on my shoulder and ask "What the fuck are you doing here?"
I'll hang my head in shame, pack my bag quickly, and leave with my tail between my legs. I'll feel sad for finally being uncovered as a fraud but I will also be absolutely relieved for not having to continue this pretense anymore.
Impostor Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
It's a horrible feeling of self doubt and loathing, combined with excessive stress and paranoia. Your heart thumps, sweat oozes from your body, and there is an obscenely strong urge to just pack up and run away.
This is the impostor syndrome and it is estimated to effect up to 70% of the population at some point. Here's a pretty good description of the syndrome from wikipedia:
"...[they are] people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments...those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved."
This is something I have grappled with many times before.
As I've gotten older it (thankfully) occurs less often but there are still times when I feel doubt about my own skills or am surprised when people look to me to make decisions and listen to what I have to say.
I've been told before that I'm a natural leader, even in social situations, so I must somehow exhibit some specific traits that give people confidence and a certain level of trust in me. But why is it so hard for me to see?
Because I have deeply ingrained self-doubt and that is a fucking hard thing to shake.
Backing this concept up is another similar psychological theory of cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This theory makes two very interesting points:
"highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them also are easy for others"
"...[the] inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately"
This got me thinking - we have two distinct groups here.
On one side we have the people who are always doubting themselves and underrating their abilities, and on the other are the people who lack the metacognitive ability (fancy words for 'brain control') to correctly asses their actions and thus end up overrating themselves.
It seems the 'sweet spot' of knowing and accurately assessing one's own ability is extremely difficult to hit. And if the majority of people are falling outside of this sweet spot - landing somewhere on the spectrum of under or over rating themselves - then it stands to reason that their actions will be largely driven by that feeling.
That is to say, that most people's actions are either compensating for their own perceived lack of ability, or inflated by their tendency to exagerate their own ability.
If we consider both of these types of actions to be sub-optimal, then we must consider that the majority of people we encounter in life are making a series of poorly misguided decisions.
Sounds bad right? Essentially everybody you deal with is misreading the situation and making shitty decisions that will directly impact your life.
But the key is to remember that these people are not doing it on purpsoe. They are reacting to their own, often incorrect, perception of their skills. They are just trying to get through their own crazy life just like you and sometimes they make mistakes. Which leads me to Hanlon's Razor...
Put crudely, Hanlon's Razor is a reminder that when people do things we don't like it is actually very unlikely they are doing it on purpose and far more likely that they just had no idea what they were doing. From wikipedia:
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
I like to expand it a little just because it helps me to be more specific when it come to this:
Do not assume malice from anyone's actions when stupidity, fear, ignorance, or just plain self absorption could be attributed as the real reason.
As much as you want to think people are out to get you, conspiring against you, judging your actions, or talking about you behind your back, the simple truth is that this is just not happening nearly as much as you think it is. You are just not that important.
Most people have so much of their own shit to deal with that you really do not even matter enough to warrant spending a second thought on, let alone devising some evil-genius cunning plan just to piss you off.
This applies everywhere in life. EVERYWHERE.
That guy at work you thought was rude to you, the waiter who got your order wrong, or even your partner who was seemingly ignoring your emotional needs this morning.
Your brain is just itching to attribute those to malice or some other ultimate purpose. That guy at work is scheming to get you fired and take your job. Your partner doesn't love you and is trying to drive you away. That waiter hates you and spits in your coffee every day.
Or, way more likely, it has a simpler explanation:
- They are ignorant of the facts (or at least your version of the facts)
- They fear making mistakes
- They are worrying about others' perceptions
- They had a bad sleep and are tired and cranky
- They haven't had lunch yet
- They have an ingrown hair and it really really really hurts and they just want to fix it but it hurts so much and they can't get it out and they just want to scream ARRRRRRGH!..."Sorry what did you say? I was distracted"
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of explanations that are way more legitimate than assuming someone was purposefully acting against you. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best ones.
Bringing it all together
The key to all this is to stop yourself from jumping to conclusions the next time someone does something that you don't understand.
Remember that everyone else is trying to find their position in the world just like you. Everyone else is struggling to correctly evaluate their own skills just like you.
Don't give other people so much credit to assume they know everything that you know. No one has the exact same experience and knowledge as you do.
Don't assume the actions of others form part of some grand plan that you're not part of. People are mostly just operating in their own self interest and you barely rate a mention.
Don't fool yourself into thinking you know what someone intended with their actions. Only they know what was truly going on in their head and anything else is just a guess.
Don't worry - everyone has their own shit they are dealing with. Instead of focusing on the actions of others try focusing on your own actions.
Now it's your turn. Have you ever felt like a fraud about to be caught out? Or perhaps jumped to a completely wrong conclusion about someone's actions? I'd love to hear your personal stories so please add a comment or send me an email.