The Kruger-Dunning effect and why you feel like a fake

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, discovered a cognitive bias which showed that people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to have less awareness of their inability, and think they’re better than they are (we all know someone who thinks they’re a great comedian). And on the flip side, people who have higher ability in something have a greater sense of inability. Case in point: don’t worry if you feel like you’re a fraud at something you love. It probably means you’re pretty good at it.

It’s easy to say ‘it means you’re good’, but when you’re on stage, in class or holding a meeting, and you feel like everyone’s going to find you out and expose you for the fraud you are, it can be hard to quiet the doubt. “Sure” you think “everyone else thought they were a fake but I really am one.”

You don’t need to try to eradicate the fear of looking like a fraud (and you shouldn’t – this fear reflex is related to your basic evolutionary fear). But you also don’t need to obey it, either. If you frequently feel a fake, you’ll need to accept these feelings are coming along for the ride.

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“Don’t leave home without a good healthy fear reflex, or you may find yourself wandering drunk through dangerous neighbourhoods at 3am…But your fear must be kept in its place. (True emergencies only, please.) Your fear must not be allowed to make decisions about creativity, passion, inspiration, dreams. Your fear doesn’t understand these things, and so it makes the most boring possible decisions about them…Sit down and have a quiet conversation with your fear. Tell it that you will listen respectfully, say, when your fear warns you not to go swimming in 15-foot waves when you aren’t a strong swimmer. But you will not listen to your fear anymore when a small hopeful voice inside you says, “I want to make something.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘Your fear is boring’ 

Do we need to talk about Maya Angelou? (When don’t we?) Dr Angelou said “I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” I probably don’t need to remind anyone that Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, won five Grammys for her spoken recordings, along with a heap of other awards for her wonderful and beautiful works of writing. But the Kruger-Dunning effect (or ‘imposter syndrome’) had her under its spell. Even the greatest awards and praise couldn’t shake the feeling that, underneath it all, she was a fake, who didn’t have the skills to do what she was doing.

"Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud"

‘Impostorism’ expert Dr Valerie Young says women are more likely to feel that their setbacks and failures as resulting from their lack of ability, while men are more prone to blame outside factors.

“Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm – even computer error,

-Valerie Young, ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women’

Disconnect from the feeling of ownership of your work. Say: ‘This is just what came out of me at this moment. It couldn’t have been anything else, and because of that, it’s perfect.’ When you don’t connect to the outcome, you can’t connect to the failure, fear or feeling of faking.

You’re not fake, no matter what your inner critic says. Your work is perfect, just as it is.

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