WHERE IS YOUR BLIND SPOT?
It’s difficult to see yourself clearly. But it’s worth making the effort so that you’re better able to live your best life.
Do you over- or underestimate yourself?
Have you heard the story about the bank robber who covered his face in ‘invisible ink’, thinking no one would be able to identify him? In 1995, McArthur Wheeler held up two US banks without wearing a mask, and even smiled at the surveillance cameras. What was he thinking?!
Actually, there was some (warped) logic involved. He knew the lemon juice trick we played around with as kids: use lemon juice to write a secret message on a sheet of paper, allow it to dry, then reveal the message by warming the paper near a source of heat. Wheeler figured that smearing lemon juice all over his face would render him invisible. The poor man couldn’t believe it when the police showed him the surveillance tapes.
This sorry tale caught the attenfor tion of psychology professor David Dunning, who enlisted one of his grad students, Justin Kruger, to do a study with him on this kind of cognitive bias, titled, ‘Unskilled and unaware of it’. They went on to test their hypothesis of ‘illusory superiority’ on varsity students by checking their self-assessments of their skill in logic, grammar, and humour against actual skill. The students who were most competent thought they ranked lower than they really did, while the incompetent ones thought they were pretty great!
Another thing Dunning-Kruger noted (which has been verified by further research) is that high performers learn from feedback, but ‘poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve’. ‘If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,’ says Dunning. ‘The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is.’
These studies were mostly conducted in the US, and one American who rates himself above all others springs to mind. Here’s a small sample of his self-professed magnificence: ‘I have the best words’, ‘No one has done so much equality as I have’, ‘Nobody reads the Bible more than me’, ‘I am more presidential than anybody, other than the great Abe Lincoln’. Of course, not everyone in the US talks themselves up that way, but are there cultural differences in self-perception? One study showed that the Japanese tend to underestimate themselves, and that they see failure as an opportunity to improve their abilities. Here at home, if the early rounds of
Idols are anything to go by, we’re more
aligned with the US. It’s striking that so many of the wannabe superstars just don’t have a clue that the only thing they’ll ever hit is a false note.
But you have to hand it to them: at least they put themselves out there.
Wise woman, life coach and doctor of sociology Martha Beck says we pay lip service to the idea that ‘every human consciousness is equal and invaluable, but in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours’. But still, ‘deep down,’ says Martha, ‘most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else. It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both.’ And, she says, it’s this that prevents us from getting validation from the world around us, and a sense of our true value.
‘We only “go blind” to information that is so troubling, so frightening,or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves,’ says Martha. But she urges us ‘to feel what we feel and know what we know’, as that’s the key to setting ‘a firm foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavours, and inner peace’.
Dunning is keen to impress upon us that the takeout from his research is not that people are stupid, but that the challenges in gaining self-insight are ‘numerous and formidable’.
So how do we get to see ourselves more clearly?
‘We need to feel what we feel and know what we know’ because that’s the key to setting ‘a firm foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavours, and inner peace’. MARTHA BECK
1. WRITE YOUR LIFE STORY
‘The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities – they are our personalities,’ says Dan P. McAdams, professor of psychology and the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, who is at the forefront of a relatively new strand of psychological research called narrative identity. And Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, suggests we should actually write it down – warts and all – because there’s research that shows that doing this improves your physical and mental health. You can write your life right, it seems. He holds that confronting the challenges of your life improves self-awareness. In his book, Discover Your True North, he offers a few thoughts to get you going. If you look at your early life story, think about the people, events, and experiences that have had the greatest impact in shaping the person you’ve become. Then, consider how you frame the setbacks in your life.
2. ASK YOURSELF SOME BIG QUESTIONS
Martha suggests these: What am I afraid to know? What’s the one thing I least want to accept? What do I sense without knowing?
3. ASK OTHERS FOR FEEDBACK
However, it’s really tricky to elicit the truth. In Self-insight, Dunning writes that when people are faced with giving another person unpleasant news, they try to cleverly negotiate a truthful way to avoid conveying their genuine opinion. We’ll all recognise the reaction to his colleague’s speech. ‘Everyone in the audience hunched down in their seats to hide their constant wincing, embarrassed giggling, or outright expressions of horror. Once the speech was over, my colleague asked a number of people what they had thought of his speech. A few told him that the speech had been remarkable (true, but misleading). One told him that people would be talking about that speech for years (also very true, but even more misleading).’ So basically, people lie to us, while trying not to lie. Another problem is that ‘we tend to accept positive feedback at face value without much thought,’ says Dunning. And on the other hand, ‘When people receive negative feedback… they give it a good stare, looking for ways they can discount or dismiss it.’ One of our other little tricks is we credit our successes to something about ourselves, like our ability or effort, and lay blame for failure elsewhere, he adds.
Yet another problem that Dr Scott Williams of Wright State University points out is that, ‘People who only see you in one role can only describe your behaviours in relation to that role.’
So how best do you get the feedback you need (but don’t always want)? Martha Beck advises that you set yourself the task of asking a different person every day for a week: ‘Is there anything about me that I don’t seem to see but is obvious to you?’ She says that often someone you don’t know well might actually give you the most useful response. People we know are sometimes too kind or polite to dish, or conversely, might not have the purest motivations.
Don’t like what you hear one bit? Just thank them, says Martha. ‘Then imagine yourself tucking away the other person’s comments in a box. You can take them out later, examine them, decide whether or not they’re useful. There’s real feedback, and then there’s the slop that’s merely a reflection of the speaker’s dysfunction.’ But how can you tell which is which?
‘Useless feedback is nonspecific and vague, and has no action implication. It demotivates, locking us in confusion and shame,’ says Martha. ‘Useful feedback is specific and focused. It can sting, but it leads to a clear course of action; when you hear it you feel a tiny light bulb going on upstairs.’
And that will sort everything? According to Martha, ‘Just observing the truth about yourself without judgment or spin will begin to change you. It’s well-nigh impossible to see yourself more and more clearly while continuing to act without integrity, or in contradiction to your life’s real purpose. Eventually you may come to see what Marianne Williamson meant.’ You’ve heard it before: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.’
This is much like what Dr Leslie Becker-Phelps, a clinical psychologist, has to say in Psychology Today: ‘Those who struggle with feeling essentially flawed try to avoid failing at anything by giving up trying to succeed, trying to do everything perfectly, or vacillating between the two.’ They need to address this problem by ‘slowly acknowledging these experiences and working the edges of them (much like slowly wading into cold, deep waters)’ so that they can get to know, tolerate, and accept those aspects of themselves. This frees them up to make healthy changes. Dr Becker-Phelps suggests that this process often has to happen within at least one secure relationship, which could be with a therapist.
4. REFLECT ON YOUR LIFE
for a few minutes a day. Pointing to research that links mindfulness with a shift in the brain from anger and anxiety to a sense of calm and wellbeing, Professor George sees a 20-minute reflection session as a must. He meditates, but says journalling, prayer, a walk or a jog – whatever suits you – will have a similar effect.