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.

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Anna Rich

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


‘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.


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?


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.


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.

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