Dunning-Kruger, Imposter Syndrome, and When You Can’t Believe Yourself

Good morning, friends and neighbors! Today’s topic is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while because not only does it come up in creative life and professional life… it’s also an excuse to flex a bit of my dusty BA in Psychology.

With the increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression among the American population, “imposter syndrome” is a term that gets used to express frustration and self-criticism of one’s accomplishments. Slightly less well-known (but increasingly used in recent years) is “the Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which is oversimplified in order to be used as a criticism of others.

The truth is they are two sides of the same coin- we experience both in our lives, and the impact of them change how we handle our work, our creative projects, our relationships, and ourselves.

So if you came looking for Freddy Kruger, you’ll have wait about a month. Sorry- just a bunch of fascinating psychology today.

Dunning-Kruger: “This is trickier than it looks.”

Do you remember when you were just starting to learn a new skill set? After a couple karate lessons, you felt unstoppable- like you could kick your entire neighborhoods butt before lunch. A few baking classes in culinary school, and I felt like I was a master. This was easy! Becoming a world-class baker would be a snap!

Then you got your butt handed to you. New moves were harder for you to do, or someone beat you in a fight- crazy martial arts skills or not. For me, it was new recipes- or realizing I was a crappy cake decorator the day I had to ice the same damn cake 5 times for it to look decent.

That’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action- when you are full of confidence in your work/ skills/ talents because you have no idea how much more there is to know.

In David Dunning and Justin Krugers 1999 study, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” they described their eponymous effect as the inability to accurately self-assess one’s competence. It is a cognitive bias in which a person lacks the metacognitive ability to understand their own flaws.

In short, those who are incompetent in a task are too incompetent to realize they are incompetent, and so believe themselves to be highly competent.

The good news is that, for those that survive a head-on encounter with their inexpertise, experience and learning take the person down a curve to where- simply put- they learn enough to know what they don’t know, and actually become experts, less the bravado they had at the beginning.

A line graph depiction of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which the Y axis represents confidence, and the X represents Knowledge in a field. The graph depicts a sudden spike in confidence during low experience, which then sharply declines and gradually ascends as knowledge increases.

If Dunning-Kruger is what happens when a person doesn’t realize how bad they are at something… then imposter syndrome is when they can’t believe how good they are.

Imposter Syndrome- A Life-long Con

You have talent. You are well-liked, work hard, and things are going well. There’s money in the bank- money that came directly from your good judgment, decisions, and effort, and everyone knows it.

Of course, you know it’s all a lie.
You just got lucky. Other people helped you. You were in the right place at the right time, that’s all. You don’t know nearly as much about your job as people think you do, and it’s just a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.

It doesn’t matter how it looks outside or to anyone else- you are a fraud, a hack, and a lucky SOB. It’s just a matter of time.

That sounds like anxiety talking… and it is. It’s also Imposter Syndrome.

Broken blue plates on cement

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

First identified in 1987 by Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, “imposter phenomenon” is when a person can’t internalize their own successes, believing them to be the result of luck, or accidentally misleading others into believing they are more competent than they think they are, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, roughly 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives simply because of being placed in new/ unfamiliar places and roles- in other words, worry and stress about the normal course of a successful life and career. All the “What if I’m not up to its,” the “Why did I think I could handle this’s” connect themselves naturally to anxieties about the fear of failure and disappointing others.
Everyone thinks so highly of me- but what if I’m just a fraud? I’ll disappoint them.”

This fear of failure can even lead to a fear of success- success means higher acclaim, bigger projects, more money, higher stakes, higher expectations- and in their mind, more people to be disappointed in them. Thus, stagnation is seen as the safest choice- even if it feels unfulfilling. It is.

Freeing Your Mind From Itself

Whether you believe yourself a fraud or a wunderkind (despite all evidence to the contrary,) the impact of Dunning-Kruger and Imposter Syndrome on your work life, your creativity, and your relationships can’t be denied. We’ve all met that one shmuck at work that swears every job is easy for them… until they are actually asked to perform and flub it. We also know that one person who is stunningly brilliant, but languishes in meaningless work and questions themselves constantly- why don’t they just believe it themselves? To quote W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming”: “… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Another question to ask is, “Can one CAUSE the other?” In life, can the experience of Dunning-Kruger, especially that downward slide in confidence upon gaining wisdom on a subject, lead to Imposter Syndrome later with a sufferer saying “Everyone says I’m awesome, but I know how hard this was for me to learn. I’m not as clever as they think I am.” 

A common remedy for imposter syndrome is reframing a situation to remove self-doubt, such as finding an internal motivation (personal goals, wellbeing, peace of mind) for projects rather than external ones (impress people, make money)- but finding that confidence can be difficult if the entire memory or feeling of confidence is poisoned by memories of Dunning-Kruger:

“No way, last time I felt this good, I got my butt handed to me. Not letting that happen again.”

Why can’t I be as confident as I was before? Yeah, I didn’t know anything, but I felt unbeatable… I wish I could just feel like that again.”

stressed out man grimacing at a black laptop while two other men talk behind him

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Ultimately, the answer for everyone will be different- but here are some of the ways I’ve found in myself for combatting both.

  1. Intrinsic Motivations Sometimes, Intrinisic Motivations ALL THE TIME!
    As I wrote in my book “Blood, Sweat, and Butter”– motivations can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivators come from other people- society, friends, your work- and tend to be shallow and fickle. Intrinsic motivators are ones about you- from you and for you, no one else need know. Whatever it is you are trying to do or make- do it for you first.
  2. Keeping Humble, and Seeking Help
    Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell is that a person doesn’t realize how much they still don’t know. So… remember that. There is ALWAYS more to learn and to understand, and people who make things look easy probably spent a LOT of time learning to make it look that easy. Never assume you know it all, and ask advice whenever possible.
  3. Take Yourself Out of the Center
    Dunning-Kruger and Imposter Syndrome get their strength from your perceptions of attention and the expectations of others. Want to cut them off at the knees? Remember that it’s not all about you. Everyone has their own BS to handle every day- they’ve got plenty going on. No one is watching you as closely as you think, so just do the best job you know how, and learn from what happens next.
  4. Get On With It Already.
    This one is especially useful for dealing with Imposter Syndrome. If you want to do something but you don’t feel worthy or are scared it’ll disappoint people… F*** it, do it anyway. Either you pull it off and everything works out great, or it stinks and you learn to do it better next time. Stagnation is the most vicious tool Imposter Syndrome has because it feels so good and safe. Yeah, it’s a slow death by suffocation, but at least the only person you disappoint is yourself, right?
    Screw that noise- just get on with it already.

What About You?

Think you suffer from Dunning-Kruger or Imposter Syndrome, or know someone who does? What have you found helps you recover or break the cycles? Drop it in the comments, and share your hard-won wisdom with the world!

Stay Classy,

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