How do I Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

Let’s roll up our sleeves, because I actually love this topic! All of us have known many people who were amazingly incompetent, but absolutely confident in their abilities. How is it these people can be so stupid, and yet so confident? And how is it that I struggle so much with feeling like I belong in this role? Believe it or not, the answer is the same for both!

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome is done with awareness of what causes it, and then taking the steps to alleviate it. Awareness is first recognizing Imposter Syndrome is a byproduct of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias which causes incompetent people to overestimate their competence, and causes competent people to underestimate their competence. The steps necessary to alleviate Imposter Syndrome are related to changing your brain’s self-identity.

Buckle up, kids! This has definitely been one of our most favorite articles to write.

Please note. For the remainder of this post, we will use “Imposter Syndrome” and “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” interchangeably.

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias referring to the tendency of people with low ability or expertise in a particular domain to overestimate their knowledge and skills in that area. In other words, individuals who are less competent in a subject often believe they are more knowledgeable or skilled than they actually are.

Conversely, the Dunning-Kruger effect also applies to individuals with high competence in a specific field. These individuals may underestimate their abilities and assume that tasks they find easy are similarly effortless for others.

The effect is named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, social psychologists who conducted a series of experiments on this cognitive bias in 1999. Put simply, they found people who lack competence in a certain subject, lack the awareness to recognize their lack of competence. They do not have the competence to recognize they’re incompetent! Thus, leading to them being overconfident.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has important implications in various aspects of life, such as education, decision-making, and problem-solving. It can hinder individuals from recognizing their own limitations, leading to poor judgment and decision-making. Moreover, it can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts when people who lack expertise assert their ideas with unwarranted confidence.

But in all seriousness, why explain something with boring words when it can be done with song?

The Paradox of Imposter Syndrome

People who have heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect often know about the illusory superiority aspect of it, but the second half, the often forgotten half, of the Dunning-Kruger is effectively Imposter Syndrome. It causes people who are actually competent in an area to undervalue their abilities. They errantly believe tasks which are simple and routine for them are that way for everyone else too. Ironically, imposter syndrome often affects high-achieving individuals who have accomplished remarkable feats in their personal or professional lives. They feel like frauds or fear that others will eventually discover they are not as capable as they appear. These feelings can be isolating and, if left unchecked, can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of self-doubt.

Your Growing Knowledge and Awareness

As you level up your knowledge, you also gain awareness about so many more things related to the subject for which you previously had no idea. You have all heard the saying “the more you learn, the less you know.” This is what that means. As we gain knowledge we also gain awareness! I think a more poetic quote about this phenomenon is as follows:

“As the island of our knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance.”

~Marcelo Gleiser: The Island of Knowledge~

Think of a tiny island in the ocean. This little speck represents your knowledge in a particular subject. You look around and think “wow look at how small this shoreline is! I know all the things there is to know about this subject!”

As this island of knowledge grows larger and larger, so does its shoreline by proportion. This is a great analogy for this phenomenon.

Recognizing Imposter Syndrome

The first step in overcoming imposter syndrome is recognizing and acknowledging its presence in our lives. Understanding that these feelings are common and not indicative of our true abilities is essential. By normalizing the experience, we can begin to challenge the negative thoughts that fuel imposter syndrome. Most importantly, don’t believe it! Ironically, if you are experiencing doubt about your abilities in a certain area it’s often a sign of competence.

Challenge Negative Self-Talk

Practice self-compassion and challenge the negative self-talk that imposter syndrome feeds upon. When self-doubt creeps in, replace it with positive affirmations and reminders of your capabilities and achievements! Embrace your strengths and accept that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed, but you do need to be persistent.

Alleviating Imposter Syndrome

The first step is recognizing that self-doubt is often an actual sign of competence is a good start. Second, work on changing your brain’s self-identity. If you are in a role, let’s say as a leader but you don’t feel like a leader that’s when Imposter Syndrome creeps in. But remind yourself, no I am a leader! The more often you reinforce this story to yourself, your identity will begin to change. The old adage “fake it till you make it” can be toxic if it’s implication is the intention of dishonesty. However, the spirit of “fake it till you make it” has more to do with telling yourself to fake being confident until you actually are confident! When you give your mind the same information over and over, it will start believing it (which is how propaganda works, frighteningly).

An Important and Dire Warning

But, I do have some bad news for you. You also suffer from the other side of Dunning-Kruger Effect. That’s right, you are completely and totally incompetent about something which you think you have totally figured out. And so am I. And so does everyone else with a pulse. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being human.

Competence is not binary. No one is either all competent or all incompetent. And there is a continuum of competence in a given subject as well. But, I assure you, there is something for which you think you have totally figured out but you do not have a clue. This is actually quite easy to spot in others. Any time I hear someone confidently popping off about extremely complex subjects like global economics, politics, abortion, ethics, religion, the business landscape, stock markets, etc. I always listen for a key phrase. It’s always something along the lines of “the answer is so simple, why can’t people see it?”

If you think a vastly complex and thing like global economics which is affected by supply and demand, real and perceived values, availability, cultural biases, supply chain, logistics, marketing, fraud, personal and political motivations, geopolitical turmoil, war, disease, education, and millions of other variables boil down to a single causal factor, there’s a 100% chance you are clueless on the subject. And yet, we hear so many people say things like, “the economy is in shambles because the president is so dumb!” That person is an idiot and do not take advice from them on economic matters.

So the question is, what are you an idiot about? I reflect on this a lot. And while it’s important to fully weed out what I am both incompetent and confident about, knowing of its trap is certainly important and allows me to approach a lot of subjects with intellectual humility and the understanding that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have all the things figured out.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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