Does Your Psychological Wardrobe Work for You?

Photo credit: Roman Samborskyi

What suit of armor are you wearing? Not too many of us wear literal suits of armor these days, but we all reach for different suits for different occasions. This is the metaphor I like to use when describing our biases.

Cognitive biases are patterns of thinking based on information we have, perceive to have, or lack. These patterns of thinking serve as mental shortcuts in our brains to help us make sense of what we see. While we tend to think of biases as “bad,” cognitive biases, in themselves, are neutral. They are necessary filters to give us a window into the world around us.

Our biases affect not just the way we see the world, but also the way we see ourselves. Self-awareness gives us the chance to lay down our armor — take off our suits — so we can stand naked in front of the mirror. When we do this, we can see our biases for what they are.

Let’s look at some of the suits we wear.

Underdressed — Imposter Syndrome

When we experience imposter syndrome (or phenomenon), we can’t shake the feeling that we’re “underdressed.” If you’ve ever shown up at an event and noticed that everyone is dressed differently from you, you know this awkward feeling. I went to a conference a couple years back where I felt underdressed the entire weekend. It really made me feel like I didn’t belong and messed with my confidence.

When we reach for the imposter syndrome suit, we compare ourselves to everyone around us forgetting that we aren’t seeing the whole picture. With the prevalence of the “fake it ’til you make it” ethos, it’s very likely that the person you’re comparing yourself to is feeling as “underdressed” as you are.

Before I had even heard of imposter syndrome, I distinctly remember standing in the hallway at Boston College waiting to be called in to take my final oral exam (the final requirement for getting my Masters) and asking others waiting there if they felt like a fraud. I had completed two years of course work and studied for that exam for months and yet, I felt like a fraud.

I passed the exam and the rest is history. No one saw me as a fraud.

What can I do about it? Imposter syndrome is a bias based on a lack of information. We focus only on our inadequacies without considering the things we do well. The best way to expose this bias is to make ourselves consciously aware of how amazing we are. I like to keep a mental list of my triumphs and “press play” on the movie in my mind when imposter syndrome creeps up.

Who knows? This mental movie idea might even work for times when we show up to an event underdressed. Keep a mental list of all those times you were looking fly and press play.

The Dunning-Kruger Suit

The Dunning-Kruger Suit is the Louis Vuitton of biases. It can make any fool look like a million bucks.

Psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect (I should point out the Dunning-Kruger Effect has recently become the subject of controversy among psychologists. The debate is fascinating). Daniel Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, did a series of psychological experiments in the 1990’s in which they discovered that the least competent people tend to be the most confident in their abilities and performance. And it turns out that the inverse is true as well: the most competent people tend to be the least confident in their abilities and performance.

Both of these extremes represent failures of self-awareness. Suppose, for instance, a tone-deaf singer were to judge his own musical performance. This singer simply lacks the skill he would need to accurately assess anyone’s performance, let alone his own. Quite literally, he can’t hear his own mistakes — unlike many audience members, no doubt — so of course he will have the confidence of an amazing singer.

The problem for those who are highly skilled is just the opposite, then. Highly skilled singers are incredibly critical of their own performances because they can hear quite clearly — again, unlike many audience members, no doubt — all of the mistakes they make.

When those who are least competent feel the most confident, they suffer from a bias based on information they perceive themselves to have. We might say they know just enough to be dangerous.

Personally, knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect makes me very skeptical of my own feelings of confidence. Self-awareness is the remedy for this bias. The tone-deaf singer needs to realize he’s tone-deaf. But self-awareness is also a confidence booster. This makes sense. The more aware we become of our strengths and weaknesses, the easier it becomes to choose the opportunities where we are likely to shine.

This sets me up for a little tug-of-war inside my own head. Is my confidence born out of my self-awareness or am I suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?

What can I do about it? The best way to take off the Dunning-Kruger suit is to seek out honest feedback about our abilities and performance. The tone-deaf singer can ask other singers whose musical talent has been proven through objective means (e.g., they’ve won singing competitions). The tough part here is that incompetent people don’t always trust feedback from others because their confidence blinds them to criticism, even constructive criticism.

Tasha Eurich suggests taking the following steps to neutralize the Dunning-Kruger effect:

  1. Identify our assumptions
  2. Confront our assumptions
  3. Keep learning (especially in areas where we think we know a lot)
  4. Seek feedback on our abilities and behaviors

The Rose-Colored Suit

As I said in the introduction, we tend to think of biases as “bad.” It’s easy to see how Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect could cause anxiety. We may suffer because we doubt our own abilities and yet need to push ourselves in order to succeed. Or we may suffer because we have an over-inflated perception of ourselves and this perception stops us from making improvements that would increase our success.

However, wearing the rose-colored suit is an example of a beneficial bias. There are situations when overconfidence can be a really good thing. The key is to learn when to strategically use our optimism and when to be realistic. Wherever we need to be able to bounce back from constant challenges — like when you start a business — or when we can succeed through sheer persistence, this can be helpful.

This all makes it seem as if confidence is something we can put on and take off, like a suit. That might not seem at all possible from your vantage point. I certainly have moments (like when I’m trying to finish an article and I simply can’t find the words) where putting on my rose-colored suit doesn’t seem possible.

But confidence in oneself can be cultivated over time. It’s a practice. This is what makes it strategic. And people who are self-aware happen to be quite good at knowing when to put on this suit. The bottom line is that when confidence and self-awareness go hand in hand, you have a superpower (maybe I should have called this the Wonder Woman suit or something).

What can I do about it? You want to put on this rose-colored suit strategically. You can build up your confidence so that it’s there when you most need it, for instance, when you’re playing big or stepping outside of your comfort zone. Yes, there’s a danger that if you don’t realize the confidence you’re mustering up in these moments is self-generated, you could end up Dunning-Krugering yourself.

And this is where self-awareness comes into play. Have confidence and realize your confidence is coming from this rose-colored suit you’ve got on, but allow that confidence to penetrate your skin and bubble up beneath the surface.

Here’s how Tasha Eurich puts the point:

  1. Become an informer
  2. Cultivate humility
  3. Practice self-acceptance

We all wear different suits of armor for different occasions. The key to making your psychological wardrobe work in your favor is to know when you’re wearing a suit. To do this, you’ve got to stand naked in front of the mirror once in a while.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out your writer type with her Writer Profile Quiz.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks.