Fault in your stars?

Most of us fail to be objective when it comes to assessing our own strengths and weaknesses

Everybody who knows Neeta knows that she is a conversation hogger. All ears have to be on her, all the time. She can effortlessly hijack any talk — from someone’s wedding night saga to office promotion ordeal, even a dear one’s condolence meet. Surprisingly, Neeta had no idea that she is such an annoyance to people around her until an exasperated boyfriend told her that he would kill himself if he ever had to live with someone like her!

Once the fury made way for reason Neeta decided to summon her friends and seek some candid answers. “That meeting was quite a revelation! I always thought of myself as a fun person, someone who people love to hang out with. I had no idea that I actually came across as such a self-obsessed and insensitive person to others, even my own friends,” confides the 30-something corporate law consultant.

“Yet, after the initial denial, once I saw the problem, my first response was to blame my mother. You see, she was the kind of woman without a voice, meekly following orders, being treated like a doormat. Maybe subconsciously, I was trying not to be like her. I needed to be heard,” recalls Neeta. It took her several months of reflection and some professional help to finally acknowledge the problem and accept responsibility for her actions. Still “a work in progress”, Neeta is currently working on honing her listening skills and mastering the art of having a conversation.

Studies say…

Research confirms that human beings are, typically, quite poor in assessing their own competence and abilities. Most people tend to overestimate their strengths. There is, in fact, a scientific term for this illusory superiority: The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The theory goes that the less skilled you are at something, the less likely you are to recognise how unskilled you really are. That, perhaps, explains the over-confidence of terrible drivers and inefficient bosses!

On the other hand, studies find that the better people get at something, the higher are the chances of them underestimating themselves. The ability to see the scope for further improvement often comes in the way of objective skill analysis. In extreme cases, Impostor Syndrome — a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence, despite evidence to the contrary — can wreak havoc with people’s (often high achievers’) lives.

Since most of us, lesser mortals, are more likely to be affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect than the Impostor Syndrome, let’s take a moment to understand why it works the way it does. Social psychologists argue that the reason for the overestimation of one’s abilities is not so much arrogance as ignorance. Perhaps, Neeta really had no idea that she was a social nuisance.

Five-step process

Imagine living our whole life, being ignorant of our flaws, overrating our abilities! How can we ever hope for any personal or professional growth? The good news is that change is possible. Not always easy, but possible.

Here’s a five-step process to make it happen:

#Seek honest feedback

Have you noticed how children — some more than others — constantly look for applause? And as indulgent adults, most of us show our appreciation in ways that are not always in proportion to the child’s performance. Well, that can become a problem later in life, when objective feedback comes into the equation.

“To deal with our weaknesses, we first need to know what they are. Only then can we do anything about it,” says Dr Rahul Dutta, a Mumbai-based psychologist. “Asking for honest feedback from people you trust is the most effective way to work on your flaws,” he adds. Learn to take criticism in your stride; make note of things that people say — explicitly and implicitly.

#Accept the fact

Say you ask for feedback from a trusted colleague and he says that you sometimes have an unprofessional attitude. What do you do? Counter that he is the one with an unprofessional attitude? Make excuses for the times when you could have behaved more professionally?

“You have to stop finding scapegoats and making excuses. Begin by being honest with yourself. Only then can you sincerely accept your flaw — a violent temper, for instance — and work towards making the necessary changes to overcome it,” avers Dr Rahul. Write it down. Say it out loud. Accept your weakness.

#Overcome the challenge

Sometimes, we are so caught up in our ways that change seems impossible. We believe that it’s our destiny to be the way we are. The fault, we lament, is in our stars!

In other words, knowing and accepting that you are addicted to alcohol will not change your life, unless you are committed to overcoming the problem. Did you know that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, depending on one’s willpower and difficulty level of the new practice? “You need a long-term plan to beat your weakness. And sometimes, it may call for professional assistance,” maintains the psychologist.

#Keep learning new things

Why would a 70-year-old ace violinist and Padma Shree awardee like Dr L Subramaniam spend sleepless nights working on his doctoral thesis? Because he still considers himself a student of music. “There is so much to learn,” the maestro had said when I visited his home in Bengaluru for an interview last year.

Research shows that the more we know about something, the more we are able to identify the gaps in our understanding of the subject. Learning is for life; it shouldn’t stop with a college degree. Something as simple as trying to learn a new language or a new sport can help cultivate a positive outlook and keep the overestimations in check.

#Don’t chase perfection

“Once you find your weaknesses, accept and overcome them, take care not to get obsessed with them. You have to move on and explore new shades of life,” says Dr Rahul. The idea is not to chase perfection. For, perfection is an illusion. We all have our faults. And that’s what makes us humans.

Eleanor Roosevelt had famously said, “You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” After all, life is too short and precious to be limited by misjudgements about our strengths and weaknesses.

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