Consider Yourself an Expert? Or Are Emotions Clouding Your Self-Assessment?

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expertDo some people misjudge their own knowledge and expertise? A new study says this is true and that some over-estimate their abilities. Probably no news flash there. Certainly some people are not good at realistic self-appraisal.

However, as with many psychological studies, this one missed the boat in a fundamental way. It failed to investigate WHY people misjudge their expertise. And I believe the researchers missed the role of emotions, especially the emotion of shame.

One likely explanation is that this study was probably conducted by cognitive psychologists, who are focused on thinking and fail to take into account emotions as drivers of human behavior.

This study was published in Psychological Science and was recently blogged about with the headline: “Feeling Like An Expert Has An Ironic Effect On Your Actual Knowledge.”

(It seems this headline is also inaccurate. The study does not appear to show that if one feels like an expert it actually decreases actual knowledge. The study merely discovered that people seem to overestimate their own knowledge. These are very different concepts.)

In the study people were given a general knowledge quiz about personal finance with some fake terms thrown in. People who stated they were financial experts were more likely to claim they knew all about these three bogus terms.

What the study really shows is that some people have a deep inability to be wrong, which indicates they have a difficulty tolerating shame. This study isn’t about knowledge or expertise. Instead it is about pride, hubris and defending against shame.

We all know someone who is the “expert” on every subject, has an opinion about every topic, will argue unceasingly about a point, and can’t back down and be wrong. In “Pack Leader Psychology” I label these people “Dominators.” They lack an ability to be accountable and be wrong, because they are deeply insecure people. As a result, they have difficulty tolerating any additional experiences of shame.

This study points out a behavior that this “Dominator” type of person exhibits: They think they know a lot and proclaim they are “experts.” And even if they don’t know something, they certainly will not admit it. That would feel too painful to their delicate sense of self-worth.

One key insight into human behavior is this sentence: “Even after people were warned that some of the terms were made up, people who thought they were experts still over-estimated their knowledge.”

This indicates a person who — even when given a warning flag — cannot consider that they might be headed in the wrong direction.

What My Dog’s Tail Teaches Us About Human Emotions

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In training my new dog Hope, I remembered a technique used by Cesar Millan. He says that changing the position of the dog’s tail can help reduce fears. If a dog has her tail held between her legs, it signals, of course, that she is afraid. By lifting her tail into a more relaxed and confident position, the dog learns to associate the present experience with calm energy, not fear.

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So when I had to give Hope a bath, I saw that her tail was down between her legs and she was cowering and tense. So I put my hand under her tail and patiently stroked it upward until it was in a position that signaled relaxed confidence. When I brought the hose toward her, she again lowered her tail, and I repeated the stroking and lifting move.

I can’t say that she was immediately relaxed around the hose and water, but for a few minutes she got a lesson in getting body feedback.

And this lesson works for humans, as well. Many research studies have confirmed that our facial expressions and how we hold our bodies send signals to our brain and emotions about how to feel. A classic study is amusing to visualize. Researchers had participants bite down on a pencil held crossways in their mouths so that it forced the corners of their lips up into a smile. (Try it!) The study found that just this very simple action actually made people feel happier.

We tend to think emotions come from our brain and that’s it. But it is more complicated than that. Our minds, emotions and bodies are interconnected and feed each other information constantly. Emotions are actually physical or somatic sensations or signals. But how we hold our bodies can actually influence how we perceive our experience in a certain situation.

Many clients come to therapy slouching, frowning and sighing, signaling their depressed feelings in their posture and facial expressions. But these behaviors can also make a person feel more depressed.

It may seem simplistic, but choosing to stand, act and look a certain way can help improve mood.

A Pack Leader signals confidence, assertiveness, positive attitude, calm demeanor and competence with her physical behaviors and presence. Direct eye contact is also key in conveying a pack leader personality.

Are you a Pack Leader? Find out by taking a free quiz. Go to the “Contact Me” page and fill out the form.

Parents: How to Teach Your Children to Have Low Self-Esteem!

Jan. 24, 2013

Parents, I’m going to offer you the simplest, easiest way to teach your children to have low self-esteem.

Oh, sure, the obvious way is to do any or all of the following:

  • be emotionally or physically abusive to your children or spouse
  • be emotionally distressed yourself, with anxiety, depression, narcissistic/self-absorbed, etc, (but don’t go get therapy!)
  • be a substance abuser
  • abandon your children physically or emotionally
  • be inconsistent with discipline or too permissive
  • be too authoritarian and strict

But those are all a lot of work!  You don’t even have to go to all that trouble. Here is the easiest way to teach your child to feel shameful about himself:  Don’t listen.  That’s it — the key to raising a child who feels bad about himself.

I see this every day in my therapy practice with parents and their children.  Yet these parents are just behaving as their parents did and as many, many parents do today.

To illustrate, here is one scenario of a typical parent/child conversation:

Mom: “What a beautiful picture you drew in school today.”

Child: “Oh, well, I think it sucks.”

Mom: “No, it’s great. Look at the pretty colors! And the people you drew are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom:   “Don’t say that. You don’t hate drawing. You are a good artist. Look at this nice picture you drew. We have so many pictures that you drew that are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, I told you it sucks. I hate drawing. I’m never going to draw again.”

I’m sure most parents can claim a conversation similar to that one. Normal parenting, right? Supportive of the child, building his self-esteem, reinforcing his talents, right?

Wrong! Instead, this conversation taught the child:

  • your opinions don’t matter
  • your feelings don’t count
  • your “self” isn’t real and important
  • your mother doesn’t know or care about the real you
  • adults don’t listen to your concerns or ask how you feel
  • talking about feelings is wrong and scary
  • admitting faults is wrong and scary and vulnerable

Now those are some terrific lessons in building low self-worth.  And all from a simple conversation about a painting in first grade!

Instead, I recommend to parents that I see in therapy that they use a simple technique called “Reflective Listening.” This is actually something we use as psychologists (Shhh — don’t tell!).

With reflective listening, the conversation above would go something like this:

Mom: “Looks like you have something there in your hand from school.”

Child: “Yeah, I drew this picture, but it sucks.”

Mom: “Oh, you think this painting isn’t very good.”

Child: “Yeah, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom: “You really, really don’t like drawing or this picture.”

Child: “No. Hate it. Everyone draws better than me.”

Mom: “Ah. You feel like everyone else in class can draw better than you do.”

Child: “Yeah, and Miss Smith didn’t say she liked my drawing.”

Mom: “Oh, so it didn’t feel good when Miss Smith ignored your drawing. It seems to me like you are angry.”

Child:  “Well, maybe a little.”

Mom: “And sad, too?”

Ok, so you get the point.  Reflective listening involves the extremely simple idea of reflecting back (hence the name!) what the other person says.  It can at first seem boring and repetitive, but if done well, it can lead to some good stuff:

  • the person feels “heard”
  • the person is able to process his feelings without solutions, direction or opinions of the other person
  • emotions are recognized and validated
  • his real “self” is honored and accepted

The first scenario can seem so “good” as a parent — you are telling the child that he is worthwhile right? You are saying his painting is good and he is good. But instead, the opposite is happening. You are in essence telling the child he is wrong, his opinion is wrong, and he concludes that his self is also not worth much. Notice in the second conversation how the child isn’t contradicted or challenged.

Reflective listening ideally also leads the conversation to an emotion. Try to describe how you see what your child is feeling:  angry, sad, frustrated, upset, happy, content. Honor those emotions and let the child see that it is OK to express and talk about emotions.

Ideally, with an older child, if you can introduce the topics of shame and the need for acceptance and belonging as the roots of most emotional distress, that’s ideal. But you might just need a graduate degree in psychology for that trick.  Or maybe just go see a therapist for family counseling!