We All Feel Like Imposters

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 09, 2021 # Lifestyle

I am a big fan of the particular field of psychology that deals with cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is an unconscious frame of mind that skews our ability to think or process information objectively. We all have them, and there are a dozen varieties. Probably the most common or the most talked about is the confirmation bias. This is the tendency to only acknowledge and support something we already believe in. You shake your head “yes” when you hear a remark that confirms your own hard-wired opinions and dismisses without question anything that challenges them. This inevitably leads to the “ostrich effect,” where you bury your head in the sand and shut off all information that contradicts your view.black and white photo of 6 hands reaching up

Sounds like most of the political and media discourse going on these days, doesn’t it?

Then there is my personal favorite, the often-referenced Dunning-Kruger Effect. Labeled by two academic, social psychologists, this theory, in a nutshell, says that people often have simplistic views because they aren’t informed enough to know what they don’t know. The less you know about something, the less complicated it will appear. This leads to what the authors call “illusionary superiority,” the “I know what I know” mentality when you don’t know much, to begin with. Low-information thinkers are often much more confident about their opinions than those who delve into a subject and see its often-contradictory complexities. Then they only listen to those with whom they agree (see above), and therein lies the end of all useful discussion.

I think such cognitive quirks explain much about why non-disabled people are unsettled or put off by the presence of disabled people. A case in point is the “I Have No Bias” bias, sometimes referred to as “naïve realism.” In his new book, “Think Again,” social psychologist Adam Grant defines this as the mental tendency to believe you are more objective than other people. And he states that, in direct contrast to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, “It turns out that smart people are more likely to fall into this trap. The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations.”

Often those who announce that they have no internalized bias toward someone disabled are simultaneously thinking, “Oh, that poor soul, there but for the grace of God go,” or “She must have a sad, miserable life.” They unconsciously pity you, always a bad way to start an encounter. And they often lump all disabled people together and react accordingly, though they consider their own in-group as highly individualistic. This is known as the “outgroup homogeneity bias.” This also occurs in reference to racial groups and Trump supporters. It is much easier to pigeonhole a whole mass than to see them as separate souls with varying personal strengths and weaknesses.

Awareness of these mental habits might help mitigate their effect, but cognitive biases, as a rule, are hard to overcome. Try getting a Fox News fan to watch MSNBC, or vice-versa. Of course, people with disabilities can have their own biases, including one that I think is only amplified by being disabled: the impostor syndrome. This is the belief that you are not as smart or skilled or accomplished as others think, and any minute you could be exposed as a fraud. Except for pathological narcissists and the few gifted with supreme self-assurance, I think most of us feel like impostors from time to time. I know I do. (Disclaimer: I am not cognitive scientist, just an armchair observer.)

This is a deficit in confidence, not competence, and disability in itself, for many, is a confidence buster. For instance, if you are looking for a job, non-disabled people, even those who think they are totally unbiased, will have their doubts. You might be sickly, get tired easily, not fit in, have unpredictable mood swings like depression or a short temper, or may feel entitled to special attention or less rigorous criticism because of your condition. Assuming you clear all those hurdles, you still may be unsure of your own talents or skills. It’s like playing two tennis opponents at the same time.

None of these biases toward the disabled should lead you to feel like you have to defend yourself or your personhood whenever you are asked, “Can you do the job?” or told, “It must be hard being you.” I’ve found in my own life with paralysis that familiarity breeds respect. And you only have control over your own responses. I’d say, put all of those perceived disses on the back burner and focus on your own impostor syndrome. The chances are that you are not an impostor in any way, and you might as well get used to it.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.