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Confidence and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Over the years, I have discovered that the surest path to confidence is lack of knowledge. Everything is easy, unless you actually understand it.

How many times have clients or people said to massage therapists something like "You had to go to school for that?" or "Do you ever get bored working on people's backs?" These people have no idea of the complexity of what seems to be a simple action. But simple and easy are not the same thing (Telling the truth is simple, but seldom easy.) Putting that little golf ball in the gopher hole is a simple premise; actually doing it is another matter.

One of my clients was showing me a video of her dog learning to herd sheep. To my untrained eyes, it looked like the dog was just running the sheep in circles. Seeing my lack of real appreciation, she broke the video down frame by frame, showing me the intricate communication between handler and dog, dog and the sheep. None of this had I noticed on my initial viewing. I think if I watched that video ten times I still would not have noticed these intricacies until she pointed them out to me. Similarly, until a massage therapist reveals to a client the multitude of decisions in any session, massage looks easy.

Again, nothing builds confidence like lack of knowledge. There is a wonderful saying: "Absolute confidence is that feeling you have right before you actually understand the problem." In the psychology field, the name for this principle is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The people with the most experience are the least confident, while the people with the least experience are the most confident. Experienced people are aware of gaps in their knowledge or that there may be unseen variables that will complicate the outcome. Inexperienced people simply do not know what they don't know.

I remember being a guest speaker at a beginning massage class years ago; I happened to mention three or four aspects of the work that were still a mystery to me- even after all these years of practice. My goal was to show these beginning students that learning is unending- and to embrace the mystery of the human body. One of the students called me aside afterward (so as not to embarrass me) and explained to me one of these "mysteries" using oft repeated myths. I don't know what my reply was- it was years ago and I was a bit stunned.

If you talk to therapists whose schedules are filled with clients with difficult muscular problems, these therapists are all too aware of their struggles and problems yet unsolved. I've seen groups of them at seminars seek counsel with other experienced therapists- looking for some insight and wisdom from their peers. I love hearing their scenarios and the richness of the conversation. Conversely, some of the strongest, loudest, and most confident voices come from therapists who see very few clients, if any at all. When your theories are never tested by actual clients, it is hard to be proven incorrect. Theories are easy, results are hard.

One point; it is very important to make a distinction between confidence and bravado. I have driven in many large cities but I have never been to Savannah, Georgia. I have full confidence that I could navigate my way around Savannah, but I am also sure that at some point I will inevitably get lost. The confidence lies in the knowledge that I have the skill set to figure my way out of this predicament. Bravado would be to assume that I could navigate a new city without getting lost.

The same is true with seeing a new client. Seldom, if ever, do I feel like I know exactly what is happening with them in the first visit. More commonly, I have at least three possible reasons for their symptoms. I follow each thread until it is clear which is one is the reason for their symptom. If plan A doesn't work, I have at least two more paths to follow, and probably two other paths that I did not choose initially. This follows one of the tenets of PNMT; "What do you do when your go to strategy doesn't work?"

Real confidence is faith in the quality of your inquiry, not the "rightness" of your answers.

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