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Do you know what really bugs me, the thing that eats away at my self-confidence?
The fact that my most successful blog post was written over a year ago.
I used to think jealousy was one of the worst emotions you could experience. I hated myself for wasting time analyzing other’s news clippings or subscriber numbers. It flew in the face of my own teachings about defining success for yourself.
Then I realized one emotion was worse: inadequacy.
Inadequacy is ruthless about detail. It notices how no one talks to you at the PTA meeting or how irritable you’re being with the family you love after a bad night’s sleep. It makes fun of your clumsy bump over the curb (again) while driving in a foreign country. If you’re blogger, Google Analytics becomes the yardstick of your self-esteem.
On the other hand, inadequacy is blind to your wins, big or small. It discounts, minimizes, and forgets.
You can remember saying to yourself, “If only I could…” and then when you did, it was overshadowed by what you didn’t.
Only a couple of years ago, I fantasized about reaching 1000 subscribers and building a business that brought home an extra $2000 a month for our family. That seemed wildly successful to me at the time.
Now that I have thousands of subscribers and my business cleared nearly $7000 last month (an unusual month and certainly not average, but still), you’d think I’d be euphoric and celebrating non-stop. Nope.
I’ve struggled to shake the feeling I’m somehow falling behind. It’s not that I don’t recognize that I’ve had some successes. It’s that it often doesn’t feel like enough.
I’m not courted by media as a career expert or connecting with the all the big influentials. I despair I’ll never reach 10,000 subscribers (an order of magnitude above my initial goal).
How in world can I hope to realize my dream of being a writer, the voice in my head whines, if I can’t even compete in the world of blogging?
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure successful, “inspirational” bloggers aren’t supposed to admit they feel inadequate … ever. For someone who claims to be “an optimist at heart,” this only doubles my feeling of failure.
Believe me when I say this admission is highly uncomfortable.
But it’s also real.
And after wallowing in some self-pity for a while, I learned that feeling inadequate isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. Here’s how to get perspective on the problem and channel the emotion for good.
Two big reasons we feel inadequate
The tyranny of should
Penelope Trunk says “Should is the American way of putting ourselves down in the name of the need to impress other people.”
This is the first source of inadequacy, when we think we should have something we don’t, often (though not only) because we want respect and admiration from others.
I feel like journalists should be coming to me for interviews. I think conference organizers should be inviting me to give talks. I think I should have more comments on my blog posts.
But how important is any of this? Was it actually worth feeling bad over?
I realized most of my should’s weren’t needs, but wants and desires in disguise. They weren’t essential to my personal definition of success.
That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t want or have those things. But to get them, I’m going to have to do something more or differently than I am today. No one owes me anything.
In this way, should becomes the whip that over-achievers use to work harder and drive ever better performance. The truth is that the tactic largely works, but when overdone, it’s a recipe for disappointment. On the other hand, it gives me a list of really concrete things I can start doing to feel better and move me forward on my goals.
It’s important to remember that just because you come up with your own definition of success doesn’t mean you won’t be lured by society’s siren song from time to time. It’s why I recommend printing it out and putting it somewhere prominent, so you can remind yourself what you’re really working towards.
Big goals, big emotional roller-coaster
In a webinar for my No Regrets Career Academy clients last night, Jonathan Fields talked about fear and failure. He reminded us that if we’re not failing at least some of the time, we’re not likely to ever achieve those big goals we dream about. The other side of risk, he said, is opportunity. You can’t have one without the other.
Big goals mean you’re going to have to learn new things and take on tasks you’re not very good at yet. If you’ve been playing it safe and riding the coattails of your talent all your life, this is going to make you feel pretty lousy.
This means feeling inadequate can actually be a sign that you’re on the right track.
Believe it or not, you can take pride in your feelings of inadequacy if they stem from doing what’s hard. I value learning and challenge, even if the process isn’t always pleasant in the short-term.
Plus, you’ll find you’re in really good company.
How Zach Braff and two ants helped me ditch the self-pity
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Scrubs, you’ll know Zach Braff is famous for his comic and deeply honest insights on life. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his play, All New People, provided the release I needed from inadequacy.
His character, who is going through a rough time after a break-up, watches two ants fight over a crumb of Poptart. From his perspective, he realizes the struggle is largely meaningless. There are other crumbs. Regardless of who wins the prize, both ants will eventually die and be replaced by other ants.
The message isn’t that life is pointless.
It’s that fighting yourself is pointless.
And that’s what self-pity is: a big punch in the face by your own hand.
You need a fight? Fight the system. Fight injustice. Fight for your ideas.
And know that if you’re doing it right, sometimes you’re going to feel completely and utterly inadequate.
Maybe that’s what inspiration is all about.
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