My mantra through school and university life was ‘avoid all eye contact with the teacher and they likely won’t pick on you to answer a question’. It wasn’t that I was a bad student, in fact I was always among the ones topping the class. It’s just that my confidence just seemed to end beyond the safety of the paper where I could keep my head down and don’t need to talk. It wasn’t a great way to spend that time. Looking back, I can see I could have used it to learn more than what the books offered.
I still tried to be as inconspicuous as possible to avoid being asked any questions when I started work. But, that’s not how real life works. I have always been sincere in doing my background work, and I didn’t really have a reason to be afraid to talk in a meeting or ask about something when assigned a task. It was just that I was extremely anxious socially. I did perfectly well with one or two people but more than that, I would rather slide under the table and not have anyone know I’m there.
After every meeting I find myself thinking: “Did I say the right things?” “Did the people in the room think I’m silly?” “Well, they must have been talking about me after the meeting, now this email looks like they don’t like me” etc. The truth is there is no evidence to believe in either of these things. Nil. Zero. Zilch. I work at a place where people are respected for who they are, and nobody is told off unless they have intentionally misbehaved.
Yet, I still find myself with sweaty palms if my ever so helpful and lovely manager calls me for a chat. Again, no evidence to believe that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. She has always commended me for my good work and helped me when I needed guidance. But a simple email from her to meet to discuss something and I’m thinking I have upset her somehow. I find myself reading and rewriting each email at least five times to make sure nobody thinks I’m stupid as a log. It can feel crippling to live with such severe anxiety and second guessing yourself at every moment.
My work profile revolves around talking to people, understanding their software requirements and tweaking the product to meet their needs. I get paid to talk to people and put on a confident front. It’s not easy. But I used to find it to be much more challenging when I started. Over the years, I have been able to silence the inner critic that tells me every time that I’m not good enough. Sadly, it’s a temporary quiet.
For me, the major change happened when I started working with a group of very nice people who focused on giving opportunities that harnessed one’s strengths instead of expecting one to be good at doing whatever they have been handed out. This was a complete paradigm shift for me who grew up believing themselves inadequate. The realisation that I am good at something and being applauded for the same was new. It taught me two very important things:
1) I can start living my life believing that I’m good instead of doubting myself all the time. I also don’t have to depend on others to reinforce that for me. It suddenly made my life so much simpler. The shyness of talking in front of people, the self-doubt, the anxiety, the clammy hands all started becoming less intense and less frequent. I started trusting myself to be good enough.
The harsh truth is that when we think that we aren’t good enough, we are usually not saying ‘for others’, we are saying ‘for ourselves’. It’s a shame that we are our biggest critics who ignore all the good qualities that we have and focus only on the weaknesses. The unusually high standards that we have set for ourselves that we would meet only when we are ‘perfect’ are impossible to be met; not just by us, by anyone.
2) While I was working with these people, I was put into situations I would have ideally run from, like working on a project that involved talking to a lot of senior stakeholders regularly, taking their inputs and at many times, going back to another one because of the conflicting ideas or standing up in a room presenting a complicated plan to a group of 20 people and answering their questions. I hated every part of these tasks. I was scared. Because I was too scared to try, I never knew I could do them well before.
Somehow, I managed to silence my inner critic long enough to stretch myself out of my comfort zone. And lower my standards. I also gave myself some room to make errors. What happened? I found out I’m pretty good at it.
Everybody ought to do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice. ~William James
So now, whenever you feel you are not good enough, take a deep breath and allow yourself to just try. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Stretch yourself just a little. Lower your standards this time. It’s alright not to be perfect. Nobody is.
Written by Sweta Goel