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Question #148: My work performance suffers when I don’t feel confident, which makes me feel less confident. How can I break this loop?

A fox hides among hounds, text says "When you are in deep trouble, say nothing and act like you know what you are doing."Dear Captain Awkward:

I both love and hate my job, and I am so confused.

My job is great because it matters: if we’re successful in what we are doing, we will for sure make the world a better place.  It also pays well and I like my co-workers.  There are very long hours, but I’m generally ok with that.

The problem I am having is that sometimes I am good at my job, and sometimes I really, really suck at it.  On good days I am happy.  On bad days I am miserable and I hate myself.  I think (and my supervisor thinks) that it comes down to confidence: when I feel good about myself and my ability to do the job, I do great.  When I don’t… I suck. This means also that when things start to go wrong, they quickly snowball. The big problem is that I can’t figure out how to control whether I feel confident or not.  I try to pretend I’m confident even when I am not, but that doesn’t seem to work.

I do have one thing going for me, which is that I can be incredibly stubborn.  I thought at first that if I just kept trying and kept trying, eventually I would get the hang of things and stop sucking at my job. I tried REALLY REALLY HARD for months and nothing seemed to get any better.  Then, two weeks ago, after some long talks with my supervisor and co-workers in which they gave advice — some useful and some not — I had a really great week. Everything seemed to go right, and I felt I had gotten the hang of things that had never quite worked for me before. I thought, FINALLY! It happened, I got good, I stopped sucking!

But then last week, for no apparent reason that I can discern, I was back to being really bad at my job again. And today is pretty shitty as well.  At this point, I just feel like giving up.  But I really don’t want to do that, because (1) I made a commitment, (2) I really want us to be successful at the thing we’re working on, so much so that there is nothing else I WANT to do, and (3) I don’t really have any other options immediately available to me to put food on the table, etc.  All very good reasons not to quit.  But it’s getting harder every day to keep going.  I do not know what to do and I am very unhappy about it.

Do you have any suggestions?

P.S. Everyone has bad days at this job just like any other, but we quantify these things carefully, and I have more of them than my co-workers; and often they are WORSE bad days than my co-workers have, so it is a legitimate performance issue and not just something I imagine when I don’t feel confident.

Dear Unconfident Job Person:

I’m trying to puzzle out what you do that is a) good for the world b) pays really well! c) is quantified daily and d) requires confidence because e) if I knew what specifically you were trying to do I might be able to offer suggestions better than “Be more confident, silly!” and f) are they hiring, by any chance?

So leaving specifics aside, it seems you are asking the following questions:

1) How do I get more confidence?

2) How do I get more consistent about feeling confident?

3) How do I get more consistent about performing well (whether or not I feel confident on a particular day) (which will make me feel more confident)?

The A-Team

Masters of faking it. And also of using welding to turn innocuous vehicles into tanks.

My chosen professions are teaching and directing movies, which have a lot in common. With both, there is a level of knowledge and expertise that you cannot fake. You MUST know your stuff and you MUST plan. They are both collaborative and performative: Sometimes it’s like you’re making one charisma-check after another, and you have to roll a 18+ every time or the whole thing falls apart.With both you do a lot of secret, solo grunt work before you ever show it off.

It’s a lie that art gets created only when some magical inspiration strikes a True Artist, who is somehow different from regular people. I’ve had moments where an idea for a story or a solution to a problem popped into my head that felt magical, and sometimes these moments happen when I’m not actively working: I’m in the shower (where I would really benefit from some kind of waterproof note-taking apparatus/voice-recording device/sexy assistant), or on the eL (where I take out a notebook and try to scribble something down before it leaves me). Sometimes a story will come to me when I’m in the middle of trying to write a different story, like it’s taunting me.  But the ideas would not come if I were not putting in the work and creating the conditions for them to show up by reading, watching movies, taking pictures, and writing a lot of garbage and shitty first drafts just to be in a daily habit of writing. Who said “inspiration favors the prepared mind?”

Turning back to the performative aspect of work, some of the most useful advice I got from a mentor who taught me how to direct films (and not a little about teaching) was that often what a film crew wants from you is not any particular piece of knowledge or expertise, but for you to act like you’re sure about what you’re doing and to make your decisions…decisively. Film directing is somewhat about talent for storytelling but it is also a lot about a repeatable set of behaviors (preparation, rehearsing, taking suggestions from others but not getting derailed by them, problem-solving, making people feel appreciated and listened to and trusted) that could be learned and practiced over time.  Some of his most valuable pieces of advice were:

  • Fake it ’til you make it. When you’ve got a film crew standing around you can’t afford to wait for “inspiration” or “talent” to strike. Talent rests largely in the ability to get it done when you have to get it done.
  • Film directors can’t afford to think out loud in front of people. If you need to take 5 and think something through, take the time and/or bounce it off a trusted lieutenant, but don’t open your mouth in front of everyone until you know what is going to come out. (This one goes triple for ladies. This is completely wrong and unfair, but what in men looks like “asking for creative input” or “Being the Doctorin women looks like “the blood that might be leaking out of her vagina right now is attracting bears and probably zombies and making her indecisive and she’s doing it wrong and is possibly nuts.”)
  • If your Director of Photography wants to shoot it one way and you want to shoot it the other way, it’s probably faster and cheaper to shoot it both ways than it is to have the argument that no one will really “win” and that will poison the rest of the day.
  • That said, stand up for yourself and get what YOU want, even at the risk of making a mistake. That way the mistake will be your own and you can learn from it, rather than a constant “What if we had done it my way?” nagging at you every time you watch the movie.
  • Wear headphones for at least the first day so you can hear how your movie is sounding.

Obviously not all of these are directly applicable to your mystery job, but I think you could directly apply “fake it til you make it,” “don’t get in pissing contests, just do the work,” “don’t think out loud,” and “risk making mistakes, as long as they are your mistakes” to many work situations.

If your company is depending on you to do certain work, they can’t have that work depend on what mood you’re in or how you’re feeling about yourself that day to get the work done, right?  They’ve identified the problem and given you some tips, but now it’s on you to either make sure you are in the right mood or to figure out how to fake it when you are not in that mood.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of stuff that might help you. Readers? Tell us stuff that works for you.

  • My good friend B. breaks her large to-do list off into a few things that she must accomplish on a given day. If she does those things, she is a rock star. Anything else she does that day is extra. Make a small to-do list for yourself.  VERY small. If you do those things you can feel good and call the day a win.  You will do (and have to do) many other things in the course of your day, but if you just cross those three things off you get to feel good.
  • Since B is an athlete, I’ll borrow one from athletes:  Visualize yourself having a great day at work. Walk yourself through all the steps of having a great day. Imagine each step.
  • Review the fundamentals. Assume you know nothing about how to do your job, go back to the beginning, and spend an hour or so thinking about how to do your job. Are there steps or processes you can/should follow?  Are you following them, or are you cutting corners because you assume you know what you’re doing? Can you observe someone who is great at what you do and apply anything to your own performance? Can you have someone observe you doing your job and give you some coaching?
  • Maybe measuring your accomplishments daily is making you nuts, because having one bad day will tank the next day as you try to recover from feeling like you failed.  Maybe your boss can measure your daily output, but give it to you as a weekly assessment?  If you have one terrible day and 4 good days, you’re coming out at “pretty good for the week,” yes?  Since you guys have talked frankly about performance, this seems like a reasonable request.
A picture of a Puritan

Okay, fine, if they didn't work, they would die of exposure or wolves or starvation and stuff. But did they have to come live in my brain?

It’s a little bit of magical thinking to act like your failures are because of you but your successes are because of some “mood” or “feeling.” Sometimes my perfectionist jerkbrain gets into the habit of thinking that my failures are my fault and my successes are because of luck. Extrapolating from there, “slogging away” and “working hard” at something “counts” because it is unpleasant and difficult, but solving something easily because of natural intelligence “does not count” because it was “too easy” and I’m not allowed to take any pleasure in it.  I blame my chilly New England upbringing. What’s your excuse?  Here’s maybe how we can do an end run around your inner Cotton Mather:

  • If you do make a mistake or have a bad day, sit with that mistake for a little while, say, 30 minutes.  You have 30 minutes to wallow in your mistake and feel terrible about things. Set a timer or alarm. At the end of that 30 minutes, write down what you need to do to not make that mistake again. What did you learn?  Okay, the clock has restarted. That mistake is officially in the past. You are starting over, and you now know something you didn’t know before, because mistakes give us information. Cultivate resilience by teaching yourself how to bounce back.
  • If you have a good day, take 30 minutes at the end of it to list the things you did well. Take credit for the success!  It was because of you! Feel good about it! What things did you do today that you could repeat tomorrow?  Documenting your successes at the end of each day allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment, so when you are having a bad day you have some evidence of what good days look like to argue your jerkbrain into submission.
  • Learn to take a compliment. When someone says “good job,” say “Thanks!” When something goes badly, don’t talk badly about yourself in front of your coworkers and blame your confidence issues or indulge those issues in front of them. Just say “Yeah, rough day. How is yours going?”

Here’s some umbrella stuff about self-care for anyone who is having a difficult time at work:

  • Practice excellent self-care.  Eat well. Take breaks to drink water and stretch your legs. Read for pleasure. Get enough sleep at night. Take your vitamins.  Talk to your friends and people who make you feel good about yourself. You can’t expect yourself to run like a well-oiled machine if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
  • Avoid complaining and avoid the complainers, if possible. They suck you in and drag you down. This is true even if you have good reasons to complain. It’s good to vent from time to time over happy hour, and it’s good to bring up actionable things to management (this is complaining that’s directed to the people who can actually change something), but chronic daily complaining can become its own mindset, and it becomes a habit that informs how you react to the world.
  • Appearances count at work, both to others and for yourself and your own confidence. Take an extra 10 minutes to clean up your desk space at the end of each day so you’re not drowning in paper. Clean off your work computer’s desktop and organize your files.  Lay out your clothes for the next day so you know you will look sharp at work and not be rushing around in the morning. Get to work 10 minutes early and ease yourself into the day. I know these seem like cosmetic changes, but they make you look like you have your shit together and like you want to be there, which can make you feel like you have your shit together.  You will feel better if you are choosing how you work rather than letting it just happen to you.
  • What’s your long-term plan?  Is this really the right job for you?  If it’s not, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Being stubborn and wanting to do something doesn’t mean you are excellently suited for it. Take a class or pursue an interest (volunteer?) outside of work and start thinking about the big picture. You’ll be able to handle the day-to-day with more aplomb if you know that it’s leading you somewhere you want to go.

Either you are a smart, capable person who is in the wrong job and will eventually work your way around to something that you are better suited for (and the short-term problem is about making sure you can keep this job as long as you want to), or you’re a smart, capable person who has some confidence/anxiety issues that are holding you back and you need to work them out, perhaps by consulting an expert via your company’s EAP line (if they have one) or seeing a therapist about performance anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy.  But like my grad school film director mentor, I believe there are a bunch of small, repeatable behaviors and attitude changes that can help you fake it until you make it. Good luck.

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54 comments
  1. Brilliant advice as usual Captain. but there was one thing I was looking for but didn’t see;
    When things start to go wrong stop. As soon as you notice your mood change from confident to unconfident stop what you’re doing. Get up from your desk or workstation and go talk to someone who is familiar with you and the problem. Together, remind you of your successes and why you can do the task you’ve been assigned. You’re educated, experienced, passionate and remember the time when you rocked that assignment and the other time when you kicked that problem in the ass. This is another way to re-set the clock that Captain was talking about.

    • JenniferP said:

      Good catch, thanks! “Know when to fold ‘em.”

  2. Nomie said:

    LW, job anxiety blows! I think the Captain has some fabulous advice, as ever. What works for me – and I emphasize that this is only really applicable if your job is not super-high-stakes – is just telling myself it’s not the end of the world if I mess up. My boss is not going to put me in front of a firing squad. The department is not going to stone me. This is obviously less useful if your job is something like an EMT or firefighter. And it’s not meant to be a way to let yourself off the hook for making as many mistakes as you like because eh, they don’t matter. Rather, it helps me to go “okay, I fucked up. That is too bad. How can I fix it, and how can I do better next time?” It stops the catastrophizing spiral: there was a mistake, but it doesn’t mean that I am going to be told to clear my desk at the end of the day. And having typed this all out, it is somewhat similar to the 30-minute thing in the main post, but maybe another way of talking about it will help!

    • Original LW said:

      Haha, yes. Good point: nobody dies if I mess up. And I’m not even so all-powerful that I can cause the entire effort to succeed or fail just on my own.

  3. I’m sort of dying to know what this mystery job is now.

    • JenniferP said:

      The LW is smart to withhold it, I think – either it’s too specific or identifying, or jerks would be like “That’s what you do? That’s not that hard!” and some of those jerks might make it through before I could delete their comments. But (s)he can email me privately any time with that information.

      • BTW Louis Pasteur is the one who said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

        • JenniferP said:

          Thank you! Gold star for the day.

  4. jenjo said:

    The letter sounded really familiar to me, in my case it turned out to be mild rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. When I was ‘up’ I was super-smart and inspired and enthusiastic and on top of things, and when I was ‘down’ I became pathetically confused and incompetent – not that I saw things that clearly at the time. When I couldn’t perform as well as I thought I should I would grit my teeth and try harder, which didn’t help and was incredibly frustrating and scary. Eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t (just) a confidence thing, I really am more competent at some times than at others (and actually I’m not sure I would want to get rid of my lows, if it meant I had to lose my flashes of brilliance as well).

    Of course this isn’t necessarily the case for the LW, but it’s one more possibility to consider.

    • xenu01 said:

      That is really interesting. I wonder if it might be something like this for the letter writer, who wanted us to be very very clear about the fact that this isn’t just an “everyone has bad days scenario”.

  5. Been there said:

    Coupla thoughts: I have a file marked “accolades” and into it goes all the exceptional feedback I’ve gotten. It’s useful for several reasons; everyone should do this! I mention it now because it is helpful for me to read through it on down days.

    A decade ago I was treated for depression. I didn’t realize the effect it was having on my work until I got better. I thought feeling terrible at my job on bad days was a normal part of a career, or at least an extension of my grouchy personality. Nope, turns out it was a symptom of an underlying problem.

  6. All really excellent advice, Captain! Your directing mentor sounds a lot like my post-doctoral research mentor, and a lot of the specific things you learned about how to organize yourself and your effort are very similar.

    I do have one thing to add, which concerns this statement by the questioner:

    “Then, two weeks ago, after some long talks with my supervisor and co-workers in which they gave advice — some useful and some not — I had a really great week.”

    It could be a bit worrisome that “some long talks” are occurring with both the supervisor and co-workers, depending on how many and how frequent such talks are, and what the professional relationship is between the questioner and the co-workers. Specifically, it is not necessarily the case that co-workers are sharing their thoughts with the sole goal of helping the questioner’s performance improve, and their statements should be taken skeptically. Also, it is not a good idea to put oneself in the position of seeking advice from someone at the same level of hierarchy about how to do one’s job, as it can tend to create a superior/subordinate relationship where one shouldn’t exist.

    My suggestion would be to only talk to one’s supervisor–or, even better, someone at the same level of the organization as one’s supervisor, but who is not one’s direct superior–about job performance issues, but not to one’s equal co-workers.

    • Original LW said:

      This is an excellent point. Without going into too much detail, the professional relationship between me and the co-workers I talked with is such that it makes sense for conversations like this to happen. Some of us are more equal than others, you might say. But, at the same time, there was definitely a little bit of that fucked up dynamic you’re talking about happening — because I think there is always going to be some amount of competitiveness and political jockeying for position among co-workers — which is why they were partly helpful and partly not. I think it’s really useful to keep this observation front and center, that not everything co-workers do or say is necessarily meant to help in a situation like this.

      • Been There said:

        I wanted to add that I had a similar concern, actually. Only my concern was also about talking to one’s supervisor. I didn’t say anything because I don’t know your supervisor or the climate at your workplace, and recognize that this kind of thing varies.

        That said, there is an argument to be made for NOT making your supervisor your sounding board for your personal growth issues around your job. Myself? I want my boss to understand me, but that doesn’t mean I want her to know about all my anxieties or see my soft underbelly. When she thinks of me, I want her first thought to be about my competencies and my confidence. So I try to hash that stuff out away from her view, with a few trusted colleagues who know me & my office. YMMV, of course, and your relationship with your supervisor may be unique. That said, I think readers should carefully consider the frequency & depth with which they discuss their own vulnerabilities with their bosses.

  7. superfluous consonants said:

    I’ve talked about my job–teaching K-1st graders in subsidized housing after school–before, but I’m going to talk about it again, because I think it’s useful here. It is work that is objectively Good and objectively Difficult. Good days can be Fine or Good or Great, but bad days are Awful. Here are a few strategies I’ve accumulated for avoiding those Awful days:

    1. Check Your Stress. It’s easy to let tiny stressors accumulate unnoticed until my stressed/anxious/bad mood has spiraled out of control. In my classroom, that leads to Yelling, which never helps anything. Regularly (say, every 20 minutes) taking a second to review my stress level, recognize what’s not going well, and reaffirm my commitment helps me stay in control.

    2. Hit Pause. Sometimes there’s so much going on at once in a classroom full of 20 impatient bodies that I feel the need to respond to everything immediately, which can lead to bad decisions made under duress. It’s okay to make everybody wait if one minute of silence means the difference between the right and wrong decision. That’s not being indecisive, it’s understanding my needs.

    3. Recognize Break Time. Sometimes something is just Not Working, and that is not necessarily a disaster–it’s just time for a break. For me, that looks like five-10 minutes of Simon Says. For you, that might look like taking a walk around the building to clear your head. It’s not evidence of failure to acknowledge that something isn’t working RIGHT THIS SECOND.

    • Original LW said:

      This sounds like it could be really helpful. I have a question, though, when you “review your stress level” what exactly does that look like? Are you just going “Am I stressed right now?” or is there something else? Couldn’t thinking about whether you are stressed make you stressed if you weren’t already?

      • superfluous consonants said:

        example:

        Take a deep breath.

        Think, “How am I feeling RIGHT NOW? How does my body feel? are my shoulders tense/does my stomach hurt? Am I breathing too fast?”

        Answer: “My shoulders are clenched up around my ears and my breathing is really shallow. I’m upset because Sally refuses to stay in her chair and her movements are distracting the other students during a complicated part of the lesson. My frustration may cause me to be harsher than I want to be.”

        Solution: “I need to lower my shoulders and take a few slow breaths. Sally can’t stay in her seat because she understands the lesson already and is bored. I’ll give her a job to do so she’s occupied while everyone else works.”

        The idea isn’t JUST to recognize that you’re stressed, but to understand how your stress triggers affect your choices/performance. Consciously taking a second to make a thoughtful plan instead of reacting from a position of anxiety really helps me stay on top of things.

  8. Rosie said:

    You’re working in a fundraising phone bank, aren’t you? That’s the one place I’ve worked where I felt all that you describe. I don’t have a recommendation. I ended up being fired for not getting the numbers I needed, and I went immediately to a job I was consistently good at. Of course, then my confidence soared. My experience, I guess, is that you don’t have to quit because you’re bad at something. You can wait for your boss to decide that one.

    • JenniferP said:

      If it is a fundraising phone bank, let me just say: I will never give money to people over the phone. And I will never give money to those annoying Cause Panhandlers who surround my workplace and local farmer’s market. No matter how nice/polite/adorable they are and no matter how good the cause, no matter how confident they feel in their ask, no matter how much they psych themselves up for rejection, no matter how gracefully they handle it. No, no, and never. So some of it, like any sales job, is that you can’t control what other people will do.

      • Ensign Perception said:

        Yeah, I feel the same way, mostly because I know way too many nice people who have worked that job and they get paid way too little for the amount of stress involved. After seeing them go through that, there is no way I’m going to support that system.

        • JenniferP said:

          “Your job is to annoy the fuck out of people for a good cause! Smile!”

          I would love to see stats on what they actually pull in from those street campaigns vs. the $ to hire people to do that stuff all day.

          • CheckeredFoxglove said:

            Yeah, I called that “selling guilt door-to-door” when I did that. I’d never felt bad for doing well at work before that. Thank you everyone who refuses to give us money; we’re scammers and we know it, and the ones who don’t feel bad about it have sold their souls.

          • YES I have always wanted to know this. I’ve always wanted to ask the solicitors how much they make per day versus how much they solicit, but I haven’t been targeted for a while, perhaps due to my NO WAY face. I teach at a community college, and I also long to suggest to people who target students who maybe haven’t grown the best boundaries yet that they should be honest and ask the parents, where the money is actually coming from.

      • Hazel Stone said:

        Nonprofits have to fundraise. The only reliable ways to do it is to get a list and call or send “junk” mail it. The door to door people get the list. Or you can buy it from sleazy people (who grab your data without your knowledge) or other nonprofits.

        Door to door and phone banks allow nonprofits to raise money from ordinary people rather than giant (often corporate) foundations. That’s one reason it is really important. For example, virtually all work done to combat air pollution in the US is funded by one charitable foundation. ONE. One group of powerful rich people controlling a multi-billion dollar endowment and deciding the strategy for virtually all the anti-air pollution work for the whole US. That is NOT a great situation for many different reasons.

        As long as the people asking you for money are courteous and the organizations are not corrupt, why is it so horrible to do this in person or on the phone?

        And the door knockers or street canvassers are getting paid peanuts. Believe me. I started out that way, and never made more than $25K per year, and I was (eventually) a manager of 40 people.

        • JenniferP said:

          Thanks for clarifying, that’s actually very good to know, and I will think kinder thoughts (while still not signing up, ever) about the in-person canvassers.

          I personally react badly in-person canvassing because:

          I have very limited funds, and can give only sporadically. When I do, I seek out organizations that I want to support and handle it, checking off all of the “no need to call/email/or mail me” options. I prefer to use the faceless, silent, anonymous web for these transactions.
          I don’t want to be on the mailing list. Not yours. Not anyone’s. Not even for that really great cause! Not even for that really great cause I already give money to! I throw it all away, and it’s a waste of money for the organization to send me glossy mail. Worst offender: The Sierra Club, who I had to beg and then threaten to get them to stop clogging my mailbox with glossy mail after I bought my mom a calendar that one time. Yay for the earth!
          Over-saturation. The canvassers surround my work building for months at a time and ask me for money 4-5 times/day. That crosses the line into a nuisance. Worst offenders: Greenpeace.
          Not all of them are friendly, smooth professionals. Sometimes they try to go with a whole “hitting on you” approach to the ask. Sometimes my “no thanks” gets a “What, don’t you care about ______?” (the children/environment) or a big whiny poutyface, or in more than one case a muttered “bitch” after I walk by. Really? REALLY? Worst offender: Save the Children for guilt, Greenpeace for sexual comments (followed by “bitch”) when my back is turned.
          ‘Tis the season of Salvation Army Bell Ringers. Fuck those fucking bells.

          And no, sorry, I don’t have a better idea! If that’s what you guys have to do to do good work, it’s what you have to do. I will walk 2 blocks out of my way not to have to hear “Do you have a minute for the environment?” for the 5th time in one lunch hour.

          • Celeloriel said:

            “The canvassers surround my work building for months at a time and ask me for money 4-5 times/day. That crosses the line into a nuisance. Worst offenders: Greenpeace.
            Not all of them are friendly, smooth professionals. Sometimes they try to go with a whole “hitting on you” approach to the ask.”

            I completely agree – I’ve gotten all those attempts, including one creepy attempt at winsome from a college guy who was like “Heyyyyy, can we be friends?” When I said “No” and kept walking, his charming response was a muttered “Fat bitch”. Yes, clearly, your friendship was pure, true, and for the ages. Thanks, Save the Children, for sending out such lovely well-trained young men.

            Here in DC, some of the frustratingly worst offenders are interns from the Human Rights Campaign. I’m all for gay rights, ladies and gents, it’s just that I have 30 minutes for my lunch hour here and NO MONEY to give you; please, please stop asking me four times a day.

    • xenu01 said:

      I hadn’t even thought about it till your comment, but wow. And the worst part about fundraising/sales/customer service jobs is that while they SEEM to have so much to do with you and your performance, a lot of it is more out of your hands than you think? I used to feel this way (minus the feeling good about helping people stuff, of course) when I was a full-time waitress. Sometimes, I would be on top of my game, and sometimes I would NOT be. Of course, my bad days would be magnified times one million if it also happened to be the day that some jerks just didn’t feel like tipping that day or whatever, but of course I would take it all on myself.

      • Original LW said:

        a lot of it is more out of your hands than you think

        It totally is! Drat those other people and their decision making.

    • Original LW said:

      I’m not, but as with fundraising (and waitressing, as xenu01 points out below), my success does depend in part on decisions other people make. And that’s pretty uncomfortable for me, it turns out. Many of the other jobs I have done required getting words or data or computer software to do stuff, rather than people. People are more difficult and definitely more obnoxious in some cases, but also more fun.

      My experience, I guess, is that you don’t have to quit because you’re bad at something. You can wait for your boss to decide that one.

      Too true! And I have nothing to lose by continuing to plug away and do my best.

      • Copcher said:

        Nothing to lose except possibly some of your mental and emotional well-being, which are both really important. If you have found a way to manage those and keep them solid, then plugging away and doing your best is probably fine for a while.

    • Nomie said:

      I worked doing phone surveys for the CDC one summer. THE WORST. Because any time you start the spiel, you get yelled at – even if you’re not selling anything, not trying to get anybody’s money, just get them to answer a few questions. Even if you are on the side of the angels.

      I did get dialed into the after-hours voicemail for a Sears Tire Center, though. That was fun.

  9. Ensign Perception said:

    One thing I like to do is give myself little rewards and things that will trigger me to step it up. Like right now I’m taking a 10-minute break to check blogs and stretch and go get a glass of water. And in 10 minutes I will sit back at my desk, turn on an episode of This American Life (reward for sitting at desk, plus I have trained myself to work to those sounds) and get cracking.

    There’s also one album I only listen to on the way to work, and one song I only listen to once I’ve knocked off work for the evening. My brain is my own Pavlov’s Dog.

    • JenniferP said:

      That song is Eye of the Tiger, isn’t it. ISN’T IT.

      • Ensign Perception said:

  10. Gretchen said:

    Great advice as always from CA and commenters. LW, one more suggestion that I would make, as someone who suffers from regular mood swings, it might be an idea that when you feel that sudden drop in self confidence you take a minute or two to take stock of what you were doing/eating/saying/thinking/reading at that time.

    I know it sounds odd, and at first you may not see any connections, but the brain is literally wired to find patterns and associations from things seemingly unrelated and you might find an interesting link to working out what triggers your downward spiral. I did this exercise at the recommendation of a CBT therapist and it really helped to work out my mood triggers (‘eating’ may have seemed an odd inclusion there, but it was key to my moods, as we – my therapist and I – discovered that I have hypoglycemia and it was a major trigger factor that was masked by depression), and there is no event too small that can tank you.

    Also, I have to agree that the regularity with which your workplace gives you performance feedback is not healthy and seemingly public as you are coerced to compare your stats with everyone else’s. Is there a way that feedback can be conducted more privately and less regularly? I was wondering also, you say that on some days you are literally terrible at your job and that this has been brought up with your supervisor, have they ever suggested that your fluctuating performance would lead to probation or suspension?

    Although a little claustrophobic sounding, your supervisor and co-workers sound largely supportive in helping you find coping mechanisms to improve your performance, there seems no mention yet of your job being at risk and you seem passionate about what you do so it might be premature to quit just yet as long as your good performance improves lives and the lack of it doesn’t actually harm anyone.

    • JenniferP said:

      I haven’t had CBT, but this sounds like zen “mindfulness,” which has been useful to me – Just stopping, processing “what is happening right now?” and paying close attention to the facts (rather than my moods/perceptions) help slow my anxiety roll.

      • Gretchen said:

        It was an absolute lifesaver to me as the “right now” was so much the focus, and once you’ve identified your triggers it’s great for planning and internalising coping techniques and experimenting with different behavioural reactions to stressful situations. I just did a quick google of mindfulness and it seems like a similar technique, kind of an ongoing process of self and surroundings check.

    • Original LW said:

      You’re totally right, and no, my job is not at risk at this point. I may have been overreacting JUST A TAD.

  11. Ensign Perception said:

    LW, did you know you can CBT yourself on the internet! It’s true: http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome

    I mean obviously this is probably not the be-all end-all of cognitive behavioral therapy, but if you are short on money, time, etc. it can be really helpful.

    • JenniferP said:

      I keep meaning to try that but then failing to follow through, just like with a regular gym. Thanks for linking it again!

      • Ensign Perception said:

        The first time I tried it my anxiety and depression scores were so high that I ran away. It took a while for me to get back to it.

  12. Original LW said:

    Wow, thank you so much, Jennifer, for such a thoughtful and kind response. You have such a cool blog, and such cool commenters too!

    Even though I was vague about my job you seem to have hit on the root of the problem (and “inner Cotton Mather” totally made me laugh). You’re right that it’s bullshit to think that my successes are due to external factors while my failures are all totally my fault. This needs to go on the list of Things That I Remind Myself Often.

    This issue is part of something I’ve been working on, which is to stop viewing myself as “good at thing X” or “bad at thing Y” as if those were unchangeable personal characteristics, but instead viewing myself as a person who can grow and learn and change. It’s a work in progress. When I fall back into bad habits and think of myself as just plain “bad at my job” period, I have to explain away my successes and take full responsibility for my failures in order for the narrative to make sense. It’s a lot of work and very unpleasant and I don’t recommend it!

    One thing in particular that you said that I think is super awesome is this:

    Learn to take a compliment. When someone says “good job,” say “Thanks!” When something goes badly, don’t talk badly about yourself in front of your coworkers and blame your confidence issues or indulge those issues in front of them. Just say “Yeah, rough day. How is yours going?”

    I hit on that myself, actually, quite recently, as part of a little mental review called “What are my successful co-workers doing that I’m not?” I started copying the way they reacted to both compliments for successes and to having bad days. And I’ll be darned if they didn’t seem to respect me a lot more almost immediately. Which makes it way super easier to be confident! So I guess the lesson is, part of success if not going around telling people how much you suck.

    • commanderlogic said:

      part of success is not going around telling people how much you suck.

      1 – SO TRUE
      2 – I loled. Okay, snickered, but that’s OUT LOUD so it counts!
      3 – Don’t let the mean voice in your head come out of your mouth. It’s a bastard, and you are awesome. Keep awesoming!

    • Leah Jaclyn said:

      I just want to say, while it does sound like you are getting there, the Idea of tying your self esteem to success is one that is kind of silly when you think about it properly. Do you think that people who are successful are better people than those who are not? So why would you think of yourself as a better person when you are having successes? You are you, an awesome person who works for charity and writes letters to cool people on the internet no matter how well you happen to be doing at that point at time.

    • Christen said:

      Here is a story about giving yourself props when you deserve it:

      A few years ago I worked for a very, very understaffed organization doing a job I had no experience with, in a department that hadn’t been staffed for a couple of months. It was also the kind of place where there is no “event horizon” — for every problem you took care of, three or four problems would crop up that ended up taking priority over preexisting ones, which only got worse. Also, almost all the other staff were people who’d volunteered a lot or otherwise had a lot of history with the organization, and I wasn’t, so people didn’t trust me (and I didn’t walk in with the knowledge other people might have) and everyone was in a position to give me negative feedback. Which a lot of people did. I’d go home every single day feeling anxious and inadequate and thinking about everything I had to do the next day and how I’d set out to do so much that morning but instead the day was worse than a wash and I’d have to start all over again the next day.

      Every once in a while, a friend from work (and who I worked closely with) and who lived near me would hit me up for a ride home. Once while I was driving, thinking the aforementioned “I suck and I need to stop sucking and how am I going to stop sucking” thoughts, he said, “Well, I’m tired. But we got a lot done today.” And then he listed the things we had done together or that I had done, and I realized he was right — we actually HAD accomplished a lot. And invariably, every single thing he talked about was something I had actually forgotten having done until he brought it up again. As in, not only did I discount my accomplishments but FORGOT about them.

      My friend probably doesn’t even remember that conversation, but when I realized I was doing this, it changed my life. Noticing, and giving myself credit for, the things I do every day (and maybe rewarding myself with gold stars, as the Captain has suggested in prior posts) not only makes it more likely I will be able to do more cool things tomorrow, but it makes it easier to stay positive and advocate for myself in tough conversations with supervisors and coworkers. Think about things you’re doing well at but aren’t being evaluated on (“My students didn’t meet AYP this year, but several individual kids made huge progress over their previous scores, and with my help, two secured scholarships that will enable them to go to college”) and also about things you could do that will help give your employer a better picture of what you’re capable of — committees you could serve on that would draw on your prior skill set, etc. Maybe you’re a square peg in a round hole, but you don’t have to be forever. It also doesn’t have to be a liability for your current position.

  13. Little things I do when I feel overwhelmed (or underwhelmed), coming from an admin who works in education:
    • I do a bunch of those little, easy tasks that pile up when you’re doing The Important Stuff and kind of pretend I have a different job for an hour, as well as knocking out stuff that has been sitting there. I feel like I accomplished something and I am not wallowing in the stuff that has been frustrating me.
    • When I have a bunch of messes (piles, post-it reminders, email reminders etc) everywhere making me feel like a loser, I just drop everything and bang those out. This is kind of like the first item above, but more of the annoying work rather than the little tasks. But I just go “I’ll just focus on the email reminders first” and then move on. Methodical, like.
    • Sometimes I literally have to just extrapolate that my job is directly affecting people rather than supporting someone who directs someone else to directly affect someone. It gives scanning 10 year old files a little more meaning, somehow. It’s like fake it til you make it, and maybe it’s also a little “spoonful of sugar,” but I find 90% of the time it does help me when I want to claw my eyes out.
    Sorry about the frustrations! Don’t forget about how your job has a fantastic mission! : )

    • Tallulah said:

      Good points. but I have fallen into a trap with the first one. Sometimes I have put off the big/important/scary stuff because “I need to get all these littler/easier/boring/unimportant things done! Because I need to do ALL THE THINGS!” Then the actual important stuff gets neglected, or doesn’t take up as much space as it *should* in my mind. (Disclaimer: I’m in a job where I manage my own time and I can put off the important stuff right up until my boss asks me what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks…)

      I’ve found it really helpful to break down scary things into specifics, and also to block out time to ONLY DO those things. I’ve sometimes had to actually work from home (where I can’t access most of the tools I need to do the little stuff) to make myself do the important things.

      I really feel for the LW, because I struggled a lot with work confidence at the start of this year (my boss having called me on avoiding the important stuff). Getting a clearer idea of what was expected of me, pinpointing where my weaknesses – and my strengths – were, and making myself do the things that did shove me a little out of my comfort zone, really helped, even if I felt pretty stressed for a bit.

      Not that taking some time out to calm down isn’t a good thing, and I’ve definitely sometimes been all “okay, need to take a break from this before I cry, LET ME DO THE EMAILS!” But I know I was getting into bad habits.

  14. Hazel Stone said:

    Also, if this really is a fundraising job then confidence is actually very important to success.

    However, after years of training people to fundraise, the thing that seemed to always be true was that the skills of fundraising can be learned and can make you much better at your job, but if you don’t actually believe that fundraising is a good, noble, important thing to do and you are ashamed of it and think it is begging…that is unshakeable. I’ve never seen anyone who believes they are begging succeed at it.

    Sincerity, passion, really listening to the people you are asking for money and drawing them out…that’s how you succeed. People like to give money. They like doing good deeds. It gives them a thrill and a sense of satisfaction. If you can figure out how to make donating give them that good feeling, you’ve got it down.

  15. For Captain Awkward — bath crayons are good for writing down inspired thoughts when they come to you in the shower.

  16. ASG said:

    Late as always, but perhaps the LW is still monitoring this post so I’ll speak up anyway. I zeroed in on this part of the original letter, which I haven’t seen a lot of the commenters talk about so far:

    My job is great because it matters: if we’re successful in what we are doing, we will for sure make the world a better place.

    This is wonderful and amazing and good BUT. BUT. I find that a lot of organizations and well-intentioned bystanders trade on these feelings in an extremely unhealthy way. When I was teaching, I got a lot of comments from co-workers and well-meaning friends along the lines of, “it’s so amazing that you’ve found your calling! it must be so rewarding to be in education and to shape young minds!” and so on. That sort of talk might not have always had a hostile intent, but it had two very bad side effects:

    First, I think it can be used to justify a lot of exploitation, underemployment/underpayment, casualization of the workforce, and other sorts of systemic abuse: “how dare you ask for a raise? you’re doing important work you LOVE, do you care more about MONEY than LITTLE BABIES,” etc. I’m not saying this is necessarily happening to you, but if you are worried about all the people you’ll “let down”, or if you feel like you don’t have the right to be paid what you’re worth or treated with respect because your work is just “too important” to permit you to take care of yourself, then this sort of dynamic might be at play. And that is NOT YOUR FAULT.

    Second, and more directly relevant to your letter, the “you have found your calling” blather really brought my anxiety to a fever pitch: if I’m having a bad day or if I snap at a student or if I’m struggling in some other way, it’s no longer just “ah, shitty day at the office” but “OH MY GOD I HAVE RUINED THIS YOUNG PERSON’S EDUCATION AND THEY WILL LEARN THE WRONG THING AND FAIL IN LIFE ALL BECAUSE OF ME.” I’m sure the situation is even worse for firefighters and EMTs and the other folks the good Captain mentioned; as the Captain said, obviously they need to be on top of their game because the stakes are genuinely very high, but that doesn’t mean they should hate themselves for being human either. I once had a good friend who worked for a cancer organization and, even though he was miserable for a lot of legitimate reasons and wanted/needed to quit, he felt he “couldn’t” quit because if he did people would die of cancer. That was literally the words he used, how the logic worked for him.

    I think in these situations some perspective is good: the organization is bigger than you, it will do OK if you fuck up occasionally, and you don’t need to cure cancer all by yourself. And for the love of God, if you need some time and space to bring yourself to a healthy place, people who say BUT CANCER THOUGH! are not helping either you OR the people with cancer.

    Good luck. We’re rooting for you.

  17. meerkat said:

    What do you do about self-care if your schedule does not allow time for reading for pleasure or getting enough sleep, and certainly not both? (And everyone already thinks you’re horribly monstrously lazy because you don’t stay after until 8 p.m. on one thing and simultaneously come in 3 hours early for the other thing.) And you don’t have anyone to talk to because your friends only have time for you when *they* need support and not when *you* need it?

    • JenniferP said:

      Step 1: New job.
      Step 2: New friends.

      Not necessarily in that order. And obviously not that easy. But yeah, that’s what you do.

  18. Elodie said:

    Late to the party, but I read this and absolutely believed that she was a researcher/technician in science/medicine. Which is what I am, and I’ve had the same feelings, so I read into that.

    Sometimes experiments just don’t work. Sometimes your hands shake. Sometimes you’re so stressed about following every step of the protocol exactly that you end up skipping one, or spilling something. Sometimes you’re so freaked out about being asked to feed your supervisor’s cancer cells that you mentally blank out and MIX TWO DIFFERENT TYPES OF CELLS TOGETHER, ruining experiments and costing money and setting everything back. A reaction that works one day will not work the next, and your job depends on it, and nobody can figure out what you’re doing wrong, and then suddenly it works again.

    Sometimes you’ll screw up euthanizing a mouse and you’ll start crying and then wonder how anyone can respect you because you a.) can’t kill a mouse and b.) are crying in a lab.

    Sometimes you’ll break a piece of multi-thousand-dollar equipment because your hands were shaking from being upset about the mouse. Sometimes your job will seem like it pivots on an impossible experiment that you just can’t get to work. Sometimes your cells will die for no reason.

    And sometimes there are good days. Sometimes somebody will be struggling over a piece of lab work, and you’ll come over and pick it up, and it’ll work perfectly in your hands. Sometimes you’ll see the puzzle pieces.

    On the off, off chance that the LW was a scientist, and is reading this post for some reason, I just want to say: Find a Zen place and trust the process. Whether they admit it or not, this happens to everybody.

    it’s called the learning curve. It can last for two weeks or two years. And it will be okay.

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