Many of my patients want to know what to do about a person in their life who makes them feel inadequate. Specifically, they describe a co-worker who one-ups them at every turn. For example, when one patient wished aloud they were brave enough to go bungee jumping, right on queue their colleague immediately launched into their monthly skydiving exploits. When my patient celebrated attaining their undergraduate degree, a colleague piped in their Ph.D. would soon be conferred. The examples go on and on and leave my patients and the rest of us feeling hopelessly inadequate.
Every one of us can identify with these experiences on some level. Snuggly couples pop out from every corner whenever we feel lonely. Ridiculously attractive people seem to follow us whenever we have a bad hair day. We rejoice at passing the exam, but feel deflated as the girl next to us is handed a big ‘A+.’ We sigh as we park our years-old Corolla between a Porsche and a Land Rover. What to do when life leaves you feeling as invalid as a forgotten username? Here are six ways to check your connection and try again.
Tip #1: Trust that everyone has their stuff.
I’ll bet you my last box of Thin Mints that your co-worker feels deeply inadequate. True adequacy doesn’t feel the need to advertise.
While we can’t know if a co-worker is searching for affirmation, trying to build themselves up by tearing someone else down, or is simply a knee-jerk show-off, we can know that their life isn’t perfect. How do I know for sure? Because they are human.
Insecurity is part of the human condition. In fact, it’s necessary: a healthy dose of self-doubt helps us monitor ourselves and our behavior, is necessary to spark introspection and motivates us to grow and change. We doubt ourselves so we can check ourselves, which allows us to get along better with our fellow humans and ultimately keeps the species going. Not only is insecurity part of the human condition, but a total lack of insecurity is actually a big sign of things gone wrong. (I’m looking at you, psychopaths and narcissists.)
Tip #2: Add “yet.”
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University is known the world over for her research on mindset. She delivered a TedX talk in which she describes a high school in Chicago that gives students who don’t manage to pass a class the grade “Not Yet.” What does this do? Most importantly, it shifts the focus from a fixed mindset—the idea that your basic qualities are static and unchangeable—to that of a growth mindset, which proposes that your talents can be developed. This shift from outcome to process implies eventual success, and in the meantime, focuses on effort, strategy, resilience, and perseverance.
For your own endeavors, rather than labeling a project or a process a failure: I haven’t lost those last ten pounds, I can’t manage to sustain a meditation practice, I don’t have my dream job—tack on the word “yet.” I haven’t lost those last ten pounds yet; I can’t manage to sustain a meditation practice yet, I don’t have my dream job yet. Believing you can improve, rather than being stuck with cards you were dealt, makes all the difference.
Tip #3: Broaden your scope.
Pop culture would have us believe that adequacy comes from one of only a few areas: financial success, fame, career achievement, relationship bliss, or physical appearance. We narrow our own vision accordingly and feel hopelessly inadequate if we’re not rich, famous, powerful, in love, or hot. But these mainstays of pop culture and internet gurus are narrow and, truth be told, misguided. A good life comes from so much more: having integrity, being curious, a hunger to learn, doing things you love, speaking the truth, and, most of all, creating and maintaining warm and loving relationships with friends and family. Don’t get me wrong—enjoy pop culture and internet gurus for what they’re worth, but don’t rely on them to tell you what makes you worthy.
Tip #4: Beware contingent self-esteem.
A term called contingent self-esteem is the tendency to change one’s self-evaluation based on feedback. It’s the most fragile form of self-esteem, as it is controlled by others and requires meeting their standards in order to earn value or worth as a person.
Contingent self-esteem doesn’t just create a shaky foundation for self-image; it puts our very health at risk. In a 2017 paper, two researchers from Stockholm University examined 122 participants and found that those diagnosed with exhaustion, cardiac issues, or immunological disease scored significantly higher on measures of contingent self-esteem than healthy controls.
Tip #5: Give your best self a rest.
Despite what every magazine cover would have us believe, it’s perfectly okay not to be your “best” self all the time. Too often, we want people to like us or want to come across as having it all together, so we end up trying too hard. But in pushing so hard to be our “best,” we subtly tell ourselves that being just as we are is insufficient. The solution? It’s okay not to push your best self out on stage all the time. Instead, just be yourself.
Tip #6: Remember that perfection is boring.
It’s easy to feel intimidated and inadequate compared to people with seemingly perfect lives. But have you ever walked into a “perfectly” decorated room? They’re soulless and boring, like a hotel lobby or a furniture showroom. They’re the last place you’d want to kick off your shoes, put your feet up, and have a few belly laughs with buddies.
People who advertise their seemingly perfect lives are similar: a mix of intimidating and oddly boring. When something is perfect, it means there’s nowhere else to go. Things are finished. The story is over. And how boring is that?
Much better to be a work in progress, to let some of the crazy hang out, or, best of all, to add “yet” to your unfinished dreams.