How to deal with a profound sense of not being good enough?
March 7, 2014 8:31 PM   Subscribe

I've had my current job for almost 3 years. It was a dream job and I still enjoy it because the perks are great (such as working from home). However, my progress and growth in terms of skills and confidence continues to be very slow. My colleagues are wonderful and amazingly talented, but I have a very hard time keeping up with them.

I feel like the "weak link" on the team. No one has called me out but in my gut, I know that of all the people on my team, I am the least talented and I am the least "omg, super amazeballs".

The zinger is that I was one of the earliest people to join the team. I'm approaching my 3rd year work anniversary, while many of my teammates joined within the past 1-2 years. Figuratively, it's like starting out on a run. Another colleague joined around the same time I did, but he's advanced way ahead. Other people who joined after me have caught up and passed me. And I'm still behind, unable to catch up.

I try my hardest. I'm up past 3am most nights trying to get everything on my list done. One of my colleagues who joined the year after me is my age, but married with young kids and she's 10 times more productive (plus she has time to complete all of these extensive personal projects). I'm single with no kids and l live alone. Yet my productivity level compared to hers is embarrassing. She can launch 3-4 projects per week while juggling kids, a household, personal pursuits, etc.

Recently this above colleague was tasked to oversee part of our team, including me. So now she goes from being my peer to being my lead, giving me assignments. It bothers me not because I want to be a lead, but because I feel like a failure for not being able to get to where she is after almost 3 years. It's the equivalent of the older sibling failing so much that the younger sibling catches up and takes over. To complicate things, I like her and she's a great person. I have no hate for her. All of my anger and hatred is toward myself and my failure to be as productive as her.

They say it's all about the journey, but why is my journey taking so long while everyone else breezes ahead so easily? It's not that I'm not trying. I work as hard as I can, but during the day I can't even concentrate because I'm so stressed out about how much I suck compared to everyone else. So I tell myself, I'll make it up for it tonight. Night rolls around and I'm ready to work but I'm exhausted and all I want to do is sleep. Some nights I'm able to overcome that exhaustion and I get really productive...staying up til the wee hours of the morning.

Lately this has taken a toll on me and I'm falling apart. I've gained about 10 pounds (mysteriously, since my diet hasn't changed), I feel sluggish and tired all the time. I'm constantly crying. My skin and hair are super dry. It takes me an hour to get out of bed after waking up.

I've been seeing a therapist for about a year, but frankly it's not working. I can only afford to see her every other week. I don't have a solid group of friends or family who I can call on for support. I am basically alone to deal with this.

I've also tried self-help books and spiritual coaching programs, but as soon as I go back to work and am reminded how much I suck compared to my colleagues, all of the insights I gained are gone and I feel awful, back to square one.

I guess my question is, how do I deal with and accept the fact that fundamentally, I am not as good as those around me, no matter how hard I try? My best just cannot match up to theirs? Do I tell my boss what's going on? I haven't gotten negative feedback. It's pretty obvious that my work no way measures up to that of the rest of my colleagues.

I can't go on like this for much longer. It's eating me up inside, a persistent nagging in my gut that won't go way.
posted by starpoint to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The weight gain, dry skin and hair suggest to me that you should get your thyroid levels checked out.
posted by zadcat at 8:37 PM on March 7, 2014 [16 favorites]

This is so hard, and I really wish I could give you a hug because I have been there and it is hard as hell to get out of this spiral of worthlessness once you find yourself mired in it. I have a few questions to ask, and you can answer them if you feel like it'd help us give you more input, or maybe they'll just spark some other things to consider as you investigate what will make you feel better.

1. What in your job makes you feel fulfilled?
2. Have you talked to your boss or gotten specific feedback during any reviews that leads you to believe you are not valued at work compared to your coworkers?
3. Do you think you'd still have these feelings if you took another position elsewhere?
4. What DO you like about yourself right now and how could you emphasize that to yourself on a daily basis?
5. Have you talked to your manager or boss about giving you a different workload?
6. Can you afford to take a vacation and start fresh when you come back?

I am a firm believer that when we get into situations like this that it is partially on us and that we hold part of the responsibility for getting ourselves there. If you're struggling to get work done, you have too much to do. Period. You should not have to work late into the night to complete your tasks. That is what it is; we all have a workload that works best for us and yours may be different than others. So what! What's not good here is that it doesn't sound like you have talked to anybody about reducing your workload so you can do your major priorities only. That part is on you, because you are your first and best advocate. You are not worth less because you do less.

This is your time to swallow your pride and ignore the voice inside you telling you you're worthless for not being able to do the same amount of work as others and just be practical here! Choose three priorities and do those and those alone each day and don't take on anything else unless those things are done. This is not defeat -- this is you restructuring your life so that you can have the space to see how excellent you actually are. Love yourself enough to insist on a workload that does not make you stay up till 3 in the morning!

And here's the thing. You've been at this job for 3 years. I bet you are more liked and valued and appreciated than you think you are, and I bet that your coworkers think you are 100% worthy of you being a part of that team. Don't listen to the lies your brain is telling you right now -- you're depressed and depleted and that always screws up perception to a point where nothing is accurate anymore.

Feel free to memail me. I feel for you and I hope you regain your sense of self ASAP.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

I say this kindly: have you been screened for depression and other mental illnesses? You don't mention what sort of therapist you're seeing, and I've run across plenty of counselor-therapists who don't "believe in diagnoses" or medication or whatever.

Unexplained weight gain, the crying, the bad skin and hair--those can all be symptoms of depression. The ongoing conviction that you suck can be, as well, and so can an inability to concentrate--which then reinforces your feeling that you suck.

You've worked there for three years and you've not gotten any negative feedback--that makes me wonder if you're not underestimating how well you're doing, or overestimating how valuable what your coworkers are doing is. Which is a common thing that depression does to people. (ADD and other disorders can do this, too.)

Please seek a second opinion from a different therapist, or, at a minimum, ask your therapist if she feels that you might benefit from [more intensive therapy, medication, whatever]. If you're already on medication, you definitely need to talk to your doctor, because this kind of internal monologue is an indication that the meds aren't working the way that they should. You deserve better than this.
posted by MeghanC at 9:03 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding getting your thyroid checked. Dry skin and hair, trouble getting up, mysterious weight gain, mood swings, depression... all things I developed when I became hypothyroid. Get that checked first.

I also second seeking out another therapist and/or talking to your current therapist about this. Learning to cope with stress is difficult even for people who don't have other issues going on, and if you are dealing with depression or anything else, you need tools to deal with that. Whether those tools are coping mechanisms via therapy or medication or CBT or whatever is up to you and your therapist.
posted by bedhead at 9:13 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
1. What in your job makes you feel fulfilled?
I like doing the actual work. In the past this work was like a hobby. There are days when the fog lifts and I'm able to feel that old excitement again. The problem is that I'm just not good enough compared to my colleagues and that's what stresses me out so much that it's hard to get any enjoyment.
2. Have you talked to your boss or gotten specific feedback during any reviews that leads you to believe you are not valued at work compared to your coworkers?
No my boss hasn't compared me to my colleagues, except a long time ago he did say he wanted to challenge me to grow my skills in a certain area so that I was at X's level (X = a fellow colleague). That was meant more as inspiration though, but of course I took it the wrong way. In my last review he didn't have any real critical feedback. I did allude to the fact that I was seeing a a therapist but I didn't give the real reason behind my depression. I feel like it would be a huge burden on him if I told him, and I worry it would make him hate me or think I'm just a big complainer. Admitting that you are suffering from depression doesn't look good to any employer, no matter how nice they are.
3. Do you think you'd still have these feelings if you took another position elsewhere?
Interesting question. I have considered looking into other departments within the company. I'm not sure. I know for a fact that I would feel somewhat better if I didn't have to work with my colleague who manages to run an entire household with kids while being 1000x times more productive at work than me. Logically speaking, as someone who has no kids and no marriage and who lives alone, I should be able to be at least as productive as she. That's why I feel like such a failure.
4. What DO you like about yourself right now and how could you emphasize that to yourself on a daily basis?
There's not much I like about myself right now. My cat loves me and trusts me. She's my constant companion throughout all this and I do my best to care for her, even if i could spend a little more time playing with her. My biggest accomplishment in life so far is creating an environment where an animal feels safe and comfortable. When you compare that to my super-productive colleague though, it still doesn't count for anything. She has multiple cats and dogs, plus 2 kids. No matter what I think I can do well, she's doing it too, and doing it better.
5. Have you talked to your manager or boss about giving you a different workload?
It would look terrible if I did this. I'm a single woman living alone in an apartment with no other obligations besides my cat, so it would look bad if I ask to do less while someone who has waaay more obligations than me can do 1000x times more than I can.
6. Can you afford to take a vacation and start fresh when you come back?
I've thought about this but I feel like haven't done enough to justify taking a vacation. Maybe if I was launching 7 projects a month I could, but until I have reached the level of my colleague's performance, I wouldn't feel right taking time off. Also I would just fall even further behind.
posted by starpoint at 11:28 PM on March 7, 2014

You sound hypothyroid based on what you described. (Weight gain, dry skin/hair, tired, etc.) Tell your symptoms to a doctor so they check your thyroid levels and anything else.

Beyond that, does your office do performance reviews and might you be able to get onto a performance improvement plan? Can you seek training? Without know your job, it's hard to know whether you are budgeting your time wrong/multi-tasking poorly or struggling to do the actual work. They say it's better to work smart than work hard. Are you sure you are up at 3am doing what your co-workers do from 9am-5pm? Because it sounds like you may be spending time on unnecessary workflow.

edit: You don't need to "justify" a vacation. Everyone gets vacation time to use it. Just go on vacation. And to the doctor.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:30 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I've gained about 10 pounds (mysteriously, since my diet hasn't changed), I feel sluggish and tired all the time. I'm constantly crying. My skin and hair are super dry. It takes me an hour to get out of bed after waking up."

This really sounds like something medical is wrong. Either a deficiency and/or something psychiatric.

I advise that you see a doctor immediately about these symptoms and get some blood work done, including your thyroid, iron, and vitamin D levels.

If nothing turns up in your blood work, then I suggest seeing a psychiatrist and getting screened for depression, attention deficit disorder, and anxiety disorder.

It's quite possible that your entire life -- including your job performance -- could be immensely improved by medication so please don't delay seeking medical treatment.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:45 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

My vote is also a medical condition. Go get checked. Also, do your homework on any suspected conditions bc you could be on the cusp for certain conditions, as in, there is something wrong but modern medicine doesn't yet have a solution for it so your test results can be on the "normal" range (thyroid issues and non-celiac gluten intolerance for example).

I'd really like to tip my hat to you and applaud you. Many uncool people in your situation would feel jealous/envious if your colleague and you aren't. And that's really great of you.
posted by Neekee at 12:06 AM on March 8, 2014

You do sound like a classic hypothyroid case , but even more, you are definitely a classic case of imposter syndrome. Man, I sympathize-- I have absolutely been right where you are. So I can tell you with absolute confidence: you are doing this wrong. (Aka, exactly how I handled it.) If you push yourself harder and harder, if you sleep less and less, if you refuse to take a vacation, you will not get magically better at work. You will get sicker and more exhausted. You will start getting panic attacks. You might even proactively try to quit, because you are making yourself sick, and you don't want to be fired. But you know what I discovered at my worst mental place? My boss still thought I was great, and didn't want to lose me, and was willing to make various changes to keep me there.

If your therapist hasn't brought up imposter syndrome with you, I question how good he or she is. (I had a mediocre therapist during this point in my life, as well.) I wish I knew exactly what to tell you to get past this, but perhaps it will help to read the Ask A Manager column on imposter syndrome, especially the comments, where everyone, including the columnist, discusses how badly they suffer from imposter syndrome, as well as ways to get past it.
posted by instamatic at 4:28 AM on March 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

You are sabotaging yourself. Stop that. A lack of sleep will not increase your productivity. Take care of your health first, by seeing a MD and getting blood work done (B12, D, iron, thyroid levels).

I guess I don't get your analogy of a race - if a company could sustain on one star player (the winner of your imaginary marathon) no one would hire additional staff! But this is not how it works in real life, there are many other people in your team and not everyone can or even wants to be the star. And all of them are needed and worthy.

Do you realize your catastrophizing tendencies? You're not only comparing yourself to the star player, you're actively making them bigger, better, faster. Your description starts with them being 10x more productive, then suddenly they are 1000x more productive.
I suggest to stop comparing yourself to that woman, for all you know she has a stay-at-home partner, grandparents who pitch in with child care, a nanny and a cleaner. Comparing oneself to others in the way you're doing is not healthy.

I am assuming this is a creative position, something like web design or PR. Working at home - while a great perk - can also hamper growth in that fields. If you're excluding yourself from the team (physically or mentally) there will be less collective brainstorming, less mutual inspiration and less collaboration. In many creative fields those are essential.

Personally, creativity is of the first things to vanish when I am unhappy, sick or overtired. It flourishes when I had a good night's sleep and have proactively done something fun, even small things like getting an ice coffee and sitting 5 minutes in the sun before I continue on my way. It takes being alert, noticing little details, making mental connections to come up with the next big thing.

I also suggest to work on building your life outside of work so it will not be your main focus area. If you feel that therapy is not going anywhere, consider switching to a different therapist. I mean you say you feel alone with this issue, that suggest you don't consider your therapist as a source of help.
Maybe some other scheduled activity once or twice a week (like dancing or other athletic activity, volunteering, craft night etc.) would be fun?

Lastly, a vacation can definitely help to get out of a rut and provide inspiration. Everyone deserves vacation time - use it!
posted by travelwithcats at 5:02 AM on March 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm up past 3am most nights trying to get everything on my list done.

This is a huge red flag for me. That sort of effort is fine for a week or two in a crunch, but it's not sustainable; you'll burn yourself out. I fear that's what you've done.
posted by grudgebgon at 6:21 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Absolutely get your thyroid levels checked; ask for a T3 test as well as T4 and TSH. Don't let them talk you out of it. If they say your numbers came back "fine," insist that you be treated by symptoms, not numbers.

Do this soon, because it will just get worse. It's awful.

And, sure, get tested for B12 and vitamin D, but go get some supplements and start taking them now! You will really notice a difference, I bet. I sure do.

The best of luck!
posted by jgirl at 7:26 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know enough about thyroid problems to guess if that's what's going on with you. But I do know that staying up until 3am most nights and then getting up in the morning at a reasonable job start time (8? 9?) is an excellent way to get groggy in the mornings, develop dry skin and gain weight.

And it's a flatly terrible way to build mental stability and increase productivity.

If you're not letting yourself get a decent amount of sleep every night, you're also putting yourself into an incredibly susceptible state for the rotten mental tapes you're running - the ones about how much of a loser you are and how much better than you everybody else is. Of course you're going to spiral into a breakdown - you're conducting a very efficient campaign of psychological warfare against yourself.

Get all the medical tests you need to see if something else is going on. But first, go the hell to bed at a decent hour tonight, then repeat until symptoms improve.
posted by kythuen at 8:26 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Adrenal fatigue could be another issue if your thyroid levels are fine.

The way I see it, you've been under a lot of stress and need to "pay" your body back with rest, exercise, nourishing food, fresh air and sun. A vacation, even a staycation at home, would be good for you. Do this while you're working on what's going on in your head.

Please stop comparing yourself to others, it only leads to unhappiness. Go into work with a positive attitude that you're going to do your best that day and be very productive. And do your best, then go home ON TIME and pet your kitty. It might be awkward at first, but try it for a while and see if you notice a difference. I suspect that people with kids are more productive because they KNOW they have to be home at a certain time and don't have the luxury of working late so they figure out how to get things done fast.

Meditation training would probably be fantastic for you - to get out of your head and be present. Yoga can train you to do that too, though that would take longer. I can't tell you how much yoga has helped me be more focused and happy. I laugh at myself more than my old habit of berating myself.

Hugs, and I wish you health and happiness!
posted by icanbreathe at 9:29 AM on March 8, 2014

It seems like you're stuck in a frantic mode of a million hours of work.

Trying to work until you finish things, rather than for a fixed time can do terrible things to your per-hour productivity. Can you try setting yourself a time limit (either weekly: this week I'm only going to work 40 hours, and get as much as I possibly can done - or shorter: I'm going to work on this project for 2 hours and then stop) rather than working until projects are completed. Taking breaks so that you can see what you're working on in a slightly different light can save tons of time.

Giving yourself time to exercise/sleep/eat/etc. will probably help you get more done per day, even if you spend less time working. As a side benefit, those other things can bolster your self-esteem. If you're only activity is work, then you don't have any other ways to feel good about yourself.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:45 AM on March 8, 2014

I want to add, after you take care of medical issues and so on, and things still aren't where you want to be then you need to get your (new) therapist to work with you on accepting yourself as you are, not as you think you should be.

Productivity is not a virtue; it's a useful trait, but it it is not what makes you a good person.

You are not your job. If after all your efforts your job ends up being something you need to change or leave, then you are still a worthwhile, decent human being (one who, for example, takes excellent care of her cat. And that is not a small thing, just ask anyone who works in an animal shelter and sees the opposite 24/7).

Even if all your job stuff gets worked out, and especially if it doesn't, you need to make some time to carve out a place for friends/community in your life, because even the best job can't give you everything you need, especially when there's a crisis or upset, and also because you need to know that you have value outside of that narrow arena. Which you absolutely do.
posted by emjaybee at 10:14 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's unlikely your colleague with kids runs her whole household on her own. As another poster mentioned, she may have all kinds of help. And you will never really know what her situation is, because she can tell you anything. Furthermore, it just doesn't matter...

Logically speaking, as someone who has no kids and no marriage and who lives alone, I should be able to be at least as productive as she. That's why I feel like such a failure.

I won't repeat all others' advice to stop comparing yourself to coworkers so much, but if you are going to engage in any comparisons, put the full kibosh on including irrelevant factors. Your outside life should not define how productive you can be at work. That your coworker has a busier outside life is no reason to give her extra credit for what she does at work and anyone that discounts how much you get done because, as you present it, you have less obligations outside of work, is out of line. It's irrelevant; stop using it in your judgments and don't let anyone else use it against you.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 10:16 AM on March 8, 2014

Hey OP,
- You are worth something and are not worthless
- You are a useful member of the team and not useless
- You are an individual and without compare. REALLY TRULY.
- Your circumstances at home are not a factor thought about when giving you work (really, your employers do not think hmmm OP only has a cat, they should work on this faster. Seriously. They won't)
- Your ability to do your job isn't an extension or expression of you as a person. I repeat.

Practical things you can do:
- Medical checks to ensure you do not have thyroid issues, adrenal fatigue, etc
- Talk to your manager and tell them you have health issues, at the moment, that are a priority for you to manage. You will need your manager to help with prioritising workload for the next X weeks.
- Get a new therapist and ask for assistance in developing strategies and new ways of thinking about yourself.
- Consider joining a local church to develop a sense of community and friendship to support you

I want to give you a hug.
posted by latch24 at 1:06 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have noticed in my own corporate work experiences that sometimes the staff members who are the most productive, constantly meeting sales goals, are also the ones most likely to be careless and sloppy in their work. Either the company does not care as long as targets are met, or there is some overworked assistant correcting the many horrendous mistakes before the finished product is delivered, so managers and/or clients are ultimately none the wiser.

Perhaps you are a very conscientious and careful person that takes pride in the work and is careful to always deliver a perfect product. It is a real shame some companies are not structured in a way that appreciates the amazing contributions you offer. If you have an assistant or any support staff to rely on, perhaps you can delegate some of the less specialized elements of the task to them instead of fussing over it yourself. A good assistant will appreciate the chance to learn more about the job, as long as you give clear direction and do not burden them with tasks they should not be doing.

Alternately, you can stop stressing and instead realize that you give so much to your company in other ways, by producing quality work in which you show a true understanding of the material. Additionally, the late nights you are regularly pulling are guaranteed to affect your concentration terribly, to the detriment of your work. Get more sleep and you will find yourself with the energy to whiz through piles of backlogged tasks.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 1:37 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the thoughtful answers everyone. I'm still processing them all but I wanted to say right away that they are very helpful and appreciated. I never considered a thyroid issue and I'm going to make an appointment on Monday to get it checked out just in case. I do notice that my mood has been considerably worse than usual and combined with the mysterious weight gain, I want to get it checked out before it turns into serious thing.
posted by starpoint at 9:08 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also my therapist is really good and we have gone over things like self-worth, social anxiety, etc, but the problem is I can only see her every two weeks. She said that's not enough for us to really go deep. Ideally I need to see a therapist twice a week, or every day initially. What usually happens is I leave my sessions feeling better and hopeful but then after 2 weeks I've fallen apart again. So she really is an excellent therapist but I don't see her enough for it to be really effective.
posted by starpoint at 9:11 PM on March 8, 2014

I agree it's important to stop comparing yourself to other people. You are making a contest out of something that is not. We can always find people who are faster, stronger, smarter, better looking, taller, etc., so ultimately contests are not winnable and are pointless. Your work and your life should be about living up to your own potential. Your comparing yourself to others is hindering you from carrying out that process.
posted by Dansaman at 11:05 PM on March 8, 2014

Response by poster: Yes I know I need to stop comparing myself to others. But the main issue is that the people like my female colleague at work get the most support, respect, praise, and advancements because they are able to work super fast.
posted by starpoint at 11:18 PM on March 8, 2014

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