Bad at being the worst, good at being just bad
February 4, 2020 6:56 PM   Subscribe

In some ways I am a typical perfectionist who hates being bad at things in public, but I've found a loophole in that my anxiety vanishes if there is someone around who is worse at the thing than I am. Is there a name for this phenomenon, and is there some way I can harness it so I feel the same way even when that "worse person" isn't around?

Relevant example: I learned French as a foreign language and did great in classes (where there are other learners of various levels) but always clam up in front of native speakers. BUT if, for instance, I'm trying to help a hapless tourist in Paris or something, I don't even hesitate before I'm speaking (flawed, but entirely comprehensible) French and interpreting on their behalf. It would be great if I could do that all the time!
posted by btfreek to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For languages in particular the trick for me is to be occupied with something other than worrying about how good or bad my performance is. Being distracted by other people's poor language skills is just one of many things that can do the trick.

Times when my language fluency has suddenly improved 20x:
  1. Workers were preparing to cut down one of my trees which I really wanted to keep
  2. At the Urgent Care at 1am with stomach pains
  3. Chatting with the (reputedly corrupt) police officers who stopped on a remote country road to help me with a flat tire.
These all had a bit of urgency to them, but in general having my concentration consumed by something else makes it easy for me to forgo the self-judgment.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:56 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Regarding language in particular, but really applicable to most things, alcohol does this for me.
posted by indecision at 8:55 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]

I get better at things if I'm around someone I hope will find me hot! Flirtation ups my competency, I guess?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:14 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

The trick for some is to announce how bad you are at it before attempting it. Whether you think so or not, but primarily if you do think so. That will guide your audience into a sort of constructive criticism phase that will give you more confidence if you are bad and at best you'll hear how much better at it than you thought. And if the criticism doesn't come it wont hurt your pride as much to have been the one who warned them first. You're more worried about the criticism than the practice.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 12:22 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

In the example it sounds more like you felt more confident because you were utilising your skills in order to help someone out, not because they were "bad". Perhaps you could think about this as a way of re-framing your mindset about your skills? As with many things in life, it's not really a case of being good/perfect vs. bad/imperfect, but rather that you are developing skills to be more useful in varying contexts. If you could frame your skills in this way it might help take away that black-and-white perfectionist thinking somewhat and help you relax enough to just practice your skills in order to develop them to be more useful.
posted by Balthamos at 1:56 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Okay so this is a bit of an elaborate mental trick, but it works for me:

Just consider that perhaps the task you're being good or bad at isn't eg speaking French, but rather being willing to be visibly bad at something. You know how you feel better about your skills when other people are worse than you? If you're the worst, at French or at singing or at a particular board game or at spelling or at balancing on one leg or whatever it might be, then that role - the role of someone who makes other people feel better! what more important role could there be! - is the role you're fulfilling for other people. If you can fulfil it confidently and with acknowledgement but without apology, and while visibly not letting it make you feel bad about yourself, just think how much better everyone else is going to feel! Think how comfortable you're allowing them to be in their sometimes-only-slightly-greater skills, and how extremely well you're doing for giving whatever-it-is a go even when you know you're going to do it badly! How talented you are at feeling comfortable in your lack of talent! How skilled you are at managing to have a nice time at something even when you're not skilled at it!

This works partly because this is a real and valuable skill, and once you acknowledge that it becomes something you can cultivate and feel pleased with yourself about improving at.
posted by severalbees at 4:01 AM on February 5 [30 favorites]

Maybe the person who is worse than you is so bad they didn't even show up.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:59 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]

Thanks--I just realized I'm like this! It cures my imposter syndrome to have somebody less apt than I am in the vicinity. I like Obscure Reference's idea. I would like to apply to be the person who is worse than you. I think I'm probably highly qualified. For one, I absolutely suck at French despite two years' study. My French accent is execrable. I know how to say "Au bon Pain," and that's about it. I throw in German words a lot because I learned German in college, so I spoke a lot of German while drunk and happy and thus can hobble along in that language. Also, that I would have stayed in bed under the covers because I was too freaked out to even show up is completely believable. Rather than take a salary, I propose a barter situation. I particularly need somebody worse than me in any display of physical competence. And math and spacial relations.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:30 AM on February 5

So many great suggestions, and I love severalbees', but I would add a couple more.

Number one: deliberately be the worst! Go into a space where defeat is inevitable, and inoculate yourself a little. I remember my first Norwegian language meetup in Oslo... total disaster, except that it made every subsequent attempt relatively easier.

Number two: you are the one you've been waiting for. Compare yourself to how you were in the past, and keep records. Sure, today you might be accidentally ordering shoes in a restaurant, but 2 weeks ago you had no idea how to order anything! I'm regularly the slowest in the running club, but I'm still running rings around past-me, and Strava tells me by how much.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:24 PM on February 6

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