I'm bad at my job. Fact.
February 8, 2020 12:22 AM   Subscribe

My job is too difficult for me. I can't quit. How do I survive this? It's seriously impacting my mental well being.

I've been at my current job for about 3 years, so it's not a question of learning the ropes anymore.

Note: Please don't tell me to look for another job. I have no other prospects where I wouldn't have the same problems (been keeping an eye on those for a long time now) unless I downgrade by a lot, which I atm simply can't afford as a single parent. I got hired above my competence level (I'm sure they regret it by now), but right now, I need the paycheck.

I make mistakes. A lot. I overlook things, I forget things, I can't make my deadlines. I either take up other people's time asking for advice, or I try to solve a problem by myself, but my instincts for what is a good solution are wrong. I make errors of judgment in what needs fixing and how much time that'll take, what resources to use, who to turn to, etc.

There is no single, concrete point of failure I can focus on improving, I'm bad at every part of my job. I'm the team idiot.

People are already frustrated with me. A few colleagues' communication towards me is becoming increasingly terse and unkind, and sometimes they snap at me. This is feeding into my anxiety, which is further clouding my judgment. It's becoming a vicious circle. I can't blame my coworkers for being annoyed, because sometimes they have to clean up my mess, and in the worst case, the whole team gets the blame.

Part of it is the constantly and rapidly shifting landscape of my work, which I'm very bad at adapting to (this is a job where I'm expected to absorb a shit ton of new information very efficiently and to apply it immediately, a crucial skill I'm failing at). I simply don't learn new things as quickly as the others. And as soon as I think I have a handle on things, there's a tweak in protocol, or a new work flow, new targets, new documentation, you name it. I can't keep up with the constant avalanche of changes, it feels like I'm always a few steps behind.

These changes are often not communicated very well in the team, but if I try to keep up and make sure I understand and document them, it takes up too much time and then I don't have enough left for the tasks I'm supposed to perform.

In short: if I make the deadline, it's often because I did a poor job. If I try to work more meticulously and without mistakes, I miss the deadline.

Part of it is simply the tempo and volume of work. I'm struggling to keep up and have no time or mental energy for improvement, every ounce of energy is spent on trying to make it through the day. I can't ask my employer for time for professional development, since change is so constant that any new knowledge will very soon be obsolete. Also, due to the organisational structure, the people who might grant me a training day are not the people who determine my day-to-day schedule, and at this point, the latter aren't very sympathetic to my need for extra time. (Why would they be? Nobody else asks for it.)

Part of the problem is that I'm not a native speaker of the language I work with, but at my age and after living in this country and immersed in the language for 20 years, this is not something that I'm able to improve. Reading and digesting a memo, a legal document or a chain of forwarded emails with replies just takes me longer. And it's really exhausting. I'm so tired.

I feel deep shame, embarrasment and anxiety about being so bad at this.

I'd quit in a heartbeat and go live in my car if I could, but there are loved ones crucially depending on my steady source of income. I'm probably not at risk for losing my job due to poor performance since employment laws are extremely protective in my case, so that is not an issue: I'll probably be able to keep doing this job until my children are old enough to support themselves. But that means a minimum of 10 more years of dealing with this.

How do I live with being stupid and useless at work?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It's impossible to recommend much when you don't say what sort of work it is and your position within the company. But clearly you're in a space where you are mentally closed off to any solutions. Someone with a fresh perspective would almost certainly identify possibilities. For instance saying 'change is so constant that any new knowledge will very soon be obsolete' is clearly an exaggeration- no matter what your field is.

Meanwhile, you say you absolutely need the money of your presumably high level position- but that's probably also an exaggeration. For instance, going to .8 full time on grounds of stress might improve things, and though you'd lose money- you'd survive.
posted by leibniz at 12:43 AM on February 8, 2020 [13 favorites]

At its heart, capitalism is a game whereby one has to turn up at a place and do specific things for a (usually) fixed amount of time in exchange for money which can be used to cover the labour-seller's needs and wants. There's a contemporary inflection on this system where the person selling their labour is also suppose to enjoy doing so, be passionate about doing so, constantly strive to further and develop their ability to do so in increasingly value-generating ways etc. The second part is completely optional, but there's a lot of pervasive cultural pressure to believe that these activities are also a critical, fundamental part of the role of the individual labour-seller.

In some ways it sounds like you're in a very good position, in that it's going to be difficult for your employer to fire you even if the labour you're selling them doesn't meet the standards of what they hoped or required when they hired you for the position. If I were you, rather than figuring out ways to be better at the job, I'd focus my energy on figuring out ways to care less what people think while continuing to get paid by your employer for as long as possible. Take this guy as an inspiration. Care less what your coworkers think about your performance, care less about meeting the work standards that your employer seems to want from you, and focus on getting through the day in as low-stress a way as you can while continuing to be paid for showing up.

10 years of struggling against expectations every day until your kids are old enough to work themselves sounds really difficult to me, in a way that turning up every day and phoning it in doesn't, as long as you can make your mental peace with that approach. It's likely going to be a big mindset shift for you as the majority of workers still buy into the "capitalism but also I love it and it fulfils me" approach and most people are generally diligent and conscientious. In your current environment, diligence and conscientiousness sound like they're only going to contribute to burning you out, so what peace can you make between yourself and your job that allows you to give way fewer fucks about how well you're performing, as long as you're still getting paid to be there all day?

Capitalism will not hesitate to game you, so if you can game it a bit, I say go for it and do whatever you can to remain guilt-free about this process.
posted by terretu at 1:46 AM on February 8, 2020 [64 favorites]

This sounds really stressful! But it sounds like you're assuming a lot about what others think. For example, why do you think no one would grant you a training day? They know you're struggling, and the training day might be a good investment on your future ability to succeed, no? Or, is there anyone you can talk to about this at work, who might be able to steer you in the right direction/ease up/modify your role? If you can't really be fired, I can't see what harm this would do.

I also wonder if you are catastrophizing. Over ten years, I would think you'd definitely improve, for example . . .
posted by caoimhe at 2:05 AM on February 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

I work in a sector with relatively strong employment protection, and I've worked with lots of people who were fundamentally, unfixably bad at their jobs. I think the key to surviving that experience without feeling awful is detaching your self-identity from your work. The colleagues I've had who were in that sort of situation and still happy were the ones who saw work as "just a job" (like I do!), so it's just a way of getting money, and not a reflection on their character or worth as a person.

The ones who stuck around for longest combined that emotional detachment with a generally agreeable demeanour, so that even when they caused missed deadlines or failed projects, no-one really resented them (except management, but if they're not sacking you then who really cares what managers think). I've also worked with a few who were obviously distressed and unhappy, but who couldn't or wouldn't change jobs, and they seemed to take every incident at work immensely personally, so I think there's a general trend that the more you get personally emotionally invested in your job, the more damage it can do to your mental health. Avoiding that is definitely easier said than done though!
posted by Mauve at 2:56 AM on February 8, 2020 [19 favorites]

First of all, my sympathies. I Iike to think of myself as a fairly competent professional and generally good addition to a team, but I doubt I could thrive in such a fast paced environment either. My guess is that a lot of people couldn't. It's very hard to be both diligent and fast when things change too quickly for you to benefit from routine; it doesn't just take skills and work ethic, but also nerves.

My suspicion is that the people who seem to be better at this than you benefit from caring less, because they don't spend as much time second-guessing themselves. But you can't will yourself into having nerves of steel and it's hard to care less, when you feel under constant scrutiny because you got off to a bad start.

Some ideas:

- Stop feeling guilty about your performance. You're not coasting or slacking, shirking responsibilites or deliberately exploiting people's patience. You're doing the best you can, and that's all anyone can ask of you. If "the best you can" doesn't always cut it, that's unfortunate, but not your fault. You didn't misrepresent yourself to get the job - hiring people is always a bit of gamble. It's called entrepreneurial risk.

- Develop internal standards. "The best you can" is something only you can judge.

- Put your mistakes in perspective. Are they really causing that much damage? Chances are that they threaten no one's phsyical or psychical safety and well-being - they only cost time and money. You're proving not quite as profitable to your employer as they might have hoped. So what? They'll hardly have to go bankrupt because of you, do they? Yes, it's annoying when I have to fix a coworker's mistake, but to a certain degree that's just part of job and the point of being part of a team. And maybe your coworkers make objectively fewer mistakes, but I really doubt they're not making any mistakes at all.

-Stop feeling guilty about not voluntarily stepping down. No once can expect you to act against your own self-interest. Again, you're not actually endangering anyone by staying put. It's not even guaranteed that the next person would do so much better. This just sounds like an extremly demanding job a lot of people would fail at. I could well imagine your employer might not actually be too happy about you stepping down at all, even if you're not ideal - sure, they might find someone who'd do better, but there's a good chance they'd end up with someone who'd do a lot worse! At least you're a known quantity.

- Keep looking for ways to make a lateral move. If you are really such a bad fit for your role and your job is somewhat well protected, it's also in your employer's best interest to find something for you you're better suited to. They know that they can't expect you to not fight a downgrade, so they're probably looking for lateral opportunities, maybe even promotions. You would not be the first person to get promoted in such a situation. Jump at every opportunity to show interest in any tasks that take you away from your general job description.

- Find something out of work to get the occasional ego-boost. This job might not be the best opportunity for you to shine, but there are a lot of other pursuits out there worthy of your talents and efforts. Always remember: You are not your job.
posted by sohalt at 3:00 AM on February 8, 2020 [15 favorites]

Is there any tiny part of your job where you can become the expert on the team?

It could be a rare task that only comes up every few months, and only you invest the energy to become expert.

If you are in an underrepresented customer demographic (e.g. single parenthood, country of origin, age), it could involve sharing perspective from that demographic ("Single-parent customers would want...", "Customers from ____ country would want...")

Even if you are bad at 99.9% of your job, if you are the resident expert at 0.1% of it, your teammates and you will all see you as bringing unique value to the team.
posted by cheesecake at 4:36 AM on February 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

I make mistakes. A lot. I overlook things, I forget things, I can't make my deadlines. I either take up other people's time asking for advice, or I try to solve a problem by myself, but my instincts for what is a good solution are wrong. I make errors of judgment in what needs fixing and how much time that'll take, what resources to use, who to turn to, etc.

You should be evaluated and treated for ADHD. It will change your life. SO OFTEN it presents itself as anxiety and so often it causes behaviors that lead to more anxiety. Please do this. I promise that you do not have to feel this way.
posted by kate blank at 5:52 AM on February 8, 2020 [33 favorites]

. In short: if I make the deadline, it's often because I did a poor job. If I try to work more meticulously and without mistakes, I miss the deadline.

Could you make the deadline and do good work if you took on less work?

There is almost always a range of productivity among coworkers. That's normal and inevitable. I think you and everyone else would be happier if you met lowered expectations than continue to fail higher ones.
posted by flimflam at 6:46 AM on February 8, 2020

I like the advice above but I have some kind of more small tweaks to suggest.

Exhaustion tweaks:

You sound exhausted. This is probably impacting everything else more than you know, and you are juggling a lot since reading between the lines, your kids are still young.

1. Prioritize rest as much as you can. Take a few days' medical leave to sleep when the kids are in school/daycare. Take other areas of your life down to low - have grilled cheese and baby carrots and cucumber, scrambled eggs and toast and peas, etc. - for dinner. Get to bed as early as humanly possible.

2. Be kind to yourself. Light a candle at dinnertime, take breaks at work and get outdoors for even just 10 minutes. Have a mug of your favourite tea.

3. Engage your friends - ask them to send you messages on how great you are a few times a week.

Anxiety lowering tweaks:

1. Don't leave work without putting a sticky note or making a list of the first three things you will do the next day, even if you plan to put in an hour or two at night. Part of the mental energy of dealing with a job that's become overwhelming is getting past that feeling of being overwhelmed, and this will help you just attack things rather than use 'start up' energy.

2. If you can timeshift early, which I know as a single parent might be hard, getting to the office before other people can be great.

3. Use headphones to set yourself a different mood if possible. Have yoga type music or whatever inspires you.

4. TAKE BREAKS. Short ones maybe but this is critical for the kind of work you're describing. Run up and down the stairs while listening to a favourite song. Move your body to spend that adrenaline.

Productivity tweaks:

1. Do a handwritten, low-tech, low -effort checklist of things to check based on mistakes you've made and keep it on your desk. To start it, just start with anything you remember from your last deadline and go from there - this is a living, breathing document, not a final word.

2. Changes: Toss brief notes on changes on there like "check email about new step here." Put all communication about changes in one email folder, if you get those by email, or in one notebook, if you get them verbally. Check those places before you start on any new work.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:30 AM on February 8, 2020 [10 favorites]

Seconding kate blank. In the meantime, fish oil has been found to be helpful in some studies of kids with add/adhd. You might want to give it a try. I definitely feel more focused and productive since I started taking it. If it does help, I think you'll find any improvement also lowers your anxiety, and that that will also have a huge impact on your performance. Sending internet hugs your way. This is a crappy situation to be in.
posted by kate4914 at 7:35 AM on February 8, 2020

I agree with kate blank: you need an ADD evaluation. This really, really sounds like ADD, and while I am not a mental health professional, I’ve seen this with a bunch of my friends and over and over in my career in disability advocacy. Please check this out. It could make all the difference for you, and if by some slim chance that this isn’t it then they’ll be able to point you to the next step. You are not incompetent. You’re amazing for getting through this far without the supports you need. Now it’s time to get those supports.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:39 AM on February 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

If I were you, rather than figuring out ways to be better at the job, I'd focus my energy on figuring out ways to care less what people think while continuing to get paid by your employer for as long as possible.

Yes. Become blithe. The anxiety makes everything umpty times harder because you can't function well or learn when you're terrified. Also maybe helpful: last year I took that mooc, Learning How To Learn. It's extremely gentle and kind and pain-relieving. It helped me see and just, sortof, kick aside the walls of guilt and fear I tend to build when I'm not good at something. Whatever: I'll either get good at it or not. I'll just take pleasure in the pleasurable parts of this, keep plugging away at finding the things I can do and ways to improve where I'm not fantastic, keep a relaxed, happy face on, inside and out, breathe slowly and steadily, and go home at the end of the day in a peaceful mood. No matter what. They own my time, not my thoughts. Not my mood.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:07 AM on February 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

would it help - in addition to things like the ADD screen, which could solve the underlying problem - to remind yourself that you are a decent person who's doing their best, and that's far from the worst kind of employee a workplace can have?

Take a spin through askamanager.com and see that there are people in the world happily collecting paychecks who are intentionally cruel; who steal; who sabotage projects; who take pornographic photographs of themselves in the office and post them to the Internet...

They might get one of those if you quit. They're lucky you don't :)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2020 [8 favorites]

Do you drink coffee? If not, try adding a source of caffeine in the morning and after lunch. It does sound like you have ADD symptoms, and if so, caffeine is a somewhat effective way to self-medicate.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:25 AM on February 8, 2020

Some assorted ideas that might be helpful;
  • take some time off, more than 1 day - anything from a long weekend to a fortnight
  • find something to do in your own time that you are good at and enjoy, do it as regularly and frequently as you can
  • connect with your coworkers in a specific way, make it so they like you even as they bail you out
  • take on less work or a smaller variety of tasks
  • figure out which communication style works best for you and insist that people use it
  • do the bare minimum, but make sure that your coworkers know that you are not going to get
  • get someone you trust at work to go through your to-do list with you and help you prioritise it and suggest timescales
  • find something absorbing to do in your out of work downtime so you don't ruminate on your job
Get evaluated for ADD as people suggest. If you're going to do this job for years you may as well make sure that you're not hampered by a hidden disability. Otherwise, it is just a job and you will survive it best the less invested you can be.
posted by plonkee at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Alongside everything that's been said here, something that stuck out to me is that a good manager knows how to use their team well. It sounds like your manager hasn't been thinking in terms of how to fit your responsibilities to your abilities and needs. It seems like they would be smart to figure out the amount of work that you can do well within deadline and not assign you more than that, so that you could contribute effectively to the team. If they're not doing that it sounds like they're not doing their own job so well.

Anyway, I have a lot of sympathy for you and your situation. I know the feeling of not being able to trust your brain to handle things well enough or fast enough, and it's not an easy one to come to terms with. I know the vicious cycle and the anxiety. Maybe it would help to have a therapist or other regular person to unload to. I hope that outside of work you're able to remember the person that you are besides being an employee, and that you get to do things you are good at when you're off the clock.

Best of luck with everything. You're not alone.
posted by trig at 2:14 PM on February 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

Seconding that you should get yourself checked out for ADD / ADHD. Also get checked out for dyslexia, which can go undiagnosed into adulthood but slow down a person's pace of reading, writing, etc.
posted by salvia at 6:07 PM on February 8, 2020

Have you heard the saying, carry yourself with all the the confidence of a mediocre white man? To put things into perspective... Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Since you actually took the time to ask a thoughtful question on metafilter, it’s extremely unlikely that you are more incompetent at your job than he is at at his. Moreover, by the phrasing of your question, I get no sense that you are vindictive and in your day job make decisions that are a matter of life and death for potentially millions of people.
posted by oceano at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

One small piece of advice. I’ve spent the past year and a half feeling pretty bad at my job, for some similar reasons that you described — taking a long time to process/read information, working slowly, difficulty focusing. Like you I’ve felt deep shame and self-loathing about it, to the point where it was seriously affecting my mood even during my non-work hours.

A couple of months ago, I started a new hobby — I joined a musical group as a beginner. I enjoy it, I’m learning pretty quickly, and the leader of the group has told me I’m doing a good job. I had no idea how much I was missing that kind of validation in my life, and just that one activity has improved my self-esteem immensely. I no longer see myself as entirely defined by my work performance, and in fact, because of that, my work performance has improved also because I’m less anxious about it.

So my advice, if you can find the time, is to take up a new hobby unrelated to work, something where you can get feedback from an instructor directly.
posted by mekily at 3:39 PM on February 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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