Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sometimes Screwups

Harriet Lerner is my favorite psychologist.  Her book, The Dance of Anger, changed my life.  Slogging through my post-adolescent psychological murk took outside help.  I turned to Lerner's wise words.  She taught me that it's not selfish to take care of myself.  I could not be where I am today emotionally if I hadn't read Lerner's book in my early twenties.

I'm middle-aged now and I still follow Dr. Lerner's advice.  I follow my favorite psychologist on social media.   Today she shared her latest blog post from Psychology Today, The Truth About Your IQ.  It was like she answered some question about myself I didn't even know I had asked.

I'm not terribly concerned about my own IQ, but I do get performance anxiety big time.  I overcome it mostly by sticking with things I'm comfortable with.  I've worked at the library for coming up on twenty years, for example.  And for the most part, I've felt good about my job.  Good at my job.  Happy to find a good fit.

But lately I'm starting to feel a bit incompetent.  Nothing major, but I certainly don't feel like I know as much as I should know for someone who's worked somewhere since we still used DOS-based email and reference books.  Here's the deal.  We've had a lot of technological advancements in the last few years and I'm getting to the point where my battery feels like it will no longer hold a charge.  I do OK when I'm at work, but I get home and I'm exhausted and crabby from pretending to know what the hell I'm doing all day.  With a smile on my face.

I remember when I was still living at home and Mom would come home from work, tired and cranky.  She worked too hard and didn't take enough breaks during the day.  I vowed to take better care of myself when I got a job.  I would never eat lunch at my desk or skip my breaks.  Me-time is rejuvenating so I can go back inside and kick some customer service butt.

But lately, since there's all this new stuff I'm learning for my job, I feel like I'm slower than ever before.  I can do it.  I can muddle through.  But I have to check and recheck my work.  I have to stay focused and keep trying and figure things out.  No breaks.

But I can't do that to myself.  I deserve a short walk around the park to clear my head and pump the blood through my body.  Even though I'm used to absorbing new information painlessly that doesn't mean I'm some kind of genius.  I've just surrounded myself in an atmosphere where my kind of thinking can thrive.   Now the atmosphere has WiFi and I have to troubleshoot why it's not working.  I'm having to study hard to learn things that I'm not naturally talented at, so I feel like an impostor.  I feel like a dummy who's somehow fooled all the jokers around her into thinking she's smart.

Stop it.  I can't do that to myself.  I need to face the fact that sometimes I'm going to fall behind on a learning curve.  I'm going to have to admit I need a little extra time to catch on to some things.  And that's OK.

Next time I experience performance anxiety, I must remind myself of these wise words from my favorite psychologist:

For example, I happen to do work that is socially valued and economically rewarded in the mainstream culture. But some years back, when I joined some colleagues to lead a seminar for the Colorado Outward Bound Program, down the Yampa and Green Rivers, I learned how it felt to be the least competent person in a work group. I had no outdoor skills and was slowest to learn them. I had difficult mastering everything, from starting a fire to tying our gear securely into the raft to controlling my anxiety. Had it been an option, my colleagues surely would have voted me off the river.

As the week progressed, and the wilderness became my "real world," I understood that if I lived in this world on a daily basis, I would not see myself as a smart person. Had I been born in a different historical time, where the skills that were valued were the ones I didn't have, I would have to struggle so much harder to value myself. I might well have felt permanently inept and inferior, rather than just temporarily stupid in an area I could tell myself didn't really count.  

--Harriet Lerner, The Truth About Your IQ

It's inspiring to discover your heroes are sometimes screwups too.  I love hearing stories of people I look up to feeling insecure or intimidated.  It's not schadenfreude.  That's how I feel when someone I dislike makes an ass of him or herself.  We need a word for "feeling glad when you find out someone you admire is imperfect, just like you."  Too often our society only celebrates victories and jobs well done.  I say let's also celebrate our failures and jobs muddled through so we can inspire each other to live with more balance and less self-criticism.