What to Do When Everyone Thinks You’re Great – But You Feel Like a Failure

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Live with someone long enough, and you get a pretty good sense of what kind of person they are. What kind of movies they like. Whether or not they take out the trash. How respectful they are of your stuff in the fridge.

We live with ourselves for our entire lives, so sooner or later, we come to form a pretty clear idea about the kind of person we are too. How introverted/extroverted we are, what we’re good or bad at, and other important things like what kind of jeans we look best in.

Psychologists call this a self-concept, and though our sense of self is somewhat fluid1, we are motivated to confirm our sense of self, whether it’s negative or positive. As such, the events of our life tend to get interpreted through the filter of our self-image.

Have you ever known someone who was super talented, bright, capable, or otherwise awesome, but consistently underachieved because of their inner Eeyore ? Where no matter how many successes they had, they just couldn’t see or believe what others saw in them? Where they couldn’t accept those successes, and paradoxically, may have experienced even more self-doubt after successful experiences?

Maybe you are that person?

What makes it so difficult to accept our successes at face value, while we seem to have no trouble at all taking in and dwelling on all our faults, shortcomings, mistakes, and other signs that we are a total failure?

When success doesn’t sink in

Self-esteem is a tricky thing, and we’re probably all a little guilty of emphasizing it a bit too much over the last few decades2 3, but being too dismissive of our successes and achievements isn’t helping anybody either.

The problem, when we adopt a negative – and inaccurate – self-concept of ourselves, is that we tend to get stuck there. Partly because when an individual with a negative self-image has a successful experience, they respond to it very differently than someone with a more positive self-image. Specifically, they have difficulty taking in the success and using that new data to revise their self-image upwards. Instead, they tend to reject the feedback, chalking it up to a fluke, or people just being nice, feeling bad for them, and so on.

So their self-concept stays skewed in the negative direction. And when we believe that we’re not good at something (even when the truth is that we do have the requisite ability), we’re likely to experience more anxiety, and make attempts to avoid the thing we think we’re bad at (which gives us fewer opportunities to practice and get better at it, which means we stay bad and create a self-fulfilling prophecy).

We might also engage in self-handicapping (like not really studying diligently for a test because we think we’re not going to do well anyway – another self-fulfilling cycle). We are likely to give up sooner too when we face the inevitable speed bump.

So at the end of the day, our negative self-concept gets in the way of us becoming who we really are. Of doing more public speaking. Or running a marathon. Or starting an ice cream cronut4 sandwich business. Or taking on more performance opportunities and going into them with more confidence.

Generalizing from success is important

Meanwhile, folks with a more positive self-concept are better able to take in their success, leading to more positive expectations for successful performances in the future, and often, more actual successful performances in the future, whether it’s grades in school5 or athletics6.

So if we are the kind of person who sees only our shortcomings, and struggles to accept successes and build trust and faith in our abilities, what are we to do? How can we get better at seeing the potential that everyone else seems to see in us?

Words do matter

A trio of researchers at The Ohio State University7 (Zunick et al., 2015) conducted a series of experiments to test a technique designed to help people with negative self-concepts more effectively accept and benefit from success experiences.

Borrowing from research in the area of “linguistic framing,” they theorized that by tweaking the language we use in processing our successes, we can make a difference in whether the experience ends up helping us or not.

Because despite what your kindergarten teacher said about sticks and stones vs. words, language does matter. Saying “I cracked a note,” for instance, impacts us very differently than saying “I’m a terrible horn player.”

The full paper is worth a read, but essentially what they did, was (1) have each participant experience some success on a performance task, (2) complete either the experimental technique or a control task, and (3) see what sort of impact this had on their expectations of future success.

The experimental technique was called “directed abstraction,” and looked something like this:

“Explain WHY you were able to achieve such a successful performance. Begin by completing the sentence stem below. ‘I was able to achieve a successful performance because I am…’”

The control group on the other hand, responded to a slightly different prompt:

“Describe HOW you performed as you did in this situation. What did you do?”

It’s subtle at first glance, but the two are quite different, no? The first implies a successful performance, presupposes that this had something to do with who they are, and requires a more abstract, generalized answer. The second, does not imply success, nor does it prompt them to link task success with their identity, and asks for a more concrete answer.

The effect of directed abstraction

The experiments confirmed that following a successful performance, individuals who see themselves negatively do indeed have more difficulty accepting success and generalizing this to the future.

However, the directed abstraction exercise changed things. Apparently, thinking through their experience in this way led the negative folks to be more optimistic about future performances (unlike their fellow Eeyores in the control group who did not experience any change in their sense of competence).

And even more intriguingly, this technique also contributed to greater persistence in the face of difficult challenges – an important ingredient in experiencing more successes in the future.

Take action

Directed abstraction looks like a promising technique, but a word of caution, especially if you are doing this with a student!

The effectiveness of the exercise depends on whether your student genuinely thinks their performance was successful or not. No performance is a total success or failure, but if they are totally convinced that they’ve just laid an egg, this is not going to work. If anything, it could be counterproductive.

Likewise, if they think they’ve had a successful performance, but in fact, it was a complete disaster, there’s probably no benefit in creating an inflated sense of self that has no basis in reality!

Quiz time!

Want to take the self-competence assessment used in the study? The researcher only used 8 of the questions here, so it won’t be exactly the same, but it’ll give you an idea. Besides, who doesn’t like self-quizzes?

Self-Competence Scale-Revised


References

Zunick, P. V., Fazio, R. H., & Vasey, M. W. (2015). Directed abstraction: Encouraging broad, personal generalizations following a success experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000027

NOTE: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on 6.28.2015

Footnotes

  1. For instance, I used to consider myself a pretty diehard PC guy, but am now most decidedly a Mac convert
  2. You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?
  3. Could Your Child Have Too Much Self-Esteem?
  4. What’s a cronut?
  5. The structure of academic self-concept: The Marsh/Shavelson model
  6. Self-belief does make a difference: a reciprocal effects model of the causal ordering of physical self-concept and gymnastics performance
  7. Which also has a pretty insane marching band

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Comments

14 Responses

  1. I suspect most of us compartmentalize our self-esteem. We may feel highly comment in one field, but woefully inadequate in others. As student musicians, many know how far they are from excellence which makes it hard to feel confident of our talent. Progress in musicianship can seem glacially slow. Being impatient with the process and doubting that we will ever arrive at our goals is actually logical. Staying “positive” is an uphill path. Teachers who must continually critique and correct need to try to find genuine grounds for some encouragement as students may only hear the negatives.

  2. Your article is very good, but my case is special; I was convinced by family to pursue a musical career(violinist) and became quite successful in playing as well as teaching. But hidden in my mind is the fact that I never would have chosen this career and as the years go by, my suffering increments. My students don´t even suspect this! I am thankful that my talent has gottne me so far, but this is definately not what I enjoy doing. How can I cope with this torment?

    1. Hi Pat,

      Whew, that sounds like a tough situation to be in. I’m sure thoughts on your question would depend on whom you ask, I tend to be of the opinion that taking the unknown path is better than sticking with the sure thing that is lacking meaning and satisfaction. Have you ever read Seth Godin’s book The Dip? It’s about knowing when to quit. Which is something most of us are never encouraged or taught to do. The idea being, we have limited time/energy/resources, and the more of it we can devote to things that excite and energize us, the better work we do, and the more meaningful we find our day to day lives.

      This also reminds me of the Steve Jobs commencement address, which I thought was a really liberating way of looking at our lives and choices. All easier to say than do, of course, but I think it helps to hear others’ thoughts and life experiences, and to know we aren’t alone in struggling with this sort of quandary. In fact, I’m sure your post has resonated with more than a few others reading this…

  3. Unfortunately, this describes me very well. I play several instruments, but am highly negative snd self-critical of my playing. This is comounded by the fact that I’m a perfectionist. Despite these problems, I’ve tended to be able to get through performances without falling apart. However, last year things took an ugly turn. I’ve pkayed violin for years and have had pretty decent vibrato in the past–even managing a wide, juicy vibrato at times. But last year, a tiny worry about my vibrato crept to mind. I don’t recall any particular trigger event–it just happened. I began to be more self-critical about it. Being anxiety-prone anyway, the slight worry and self-criticism soon developed into a full-blown fixation. As any violinist csn predict, the more I worried, berated myself, and tried to “force” my vibrato, the worse things got. Oddly, I have no trouble playing notes and my bow hand is nice and relaxed. Rather, all of the stress/tension/worry are centered entirely on my vibrato and nothing else. Seeing others play with relaxed, wonderful vibrato bring the inevitable self-comparison and dark outlook (eg, I’ll never get over this and get my vibrato back).

    This problem has become a vicious cycle and one I’m eager to break, as it’s deeply upsetting and frustrating. Others keep telling me to just relax and let the vibrato come, but that’s no help at all. I took a lengthy break from violin to try to relax, but the problem was still there when I tried to play vibrato again. My worry/tension over this one thing just persist and prevent me from getting a good rocking motion at all. Do you have any suggestions for overcoming an anxiety and negativity-induced mental block of this nature?

    And thank you so much for this blog!

    1. Hi Jan,

      Sounds like a frustrating situation indeed. Vibrato can be a tricky thing even amongst advanced, high-level performers, especially under pressure.

      I suspect that there are a number of folks out there online who are much more familiar with the mechanics of vibrato and the pedagogy angle than I, who have seen this in their students and would be able to offer advice to you. Perhaps via sites like violinist.com, which has a great, supportive community, e.g. here or here.

      One thing that occurs to me too is that I imagine the more frustrated you get and the harder you try, the more tense things become. I wonder if it would help to take your focus away from getting the perfect vibrato (which isn’t really the goal), to producing a beautiful sound? This is a more distal target, and may perhaps be easier to achieve than an awesome vibrato, which is really just a means to that end anyway? Also, what happens when you – just for a moment at least – give yourself permission to play with an awful, crappy, vibrato? Where it doesn’t have to be perfect by any means, but you are actively giving yourself the latitude to experiment with vibrato?

      Much like giving yourself permission to write or compose or play “badly,” I wonder if this might help to free you up a bit.

      Good luck!

    2. Jan, I’m glad you posted that comment. I don’t mean to be cocky (I really can’t when I have crippling anxiety) but as a high school cellist my vibrato, improvisation and tone quality were genuinely world class. While the other aspects of my performance never progressed beyond that of normal high school students, in my hands a simple, vibrato-drenched solo became rather astonishing. I only say this because I’d love to help other people develop their own vibrato. I think of vibrato as the gift of the hummingbird or the sport muffler. In the world of emotions, vibrato answers to various titles: anxiety, excitement, uncertainty. No two vibratos are the same; each is unique to the musician! Your vibrato is fueled by a forthright spirit as it stretches the shapes and lines of ordinary life. Best of luck! Or as with any good vibrato I should say, best of luck…

  4. I tried out the first way, the directed abstraction, and it worked! I simply ansswered the question, and I got happier and uplifted. Thank you!

  5. I did the directed ablstraction again, this time being specific as to why my massage clients come back to me over and over again, and refer to me. You know, each treatment session is a performance, so this blog is relevant. I believe this process would be useful for anyone in sales, public speaking, personal services and anywhere else where personal “performance” is important. Anyway, listing the answers to this simple question gave me clarity as to what I am doing right. Of course, now I will do more of that, and try to do it even better. Thank you for this blog post!

  6. I’m a bit confused by this because it seems in contradiction with growth mindset theory. By asking students to complete the sentence that they did well because “I AM _____” feeds into a fixed mindset, doesn’t it? What kinds of things did students say when they filled in that blank? I am amazing, smart, lucky, beautiful, tall, musical…?” If they said “I am a hard worker,” okay, but otherwise? Shouldn’t we be asking what they DID that produced the successful performance? Knowing what you did means you can repeat the action and gives you confidence you can do it again. Please explain how to mesh these two ideas.

    1. That’s a really astute question. I’m not 100% certain how to reconcile the two, but my take is that it has a little to do with the value of internalizing some global or generalizable characteristics as part of your identity. For instance, it’s one thing to say “I practiced a lot” and another to say “I am a hard worker” or “I am a diligent and conscientious practicer.” Where the former describes actions you took, while the latter two speak to internalizing these actions as being more global characteristics of who you are as a person (self-concept).

      I think it’s kind of like how saying “I’m lazy” internalizes laziness as a core aspect of the self (not helpful), whereas saying “I’m being lazy” helps to create some distance from the self, and acknowledges that you are engaging in behavior that could be described as lazy, but that this behavior isn’t characteristic of or doesn’t define who you are as a person. That these are just the actions you’re engaged in at the moment.

      Does that make sense?

  7. The big question for me is: what is “success” in music? Is it being able to play? To play well? To get jobs, win competitions, garner compliments, or simply to enjoy playing? If you never win anything or if no one wants to listen to you, does that mean you’re a failure? We are living in a world where it’s so easy to access the great performances that those by us regular schmoes are not valued, so how do we deal with that?

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