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There are times when we do something and then bask in the afterglow of that achievement.
And then there are times when we lie on the floor in a pool of melted ice cream, feeling like we can’t do anything more complicated than breathing without messing it up.
If you’re in the latter state right now, you might be feeling defeated by something you’ve tried to do. Maybe it was a complete write-off, or perhaps you had been enjoying it, but on second thought decided that you were utterly terrible at it. Then you may have started to analyze everything that you do—whether for work or fun—and now feel that you’re not good at anything at all.
Alternatively, this feeling may have been creeping up on you for a while, slowly gnawing away at your self-esteem and undermining whatever confidence you’ve tried to cultivate. Achieved something great at work? That mean inner voice has said that it was a pity promotion, or that you’re an imposter and they’ll figure that out sooner rather than later.
And so on.
If you’re dealing with either of those scenarios (or any other situation that’s making you feel like you’re terrible at everything in your life), you’re not alone. Not by a long shot.
With the exception of certain narcissists, just about everyone will experience the feeling of being terrible at everything in their life at some point. Let’s take a look at what can cause this feeling, and how to sort that out.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you realize that you are good at many different things. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
Why do some people feel like they’re not good at anything?
Sometimes, the feeling of not being good at anything arises after experiencing some kind of failure or rejection.
For instance, someone who felt like they were a really great writer might feel really low after receiving yet another rejection notice from a publisher. Or a person who felt great about their paintings were turned down for exhibition from every gallery they applied to.
Others might feel despondent and immensely self-critical after a breakup. For example, a person whose life has been turned upside down by divorce might turn a critical eye upon all of their other endeavors, then spiral downward into a whirlpool of self-loathing and depression. They might start to be cruel to themselves about their appearance, their various life choices, and anything they choose to do for fun.
Most often, however, the main reason why a person might feel like they’re incompetent or useless at everything they do is because other people have been rather horrible to them. This establishes a baseline of self-criticism that can stretch on long after the person has left home, or gotten away from those who were abusive toward them.
How self-criticism develops:
If you ask the average child whether they like themselves or not, the vast majority of them will say yes—of course they do. They like their appearance, they think that they look amazing prancing around in mismatched boots and clothes they chose for themselves, and their self-esteem is usually sky high.
Furthermore, they take immense joy in just about everything they do. The mud pies they make are glorious. Their cheddar and strawberry jam sandwiches are the best ever, and they enjoy the process of experiencing everything they try. The world is a magical place to explore, and they’re helping to create their own reality through play as they learn and grow.
This type of enthusiasm and effervescent self-confidence takes a massive hit as they get older, usually because they’ve been insulted, humiliated, and otherwise cut down by other people. When the only feedback that someone gets about anything they do is negative, then that’s what their inner voice will tell them about their worth for the rest of their life.
Let’s say a young person takes an interest in drawing. They might spend hours agonizing over creating a piece of art and feel a great swell of pride at their achievement. The drawing might be absolutely gorgeous, or it may have simply been an expression of their sheer joy of working with color for the first time. Either way, they love it and are incredibly proud of what they’ve accomplished.
Maybe they took the drawing to a parent or sibling to show them what they’d created and to share their delight in making what they felt was an amazing work of art. They might even have given the drawing to them as a gift, with a wide smile and an open heart. Maybe Mom or Dad will put it on the fridge so everyone can see it! Or their sibling might take it to school to show their friends!
Instead, the person who they gave it to asked them what the hell it was supposed to be, or laughed at it and said it looked ridiculous. Or told them not to waste time bothering with that nonsense and to focus on their math homework instead so they’ll actually do something worthwhile with their life. Now run along and don’t interrupt them when their show is on.
What do you think that did to the little one’s heart?
How eager do you think they will be to share anything else with that other person in the future? If this was the case each time that young person tried something new, they would find it incredibly difficult to enjoy any kind of hobby, topic, or other pursuit because they would always anticipate contempt and mockery.
Even long after that person has grown up and moved away from the ones who were critical and hurtful toward them, their words still roll around in their subconscious on a regular basis. If a subject or hobby piques their interest, it’ll be crushed almost instantly by someone else’s voice telling them to not even try, because they’ll fail.
And if they’ll be unsuccessful, then why bother doing it at all?
Constant criticism becomes an internal narrative.
The people who were abusive toward them in the past may have tried to live vicariously through them by demanding that they only do things they approved of, while dissuading them from anything else. The problem is that instead of being encouraged to go in a particular direction, they were insulted and mocked if they deviated from “The Plan.”
Maybe they were being pushed toward a particular field of academic achievement so they would be corralled into a specific career path “for their own benefit.” Or perhaps the parents had a negative view of other subjects and condemned those so intensely that the person felt like they would be an immense disappointment to everyone if they pursued them. Even if those were their passions.
All of this can cause a devastating amount of trauma to a person. They’ll learn to equate their self-worth with achievement, and if they don’t excel in something, they’ll feel as though they’re letting other people down. Furthermore, they might feel they must do things they dislike in order to make others happy and dismiss their own heart’s longings because they’re not worthwhile.
They learn not to trust—or even listen to—the inner voice that yearns for another path. To even take a step down that path would mean a barrage of insults and criticisms from the people who claimed to love them.
Preventing another’s joy or success so as not to feel like a failure themselves.
There’s another reason why some parents, extended family members, and other parental-type figures might be overly critical and make others feel like they’re not good at anything. This reason is because the one who’s being critical feels like a failure in life, and they don’t want to feel worse about their own crappy choices by seeing someone else thrive.
In simplest terms, they make sure the other person fails before they even try so that they don’t get outshone.
Situations like this are more common than you can imagine. A parent who’s embittered about not having pursued higher education might tell their child that they’re stupid so they don’t put effort into school.
Or, if the child excels at school anyway, the parent might try to guilt trip them into not attending college with phrases implying that they’re snobs now, or “think they’re better” than the rest of the family.
In essence, they try to keep them down to maintain the lower denominator instead of encouraging their child toward excellence.
Meanwhile, the child ends up feeling trapped and stifled. Deep down they know they’re capable of doing so much more, but those who supposedly love and care for them are telling them that they can’t. They’re not good at anything and should be happy living the same kind of life as everyone else around them. “If it’s good enough for us, it should be good enough for you.”
As you can imagine, this can cause immeasurable suffering for the person who’s clamoring to experience more from life. They might end up crippled with depression, get into unhealthy relationships, and even be abusive toward their own offspring.
These cycles often repeat themselves, and they might end up discouraging their kids from doing what they love because their own yearnings were quashed.
This is why it’s so important to break these cycles: it’ll be far healthier and happier for everyone involved to heal these wounds and move forward with clarity and purpose.
Undoing this kind of damage can take a long time, but it can be undone. The key is to determine a few fundamental things, such as what you feel would make you happy and what you have the confidence to work at.
How to overcome the feeling that you’re not good at anything.
It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to grow your self-esteem and self-belief and find things you’re good at or enjoy doing.
Below are some of the steps you can take to work toward greater self-confidence in your various pursuits.
1. Ask yourself whose voice is cutting you down about this.
When you have a moment of negative self-talk, or feel that you aren’t good at anything you do, take a moment to try and figure out whose voice is really speaking to you.
Was it a parent who told you that you’re not smart/pretty/strong/thin/tall/brave enough to do the things you love? A grandparent? A teacher?
Is this person still a part of your life? If so, are they still being critical?
If not, why do you feel that their opinion mattered so much that you’re holding onto it?
Try to determine where the condemning thoughts came from, following the line back to its source.
If it was a criticism from a parent that affected you when you were young, you might be able to have a talk with them about how their words impacted you. They might be shocked to discover that something they said in passing, in a moment of stress and frustration, caused such long-term damage. If that’s the case, then that’s a huge step toward healing from their criticism.
Alternatively, they might gaslight you and imply that you either imagined that conversation, or that they did it for your own good because you’d just end up disappointed and hurt if you pursued that path. If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to talk to a therapist instead, since you aren’t going to get the validation and healing you need from the one(s) who damaged you to begin with.
More on this further down.
2. Sort out whether being good at this thing will be the answer to your problems.
Sometimes, when people feel lost or confused about where they are in life, they throw themselves into a new pursuit as a means of creating purpose for themselves. The same thing goes for people who are trying to avoid dealing with a situation that makes them feel insecure or uncomfortable.
The failed (or failing) relationships we mentioned earlier are huge catalysts for self-criticism and self-doubt. Furthermore, relationships don’t tend to end in a breakup or divorce out of nowhere. If they end quickly, it’s usually because there’s been an infidelity or abusive situation that demanded immediate attention. That said, in most cases, relationships break down over time, and the parties involved are usually well aware that things are going south long before divorce papers are served.
If you’re in a situation where you’re aware that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed but you’re afraid to face it, you might try redirection or escapism as a means of ignoring it. As a result, you may throw yourself into a new pursuit to distract yourself and turn attention toward something more positive.
The issue you’re avoiding will still be in the background, however, and will make itself known by various means.
For example, you might be eager and excited to dive into this new pursuit, but then the feelings you’re trying to bury will manifest in self-criticism about what it is you’re doing. You may be doing just fine, but you’ll be projecting the avoided topic onto the present pursuit. Thus, you’ll feel like you’re failing at everything.
Be honest with yourself and ask what it is that you’re hoping to achieve here.
Will excelling at these pursuits be the answer to the problem you’re struggling with? Or is it a form of escapism to avoid dealing with the deeper issues that you’re avoiding?
3. Determine what it is that you want to do versus what you might be pushed to do.
If you feel that you aren’t good at anything, there’s a strong possibility that you’ve been trying to do something, but feel defeated by it. Or, you’ve been pushed to do something that you’re not particularly fond of, and your lack of enthusiasm is manifesting in a less-than-stellar outcome.
What did you want to do when you were little, before the world started demanding your obedience? When you scroll through Instagram or Pinterest, which topics do you look up? What makes you truly happy? Are there projects that you really want to try doing? Artists or athletes that inspire you?
If you’ve been trying out different endeavors that you really love, but feel like you’re terrible at them, then it might simply be a case of needing to practice more (we’ll expand upon this further on).
In contrast, if you feel like you’re terrible at something that you were never really interested in to begin with, why are you pursuing it?
Many people have been raised with the idea that they need to please others in order to have positive reinforcement about their self-worth. As a result, they often take on pursuits that they don’t sincerely like, but will be held in high regard by those around them.
They might have wanted to learn how to play guitar for years, but their parents might see that instrument as “common.” So instead they take up the violin or cello in the hope of gaining approval. The eagerness they initially felt about wanting to learn guitar will be replaced by feelings of obligation and self-reprimand if they don’t practice this thing for several hours a day.
They’ll be awful to themselves about every mistake they make out of fear that they’ll be criticized. Instead of joy at creating music, they have anxiety and depression about perceived imperfection.
If by some miracle they learn how to play a piece perfectly, they might achieve a nod of approval from someone. That’ll be fleeting, of course: the goalpost will be moved further, and the “well done” that they achieved will soon be replaced by “you can do better.”
So, ask yourself, are you pursuing what you really want to do? Or what others feel you should be doing?
4. Prioritize what you’re good at (and if you’re not sure what you do well, ask people who sincerely love you).
Even though you feel you’re terrible at everything right now, I can assure you that isn’t the case at all. In fact, you’re undoubtedly good at a number of different things, but you’re being overly critical toward yourself.
Someone rather brilliant once said: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but in reality we have no idea who wrote it. You know what? That doesn’t even matter.
What does matter, however, is the sentiment behind it.
In your zeal to be good at something that you feel that you want to cultivate, or that you “should” be good at, you might be overlooking something that you’re already great at.
Furthermore, you might not be well suited to that other thing at all. You may be pursuing it because of other people in your life rather than sincere interest, or you may have to work incredibly hard just to make any headway at all. There’s little to no enjoyment, but rather a sense of self-directed obligation.
We have so little time here; why not spend the time you have doing things you naturally do well?
If you feel that you’re not good at anything, you might simply need an outside perspective. After all, we’re often far more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Furthermore, skills that you take for granted as just being “that thing you do” might be freaking miraculous to someone else.
Do a call-out on social media or via group email and ask your friends, family, and social circle what they think about your skillsets. Ask them sincerely what they think you do well. Do they feel that you have a particular talent in something? Is there an activity you do that they admire? You’ll likely be surprised at how many people are in awe of abilities that you take for granted.
Let’s say you cook for your family on a daily basis simply because you like to feed them well, and you just happen to enjoy it. You might be surprised when and if a ton of your friends sing praises about your cooking. They might encourage you to start a catering company so others can revel in the glory that comes out of your kitchen.
The same goes for crafts or handiwork that you do. Those intricate quilts you make for family members are in demand, and people are willing to pay a lot of money for high-quality work like that.
You know those incredible multitasking abilities you maintain in stressful situations? They’d be perfect in event management positions, especially in nonprofit organizations.
Maybe you’re a great teacher or personal trainer.
Perhaps the carpentry you do for fun, building garden raised beds and birdhouses, can be harnessed for Habitat for Humanity or animal rescue programs.
Skills and abilities you don’t consider to be terribly important, that you might not even think that you’re good at, can be absolutely life changing for others.
5. Don’t compare yourself to other people.
Do you remember reading Dr. Seuss books as a child? One of his most famous quotes is:
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
You are a unique expression of the universe experiencing itself. What you see, feel, touch, and create will be completely different from what every living being has ever done, or ever will do.
As a result, it’s quite counterproductive to individual joy to compare oneself, and one’s pursuits and achievements, to those done by anyone else on the planet.
Do you feel a pang of envy when you see something gorgeous that another has created? Or if you learn about someone else’s athletic achievement? Consider for a moment that you really don’t know much of what’s going on in that other person’s life. Sure, they might be doing something cool in that moment, but the rest of their world might be falling to pieces.
The athlete whose record time is making you feel like crap about yourself might have a terminal disease. Meanwhile, the creative person who posted something beautiful they made might be struggling with debilitating mental illness. They may not be able to make it through the day without collapsing several times, can’t maintain a relationship, might have temporarily lost custody of their kids… so this creative endeavor is the only thing holding them together right now.
Furthermore, what one person considers to be a masterpiece is another person’s “meh,” and vice versa. You might feel that you aren’t good at anything, but someone else looks at what you’re doing, what you’re creating, and is blown away by what you’re able to do.
Do you know what Emperor Joseph II thought of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni? He told the composer that it had “too many notes.” Mozart was famous for having severe bouts of depression, and he was always incredibly hard on himself despite being adored by countless fans.
And vice versa, there are countless people out there who think their own creations or achievements are amazing, but they’re considered mediocre at best by others.
This just goes to show that we absolutely cannot compare ourselves to others. No two bodies or minds are the same, and they will never be able to achieve or create the exact same things.
Instead of comparing your own efforts to those of other people’s, focus on doing the things that make you happiest and the most fulfilled. What other people choose to do with their time and energy are their life pursuits, and they have nothing to do with you.
6. Give yourself time to learn (and space to improve).
Many people, particularly those who have perfectionist tendencies and hypersensitivity to criticism, have unrealistic expectations about their endeavors. They feel that they need to be amazing at something the first time they try it. If they aren’t, they’ll abandon the endeavor for something else, with the same expectation.
In reality, absolutely everything requires time and practice in order to be “good” at it.
Do you know what happened the first time I went cross-country skiing? I lost control going down a tiny little hill and smacked into a shed. It took me years of ballet training to be able to execute a decent pirouette. I’ve been knitting for 17 years now and am only just learning how to do cables, and after 30+ years of gardening experience, I still kill my plants on a regular basis.
We are all constantly learning and improving on our abilities. Even the greatest masters of their craft keep honing their skills and learning new techniques, and getting “good” at something can take decades.
You might not be good at your chosen endeavor right now, but that simply means that you aren’t great at it yet.
Allow yourself time to grow into this. Do it because you love to, and you’ll see improvement every single time you revisit it.
7. Understand that you don’t need to be “good” at something in order to enjoy it.
One of the best ways to overcome a fear of failure is to avoid worrying about whether you’re good or not. Rather, just enjoy the process without thinking about the eventual outcome.
There’s a common misconception that one should excel in order to validate an experience as a human being. As a result, someone who’s interested in baking sweet treats might look at a perfectly executed macaron on social media and give up before they even start. Same goes for an aspiring wood carver who looks at work done by someone like Giles Newman and tosses their own knife in the bin, as though in preemptive defeat.
There’s nothing wrong with doing something simply because you enjoy the process. Neutrality does not equal mediocrity, and either being, doing, or looking “okay” rather than exceptional is absolutely fine.
For example, think about all the time and effort many put into looking as physically attractive as possible. Simply looking like a normal person is frowned upon: instead, they’re expected to try and look like supermodels in order to have value as human beings. Forget that.
It’s completely okay to just look like an average person, prepare average-looking-but-delicious meals on regular plates, and take part in hobbies that won’t make their way into museums. There’s nothing wrong with an average life that inspires feelings of contentment. If you enjoy what you’re doing, and spread some happiness around while you’re at it, then that’s a life well lived indeed.
8. Try something new.
You may feel like you’re not good at anything you’ve tried so far, but I’m willing to bet that there are hundreds—even thousands—of things that you haven’t tried yet.
When you’re writing those lists of things that interest you and that people think you’re good at, take note of what intrigues you but you haven’t actually put effort into yet. Then ask yourself why you haven’t tried them out.
Is it because you’re intimidated by the thought of trying them in case you fail? Or are these endeavors cost prohibitive for your current budget? Do they require specific tools that you don’t have access to? Or ingredients that may be difficult to find, so you haven’t really bothered?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If these things really interest you, then there’s bound to be a way for you to try them out. Check out local groups that might be able to steer you in the right direction, and reach out to your social network. You may discover that you’re a natural in an endeavor that you have never even dabbled in before.
9. Focus on the fact that doing good is far better than being good at anything.
There’s a strange expectation in our society that people should place a great deal of emphasis on achievement, or else they’re somehow lesser beings than those who have made a name for themselves in the public eye.
Let’s unpack that for a moment.
One of the reasons why people strive for remembrance is because they’re afraid of being forgotten after they die. Many think that if they achieve something great, then their memory will live on.
Okay, so… do you know who Lionel Poilâne was? He was a renowned baker whose sourdough bread skills won him worldwide acclaim in the 1980s. What about Mary Anning? She was the world’s first female paleontologist, yet most people will never know her name.
The general populace doesn’t remember people like these who excelled at their craft or pastime. They might have been famous in their time, but the public recognition they won briefly didn’t last long.
Do you know which details are most long-lasting? When asked about the memories they hold onto most dearly, people say that they remember those who were kind to them.
There’s a good chance that you remember times when someone did something really nice for you, like being there for you during a difficult period or surprising you with something wonderful. Furthermore, it likely doesn’t matter to you what that person looked like or how successful they were in their career. What mattered is how they made you feel, and the subsequent impact that made on your life.
You don’t need to be the best at anything, nor do you need to be good at anything in particular. You can choose to do good instead. In fact, by doing so you might make a far greater impact in your world than you would have by being a champion box jumper.
10. Work with a therapist to help you unravel past damage.
When one is working to rebuild self-esteem that’s been damaged by other people’s criticism and cruelty, they can often come across some pretty big stumbling blocks. Furthermore, it’s possible that depression that isn’t directly related to past traumas might be playing a massive role in negative self-talk and feeling disheartened about various pursuits.
Quite often, feeling that you’re not good at anything might be a symptom of a deeper or unrelated issue.
Many people who struggle with depression find that they lose passion for things that they used to absolutely love. Furthermore, they get far more critical toward themselves and their achievements when they feel dejected and tired all the time.
Talk to your therapist about the things you’ve been experiencing, and see what kind of perspectives they can offer you.
Or if you don’t have a therapist or counsellor yet, find one. A trained professional might be able to hone in on a source of self-criticism that never even occurred to you before. By doing so, they can open up pathways to healing that might have otherwise remained closed to you.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
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