While you would never hand over your car keys to a drunk driver to take you home, we can all point to times when we’ve handed over the keys to our self-worth to people, places and things.
Maybe a competitor’s business is doing better than yours; maybe a colleague rose up the ranks faster than you; maybe you didn’t land a client or promotion. When these alleged setbacks happen you may feel below par, that you don’t have what it takes to accomplish your goals.
Measuring your self-worth based on the success of others and your own “failures” will ensure that you always feel insecure.
It's vital to remember that before a person becomes successful there is a period when they are not successful.
In fact, couldn’t we say that about most things?
Before a finish line is a starting line.
Before rain is thunder.
Before a rainbow there’s rain.
Before we walk we crawl.
Do you need more of these? I think you get the point (before there’s a tree there’s a seed — sorry, I couldn’t resist!).
When we disregard the truth of progress we experience professional cognitive dissonance: the projected vision of our success in our minds doesn’t match our actual success. That’s when rationalizations and justifications for why we aren’t where we want to be creep in. These lies we tell ourselves — rationalizations for why we didn’t succeed or falsehoods for why we failed — impair our ability to see our path clearly and do the work we need to do.
Here’s how you can control your perceptions of “failure” and begin disassociating your self-worth with these moving targets:
1. Practice resilience.
Practice getting back up when you fall, professionally or personally. Think back to when you learned to ride a bike. You fell, a lot. Then you got back up and tried again, armed with more skill. Somewhere along the way we forgot this lesson.
There will be many failures on the road to success. Measuring your self-worth against each of these failures will impede your progress. Make the commitment to keep getting up.
2. Counteract professional cognitive dissonance.
Accept that the “failures” you experience are part of the process of attaining your goals, not an obstacle to them. If you don’t accept your reality you’re going to make decisions based in delusion, which will create detours for your path to success.
You may start to justify, rationalize, and place blame on external factors. You know, “that client is stupid for not choosing us” versus “let me look at the reasons why we lost that bid.” The minute your brain starts going there, stop! It will only cloud your ability to see where you are, where you need to go, and the necessary steps to take you there.
3. Check your assumptions.
If you feel down because you are not where you thought you’d be at this point in your career, remember that you don’t know what the road to that destination looks like. There’s no reason to assume you will never make a mistake or fall short; there’s no reason to assume that you are not still on the road to accomplishing your vision.
4. Recognize “being in the game” is half the battle.
If you recall the movie “Bull Durham,” the guys in the minor leagues wanted Kevin Costner — who had fallen to the minors — to tell them what it was like to be in the majors. For Kostner’s character, falling to the minors was a blow to his career and ego, but he was a hero to the guys in the minors who had never been to the majors and probably never would be.
While you were getting down that you didn’t close a deal, there is someone else out there who is jealous that you were even in the running. You’re judging your self-worth on not getting the gig and the companies who were never in the game are judging their self-worth on not even getting to pitch.
Where does it end?
Many people have grand ideas and big schemes but never put them into play. Taking action in and of itself is to be commended. Pat yourself on the back for having begun. Take the energy that you’re expending to compare yourself to others (or beating yourself up) and channel it toward analyzing what you can do better next time.
5. Reframe failure as opportunity.
Our brains are designed to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. In psychology, this is called the “Pleasure Principle.”
Failure is pain, but opportunity is pleasure. Therefore, frame each failure as an opportunity to understand how to get closer to your goals, rather than signposts telling you that you will never succeed.
Those are the opportunities life is giving you to improve. If you don’t land a particular client, figure out why so you don’t do it again. That’s the opportunity.
6. Talk with someone objective.
Look at what you’re saying to yourself. Would you coach someone else like that? There is nothing wrong with getting support and help from others. There is no successful leader or entrepreneur or person that hasn’t called upon the counsel of others. When you seek counsel you will invariably gain a perspective you would not have on your own.
7. Create your own compass.
It’s normal to engage in social comparison, but negatively judging yourself based on others’ performance is when you enter muddy waters. Use social comparison to gather information, not to interfere with your own compass.
It would be like pretending that all of the cars on the highway with you are racing to the same destination as you. If you felt that way, you’d always feel like a failure because there would always be cars in front of you and cars gaining on you. We are all going to different destinations. Each of our journeys is unique to ourselves.
No one wakes up one day with a fully formed, successful business or skill out of nowhere. Professional success — and happiness — both require practice and commitment. Just as stocks go up and down, so will your path to success. If your stock is down one day it doesn’t mean it won’t go up again. Don’t sell your shares in your own identity to something external. Keep 100% control of the business that is you.
When you hold the keys to your self-worth, it doesn’t matter what happens in the external world, you’re still in control. How you react to events is perhaps the only thing you can control in life.
Don’t give that away.
Please share your own experiences and advice to counteract mental toughness!
Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBA is an organizational psychologist and the CEO ofEquilibria Leadership Consulting. She is the author of “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night” and the co-author of “Y in the Workplace: Managing the ‘Me First’ Generation.”