Well now I feel ridiculous

…because after my post about the job interview that went horribly wrong except for the fact that I discovered I could scream—well—I got the job. So okay, you kindred spirits: can we pause self-doubt and condemnation as the default tape for long enough to acknowledge that we aren’t all that bad?

Hard, isn’t it.

Perfectionism, high expectations, self-blame, punishment, shame—they’re like a pack of hyenas who know there’s still meat on the carcass, waiting to resume their meal even when driven off. You can hear them grunting and howling while they wait for you to start in on yourself again. And they are apparently as smart as primates, so don’t think that your success is going to deter them from going after you:

In a study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr Benson-Amram showed that spotted hyenas experimented with different strategies to open a closed box…. Some of the hyenas tried just a few methods to open the puzzle box while others used many, including biting, flipping it over, digging underneath it and pushing it around. Those that tried a diverse range of techniques tended to be more successful and once they had opened the box once, they were able to open it again more quickly…. Dr Benson-Amram added: “We found that successful hyenas got much faster at solving the problem over time. Eventually they learned the solution such that they would run up to the puzzle box and open it within seconds. …We saw some indications that wild hyenas were also learning about the problem by observing others solve it. One hyena, however, that could not figure out how to open the puzzle, learned he could position himself near the door so that when another hyena solved the puzzle he could get to the meat faster and eat it all.”

Yeah, really. (Sidebar to writers: trust the subconscious to offer up an image–even when it’s a cliche like that pack of hyenas–that turns out to be a scarier metaphor than anything mere intellect could provide!)

So trying to save ourselves with reassurance and repetition of all the wonderful things people have said about us (and people did say some unequivocally wonderful things about what I thought had been a complete disaster)—or even with a litany of past successes (I’ve had many)—is just an attempt to build a better, more hyena-proof, box while those suckers are just watching how you put it together and doing their reverse-engineering number all the while. Maybe that’s why they often sound like they’re laughing.

So forget about that! As I said in my original post, screaming was an excellent response to the hyena pack of inner critics, at least in the initial phase of the attack after I thought I had failed: it’s probably what drove them off, because prey that screams is still alive, and might thus pose a threat to their existence.

But what do we do with success? We can’t lock ourselves in our car, as I did when I thought I’d failed, and drive around town screaming all the time. Success, paradoxically, requires a more sustainable response, and thus success—at least for us damaged perfectionists—is a whole lot harder than failure.


Crap! We’re tormented when we fail, and even more tormented when we succeed, because all that’s changed is that the expectations are higher, so we feel weaker and more inadequate—and that kind of anxiety works on the hyenas like the scent of blood.

But if I follow this metaphor, as I advise my writing students to do, the solution is as simple and straightforward as the fear: instead of working to build a box around yourself that they can’t open, just step out and live. Scavengers, no matter how smart or resourceful, can’t pry you out of a box you have left behind–and they don’t have the strength to take on someone who is fully, simply, alive: making mistakes and good decisions, taking wrong and right turns, breaking and fixing things, trying and failing and moving on.

So here’s what I’m going to try to do: I’m going to try to remember that the gift of life isn’t dependent on performance, or worth—and that our potential isn’t measured by effort or good works, or even by DNA or environment: it’s all about what we love. When we love the good—for example, when we see someone in need and want to reach out a hand to them—performance doesn’t matter as much as intent. And intent does come across: so what if I couldn’t find the light switch, or work the computer, or even string together a coherent sentence in my job interview. I have loved the people I teach, and that’s the truth—and I’m lucky enough to work in a place and with people who value the same things I do.

That’s why I got the job. It wasn’t about being good enough, let alone perfect: it was about being alive and in love with my work.

The gift of life is often given and received blindly, but as we grow up we can increasingly catch a glimpse of what it means (through that glass, darkly) and be grateful. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating, if only as a reminder to myself: you can’t go wrong with gratitude. Appreciating the gift of life is one ability that increases with age, so that paradoxically as we move toward physical death, we can become more fully, imperfectly, alive every single day.

That—and laughing a whole lot more—is my plan for dealing with success.

About Barbara Sullivan

Writer, editor, teacher, introvert, contrarian, union thug
This entry was posted in Aging, Education, Identity, Love, Perfectionism, Psychology, self doubt, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Well now I feel ridiculous

  1. theotheri says:

    Oh Barb, I’m delighted for you! And absolutely delighted by this post. Not just because you got the job, but because you have been so wonderfully honest in the process.

    You put it a lot better than I do in my academic way, but I’ve been preaching for years that self-knowledge is not reliable. Right now I think many of us are more irritated (if that’s not too mild a description) by those religious leaders and politicians and their followers who are positive that they are right – whether it be about God, about sex, about the economy, about global warming, about their own infallible wisdom and superior insights. But we don’t just elevate ourselves in ways that don’t match reality. Guilt and shame and feelings of stupidity and inadequacy and insensitivity are often just as wrong-headed, if a great deal more painful.

    My only disagreement with you is your put-down of hyenas!

    • Yeah, that other side of this coin is interesting…maybe that’s about projection as a coping device, because I suspect some version of inadequacy is involved there too. (But maybe I’m being too nice, as usual–some people really do seem to operate without conscience, as if they arrived in this world missing an essential piece of equipment.) Thanks for your comments–as always, they give me more to think about (as well as much-appreciated support). Apologies to the hyenas; metaphor is a cruel scavenger. 🙂

      • theotheri says:

        Yes, me too: I think the need to be absolutely certain, to be unable to doubt, is a problem, not a gift. Originally I thought it was a problem of intelligence, but it obviously is not. I can’t see any correlation between intelligence and the capacity to accept uncertainty. Rather I think it’s some kind of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, fear of losing ones sense of direction, fear of meaninglessnes. The list is probably very long. I’ve been there.

        The hyenas understand. And accept your apologies.

  2. Julia says:

    Congratulations!!! Should have guessed that your disappointment in yourself was a measure of inner expectations rather than a failure.

    Too often I write off gratitude talk because from the outside it sounds corny, kind of like walking into the middle of an opera with people singing words I can’t understand and notes that to the uninitiated are hard to listen to. Just read another post written by a woman who is keeping a gratitude journal, writing 5 things she’s grateful for every day. I read it because she’d visited and followed my blog and a read-back is the proper thing to do, and at first it seemed too sweet and naive for my taste. By the second paragraph though, when she wrote about finding patterns in what cheered her up, she had me. Why do our brains (mine anyway) fight doing simple things like relaxing, doing kindnesses, eating healthy food, exercising? Why would talk about gratitude seem corny? Something in the upper level must be a little bratty. I LOVE your hyena metaphor, for that part of my mind, anyway.

    Anyway, hurray for your new job!!! Best wishes, and looking forward to future U-turns.

    • You ask a deep question! My short answer is that some positive ideas/terms have been corrupted for us because they’ve been co-opted by so many people with bad motives (proselytizing, preaching, profiteering on self-help books, and so on); in other words, sometimes that “bratty” attitude is healthy! In the longer answer, though, I think we are also sometimes infected with cultural resistance to the simplicity of innocence (see my post on Inertia). Thanks, as always, for stopping by and giving me something else to ponder. And thanks, too, for the best wishes. I like this idea of U-turns as applied to psychology–why not! Maybe change doesn’t require long years on the couch; maybe all we have to do is turn around and go the other way. Wow.

      • Ann Medlock says:

        Julia’s resistance to “corny” made me think of my own to what I see as bad taste. Then I started laughing, remembering Ram Dass (who is very funny–even admitting he’d “flunked dying” when he survived a stroke but hadn’t had a single spiritual thought as he lay dying). He’s said he almost went for Zen instead of Hinduism because Hindu art looked tacky.
        And sometimes the people espousing an idea aren’t the company I want to keep, even if the art isn’t tacky. So I have to kick myself past all that and look closely to see if there’s anything valuable in what’s on offer. Once in awhile there is.
        How’s the new job going?

        • The new job is the reason why it’s taken me so long to reply to these comments! Gearing up my aging equipment for a heavier work load has been a challenge, but I’m grateful to have it! 🙂 And yes, in response to you and Julia, language is so easily contaminated and corrupted and co-opted–especially what we might call the language of good–that it’s used to divert people from the truth, like a hostage in some bank robbery who’s been dressed up like one of the robbers and sent outside to be shot down. Looking closely, as you say, is a good preventative to killing the innocent–and also just feeling for the subtext of motive. It’s all about motive!

  3. Very good advice..get out there and live! Totally enjoyed this post!

  4. As you well know, I’m one of those “bratty” people who 1) never doubted you would get the job because I knew you didn’t fail that interview and 2) believes there is no such thing as failure (and that’s a subject for a different day).

    Of course, when you have your financial life on the line as you did with this interview, the fear knows no boundaries and off you go to hyena territory. (Sorry, hyenas.) That’s you looking inside yourself. That’s you preparing yourself for a “no.” Otherwise, if you’re confident in your interview “performance,” you open yourself to horrible news. We all do it. It’s a self-preservation method.

    Theotheri said, “I think the need to be absolutely certain, to be unable to doubt, is a problem, not a gift. Originally I thought it was a problem of intelligence, but it obviously is not. I can’t see any correlation between intelligence and the capacity to accept uncertainty. Rather I think it’s some kind of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, fear of losing ones sense of direction, fear of meaninglessness.”

    You are so kind!

    I’m not so kind. I know what I’m about to say is a generality and doesn’t fit all individuals, but I do think it’s an overriding mindset.
    I think the need to be absolutely certain is more of a narcissistic trend in our culture. People who accept uncertainty and live in the gray area aren’t after power or righteousness; we’re after probabilities, ideas, possibilities. The absolutes cannot live in uncertainty because it’s a sign of weakness. I don’t think they’re insecure or have fear of the unknown. I think they have arrogance. I think some crave power. Certainty is about control. That’s how they infuse the rest of society with fear. They are so certain; why can’t I be that certain? The power of belief can trump reality any day. Perhaps it started with a seed of “fear of the unknown,” but to me, that doesn’t seem recognizable anymore. But then again, maybe I’m a pessimist or too judgmental.

    Julie, I love that you brought up being grateful. I’ve been doing something similar (and it goes against all that ingrained New England cynicism). I try to wake up every morning, focused on what I’m grateful for, whether it’s the weather or a lull in the family dramas. I want to give my mind a positive push in a direction away from those misused/abused hyenas. In fact, I’m trying to find a way to relocate the hyenas just as I do the spiders who take up residency in my house.

    And Barb, as always, the world benefits every time you’re given a stage. This time a lot more students will be given the gift of a truly remarkable and wise teacher. Plus, I’m just damn happy you have a good job with benefits now. Hooray! And Congrats, hon. You so deserve it.

    • “The power of belief” is, as you know, a topic that I think is understudied, underrated, and central to absolutely everything we do (or fail to do). Belief is the hinge on which everything human turns.

      And yeah, those power-and-control types are the without-conscience bunch I was referring to. The defining characteristic of NPD is the inability to empathize with–or even to know–how others feel. Perhaps conscience, as the rest of us experience it, isn’t even available, since it means “with knowing.”

      I know I spent a WHOLE lot of time and energy trying to figure that out as regards my NPD ex, and it turned out to be just another way for him to drain me. So yes to relocating those scavengers and predators, whatever form they take. Or at least yes to being able to identify them and not offer ourselves up.

  5. Barbara, this is just wonderful. I have just started a new job in a place with high expectations and those hyenas are at work already….I must put your words somewhere where I can remember them. Being in love with my job seems a very long way away right now.

    • Well, at least you can be in love with your students (you’re still teaching, right?)–I know I am VERY fortunate to work for and with people who appreciate what I’m trying to do. It doesn’t always work out that way–some of the very best people I know have had absolutely horrible job histories, full of persecution, humiliation, and outrageous unfairness: I think that’s about jealousy, and/or a kind of Billy Budd dynamic in which their innocence torments the corrupt. Sigh. Take heart, though–they eventually won out and found jobs where they truly belong and are treasured. I’ve been away from blogs (mine and others), trying to get ready for the much heavier teaching load that this new job requires, but I do remember seeing something you wrote recently in which your wonderfully human story–I think it was about forgetting you had the dog with you–was met with a stick-figure response at work. All you need to remember is that: you are dealing with scrawny, two-dimensional, rigidly limited representations of real people here. Maybe encountering you will help bring some of them to life.

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