Are You On the Right Course?
Jane Kropiewnicki, 48, from Elmwood Park, New Jersey
Jane's self-description as a low achiever mystified me. Her résumé was impressive, her personality sterling. Right away, I asked her when she'd started feeling anxious about underperforming.
"It was when my friend Larry moved out of the country," Jane said. "We weren't a couple, but we were incredibly close. With Larry supporting me, I never doubted myself."
Since Larry's departure, Jane hadn't stopped achieving—if anything, she'd become even more impressive. Yet she focused almost obsessively on her "underachievement." Like Groucho Marx swearing he'd never join a club that would accept him as a member, Jane never counted as a real accomplishment anything she was able to accomplish. This thought pattern was the set of distorting lenses through which Jane saw herself.
"Jane," I said, "I'd like to hear the other side of your story. Haven't there been times you've done well at something important?"
"Oh, of course," said Jane. "Lots of times."
"Such as..." Jane stopped.
Very long pause.
Jane laughed again, this time sounding embarrassed. "This is so weird! Why can't I think of anything?"
"Because you've never practiced. You're so used to downplaying your accomplishments that being proud of yourself is like remembering calculus."
Then I took a deep breath because I had an Important Concept to convey. "We all have unconscious assumptions about how other people judge us," I told Jane. "Psychologists call it the 'generalized other.' Larry used to dominate your generalized other; when he approved of you, that allowed you to believe you'd done well. Your problem isn't lack of achievement. It's waiting for someone else to convince you that your achievements are worthwhile."
"Huh." Jane sounded startled.
"Here's your homework," I told her. "List 100 things you've accomplished that are clearly valuable to you. Not Larry, not anyone else. Just Jane."
"A hundred things?" Jane repeated, as though I'd asked her to locate a new planet.
"For starters," I said.
The next time we spoke, Jane had come up with a list of times she'd been praised by others in her company—a small step toward removing her mental distortions, but not enough to reveal Jane's superhero. Then we had a breakthrough.
"I do stuff outside of work, but it's strange," Jane said. "Like skating."
"Yeah, a few years ago I decided to start taking skating lessons. I know it's crazy, and a waste of time, but—"
"Wait a minute. You took up figure skating, and you have no idea why?"
"I know, it makes no sense...."
"Are you kidding?" I cried. "Jane, this is fabulous!"