“I feel like I’m failing at everything.”
“I’m just not good enough.”
“I’m a failure.”
Have you ever had thoughts like these? If so, you’re not alone. I hear statements like this all the time, both in my professional life as a coach and in my personal life with my friends and family–and to be honest, from the nagging voice in my own head.
So what gives? Why do we walk around all day telling ourselves such toxic and damaging thoughts?
Well, part of it lies in our biology. Our brains are wired for what experts call the “negativity bias”. This means that we are designed to register and tuck away all the negative, dangerous, uncomfortable, and generally sucky things and we tend to gloss right over the good stuff.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Our ancestors would have had to pay more attention to things that had the potential to kill them and less attention to the fact that they managed to live another day. For instance, it would make more sense to fixate on what went wrong during an unsuccessful hunt than it would to sit marveling at the beauty of the sunset. One kept you from eating that day, thus jeopardizing your survival, while the other has no bearing on whether you live another day.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is how God has designed our brains to work and it serves a very important purpose in the continuation of our species.
But sometimes the same mechanisms that have kept us alive for thousands of years tend to make living in the modern world somewhat less than comfortable (to say the least). In fact, more than ever, anxiety and depression are rampant in the developed world–-whereas starvation and day-to-day survival are hardly an issue.
I propose that part of the anxiety and depression that are running amok in our modern society stem from these feelings of never being quite good enough. From working as hard as you possibly can every day, from pushing yourself to the point of burnout, and still somehow coming up short. No matter how hard you try, you feel like a failure. Every. Single. Day.
The thing is, few of us ever really stop to consider what our metrics for success really are. We get caught up in our emotions and it gets really hard to just look at a situation objectively. To counter this tendency, you might start by just asking yourself some basic questions: How am I failing? What am I failing at? What defines failure?
You might discover that it’s hard for you to pin down what success and failure really mean to you. Or you might just realize that you’re basing your definition of success on things that are largely out of your control.
One business concept that I think is really helpful when trying to determine your own metrics for success (or “winning”) is the idea of leading vs. lagging factors. A lagging factor is basically anything that comes as a result of a leading factor. Leading factors you can control and lagging factors…not so much.
Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. Say you own a Chinese Restaurant and your metric for success is how many customers you have on a given day. The number of customers you get is actually a lagging factor (and as such, one that you don’t have much direct control over). A leading factor in this scenario could be how many free samples you handed out, how many coupons you sent in the mail, or how and when you ran advertisements (all things you could control).
Let’s look at another example that may be closer to home for many of us: the way your children behave in public. A lagging factor is their actual behavior at the store. Leading factors could be whether you gave them a snack before you left, when you schedule your trip, and what “training” you’ve given them in advance about what your standards are for appropriate behavior. All parents have been morbidly embarrassed by their kids in public at some point in their lives (and if you haven’t yet—wait for it). But that doesn’t make you a failure as a parent! You can never actually control the behavior of another human being. God gave them free will too, after all.
So what can you do to squash this “I’m a failure” mantra once and for all and actually start feeling like you’re “winning” every day?
Here are 3 steps you can take right now that will have a massive impact on how successful you feel every day:
- Determine what areas of life are most important for you to feel successful. These can be broad categories for now. For instance: prayer, parenting, relationships, work, school, etc. This will be unique to you and based on what you value as most important. Remember that no one is equally good at everything and you don’t need to be. If you can feel successful in the areas that are most important to you, then I promise you will feel much more content with your life overall. For example, I never feel like a failure when I see my overflowing laundry basket because laundry is way down on my list of priorities. It can be extremely liberating to give yourself permission to not let everything in your life have equal weight. Try saying this, “That’s not a priority for me right now.” There, doesn’t that feel better already?
- Figure out what are leading factors and what are lagging factors in that area. Remember that we too often focus on what we can’t control (i.e. lagging factors) when we measure our success. Instead, think about what you can control and brainstorm a list of actions that you can take that will have an impact in that area. For instance, we can’t control whether we feel a state of consolation or desolation in our spiritual lives (not really). God gives us the grace of consolation sometimes (and it’s awesome) but He also lets us feel desolation at times too. We can’t let ourselves only feel “successful” spiritually when we’re in a time of consolation nor can we, as mature Christians, just chase good feelings. Instead, we have to focus on what we can control: carving out time for prayer, reading scripture, going to Mass, going to Confession, etc.
- Focus all your time and mental energy on doing the leading factors. Do what you can and don’t worry about the results because that’s out of your hands. I often think of the St. Teresa of Calcutta quote in regards to this: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
So there you have it. Do these 3 things and you can start “winning” every day. Even if you don’t make any sales, your kids have a tantrum during Mass, and you haven’t lost a single pound of your baby weight.
As Saint Paul says in Romans 8:37: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
You are not a failure. You are “more than a conqueror.”