“I think, therefore I am.” It’s one of the most famous and timeless phrases in the history of humanity. While it’s primarily associated with existentialism and philosophy, though, it also hides a much simpler truth.
How we think about ourselves is what determines what we make of ourselves and who we eventually become. If you see yourself as incapable and incompetent, you won’t see the benefit of striking out and taking the kind of risks that bring about growth. So, you stay fixed at the same point while everyone else moves forward.
Conversely, if you see yourself as capable and competent, you’re less afraid of failing and moving out of your comfort zone. You know that every misstep has something to teach you about how to succeed.
In this way, harbouring a negative self-regard is often one of the most potent forms of self-sabotage. Indeed, you are your own biggest obstacle to greatness until you realise this about yourself and start working to change it. It holds for every one of us. For that reason, we each need to understand the relationship between self-perception and success at work and in life.
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Society traditionally lauds those among us who are self-confessed perfectionists. Their dogged commitment to upholding rigorous standards in their work is indeed praiseworthy.
At the same, though, perfectionists are also paradoxically most at risk of stagnating and sabotaging their own efforts, whether they realise it or not. It comes down to one simple reason: they equate their performance with their individual worth.
When you take your performance (or lack thereof) as an indication of your worth as a person, it can be highly toxic. It’s all good when you succeed, but when you inevitably fail, you can’t face or process the disappointment.
That’s because it’s a human tendency to want to preserve a positive self-image. Perfectionists react to this in two ways: they become obsessed with achievement at all costs or avoid it altogether.
If you don’t even try hard, you won’t have to face the possibility that you might be worthless. This, of course, is highly counter-productive. In their fear of being seen as incompetent, they hold themselves back from proving just how competent they really are.
Even for the over-achieving perfectionists, the relentless search for accomplishment will eventually become unhealthy. No matter what heights they manage to climb, it’s never enough; they still see themselves as incompetent. For that reason, perfectionists often run the risk of job burnout. And once you’re burnt out, your performance suffers, and you really do end up failing to live to your true potential.
When it comes to self-sabotage, one of the first things that usually comes to mind is the fear of failure. People underestimate their ability to weather the hardships that come with failing, while simultaneously overestimating the impact of that failure on their lives. Hence, they choose to stay stagnant instead of taking the risk of going after what they want.
A lesser-discussed phenomenon, though, is the fear of success. It can be just as debilitating, though it’s also often much more subtle. People who fear success often suffer from the imposter syndrome. It’s a phenomenon where you feel like a fraud whose only right to success is the ability to somehow “fake it till you make it.” In a nutshell, you feel like you don’t deserve any of your success, and that someone else is much more deserving of it.
As a result, self-doubt plagues you so much that it amplifies your stress levels and causes you more anxiety than necessary. Your mental health suffers, and you might also feel like you need to overwork yourself to prove that you deserve your success.
Of course, no amount of work is ever enough, and again, you end up burning out or holding back from opportunities for further growth. If someone else eventually achieves what you couldn’t, you then see it as proof of your perceived incompetence.
To you, it’s just a matter of being “found out.” You went from only seeing yourself as incompetent, to somehow putting yourself in a situation where other people could see you as incompetent.