How I Got Over Myself & Dealt With Feeling Bad At My Job


These days, there are a lot of jobs that require very little skill, or that displace responsibility for mistakes to a big corporate policy rather than individual workers. Working tedious jobs can be boring at times, but rarely does one think, I am not good at this yet; I’m going to have to work a long time in order to be good at this. It’s not exactly a perk, but it is one less stressful thought running through your head about work.

I have heard lots of people discuss stresses at work like bad bosses or coworkers, long hours, or low pay, but I rarely hear folks talk about the acute sensation that you are bad at your job.

I’ll back up. A year and a half ago, I landed a dream job in my field right out of graduate school — a teaching gig with some cool administrative components that, in most circumstances, would go to someone with a Ph.D., but happened to only pay what someone with a Master’s would generally be willing to take. To me, it was too good to be true, a wonderful chance to have fulfilling full-time work when I’d been told part-time teaching was one of my only options. The job was at least two or three levels higher than any of my previous jobs and had virtually no red tape or people telling me what to do. It also, as I found out later, had a lot of responsibility and expectations.

This was, in most ways, wonderful. I felt some combination of proud and lucky to get the job at all, but as I spent a day shadowing my predecessor in the job, I began to feel that nagging feeling that this would push the limits of my abilities, especially with things like multi-tasking, clarity in communication, and detail-oriented work. I didn’t feel impostor syndrome, the term given to people who think they’ve gotten somewhere without deserving it; I knew I had the qualifications for the job. I just worried that I wouldn’t be very good at it.

Actually being bad at your job, to the point of serious problems, is a problem in and of itself, because you will probably be noticed and have to improve or move into a new role. This, however, was just feeling bad at my job, and it didn’t really go away — while I got my work done, there were little things where I dropped the ball, or couldn’t have anticipated but still felt bad for not filling that need. It might be just another way to frame perfectionism, but I also think it has to do with applying for and taking jobs just at the edge of your ability and experience.

With teaching in particular, I meet people who say they were “terrible” at teaching at first who now have 20 years under their belt. I find this interesting, because few early-career teachers will acknowledge how much they feel they’re terrible at teaching, the fact that they don’t know why certain lessons don’t work, or that some of their grading feels arbitrary or unhelpful. I don’t think, objectively, I am really bad at my teaching job — I fulfill the goals and objectives. I do, however, sense thoroughly the lack of spark in my classes when compared with the classes of those who have truly had time to become stellar teachers. I know what stand-out teaching looks like, but I’ve had to accept that I’m just not there yet.

I think that part of this has to do with having jumped a couple rungs on the ladder, avoiding administrative roles with more reporting to higher-ups or more part-time teaching, and not having those years of experience. Many people I know don’t question when their ambition takes them farther faster, but I have to assume other people like me exist, who know their work is acceptable but wish that it was great, and great now.

I’m grateful for the gift of this second year. I am busier than in my first year, but with the experience of it under my belt, I get a lot more moments where I feel good at my job, and (perhaps more importantly) I’m too busy moving on to the latest task to dwell when I do something in a mediocre way. A fast paced job may be only one way to combat feelings of inadequacy, but the feelings are definitely part of the equation, and I don’t think you have to be a super insecure person to acknowledge that tough jobs leave you feeling this way frequently.

The Financial Diet has featured a few essays that discuss reasons to take or not take jobs, whether to apply or not apply for a new one, and ways to know when you need to move on. I’m posing a question you should always ask yourself when moving into a new position: How will this new gig make me feel inadequate? Am I prepared to process those feelings and keep working hard, or will they make me produce lower quality work? I know people who become super defensive when they feel bad at their jobs, which makes it harder to work with them in a team. I also know people like me who just feel unmotivated when they don’t think they are capable of a great performance, even if the job itself is really exciting and interesting. In order to keep at it and do your job well, you have to know your own personal reaction to feeling bad at your job. It’s imperative to helping you start to combat your feelings and how you intend to get better.

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about the stories behind family recipes at Recipe In A Bottle.

Image via Unsplash

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  • GBee

    “I think that part of this has to do with having jumped a couple rungs on the ladder, avoiding administrative roles with more reporting to higher-ups or more part-time teaching, and not having those years of experience.”

    I find this to be so interesting and I can certainly see how it would be difficult to transition so quickly from student to teacher. I’m not a teacher so I’ve always looked at this from a different perspective. After graduation I was pretty envious of my teacher friends because they didn’t have to worry about climbing the career ladder and while I didn’t even have a clear career path, they were already “there.” It’s a nice reminder that we all have our struggles. Thanks for providing a different perspective!

  • Sindhoo

    This may be one of my favorite posts I’ve read on this website so far. This is just such a real issue that I deal with every day, and I rarely see frank discussions on it. To people who care about their performance, working is really hard and if you aren’t naturally good at something, it takes a LOT of time and effort to improve yourself.

    From the perspective of a lawyer 1 year out from law school, I think those questions you posed (“How will this new gig make me feel inadequate? Am I prepared to process those feelings and keep working hard, or will they make me produce lower quality work?”) are actually the *number 1* thing new lawyers should ask themselves, especially if they’re at a big law firm. Thanks for articulating it so well!

  • Ella

    This was so close to home a tear almost slipped out while I sat at my desk reading this. I got a promotion I didn’t feel ready for earlier this year and have been struggling with a lot of things that are easy to name (bad management, frustrating pay differences between me and peers) but I’ve also been struggling with the inadequacy this article describes that is so much harder to put to words. Thank you for the piece!

  • Ali

    Oh man, this was a great read. As someone who just left a 7 year career as an early childhood educator and is now looking to move into a new career role I have this feeling and feelings of doubt all the time. I am working a temporary job while I look for my next career and as I apply for jobs (that I know I can do) I still have this feeling of what if I suck at this, what if I should have stayed in teaching, what if I fail at the new life I am trying to create. It was nice to read this and see that I am not the only person that has these feelings. Now I just need to figure out how to get over them and rock this on going job search.

  • This post really resonates with me – thanks for writing it!

    I am a recent MSW graduate and just landed a job that is great (and impressive on paper), but that is testing the limits of my experience (or lack thereof). I think this is an especially difficult situation to be in because, as you mentioned, you have a great job that exceeds your expectations and yet, there is something awry. For me, that something comes from the fact that jumping ahead a few rungs and landing a prime job has not necessarily made me happy – most likely due to the fact that I am being relied on for things that seem out of my professional grasp. Fortunately, going to SW school has provided me with some serious practice with being introspective, so asking those difficult questions you posed above comes pretty naturally. However, despite the fact that I’ve been able to admit to myself that I’m not completely head over heels with my job and I often feel inadequate, that same stuff can be difficult to articulate to others who view the job as objectively great. So…here’s to trying to be a little gentler and kinder with ourselves and honest with others because as shown by several others, we are definitely not alone in this feeling.

  • Liz

    I appreciated your point that we feel this way because we are doing something that is very challenging. I also like the thought of how much better we are likely to be after 20 years. 🙂

  • Melissa

    as I begin searching for a new job, including some that have the potential to take me abroad, this is a very timely post. I have been at my job for 8 years and I am very good at it. Moving to something new means I would have to start from the beginning and it would probably be a struggle. But I also believe that’s how you grow, and I am extremely confidant in my capabilities to learn.

  • Charlene

    This is awesome an awesome piece, and I appreciate you for writing it!

  • alyjarrett

    Wow, I really needed to read this right now. I only have four years of career experience, but I’ve jumped into manager roles so quickly that I find myself questioning my competency. My current team has extremely high standards, and I’m often too hard on myself when I feel like I’m not reaching my potential. Thanks for the reminder that I’m not the only one struggling with this, and that we all get more comfortable with time.

  • TK

    I’m so glad I read this article and comments, thinking there are other people like you. I made a mistake before taking a new role, I did not ask myself these questions, “How will this new gig make me feel inadequate? Am I prepared to process those feelings and keep working hard, or will they make me produce lower quality work?”. I’m currently struggling with this and by reading the article gives me some confidence to work even harder to improve myself.

  • Annie Watson-Lunt

    I have worked in teaching before and can totally totally relate to this post and it is so so refreshing to see these thoughts/aspects of the role written into paper as sometimes it feels like I am the only one to feel that way.