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My Own Worst Enemy

i do whatever the little voices in my head tell me to do sticker

Think about your best qualities. Have you noticed they can often be your worst?

I’m extremely competitive, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, neurotically obsessive, a die-hard loyalist, relentlessly persistent, a hard worker, and the list goes on and on.

If you were to ask me which of my worst features would top the list, I would say my own attitude towards myself. Or to be more specific, that little voice in my head that constantly castigating everything I do.

“Why didn’t you do this instead of that?”

“Did you really think that was a good idea?”

And the ever famous, “you should have done better.”

The latter haunts me incessantly. The perfect story that encompasses these sentiments is when my startup, 123LinkIt, won First Place at Temple’s Business Plan Competition last year.

I had entered the Competition three years running, becoming a Finalist two years before but walking away empty-handed.

This time, I knew we were going to be in the Finals. We had submitted the same idea the previous year and we used the notes from the judges to improve our Business Plan. We had also launched and were showing revenue. Yet I still reprimanded myself awaiting the results. I was competing in a tough category against faculty members, graduate students and other alumni. I doubted myself during the process repeatedly asking if I really had what it takes to get to the next level.

When the results came in, I was elated. Instead of congratulating myself, I went into hyper-mode and started a grueling campaign preparing for the Competition. I called in every favor I had with other entrepreneurs, VCs, acquaintances, and friends – everyone I knew and didn’t know to help me with the presentation.

I practiced my pitch so much the night before, I lost my voice the day of the Competition. I spent the morning gargling with salt water in an attempt to regain what would later turn into a soft whisper.

When it was my turn to present, I recall looking at the panel of judges and being terrified at their blank faces. “Can they hear me? Better yet, do they even understand what I’m saying?”

My family and friends patted me on the back afterwards and congratulated me for doing a great job. I smiled weakly and thought back to my Q&A session. “I should have elaborated further on his question. Why didn’t I finish on time? How many points will these mistakes cost me?”

I gripped my sister’s hand tightly and held my breath when they called the announcements.

Honorable mentions – nothing.

2nd Place – nothing.

1st Place – 123LinkIt.com.

Accepting First Place Award

I should have been ecstatic, right? I wasn’t. I forced myself to walk to the podium and accept my award. I waited to see who won the Grand Prize and cursed myself for not being up there.

That morning I remember thinking my sleepless nights were going to be long gone after the day was over, that the stressful days were going to be a thing of the past.

I was wrong. I slept LESS the day of and after the competition then I had preparing for it. “Why did they win over me? What could I have done differently? I should have changed this and said that.” I convinced myself that I had cost the Company $50k (the value difference between the prizes). All I could think of the following week is how First Place wasn’t good enough and what I could have done to win that Grand Prize.

It doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? I’m saddened by my thoughts thinking about it now, more than a year later.

I’ve been doing this since I was little. You could put me next to someone who severely dislikes me and I would have worse things to say about myself. My Father was the badgering type, he wanted us to do better and his way of showcasing that was to criticize us as a means to motivate ourselves.

One of my goals this year is to eliminate this self-deprecating behavior. It’s a challenge because it’s a double-edged sword in that it IS a driving force. However, I want to reprogram myself to have it come from a loving place that’s not stress-induced and doesn’t include back-breaking pressure.

How will I start to accomplish this?

I’ve already begun by being aware of it. I believe a big part of it has to do with how I talk to myself. Now I catch myself when that little voice appears. “You did a great job with this, good work! You can do even better next time by doing this.” I’m also working on accepting compliments. I’ve noticed the two traits are related. The rest? I’m not quite sure yet but I’m in the process of actively figuring it out.

  • Jeffdbrelsford

    Start by realizing how immensely talented you are, and also try to remember that human beings are not perfect. So no matter how talented or brilliant you are perfection is impossible to achieve. You can only do your best and as long as you accomplish that you’ve done all you could possibly be expected to do. :-)

    • Anonymous

      Comments by best friends don’t count! :P

      • http://twitter.com/AboutStephen Stephen Belyea

        OK..  then it’s time for internet strangers to step in and echo Jeff’s comment…

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  • Ryan Shaw

    Your pattern of thinking is not uncommon among people in our industry. I used to think this way *all the time*, but I’m currently on a path to recovery :)

    If you are serious about changing this aspect of yourself, find a copy of “Feeling Good” by David Burns. The title may sound cheesy and pop-psych, so if you’re feeling reluctant to investigate further then take a quick look at the reviews on Amazon. You won’t have to buy any “healing” crystals or drink highly diluted toxic substances, nor perform any chants, nor brainwash yourself with pseudo-psych nonsense.

    His book gives practical and realistic advice about how to identify and correct dysfunctional thoughts of the sort you described – because that’s what they really are. You probably experience other forms of dysfunctional thinking that you aren’t consciously aware of yet, too. You’re going to have to work hard at it, though, and be committed to changing if you want results (fortunately these are your strengths, right?). This isn’t something simple like repeating affirmations or filling your house with smiley faces, it’s more like a user’s manual for your brain that allows you debug the bugs in your thinking processes (yes, I’m a developer).

    It took me 6 weeks and 10s of pages of journal keeping, but the improvement in my quality of life has been worth it. I still have lots to do, though, but the funny thing is we spend HUNDREDS of hours learning a new skill, preparing a presentation, etc. yet spend very little time taking a structured approach to revisiting our thinking patterns/inner beliefs and working on them, despite how critically important they are to our happiness and fulfilment in life.

    I say this specifically because when I read between the lines of what you’ve written you seem a bit like me and you probably believe to *some extent* that being hard on yourself like this is what makes you so good at what you do — but I challenge you to read the book, perform the exercises where you TEST these beliefs and you’ll probably discover that they actually *hold you back* from your full potential. (How much more effective could you be without all the anxiety and stress these dysfunctional thinking patterns induce? What if your success comes not from these beliefs holding a gun to your head but from your intelligence and aptitude?)

    I probably sound like I’m somehow invested in this book given how much I’ve written, but the truth is I’m just excited to share this because of the impact it’s had on my own life. I came across this post by following the link in your startup ideas post, and I feel so strongly about these concepts that one of my own startup ideas is to build a site that helps people correct their dysfunctional thinking :) I think a community of people who can share the challenges they face (just like your post does), and tackle those challenges in a structured way, would be an amazing resource for personal development!

    • Anonymous

      First, thanks for taking the time to leave this thoughtful comment.

      You’re right, the title of the book is a turn-off. The reviews are good as you mentioned and your review is convincing enough that I’ve gone ahead and added it to my shopping cart. 

      I am someone that believes the pressure I instill in myself makes me better and I’m curious to test your assumption that it’s holding me back. 

      Definitely keep me posted if you end up building that community! 

      • Malsewaili

         I came across this post searching for quote to put on my FB status about self depreciating  and self put down thoughts, I am plagued by them , experience them everyday and they impact my life more than I want to admit. I am myself’s  worst enemy and myself’s harshest judge, I used to think it is pure lack of self confidence but I have discovered it is more , much more than that, it has been value destructive and it is the biggest hold-back I have in all and everything I want or tried to achieve. Never being satisfied with how much I achieved “everyone is always doing better because I am not doing enough or the right way” thoughts keep sleepless. I read Ryan’s comment I hope this book can help.

        • myasmine

          Sounds about right. The one thing that has helped me since this post is realizing I control my mind, NOT the other way around. Yes, it’s not an earth-shattering statement. That thought enables me to break out of the negative back and forth dialogue in head. Try it out and good luck overall. 

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