Forgot to hand in that business proposal? Accidentally deleted a crucial work file? Perhaps you received a poor performance review from your boss?
Feeling stupid at work is completely normal. You start to compare yourself to others and begin doubting your skills and value to the company.
But when those feelings start to cripple you with anxiety, diminish your productivity levels or wear away your self-esteem, it’s important that you find ways to pick yourself back up again.
Here are a few things to remember when you’re feeling stupid at work.
1. Everyone feels inferior sometimes
Everyone has been in the same boat as you at some point.
We all have faults and insecurities, and we can’t help but compare ourselves to our superiors when things go wrong. You might think your problems are unique to your situation, but you’ll be pleased to know that even your boss (and probably even Bill Gates) has felt the inferiority complex at one stage.
There will always be other people who feel less than great compared to their colleagues and friends. Try reaching out to them to share your feelings!
2. Being hard on yourself won’t get you anywhere
You are your own biggest critic, and most of your insecurities probably come from negative self-talk.
Slipping up when you have an overwhelming pressure to succeed can lead to stress and a lack of self-confidence. But it’s important that you replace any negative thoughts with positive ones.
When you make a mistake in a report or receive unfortunate feedback from a client, try not to judge yourself too harshly. Instead, practise self-kindness, go easy on yourself and focus on learning from your mistake.
3. Your strengths are worth a closer look
Practising self-kindness involves reminding yourself of your strengths. While this may seem impossible when you feel stupid, it’s vital that you push any self-doubt aside.
“Imposter syndrome,” as described by Harvard Business Review, is having “feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. When you feel inadequate in the workplace, make a list of your strengths and successes.
Revisit positive feedback you received from your boss and colleagues or read through that brilliant article you published so you can remind yourself of your worth. Also, make it a regular event to remind yourself that employees who sincerely care about doing a good job are a huge asset to any company!
4. Everyone makes mistakes
When you make mistakes at work, your confidence as a professional can hit an all-time low.
It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s a “failure”, but even the most successful people in the world have made mistakes throughout their careers. In fact, it was the late Steve Jobs’ failures that led him to his success.
Understand that nobody is perfect, and a mistake doesn’t make you any less of a valuable employee. While everyone experiences failure, they also learn to overcome it. That brings us to the next tip…
5. Failure makes you stronger
In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “Failure is another steppingstone to greatness”.
When you make mistakes at work, take them as an opportunity to learn from them and do better. Instead of sulking and belittling yourself, celebrate these failures and grow from them.
You may feel like a complete idiot for missing that email or messing up that presentation, but learning to treat these mistakes as lessons is a way to improve and boost your self-confidence — and success!
6. There’s room for improvement
When you feel less accomplished or valuable than your coworkers, you can always set goals to improve yourself. Stop dwelling on your failures and eliminate negative self-talk. Be proactive, instead!
Free up some time on your calendar and write down a list of things you need to shape up on and actionable ways to do so. It might be your communication, teamwork or problem-solving skills. If you don’t know what areas need improvement, talk to your manager or colleagues for some ideas!
7. There’s no such thing as perfection
When you feel stupid at work, it’s probably due to the pressure of perfectionism. You’re desperate to impress the boss, eager to get that promotion and hungry for that A-star report.
When you stumble, you end up feeling discouraged. But striving for perfection is a big, fat waste of time. In fact, it’s incredibly overrated. You need to accept that you may not be able to achieve perfection in every aspect of your job — and that is totally okay.
8. Stress is bad for you
Worrying because you forgot to follow up on an email? Disappointed because you didn’t get a standing ovation after your presentation? Stressing over work-related issues is unhealthy and can lead to job burnout. When you exhaust yourself with negative thoughts and constantly feel down about your job performance, you’re putting enormous strain on your mental — and physical — wellbeing. Try to stay positive and shake off any stress about work!
9. You were hired for a reason
When you feel defeated by your job performance, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “my boss hates me” or “I’m not good enough”. But the moment you start trash-talking yourself, remember you were hired for a reason.
Don’t forget that your manager chose you for the role because of your unique skills and abilities. You’re still working there because you do bring great value to the company. No matter how great the mistake, always remember your worth!
10. Your life achievements can be the pick-me-up you need
When you’re bummed out about yourself at work, think of other areas in your life that make you proud. Perhaps it’s your children that make you feel accomplished, or maybe you’re seeing great results from going to the gym.
Think how far you’ve come in life and what challenges you’ve faced that have made you a stronger person. When you start feeling better about yourself, you can achieve a positive attitude in the workplace, too.
11. You’re not alone
At times when you feel stupid at work, know that you are not alone. There are so many people that you can reach out to for motivation.
As mentioned earlier, there are others who probably feel (or have felt) the same way as you, so don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Talk to a coworker, friend or family member, and explain why you feel insecure at work. They’ll probably help you recognize your value and realize these negative feelings are all in your head.
12. Comparing yourself to others does you no good
If there’s one message to be taught from this article, it’s to stop comparing yourself to others. You may be envious of your coworker’s confidence or particular skillset but, ultimately, they’re not you.
You have great qualities and abilities that are unique to you, and there are others who don’t succeed as well as you do in certain aspects. Know that your contribution as an employee is one of a kind and stop comparing yourself to others — it damages your self-esteem, productivity and work environment.
13. We are often our own worst critics
Do you exaggerate your weaknesses or hold yourself to unrealistically high standards? We have a feeling that you might. Think about the following scenarios: first, imagine yourself making a mistake at work, and then imagine that a close friend of yours makes a similar error.
Where your friend is concerned, you would probably attribute the error to their being tired or having a bad day, which focuses on their circumstances rather than their ability. So why not do the same for your own errors instead of labeling yourself “incompetent”?
Also, if a colleague confessed they felt inferior at work, what would you say to them? It’s unlikely you’d say “well, you should feel dumb”. Instead, you’d probably recommend that they tackle mistakes head on and learn from them, and even make useful suggestions.
For example, if they were worried about time management, you could tell them to put some time aside at the start of each week to review upcoming deadlines, so that they remain focused and in control. try to talk to yourself the same way!
14. Thoughts are just thoughts
This isn’t to say that what you’re feeling or thinking isn’t valid. Accepting your thoughts, however, is just as important as keeping them in perspective: not everything your brain tells you is real, and thoughts only have as much power over you as you let them.
Instead of holding onto thoughts tightly when they arise, allow them to come and go. Imagining that you’re observing self-defeating thoughts from a distance rather than being knee deep in them can really help.
15. You are not a machine
When you’re feeling stupid, remember to ask yourself what your definition of intelligence is. If you define a good employee as someone who works quickly and accurately day in, day out, what you’re really describing is a computer. A lot of things can influence our performance, from personal problems to job suitability to working conditions.
On top of that, developmental psychologists agree that humans have multiple kinds of intelligence: linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Chances are that you’re intelligent in many more ways than you realize.
We all have our good and bad moments at work, but on the days when you feel stupid, know that it’s okay to feel a little down in the dumps. But by remembering our tips, those feelings of insecurity in the workplace will soon diminish and you’ll be able to pick yourself back up again.
Originally published 24 June 2020. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.