This is the second post in a series about why we doubt we are capable. I wrote the first post in this series a few weeks ago, which you can read here:
Why We Doubt We are Capable, Part 1
In that post, I discussed how the problem of exceptionalism can cause us to doubt our capability.
In this post, I want to talk about two other problems that causes us to doubt our capability: instrumentalizing ourselves and valorizing perfectionism.
Here is a question for you: Have you ever felt like you were only valuable if you accomplished great things? If you are like a lot of people, the answer to this question is “yes”.
Many of us feel constant pressure, both internal and external, to accomplish great things. And we usually feel like we need to do this to prove that we are worthy, valuable, and deserving of people’s respect or attention.
Such pressure is so common, we often think very little about it. But when we treat ourselves like we are only worthy if we accomplish great things, we instrumentalize ourselves. In doing so, we turn ourselves into a tool or instrument for getting stuff.
And this increases our suffering because we aren’t tools or objects. We are human beings.
Your purpose in life is not to accomplish great things to prove you are worthy. Your purpose is to express the worth you already have inside you. When you do this, you will certainly do great things, as you define greatness.
Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress Use and Reuse
And human beings have intrinsic worth that comes from their own unique goodness. You can read more about this here:
Why You Have Intrinsic Worth Today No Matter What
In fact, our intrinsic worth is what is most true about us. But when we treat ourselves like tools or instruments for getting things, we treat ourselves like we only have extrinsic worth.
Extrinsic worth is worth that comes from accomplishing external standards or getting stuff. Treating ourselves like we only have extrinsic worth is a deep misunderstanding of our true nature. And when we don’t understand who we really are, we get lost. That leads to suffering and unreasonable expectations.
One example of painful unreasonable expectations is perfectionism.
Many of us, at one time or another, have exhibited perfectionistic tendencies in some area of our life. Perfectionism is an attitude that makes us intolerant of imperfection or failures. And it also encourages the belief that we must be superior in all our accomplishments.
In addition, perfectionism convinces us that acceptable or good performance is, in fact, never acceptable or good enough because it is less than perfect.
And so, perfectionism encourages us to fret continually over mistakes and failures—perceived or anticipated. It can also prevent us from trying new endeavors in which we fear our performance will be less than perfect.
As a result of our constant fear over imperfection, we often miss out on activities that would give us great pleasure. Or we miss out on activities that would help us learn and grow. And in fact, some of our greatest joys come from trying something, making big mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.
But when we believe we must perform perfectly, it causes us constantly to doubt our capability. And when we doubt our capability, it further encourages anxiety and a lack of confidence.
Despite the potentially paralyzing effects of perfectionism, many of us tend to wear perfectionism as a badge of honor. We valorize it and believe it is a mark of virtue. Think of how many times you or someone you know said, “I’m a perfectionist” with the suggestion that such perfectionism showed good character, a strong work ethic, or was a trait worthy of respect.
But why would we valorize perfectionism when it causes so much suffering and clearly interferes with joy and personal growth?
One of the reasons is because, once again, we have learned to instrumentalize ourselves.
As mentioned above, when we instrumentalize ourselves, we do not believe we possess inherent value. Rather, we believe we are valuable only to some further end—like helping others, accomplishing things, or doing jobs efficiently.
And of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these things. But we don’t exist merely to serve others or accomplish things. The main purpose of our existence is to become ourselves fully and to fully express our unique goodness in the world.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that human beings alone are responsive to the moral law. (Kant explores this idea in Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, the link to which is at the end of this post.) That idea may seem abstract and unrelated to the issues in this post. But consider this:
Because human beings have a unique sensitivity to the moral law, this means they are uniquely able to bring things like justice, care, love, respect, kindness, fairness, generosity, compassion, wisdom, patience, gentleness, and courage into the world (just to name a few good things humans can bring forth).
Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson
And these are the most valuable things in the world. Such gifts are the source of all goodness, and they make life worth living.
So, since every human is capable of being responsible to the moral law and bringing these gifts into the world, every human being possesses the most valuable thing possible.
And that is why Kant and others argues that we must treat ourselves and every human with dignity. When we do so, it encourages us to express those uniquely good human capacities we possess.
Treating Ourselves and Others with Dignity
Treating ourselves and others with dignity entails a lot of different things. One of the things it is entails is that we stop instrumentalizing ourselves and others and that we realize we are worthy and capable right now.
How do we know this?
Once again: Because you and I possess the most valuable things in the world. We possess the capacity for justice, care, love, respect, kindness, fairness, generosity, compassion, wisdom, patience, gentleness, and courage
Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson
You are capable because you posses the most valuable things in the world inside you and can develop them infinitely.
Every single one of us, no matter what, can develop these virtues infinitely. As we do, we bring more excellence in our own unique way into our own life and the lives of those around us.
That is truly awesome in every sense of the word. And that is why we are capable.
6 thoughts on “Why We Doubt We are Capable, Part 2”
Thank you for another thought-provoking essay, Shelly. I often reflect on my weaknesses, and sometimes wonder – given that I’m so very flawed – “what is the point of me?” And then I look around me objectively and notice that everyone else is flawed too, albeit that our flaws are not all identical. This gives me some reassurance, which is good, but maybe it also gives rise to complacency, which isn’t so good. The thing is, although I do (normally) recognise that I have intrinsic value I also know that by making some changes I could be an even better citizen / human being. So, how do I find the balance between taking comfort in my intrinsic value and yet not become so complacent that I ignore the benefits that would follow from modifying some of my behaviours? It’s a dilemma, I think.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment, Platypus Man. I have been thinking through a reply and hope to respond soon.
Platypus Man: Thank you again for this thoughtful comment. To be perfectly honest, I have often struggled with the very same questions you have expressed in your comment. I look at myself and my flaws. And I see I have so much room for improvement. And I worry that accepting myself as I am will cause me to become complacent.
One of the metaphors that has helped me resolve this tension the most is the plant metaphor. For example, right now I have some mums growing in my front flower bed right now. They are a mess, and they don’t look good at all. But I know from last summer and fall that if I let my mums grow and give them proper nourishment, they will soon blossom and become beautiful.
So I don’t blame my mums for where they are right now. I honor their growth process, while cutting away dead and rotting branches and looking out for plant blight. I trust they have an internal goodness that allows them bloom when cared for properly.
We understand this process well with plants. But we are not as good at understanding it with ourselves. Just like plants, when we are cared for (and care for ourselves) we have an internal impetus to grow and express flourishing emotional capacities like love, kindness, compassion, creativity. Unlike a plant, we have free will that can make our process a little more complicated. This requires more care, supervision, and “pruning” of ourselves on our part. But they are similar processes–the plant and us.
I hope this metaphor helps. I share it because it has been tremendously helpful for me. Please feel free to write if you have any other questions.
Thank you for your response, which I’ve been mulling over for several days. It’s an interesting metaphor, but I remain troubled by the element of free will. Yes, your mums will put on a show later in the year, whether or not you intervene, because that’s what plant biology programs them to do. But the question is, should you intervene? Will an application of fertiliser make them stronger, or over-stimulate them? Will a few snips with your pruning shears strengthen those parts of the mums that remain, or will it weaken them? We cannot know with certainty, and when there is a lack of certainty doubt sets in: should I or shouldn’t I? And if so when? And by how much?
Moving on from the metaphor to the human condition, the same doubt remains. Because I understand that I’m not perfect, should I seek to make myself better? My moral compass says “yes, I must seek to be the best I can be.” But recognising that I am flawed and seeking to improve myself may simply undermine my already fragile self-esteem, and the actions that I take to remedy my flaws may make things worse. And yet to accept myself as I am, without an attempt to change for the better, seems like a dereliction of duty.
I suppose all of this illustrates that life is complicated. We crave easy answers, simple solutions that will take away the doubts – fears, even – that trouble us. But there are no such things, and if we believe we’ve found an easy answer it can only be because we haven’t properly understood the question! So I suspect I will continue to doubt myself while still, simultaneously, believing that I have intrinsic value. It’s an uncomfortable balancing act, swinging wildly on the tightrope between elation and despair, but living is all about recognising that life is full of choices to make and challenges to manage. Only the dead face neither choice nor challenge, so I guess we should grateful for the anxieties that haunt us!
Hello There, Platypus Man: I have been thinking about your comment a lot and appreciate your thoughtful interaction. It seems to me that we can think about ourselves as possessing an inner dynamism that wants to grow and express itself much like a plant. The ancient philosopher Mengzi argues that we all have seeds of goodness in us that flourish when the are properly cared for. If this is the case, then pruning and fertilizing the seeds in us is not an indication that we are flawed somehow. It is an indication that we want to create the best possible conditions for our inner seeds to flourish. A classroom metaphor might help here. I work with my students a lot on their writing. I 100% believe that all students have the potential to be strong writers. Writing is a communication seed that everyone possesses. So my goal is to encourage that seed as much as possible. Part of that encouragement process is “weeding” my students writing to allow their writing seed to strengthen and flourish. When I weed my students writing, it isn’t a sign that they are bad or flawed. It’s a sign that their writing plant is in the growing stages and needs nurturing and guidance. It is the same with every seed of goodness in us. We are full of such seeds. As the seeds grow, they need watering, sunlight, weeding, pruning, and fertilizing. This is a normal part of the process and not an indication that there is something wrong with us. It is an indication that we are human becomings!