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:
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:
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.