Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

Why We Doubt We are Capable, Part 1

One of our most painful feelings occurs when we doubt that we are capable.

We may doubt that we are capable of accomplishing a certain task or being a certain kind of person. Or we may just generally doubt that we can succeed at life.

This is a widespread feeling that so many people suffer, even when they seem like the most capable people in the world.

I remember once reading an interview with Jennifer Aniston when she was at the height of her Friends fame. She talked about this “piece of &^*#” feeling she carried around inside her all the time.[1]

This doubt of our capability stalks all sorts of people from all walks of life. And it can present itself in a wide variety of disguises. For instance this doubt may present itself as . . .

The feeling that we aren’t good enough to pursue goals meaningful to us.

Or the feeling that we are just average and mediocre.

The feeling that everybody but us gets it.

Or the feeling that we are small and insignificant.

Those are just some of the common ways that our doubt of our capability surfaces.

There are probably various influences that cause this feeling in our life. But I would like to address one influence, common in contemporary culture. This influence can distort our thinking and cause us to doubt our capability.

Exceptionalism: A Thinking Distortion

Contemporary culture, especially culture in the United States, obsesses over the exceptional. A lot of our cultural pastimes or entertainment focus on contests where people strive to outdo everyone else.

And our magazines and other media sources often focus on promoting people who are exceptional. For instance, such media sources might focus on the most wealthy or “beautiful” or talented or eccentric people or whatever.

Or, as another example, our economic system encourages us to constantly outdo the competition and show that our product is not merely helpful or useful or good enough but exceptional.

And in fact, our obsession with the exceptional is so pervasive that many of us feel like we must be exceptional to be capable or worthy.

That is why we constantly doubt our capability. We have learned to equate capability with being exceptional.

And certainly nothing is wrong with being exceptional. But no one is better than everyone else at everything. And even if you are the best at something, soon someone will come along and outdo your performance.

For example, at one point, people believed that no human being could run a mile in under four minutes. And then Roger Bannister came along and proved them wrong by running a 3.59.4 minute mile. He was exceptional.

But only for a moment.

Because once he broke the four-minute barrier, the world realized it could be done. So, a bunch of other people followed after Bannister and set new mile records.[2]

The Pressure to Be Exceptional is Unsustainable

So, when we constantly equate capability with being exceptional, we place an unsustainable burden on ourselves. And it is no wonder, then, that we constantly doubt our capability. Because if being capable or good enough means being exceptional, then this entails that most of us are not capable or good enough at most things.

And even if we are, we won’t be for long.

Furthermore, the ironic thing is that even if we are exceptional, it does not guarantee happiness. There are a lot of exceptional, miserable people in the world.

Because being the best at something does not guarantee that you are wise, good to others, good to yourself, or connected to anything larger than your own narrow interests.

And granted, sometimes we need to focus on our own narrow interests for a while. There is a time for everything. But if all we are only ever focused on our own narrow interests, our life becomes an echo chamber.

And we miss the richer, deeper dimension of life that we discover when we confront otherness that summons latent aspects of our humanity. (I wrote about a time I experienced such otherness and a summons here: Are College Professors Trying to Make Everyone Liberal?)

And furthermore, because exceptionalism encourages an obsession with individual accomplishment, it neglects relationships. Thus, it also neglects the rich dimensions of existence that flow from a strong community.

An Alternative

But there is an alternative to our obsession with exceptionalism. It is a focus on flourishing.

To understand flourishing, it is helpful to look at an Greek word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which Aristotle wrote a lot about in books like Nicomachean Ethics. Eudaimonia doesn’t have an exact English translation. It literally translates good spirit. But it refers (among other things) to the state a human being has when they develop and express every type of goodness.

Whenever I teach students about eudaimonia and the concept of flourishing, I liken it to a tree that is in full bloom. Every limb and branch, leaf, and blossom of the tree is fully expressed and blossoming.

(If you would like to learn more about flourishing and eudaimonia, you might like this post: How To Flourish by Cultivating Virtues.)

Flourishing is Contagious

And because the tree flourishes it provides beauty, nourishment, shelter, and other gifts (like oxygen) to everything in its vicinity.

Everyone benefits.

The concept of flourishing applies to humans as well as trees. When human beings flourish, they develop all their human capacities to their fullest potential. These are capacities like wisdom, creativity, love, grace, rationality, care, and play, just to name a few of our capacities.

And as we develop these capacities, we nurture and make other people stronger. And they in turn strengthen us.

Flourishing vs. Exceptionalism

When we pursue flourishing rather than exceptionalism, it brings so much good into our life. For example, pursuing exceptionalism requires us to hold ourselves aloof from other people and prove that we are better than them. And then it also  pushes us to constantly vie for their recognition of our superiority.

This leaves us with a constant craving we cannot satisfy.

In his book Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau calls this kind of craving inflamed amour-propre. It is a distorted type of self-love that results when societies don’t provide a moral way for gaining recognition, which we all crave.

Inflamed amour-propre makes us want everyone to love us best of all, even better then themselves. This is a futile pursuit and leads to all sorts of social and personal problems.

On the other hand, pursuing flourishing allows us to seek all the best things in life, for which there is no limit.

For example, there is no limit on the amount of wisdom, creativity, and love we can develop. So, when we pursue these good gifts, we collaborate rather than compete with one another.

And we can work on encouraging, rather than outdoing or outperforming one another.

More Good News

And there is more good news. When we define capability in terms of flourishing instead of exceptionalism, we recognize that all of us are capable. We all have the capability to continue developing our human capacities, just like a tree is capable of growing from a seed into a tree.

And we help ourselves flourish by practicing authentic self-love and hanging around other people who love us authentically, too. You can read more about this here: (Should We Love Ourselves Unconditionally? and Two Views of Human Beings)

A Possible Concern

Of course, sometimes we might worry that if we focus on flourishing rather than exceptionalism, we might not be successful in life.

For instance, someone might argue, “Well, that’s just how contemporary culture is. Only exceptional people are successful.” This kind of argument equates success with, perhaps, a Bill Gates type of lifestyle.

But I would like to point out that Bill Gates (and folks like him in terms of wealth or prestige) may or may not be happy, wise, good, or live a meaningful life. And if they are, it is certainly not necessarily because of his exceptionalism or wealth.

After all, if you look around in the world, you will see a lot of folks that people would likely consider average and unexceptional living a wise, good, and happy life.

The point is that exceptionalism is no guarantee of happiness. And, in fact, if you want to be happy, wise, and have meaningful connections, it may be better to avoid exceptionalism as a primary goal, given that a great many exceptional people seem to live miserable lives.[3] (Certainly one can be exceptional and live a good life, too.)

Other Pressures to Be Exceptional

We should also note that sometimes when we pursue exceptionalism doggedly, it is because someone important in our life like a parent or family member or admired teacher or coach equated capability with exceptionalism. So, our pursuit of exceptionalism is in fact an attempt to earn their love and approval.

But given the unsustainability of exceptionalism, we will never truly earn the love of someone who equates capability with exceptionalism. Nor should we have to. You can read more about this here: Why You Have Intrinsic Worth Today No Matter What.

Another Possible Concern

Somebody else might argue that exceptionalism and the misery it sometimes entails (like exhaustion or loneliness) is the price of genius.[4] And genius brings great things into the world.

This is possibly true. And I can’t judge whether someone else should pursue exceptionalism. Perhaps they should. My main point in this post is that it is not necessary to be exceptional to be capable. There is an alternative: flourishing.

And exceptionalism is also neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness, wisdom, and connection.

The Right Kind of Exceptionalism

Despite my criticisms of exceptionalism, there is indeed one type of exceptionalism you should certainly pursue. That is the exceptionalism of fully becoming your unique self morally. When you do this, you express your unique goodness in the world.

There is only one kind of YOU with your unique viewpoint, personality, body, and life experiences.

So when you become the most moral version of you, you are truly exceptional in a way no one else is. You can read more about this here:

Five Reasons You are Groovy

How to Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code

Summing It Up

If you are like a lot of people in contemporary society, you may feel like you must be exceptional to be capable. But it’s not true. Exceptionalism is an unsustainable goal to pursue constantly.

An alternative is to pursue flourishing. When you pursue flourishing, everyone (including you) benefits, and you achieve the best kind of exceptionalism: bringing your own unique goodness into the world.

Did you know you can work with me in the new year? I work with both individuals and groups in my philosophical consulting practice, Inside Out Consulting. You can read more about it here.


Here is the second part of the post: Why We Doubt We are Capable, Part II

End Notes

[1]Apologies I cannot find this interview right now. I assure you, it exists.

[2] The current world record is apparently 3.43.13, which was set by Hiccham El Guerrouj of Mexico.

[3] I am referring to famous people who have made themselves miserable. They may have done so by pursuing exceptionalism to the detriment of their physical, emotional, and mental health. Or they may have destroyed their relationships with other people in the pursuit of genius.

[4] And it is also important to note that some geniuses and exceptional people are indeed wise, happy, and connected.

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