“Sometimes, I feel like such a failure,” my friend confided. “My house doesn’t look as clean as my friends’ houses do. I have a job, and two children under the age of three. But I think I should be doing a better job keeping the house clean.”
I wanted to interject, but I had a feeling there was more to the story. She continued, “After feeling that way for so long, do you know what I found out?”
“What?” I asked, leaning forward.
“Almost all of my friends who have kids … ” She paused for dramatic effect. “… also have housekeepers! As in, cleaning services!”
“Seriously?” I said, laughing.
“Seriously,” she grinned. “All this time that I was judging myself for not cleaning more …”
“… When you were probably doing more than any of them,” I finished.
This conversation was an excellent recounting of what I like to call, “an attack of the less-thans.” Caregivers are particularly prone to these attacks. Though everyone’s “less-thans” will sound different, here are a few identifying characteristics:
- Seeing something in yourself or your environment that you want to change (“My house is so dirty.”)
- Comparing yourself to others, or to an invisible, internal, and elusive standard of success (“My friends’ houses are cleaner.”)
- Getting a sinking feeling of failure in your stomach, and a simultaneous shot of self-recrimination, while holding that comparison in mind (“I’m such a slacker for not having a clean house, like my friends do.”)
- Feeling helpless, like all your efforts are futile (“Why even bother picking up?”)
“The less-thans” seem obvious when someone else is going through them, but they’re much more difficult to identify from within. For example, when I used to get down on myself for not achieving my goals, my thinking seemed perfectly reasonable. However, when I’d see a friend go through the same process, I’d sense immediately that she was being way too hard on herself.
“The less thans” are insidious. They are pervasive. And they are lies.
However, ignoring “the less thans” doesn’t work. Neither does trying harder … in fact, “the less thans” would love for you to try harder to prove your worth. If you run yourself into the ground trying to be a flawless caregiver, you’re playing their game, and you won’t win. Instead, what’s needed is compassionate listening, either from your wiser self, or from a trusted friend.
For example, writer and special needs mom Amy Julia Becker told the story of a time when her daughter, Penny, felt ‘less than’ at school. As Amy Julia wrote in a recent post, ” I wanted to cry. For [Penny]. With her … My little girl had been carrying around this burden of knowing what she was supposed to be doing and yet feeling totally incapable of doing it, and I hadn’t known.”
We carry around secret feelings of failure when what we really need to do is share them aloud. We think, “I don’t want to burden anyone,” but speaking truth about our perceived failures makes our load lighter right away. When we give voice to these thoughts, we can figure out a constructive action to take (my friend, for example, is considering hiring a housekeeper!), and/or move toward greater acceptance of where we’re at.
Today, when I felt a wave of “the less thans” hit, I stopped and took a break from my work. I considered the thoughts I’d been thinking, thoughts of judgment and scarcity. I listened to myself with the compassion of a friend, and said, “Hun, those thoughts are not serving you well. And also, they aren’t true. Let’s let them go, and find better things to think of.”
With that in mind, I walked over to Bootsie, who was sleeping nearby, in her little box-bed by the window. As I stroked her warm fur, I thought about how the kitten I dreamed of since childhood was finally here with me. I thought about how I was sitting in the writing room I’d always longed for, working for myself. I thought of my husband in the next room, of the love I hardly dared to dream I’d find.
I started to feel better. Better, and also a little silly. I’d been listening to these fatalistic thoughts, when all the time I was surrounded by evidence that dreams can – and do – come true.
The antidote for “the less thans” is gratitude. The cure is listening to a different story: the story of what you’re thankful for and how far you’ve come.