You know the feeling.  You’ve just done something, or neglected to do something, that attracted the boss’s attention.  And not the good kind.

Maybe you made a mistake.  But maybe you didn’t.

Perhaps you awakened the boss’s own Inner Lizard.

Or, maybe, just maybe, your manager is simply a jerk.

In any case, you now feel like a complete idiot.  You begin to suffer from this demonstration of your own incompetence, and think, “If I had only worked harder.  Paid closer attention.  Gone back to school to get an advanced degree.  Then I wouldn’t feel so stupid. THEN I’d be successful.”

I’ve suffered this way, more than once.  Fortunately, over time, I have learned that this kind of reversion to self-flagellation, in any situation, is actually a colossal learning opportunity meant to serve me for years to come.

If you’re like me, you’ve compounded one lie (“I’m a complete idiot”) with another (“I should have worked harder…) with another (“THEN I won’t feel stupid anymore”).  And you did it automatically, your brain racing through a script that was written long ago, and that without an observer to question it, will run automatically, like a computer responding to a keystroke.  Unless you consciously change the program, it will run by default.

For those of you wondering where the lies are, hold this situation in your mind and check in with your body.  Does thinking of those statements (I should have worked harder…paid closer attention…) feel like freedom?  Or does it create a familiar constricted throat, or knot in your stomach, or emptiness in your heart-space?

The problem with all those assertions about hard work and advanced degrees is the expectation that some external circumstance will change how you feel.  I may be insulting your personal religion when I say that this is simply not so.  It’s not easy to take in, but it’s important to realize that whatever you do, or is done to you, need not rule you.  You have the power to decide whether to feel like a failure or to look for the lessons inherent in these moments.

Consider the following:

-Maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.  One of the ways your essential self communicates this is through an uncontrollable string of mistakes, or by endowing you with a penchant for social awkwardness that makes your boss wish he’d hired Charlie Sheen instead.

-If you love the work and usually have supportive bosses, perhaps this isn’t the right boss or the right company culture for you.  If you’ve been really clear with your manager about how you expect to be managed, and s/he just doesn’t ‘get’ you, you may not be the right fit for that team.  Your boss may be projecting fears about his own performance on you.  Realize that you probably won’t change the boss—those time-wasting 360-degree reviews notwithstanding.

-If the boss is abusive, inventing ways to criticize your work or threatening your job, take it to HR.  I endured 5 years of such abuse because of a belief that I was a screw-up that no one else would ever hire, so I hung on to that job at all costs.  What it cost me was my self-esteem, which took years to rebuild.

I had another boss whose method of developing talent involved sarcasm and pointed questions about why I didn’t already know the answer to any question I was asking.  He preyed on my fear of feeling stupid.  Regardless of his motivation and actions, I realized I had a choice.  I could hold on to the idea that it could be true somehow—that I truly was stupid—and feel the sting of his condescending tone.  Or I could know that his unsupportive behavior and accusatory language said more about him than about me, and were really just indications that it was time to move on to find a corporate tribe whose culture embraced my talent.

Above all, remember that no one has the power to “make you feel” anything.  That is 100% your own personal choice.  The next time you react to a manager’s behavior by feeling stupid, take it as a signal to learn something new about yourself or the work you’re doing.  Step back and assess the culture of your workplace.  Then set a healthy boundary for yourself: just say “no!” to an employer, boss or culture that is anything less than wildly supportive of your career path or personal growth.  There’s no good reason to choose a work tribe that is any thing less than amazing, inspiring and rewarding.

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