“Why am I incompetent?” – 12 reasons you feel this way and how to move forward

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Constantly feeling “I am incompetent” is a terrible state of mind to be stuck in.

It can seem like no matter what you do, everything always turns out wrong.

We all know that life is full of ups and downs, but life feels full of far more downs when we are struggling with feelings of inadequacy.

If you are down on yourself right now, and wondering why do I feel so incompetent, then it’s time to get to the bottom of what is going on.

Why do I always feel incompetent?

1) You have low self-esteem

It’s perfectly normal to feel inadequate or incompetent from time to time, we all do.

Especially when we are out of our comfort zone, make some sort of mistake, or are going through a difficult period in life, we tend to feel threatened and vulnerable.

But if you feel incompetent at everything, you may have some self-esteem issues.

Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves.

As Alex Lickerman M.D. explained in Psychology Today, the problem often isn’t incompetence, it is how we react to a feeling of failure or disapproval.

“I’m bothered when I fail at something—even something small—that I didn’t think I should. It’s thinking I shouldn’t fail, not failing itself, that triggers my anger when my failure is criticized. Because it turns out that I don’t just desire competence; my identity depends on it.”

When our self-esteem is too closely wrapped up in how we view our abilities, it can leave us in crisis.

You may have low self-esteem if:

  • You lack confidence
  • Feel like you have no control of your life
  • Struggle to ask for what you need
  • Compare yourself to others
  • Always question and second guess decisions
  • Struggle to accept positive feedback and compliments
  • Are scared of failing
  • Talk negatively to yourself
  • Are a people pleaser
  • Struggle with boundaries
  • Tend to expect the worst

Your feeling of self-worth needs to be grounded in much more than an ability to perform. After all, you are a human being and not a robot.

2) You’re comparing yourself to others

Comparisonitis is deadly.

Comparing ourselves to others always breeds dissatisfaction in life, but it is a habit that we often find difficult to resist.

It’s not made any easier by picture-perfect lives presented on social media. It’s not long before we decide that our life does not stack up against the image of someone else’s.

But it’s important to remember the key here is “image”. An image is only ever a false representation and not the real truth.

From where you stand, on the outside looking in, you don’t see the failures, the heartaches, or the miseries that they will inevitably go through. You are only privy to the highlights reel.

Comparing your own real-life to the highlights reel of someone else’s is always going to leave you feeling incompetent and lacking.

Reducing social media use can help to avoid this downward spiral of comparing your life to others.

3) You’re dwelling on past mistakes

Memory is our blessing and can be our curse as humans too.

It brings rich depth and experience, but it takes us away from living in the present moment.

All too easily we can find ourselves pulled back to another time and place. We create endless cycles of suffering where we think back on unpleasant things that have happened.

The errors we feel like we made, and all our perceived failings. Rather than leave these learning experiences in the past and move forward from them, we can end up endlessly chastising ourselves instead.

Every single person on this planet makes mistakes or has done something they regret or are not proud of. It is impossible to go through life without feeling bad about something that has happened.

Maybe you mess up at work and it dents your self-esteem. Perhaps after being under pressure you drop the ball and forget something important.

Whatever it is, you need to forgive yourself. Rather than get held back by your mistakes, learn from them to grow stronger and wiser.

4) You’re stuck in a fixed mindset

What do I do if I’m incompetent? The solution is simpler than you may think — practice, practice, and practice.

That doesn’t mean you will become amazing overnight. I said it was a simple solution, not an easy one. Practice does take effort, dedication, and time.

Sometimes when we feel incompetent we are not giving ourselves the amount of time it takes to get good at something.

But competence is defined as the combination of training, skills, experience, and knowledge that a person has and their ability to apply them to perform a task safely.

Whilst it is true that some people may have a natural aptitude for certain tasks, nobody is born with all those elements. That means, nobody is born competent.

Competence is instead something we become, and it takes practice, effort, and application.

Some people may need to practice more than others, but we’re all capable of getting there.

A fixed mindset is when someone doesn’t believe they can improve with practice, and it is, understandably, a huge hindrance to learning. You think that intelligence is fixed and so if you’re not good at something now, you never will be.

A growth mindset on the other hand means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time.

Research has shown that people who possess growth mindsets are more likely to be successful.

5) You learn differently from others

We all have naturally different skill sets. But it’s important to remember there are many different types of intelligence.

Some of us are good with people, some of us are good with our hands, some of us are better at creative tasks, others are better with analytical skills.

If you are in an environment that challenges you, you can feel out of your comfort zone and could start to question your competence.

It’s also significant that everybody’s brain will process learning differently. If you need to repeat something 5 times before it sticks, then so be it.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that not getting something on the first go makes you incompetent, but this is just a story that our egos like to tell us.

Plenty of people also have learning disorders, such as dyslexia, which means they struggle with certain aspects of learning.

It doesn’t make you incompetent, but it may mean adapting so that you can support your particular learning needs better.

6) You’re stressed out

Stress and anxiety have a powerful impact on both body and mind.

The pressure from stress can mean we find it harder to juggle the busy demands of life.

When you are under stress it can also create feelings of restlessness, overwhelm, and lack of motivation or focus.

Feeling like everything is getting too much is enough to make you feel like you’re not good enough.

It messes with your mind and drains your energy leaving you exhausted, and often unable to think clearly.

This low mood, combined with low energy can create cycles of feeling incompetent.

7) You’re caught in negative thinking

If you’re feeling incompetent, the chances are that you are being hard on yourself.

Every single one of us deals with negative thoughts. We can actually be our own worst enemy — chastising and beating ourselves up constantly with an internal dialogue.

But negative thinking can contribute to problems like social anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem.

As psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, Rachel Goldman, explains in Verywell Mind:

“Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so our thoughts impact how we feel and act. So, although we all have unhelpful thoughts from time to time, it’s important to know what to do when they appear so we don’t let them change the course of our day,”

If negative thoughts are constantly playing on a loop in your mind you may be prone to jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, and making overgeneralizations about yourself like “I am incompetent”.

8) You are depressed or suffering from mental health issues

All sorts of mental health conditions affect our outlook in life. For example, you could be dealing with past trauma or depression.

Classic signs of depression include feelings like:

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Pessimism and hopelessness
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you are suffering from depression, this can strip away your confidence to make you feel like you are incompetent.

It can also make you more prone to making errors or mistakes which only reinforce those feelings.

9) You’re feeling unmotivated

Most of us experience times when we feel stuck, unfulfilled and a little bit lost.

You may be feeling disconnected from yourself and feel like life has lost direction or meaning. Times like these are bound to leave us feeling unmotivated, lacking in enthusiasm and a little down on ourselves.

It’s actually very normal, but that doesn’t stop you from looking around and feeling like everyone else has got it together except you.

It might be that you are tired of certain circumstances in life and need a change. You might be feeling motiveless or unchallenged at work. You might be struggling to find purpose.

These types of dissatisfied feelings can also leave you feeling like you are incompetent and as though you’re not good enough.

If you are feeling lost, it could be that you have lost touch with your values, your goals, your dreams, and who you are as a person.

10) You have unfair expectations of yourself

Hello to all my fellow perfectionists (virtual wave). Expecting too much too soon is a sure-fire way to feel like a failure no matter what you do.

Whilst goals are great, they also need to be realistic. That means they are solely based on your own measures of improvement, not someone else’s.

We all want to find something that motivates us and gets us out of bed in the morning. But on the other side of the scale, it’s possible to load yourself up with the burden of “more” which becomes impossible to achieve.

You start to tell yourself you should be earning more, doing more, advancing more, having more, etc.

Perfectionist tendencies can be dangerous as they leave you feeling inadequate and potentially incompetent.

As perfectionism researcher Andrew Hill noted: “Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” And this way of seeing yourself can mean that you always judge yourself as not enough.

That’s why it’s important to let go of the idea that you need to be perfect to have value.

11) You are mistaking your worth for recognition or success

The funny thing about happiness is that it doesn’t come in the form we often expect. We think that money, fame, recognition, achievements, etc. will bring happiness to our door.

Particularly if we don’t have a lot of those things, we’re convinced that them being out of reach is to blame for any unhappiness we feel.

But studies show time and time again that external gratifications do not create happiness. The people who “make it” in life and become rich or famous are not any happier because of it.

In fact, research has found quite the opposite. Those who attained wealth and fame goals were less happy than those who focused on self development. As noted in ABC News:

“Those who focused on intrinsic goals such as personal growth, enduring relationships and helping in the community showed substantial increases in life satisfaction, well-being and happiness areas,”

Similarly, you may tell yourself that it is your incompetence that is standing in the way of achieving success in life, or finally being “worthy”. But just like money and fame is the red herring of happiness, so too is competence the red herring of success.

That’s not to say that competence isn’t a useful element of achieving anything in life, but competence is learned. Whatsmore, it certainly isn’t everything.

Writing in Forbes Jeff Bezos argues that competence is overrated.

“Competence alone isn’t enough to sustain success…The combination of curiosity and character packs a powerful one-two punch. Together, they broker success and leave a lasting legacy and are more important than raw talent.”

My point is that not only is your happiness dependent upon a lot more than competence, so too is your ability to be successful in life. Both are driven far more by your attitude and outlook.

12) You’ve got imposter syndrome

Are there really signs you are incompetent at work or is this more the way you feel?

It’s perhaps an obvious point to make but “I feel incompetent at work” is not the same as “I am incompetent at work”.

Imposter syndrome is roughly defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. You might be surprised to hear that high-achieving people are more likely to be affected.

An estimated 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome and it can leave you feeling like you don’t belong. You may worry that other people are going to discover you’re a fraud, and you don’t actually deserve your job or any accomplishments.

According to psychologist Audrey Ervin, imposter syndrome happens when we aren’t able to own our successes.

“People often internalize these ideas: that in order to be loved or be lovable, I need to achieve. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Ways to move forward when you are feeling incompetent

Improve your mental health

Whether you are suffering from low self-esteem, a mental health problem such as depression and stress, or you’re just stuck in a cycle of negative thinking — feeling better always starts as an inside job.

If you tend to ruminate over your mistakes or failures, try to learn how to forgive yourself and move on.

If you suspect you have perfectionist tendencies, you may need to work on your self-acceptance.

As you improve your self-esteem and mental health, you should begin to recognize the true value that you have goes far beyond how you perform or what you achieve in life.

There are practical steps that you can take to help support and improve your mental health.

  • Take care of your body. The body and mind are powerfully linked so try to stay physically active, as exercise can help improve mood. Focus on other basics of wellbeing too, like getting a good night’s sleep and eating a balanced diet.
  • Challenge negative thinking patterns. Even if you don’t truly believe the positive version, start to notice when the negative thinking creeps in, and play devil’s advocate. Aim to be kinder to yourself.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Science has proven that gratitude is a powerful antidote for negativity. Studies have shown that gratitude makes you happier as it makes people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you to understand your emotions better, cope better with difficult thoughts, and feel calmer.
  • Connect with people. Relationships are incredibly important to our wellbeing. They not only help us to build a sense of belonging and self-worth, but they give us emotional support.
  • Seek the support of a professional. If you think you might be struggling with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or stress, speak to your doctor or a therapist.

Recognize your achievements and efforts

When you get caught in a negative thinking pattern you start a cycle of beating yourself up.

You start to ignore the occasions when you’ve done well and focus solely on where you think you’re messing up in life.

Spend time thinking about what you have accomplished. What are the things that you take pride in? What are you good at? Write down all your good qualities, talents, and efforts.

Resist the urge to compare yourself to others when doing this exercise. Forget, even for a moment, where you feel like you need to improve and focus solely on the positives.

If you’re struggling, imagine you are a friend or a family member — someone who loves you. What would they tell you?

We tend to be more kind, patient and understanding of others than we are of ourselves, so step outside of yourself and become your own best friend.

Make a conscious effort to celebrate your accomplishments, both the big and the small.

Identify practical changes you want to make

If you suspect you are feeling deflated and lacking in enthusiasm at the moment, you might choose to shake things up a bit to try and find your flow again.

Rather than focusing on how you feel, focus on practical and positive changes you want to try to make.

That might mean looking for another job if you think that work is the problem. It could be starting a course in something to spark your enthusiasm again. It might simply be to get out and have more fun if you’ve been under a lot of pressure.

Looking for practical action you can take will help you to feel more in control, and less of a victim.

Accept and learn from your failures

Adopting a growth mindset is key.

What is an incompetent person? Perhaps the defining feature of an incompetent person is that they are someone who gives up.

We often don’t appreciate the sheer tenacity and relentlessness of the people we see as successful in life.

It can help to remember that some of life’s most successful people have failed the hardest.

Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

Thomas Edison had literally thousands of failed experiments before finally inventing the lightbulb.

Colonel Sanders (aka Mr. KFC) was fired from dozens of jobs before founding his fried chicken empire.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes. It’s not about getting it right all the time, it’s about being kind to yourself and not giving up.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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