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.


16 Responses to When the Boss Makes You Feel Like an Idiot

  1. Andy B says:

    I finished reading this, thinking – boy, have I gone through my own version of just about all of that over the years. I especially liked the thought about the “string of uncontrollable mistakes;” I can’t count the number of times I felt like I was outside myself, watching as I deliberately sabotaged my work, wondering why the heck someone would do that to themselves. I was pretty good at doing it in my personal life, too, but that all started to change for the good when you and I really started working with each other last year. 2012 will go down as the year that I dug, then dug some more, then slowly, slowly climbed out of the cave and into the sunlight (very bright, still adjusting). Would not have happened without you as my guide.

    As I head into 2013, I feel a self-awareness and thoughtfulness (not to mention happiness) that I haven’t experienced before. Having recently made the thoughtful, emotionally informed decision to join a new work tribe, I enter into the year with much hope and excitement – and with every reason to expect amazing, inspiring and rewarding experiences and outcomes with my new crew.

    I’m not done working, but wow, what a start. Thank you, thank you, and looking forward to an even more enlightened 2013.

    • amysteindler says:

      Andy B, your work inspires ME, and as I’ve witnessed your growth and transformation, it makes me giddy with delight!

  2. Marilou Burleson says:

    I am also amazed at the similarities I’m having at my job. There has been such a stream of avoidable mistakes that my only conclusion is I am sabotaging myself. On closer look, I realize my morale is extremely low because I feel under appreciated. My boss doesn’t make me feel like an idiot, I get no feedback at all. And it doesn’t make me feel better to say, “well at least you have a job!”

    No matter how much I train my focus on the positive aspects of the job, there is an undeniable heaviness and discontent. So, here I go! I’m going to find another way to make a living!

    • amysteindler says:

      I understand, and I agree that ANY sentence starting with “At least…” should precede the punchline of a joke, and is not helpful during a liminal period in someone’s life. Godspeed on this part of your journey. You are so talented–I firmly believe that you have everything you need to move on to someplace where you’ll be supported and appreciated.

  3. Daisy Sailer says:

    I have been trying for some time now to be okay with who I am in my work performance. I recently left a job after working for a boss that made the butt of all her jokes, took out her frustration on me and my coworkers, looked at me stupid when I asked a question. So after 8 years of her abuse is simply quit. Walked out. Now I work for a wonderful company! Only problem now is. My boss or team lead is my best friend. I’ve never worked so closely with her. And she is beginning to talk slowly to me when explaining things. Loving at me with irritation when I ask a question and even the explanations are short, offhand, and impatient. I know I shouldn’t but I beat myself up in my head over and over until I finally forget. It can ruin hours at a time. I dont want to lose this friendship or this position. I’ll bookmark this page for strength. Thank you, I thought I was the only one who did this to themselves!

    • amysteindler says:

      Dear Daisy,
      You are NOT alone. Emotional intelligence at work is a skill worth developing, it takes time and practice, and it begins with a high level of self-awareness that used to be called “maturity”.

      Remember that you can’t control how others respond–sometimes a boss will look at you with irritation, or respond in short, impatient ways. No matter what she does, she is choosing her response, just as you choose yours. Best friends have a responsibility to communicate honestly and with kindness, and good bosses choose that route as well. Good luck, and let me know if I can help.

  4. Beth says:

    My boss is a divorce attorney and I have worked with him for 23 years. When ever I make a mistake no matter how small the mistake is it’s like the world has come to an end and he acts like he never makes mistakes. It seems like no matter what wrong happens at this office it is my fault. I believe he thinks I am a robot! Most of the time everything is alright and we get along but lately, I just can’t stand to be near him! I only have another 10 years to go before I can retire, I just hope I can stand it that long.

    • amysteindler says:

      Dear Beth,
      Only ten years? Sounds like enough time to develop a healthy set of boundaries or a massive well of resentment–I hope you are successful with the former so you don’t have to resort to the latter.

      Are you managing the entire office? I do know that many attorneys are better at getting things done than at developing balanced relationships with their co-workers. I wonder if you’d rather do something other than “stand it” for the next decade–like be supported and encouraged and appreciated? Good luck, and let me know if I can be of service.

  5. Katie says:

    My boss makes me feel like an idiot. I’ve been in the job a year plus and he has recently been saying how I’ve been in the job over a year and should know what I am doing. I had a coworker tell me me she didn’t know the answer (she worked there 16 years) and when I asked the boss to confirm I’m right, he to,d me I should know by now an raised his voice telling me so. This job changes rules constantly. I don’t mind the job, but do notice after talking with the boss I do tend to make more errors.

    • amysteindler says:

      Ah, Katie. It seems as though this boss thinks nothing of berating his employees, and perhaps feels more secure when he’s diminishing others. But he’s not here, so we’ll resist the temptation to put any more energy into describing his issues. As for you, dear one, noticing that you make more errors after talking with him is the key piece of information. Consider for a moment that what we focus on is what we get more of, and if making errors is what you want to avoid (because the consequences are rather unpleasant), it might be causing you to be more focused on avoiding the boss’s anger than on the task. And when we’re more focused on getting it wrong, we end up…well…getting it wrong. Can you allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them? If you’re okay with that, but the boss isn’t, consider whether you’re a good fit for this organization.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I recently starting working for a company after spending the last five years at home with my children. I worked for the same company when i was a younger woman and was very eager to get back to work…especially since i had prior experience. The first few weeks went beautifully and i felt extremely confident in the work i was doing as i was regularly praised. Evey time someone has called off i covered their shift. (I’ve only had 1 day off in the last 2 weeks!) Then for reasons i have yet to understand my manager’s attitude toward me changed all of a sudden. Every little thing i do is scrutinized! I’m constantly scolded for doing or not doing things that no other employee (including my manager) does. And let’s be honest,everyone makes mistakes. I’ve caught plenty of mistakes that even my manager has made,however her tone with me as opposed to other employees when we’ve made a mistake is like night and day. I know other employees pick up on it because now I’m treated with the same disrespect and irritating tone displayed by my manager from coworkers who have absolutely no authority over me. It’s completely zapped my self confidence and my desire to go to work every day. If i make a mistake,then by all means let me know,but don’t treat me like I’m an idiot and then laugh lightly with other employees when they make the same mistake. I’m so tired of the differential treatment that I’m considering transferring to another location. I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out why her attitude toward me changed so suddenly,but i just can’t understand it. I’m very friendly with everyone and work extremely hard. I’ve dealt with a lot of women all my life who simply don’t like me because I’m attractive…women who are mean to me before they even get to know me no matter how friendly i am toward them. Please don’t misunderstand,i am not in the least conceded,but as there was no action or discussion to explain her sudden change in behavior i don’t have any other ideas as to what caused it. Maybe her jealousy is causing her to lash out in an attempt to break my self confidence? Maybe she’s afraid of losing the “spotlight”? Its just so frustrating! I’m very sensitive and have already broken down a couple times due to her constant nagging and negative attitude. I know allowing her to see me upset is only going to make things worse,but it’s really hard not get upset when i see her laughing and socializing with every other employee all day,while she ONLY speaks to me to tell me what I’m doing wrong. She’s intentionally making it obvious to everyone that I’m the “odd woman out”. I’ve tried to remain positive and try talking with her about life outside of work in an attempt to show I’m willing to be friendly,but she shows no interest. I go into work telling myself that i won’t let it get to me today. I’ll just keep my head down,do my work,and do my absolute best…but after 8 hours of belittling i break down again. I don’t know what else i can do. I’m worried if i go over her head and talk with someone above her about her behavior it will only make matters worse,and if i bring the obvious discrimination to her attention she will only deny it and make work even more unbearable. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this situation?

    • amysteindler says:

      We can never know for sure what prompts someone else’s behavior to change, and when we aren’t sure, we create a story to explain it. Since we can’t know about her, let’s take the opportunity to know more about you, dear one.

      If we take her out of the equation for a moment, what is it that you want most in this situation? If it’s respect, then consider doing the most self-respecting thing you can think of–whatever that might be. What we think we want from others is often what we need to provide for ourselves.

      You mention your sensitivity. Sensitive souls must take special care of themselves. Since you’ve made the effort to be kind, friendly and open with your boss, only to be shown no interest, it’s up to you to decide what the kindest thing to do for yourself might be.

      Whether this means transferring to another location or finding employment elsewhere or some other solution (totally up to you!), this is an opportunity to explore your own role in creating the kind of work environment that you do want next. Sometimes there are hidden gems of learning from the most toxic circumstances, and I’d encourage you to look for the bits that teach you about yourself–what you truly want from your life, and where you might be standing in your own way.

      Good luck, Jennifer, and let me know what you decide to do next.

      Warmest regards,

  7. Rebecca says:

    I’ve been in my job for about four months and it is everything I’ve worked hard to reach.
    I’m one of three in a team of admin, each with our own department to support. I started off with every intention of growing in the company, taking the time speak to managers and get a good understanding of the office life.
    Just before Christmas I had a small disagreement with one of the team, something I thought was cleared up as I took the time to apologise.
    Turns out not to be the case and ever since then my manager has treated me like an idiot, as if this is my first job! Telling how to do the simplest tasks in a very condescending manner. When I questioned why I was being given what I consider the ‘junior’ jobs from my colleague while she seems to pick and choose tasks I was told that my colleague is very clever with office programmes and skilled at her job. I don’t dispute that she is.
    A meeting I had with my manager today has left with no enthusiasm for a job I love and thinking I really am terrible at what I do. in a company that encourages growth and personal development I’m left wondering if I’ve made a terrible career move that will knock me back several steps
    Is there anything I can do to get back that enthusiasm, when whatever I do is wrong in my mangers eyes

    • amysteindler says:

      I find that enthusiasm for a job (a.k.a. “engagement”) requires a connection to some sense of purpose. Why do you do the work you do? If you can focus on what you love to do, and why you love to do it, you may regain your enthusiasm. However, if your manager is standing in the way of your fulfillment, it may be time to examine other aspects.

      If someone else’s behavior is determining how you feel, you may have an opportunity to set a stronger boundary. This may require an honest and potentially difficult conversation, or it may simply be a matter of not responding to the condescension, which says more about the manager than it does about you. Do you want to work for this kind of person?

      If you are clearly asking for what you want and need, and your manager is not providing it, there may be little you can do to change that. The trick is to know whether you’ve been clear–not always easy.

  8. Karen says:

    I’ve been in this department for 18 years. I have the type of boss that takes his misery out on us. I feel unappreciated, made to feel incompetent, speaks to me in a condescending tone.

    He rarely validates anything I do. He’s always there to tell me what I did wrong. The way his speaks to me get my back up. My co-workers say “be thankful you have a job”. UGH! I’m not able to move within the company because of no Degree. I’ve didn’t have algebra so I would need to start from scratch.

    To top it off the job bores me. I recently turned 50, married with a 9 year old son and NO Degree. How on earth do I start over. I need a job that makes me feel alive, making a difference, supported and encouraged.

    Today, he comes over and says..did you start X yet…no I haven’t…well why not. He then says, let me connect the dots for you and proceeds to explain what I already know. It’s like that all the time.

    How he addresses me certainly doesn’t make me want to do a better job. I know I’ve been slacking. I’ve given it my all and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere accept feeling more bitter.

    • amysteindler says:

      I just came back from a three day training on Inclusive Leadership–and although it sounds as if your boss might be a candidate for leadership training, we can’t do much about his behavior, so we’ll focus on empowering you to change your own circumstances. We have to start with a question, “what are you believing that makes you stay in a job that bores you and makes you feel bitter?” It sounds like you’ve given it your all, but without any encouragement or appreciation, you’ve disengaged, which is a normal response.

      I have a hunch that part of what’s holding you back from leaving this situation is the belief that without a degree, you have few options–tell me where I’m wrong? Perhaps it would help to take some introspective time to examine whether that belief is true, including research about people who have no degree, but educated themselves in the area of work they were most interested in. There are plenty of examples, and the one thread that is common to all the examples is that they pursued work they truly wanted to do in the world.

      What are you really great at, Karen? What do you do that lights you up? Ask those who love and support you to help you see your own strengths so you can focus on those first. It may take some time, but if you make the decision to free yourself from the limiting beliefs, roadblocks and barriers that you’ve created yourself, you can take one step at a time in the direction your heart is longing to go.

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