I said no to doing it because I was sure someone else—anyone else—would be better at the task than I was.
Before you even know what I’m talking about, can you relate? It’s so easy to think negatively about ourselves. Does the narration in your head include thoughts about how you’re not good enough, about how you’re a failure, about how other people are better than you?
These kinds of self-defeating thoughts are one symptom of depression, but I think they are also a reality for almost all of us at one point or another. I recently had an experience that reminded me that, even though it’s easy to think this way, these negative thoughts aren’t necessarily true.
The task I was refusing to do was answer a phone call with someone on the other end who only spoke Spanish. I was volunteering at a free medical clinic in my area, and it was my first official day. I was learning how to work at the reception desk.
Now, it’s not that I don’t know any Spanish. My major for my bachelor’s degree was Spanish Teaching, and I finished my master’s in Spanish Pedagogy (a different way to say “teaching”) about a year and a half ago. I usually don’t like to admit this to people, because I know they’ll assume that it means I’m a master at the language. I’m not. I can speak it—I’ve even taught Spanish classes—but I still don’t know every word I hear, and there are still some things I can’t say. Because of this, I usually think about how bad I am at Spanish, not about all the things I can do with the language. I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself when I use it.
I also don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to phone calls. I have some social anxiety, which means people make me pretty nervous. But, for me, the worst kind of interaction with people is through the phone. I hate phone calls. In fact, talking to people usually scares me, but I’d much rather talk to someone in person than make a phone call. I’ve even driven places to go in and ask something in person rather than having to call someone and ask over the phone. So, that first day volunteering at the free clinic, when someone called in who only spoke Spanish, I told myself that I wasn’t capable enough to take the call.
Those thoughts in my head told me that anyone else would be more capable than I was. They said that, instead of being helpful to the clinic and the patient on the phone, I’d just frustrate and annoy everyone. They said that my being there wasn’t useful for anyone. So I said I couldn’t take the call.
The free clinic where I was volunteering has a lot of patients who only speak Spanish, so their volunteer task force always includes interpreters for the language. A young woman who was volunteering that day as an interpreter took the phone off of hold for me. She spoke to the patient on the other end. As I listened to her end of the conversation, I realized I understood what the exchange was about. Not only that…her Spanish wasn’t that awesome.
“I could do that,” I thought.
My Spanish was at least as good as hers. She was capable of taking the phone call. She had the confidence to do it, too, and the other people at the clinic were treating her like she was genuinely helpful, not an annoyance. So…could those things be true for me, too?
If my Spanish was at least as good as hers, if she was capable of this task, that must mean that I was, too. I started trying it out. I started answering phone calls, even the ones in Spanish. I was able to help the people on the other end just fine! I still didn’t understand every word, I still sometimes had to ask people to repeat themselves, but I was doing it. Looking around, I saw that my being there and using my Spanish meant that the reception desk was able to help more patients. I saw that, by being there and doing tasks that I was perfectly capable of after all, I really was contributing. I saw that those negative thoughts I had been having might not be true after all.
It’s easy for us to stumble on negative self-talk, on thoughts about how we’re not capable enough or as good as other people. I try to keep the memory of this story on hand for those moments. I try to remind myself of this proof that, despite what I’m thinking, I am capable. I can do it. And I try to keep challenging those thoughts, even though it’s not always easy to do.
When you find yourself comparing yourself to others and listing all your shortcomings, I invite you to take a second to consider the evidence otherwise. Think about the proof you have that they’re not true. Think about what you have been able to do. Think about what you are capable of. Maybe even write it down when you have an experience that helps prove the negative thoughts about yourself weren’t true.
Keep trying to challenge those destructive thoughts—I will, too.