I need to be reassured the way my lungs need air, with every breath, without fail, or I begin to panic. Inadequacy is suffocating, and the feeling hits like the sudden sense that I am about to drown.
I am often unaware that it is happening. I simply grow fearful or enraged or, my default position, humorous. I make a joke. I am most aware of it when I can detect that I am being judged. As a leadership coach and trainer, I am frequently subjected to formal evaluations from clients.
I hate those 10-point scales from 10 (well beyond expectations) to 1 (unimaginably awful). Usually, I get high scores, but let just one malcontent tar me with a 3 or a 2, and I'm under the sea, wide-eyed and flailing to reach the surface. Who gives these folks this power?
I do. I know that, but in my long life, that knowledge has helped hardly at all. I realize I can't please everyone. I know every cliché about "no one can hurt me without my permission," but that just means I'm too inadequate to stop giving people permission. Thanks, Gandhi.
I don't know when it started. Back in kindergarten, my class had one field trip the whole year: a bus ride to the zoo. Frantically happy, I arrived in the schoolyard filled with anticipation, and then Miss Thomas walked up to me.
"Where is your lunch, Lonnie?" I'd forgotten. "I'll get it." I lived only a block from school, so I ran home. Mom made me a bologna sandwich and bagged it, and I tore back to the schoolyard. The empty, noiseless, bus-less schoolyard. I'd been left behind.
In fifth grade, Sister Clement tasked us with a project. Go home and retrieve something related to a job held by some adult. My brother-in-law Dick rigged up a nifty electrical gizmo that checked wires for breaks. It had two terminals, a D battery, and a working flashlight bulb. It was so cool.
When I demonstrated it in school, Sister Clement told me to go to the eighth-grade class and show this to them. I walked to that classroom, began the demonstration, and broke down sobbing.
I thought she was punishing me by sending me to be laughed at by the eighth graders. I thought I had done an awful project, when, in fact, mine was far and away the best. Sister Clement was astounded when she discovered my interpretation of events. Looking back, so am I.
And yet, here I am, still ready, ever ready, to be declared inadequate, to be judged a failure. The other day, my four children and their spouses brought my eight grandkids into my living room to celebrate my 70th birthday. My son Nick hosted as everyone stood to recount what I had passed on, willy-nilly, to them all. My love of old movies, opera, Broadway, sing-alongs, and stories.
And, most important to them, family. It seems my grandest accomplishment is, with my wife, creating a little community of sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, all of whom actually want to travel to one place and be together.
I looked out at them as they took their turns, singing, dancing, and storytelling. A light flickered on, much like that contraption my brother-in-law made for me back in fifth grade. Here was a project I could be proud of. More than adequate. Straight 10s, lit with smiles, powered by love.
They are my family, but, more important, I am theirs. They'd never let that bus driver leave the schoolyard without me.