Feeling less-than? You get the thumbs-up from me.

“Sometimes, I feel like such a failure,” my friend confided. “My house doesn’t look as clean as my friends’ houses do. I have a job, and two children under the age of three. But I think I should be doing a better job keeping the house clean.”

I wanted to interject, but I had a feeling there was more to the story. She continued, “After feeling that way for so long, do you know what I found out?”

“What?” I asked, leaning forward.

“Almost all of my friends who have kids … ” She paused for dramatic effect. “… also have housekeepers! As in, cleaning services!”

“Seriously?” I said, laughing.

“Seriously,” she grinned. “All this time that I was judging myself for not cleaning more …”

“… When you were probably doing more than any of them,” I finished.


This conversation was an excellent recounting of what I like to call, “an attack of the less-thans.” Caregivers are particularly prone to these attacks. Though everyone’s “less-thans” will sound different, here are a few identifying characteristics:

  • Seeing something in yourself or your environment that you want to change (“My house is so dirty.”)
  • Comparing yourself to others, or to an invisible, internal, and elusive standard of success (“My friends’ houses are cleaner.”)
  • Getting a sinking feeling of failure in your stomach, and a simultaneous shot of self-recrimination, while holding that comparison in mind (“I’m such a slacker for not having a clean house, like my friends do.”)
  • Feeling helpless, like all your efforts are futile (“Why even bother picking up?”)

“The less-thans” seem obvious when someone else is going through them, but they’re much more difficult to identify from within. For example, when I used to get down on myself for not achieving my goals, my thinking seemed perfectly reasonable. However, when I’d see a friend go through the same process, I’d sense immediately that she was being way too hard on herself.

“The less thans” are insidious. They are pervasive. And they are lies.


However, ignoring “the less thans” doesn’t work. Neither does trying harder … in fact, “the less thans” would love for you to try harder to prove your worth. If you run yourself into the ground trying to be a flawless caregiver, you’re playing their game, and you won’t win. Instead, what’s needed is compassionate listening, either from your wiser self, or from a trusted friend.

For example, writer and special needs mom Amy Julia Becker told the story of a time when her daughter, Penny, felt ‘less than’ at school. As Amy Julia wrote in a recent post, ” I wanted to cry. For [Penny]. With her … My little girl had been carrying around this burden of knowing what she was supposed to be doing and yet feeling totally incapable of doing it, and I hadn’t known.”

We carry around secret feelings of failure when what we really need to do is share them aloud. We think, “I don’t want to burden anyone,” but speaking truth about our perceived failures makes our load lighter right away. When we give voice to these thoughts, we can figure out a constructive action to take (my friend, for example, is considering hiring a housekeeper!), and/or move toward greater acceptance of where we’re at.

Bootsie in her box

Today, when I felt a wave of “the less thans” hit, I stopped and took a break from my work. I considered the thoughts I’d been thinking, thoughts of judgment and scarcity. I listened to myself with the compassion of a friend, and said, “Hun, those thoughts are not serving you well. And also, they aren’t true. Let’s let them go, and find better things to think of.”

With that in mind, I walked over to Bootsie, who was sleeping nearby, in her little box-bed by the window. As I stroked her warm fur, I thought about how the kitten I dreamed of since childhood was finally here with me. I thought about how I was sitting in the writing room I’d always longed for, working for myself. I thought of my husband in the next room, of the love I hardly dared to dream I’d find.

I started to feel better. Better, and also a little silly. I’d been listening to these fatalistic thoughts, when all the time I was surrounded by evidence that dreams can – and do – come true.

The antidote for “the less thans” is gratitude. The cure is listening to a different story: the story of what you’re thankful for and how far you’ve come.

Because when you change your story, you change everything. 


How do you cope with the less-thans? Join the conversation in the comments section below!

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  1. Donna October 22, 2012 at 4:04 PM - Reply

    Bootsie looks so comfy!
    You are so right…seeing the things I am thankful for can make the turn to a lighter more positive outlook. And it always works when I do it.
    Great reminder and encouragement!

    • Caroline McGraw October 22, 2012 at 4:33 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Mom! Bootsie is so sweet when she’s sleeping. Thank you for modeling thankfulness and gratitude for me! <3

  2. Olga Jendrek October 22, 2012 at 4:45 PM - Reply

    Just seeing my cute grandson with the thumbs up has lifted my spirits. I, too, feel overwhelmed by what I have to do and what I think my house should look like.
    I think I will take a break and go outside and just rake some leaves.

    • Caroline McGraw October 22, 2012 at 4:47 PM - Reply

      I’m so glad seeing him made you smile! 🙂 And I hope that you enjoy this beautiful day, my dear Auntie Olga.

  3. Melissa Javier-Barry October 22, 2012 at 7:23 PM - Reply

    Gosh Caroline, this is a really good post. Thank you. I love the line, “the antidote for ‘the less-thans’ is gratitude.” It’s going up on the wall!

    • Caroline McGraw October 22, 2012 at 7:28 PM - Reply

      Wow, thank you Melissa! I’m so glad it resonated with you. And I can’t wait to see you – and maybe the famous wall too – next month! 😉

  4. Lynn Goodwin October 22, 2012 at 7:36 PM - Reply

    Excellent post. We all need to give ourselves a break or at least make a gratitude list from time to time.

    B. Lynn Goodwin-Brown
    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

    • Caroline McGraw October 22, 2012 at 7:50 PM - Reply

      Agreed, B. Lynn! Thanks for your comment, and the affirmation as well.

  5. Cindy October 23, 2012 at 4:42 AM - Reply

    Wow, Caroline that is just what I needed! Being the parent of a child with autism can lead a person to feel and see failure in all they do. Being grateful for all the good in my life is the only cure. Thanks for your insight and the reminder to count my blessings.

    • Caroline McGraw October 23, 2012 at 9:49 PM - Reply

      Cindy, I’m so glad! And I agree, it is so easy to slide into ‘failure’ mode. Happy to be a place of encouragement!

  6. Darris October 23, 2012 at 6:15 AM - Reply

    I take a walk on the beach, cures just about everything for me . . . Being surrounded by such powerful natural beauty and picking up beach trash settles me back into loving my simple life. When I contribute in some way (picking up beach trash) it renews my commitment to the live I want, the life I’ve chosen. I feel humble and appreciative and so grateful to have the opportunity to live in a beautiful place and to feel useful.

    • Caroline McGraw October 23, 2012 at 9:50 PM - Reply

      What a lovely example, Darris! It really is the small things that can turn one’s day (and one’s life) around.

  7. Laura Cabral October 28, 2012 at 1:18 AM - Reply

    Thank you for your writing Caroline. I am currently in college and away from my brother who has Autism. Reading your pieces helps keep me grounded and remind me to take in breaths of fresh air, then keep chugging.

    • Caroline McGraw October 29, 2012 at 2:10 PM - Reply

      You are most welcome, Laura! Thank you for sharing; I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece!

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