The crushing fear of inadequacy


This was a music I’d never heard…filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God… God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar’ [1].

Antonio Salieri was at the top of his game. Director of opera in Vienna (at a time when that was something to write home about), he was a successful and influential composer, and his students included Schubert, Lizst and Beethoven. He was living his dream. Then along came Mozart.

Mozart had been writing music since the age of five. It bubbled joyously out of him, perfect and sublime, and utterly beyond anything Salieri could hope to achieve. And Salieri couldn’t handle it.

So goes the story of Amadeus, currently playing at the National Theatre. It’s written from the point of view of the elderly Salieri, tormentedly living out his final years in a lunatic asylum. It explores the devastating consequences when all you have built your self-worth on is stripped away.

From Salieri’s perspective, Mozart didn’t even deserve his success. Why should this potty-mouthed, imbecilic, infantile boy have been given such a great gift when he, devout, hard-working, respectful Salieri had not? Where was the justice in that?

His jealousy consumed him, and, rather than devoting himself to improving his craft, he sought Mozart’s downfall. He longed for his death so much that when it happened, at the tragically young age of 35, Salieri felt as guilty as though he had caused it. This guilt eventually sent him mad, and one scene depicts him expressing his sense of worthlessness to a priest:

Antonio Salieri: Leave me alone.

Father Vogler: I cannot leave alone a soul in pain.

Antonio Salieri: Do you know who I am?

Father Vogler: It makes no difference. All men are equal in God's eyes.

Antonio Salieri: [leans in mockingly] Are they?

Are they? It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? If there is a God, surely he values some people more than others? That’s the way the world works — there’s a scale, a pecking order. Some people get the looks, the abilities, the opportunities and the popularity, while the rest of us just stumble along in our mediocrity. Never going to be a CEO of anything. Never going to win an Oscar, a Booker, or a Nobel. Never going to matter.

There’s an element of Salieri in all of us that struggles with this scale of value, while simultaneously believing that good things ought to come to good people. But the priest is right — that’s not the way it works with God. All men and women are equally precious in God’s eyes, regardless of their talents, physique or salary. All of us matter. You matter.

How do I know? Because I’ve seen it in my own life. I used to be a PA — and I was a great PA. I was always on top of everything, always had what my boss needed, often before he asked for it. I prided myself in knowing he could rely on me, absolutely.

And then I hit burnout. I knew it was serious when I found myself standing in the office reception area in tears because I was late for something and I had left my car keys back in my office (50 yards away). I couldn’t work out how to resolve the problem. I have to leave right now, but I can’t because I haven’t got my keys. The self-imposed pressure to be right, and to be on time, and to be reliable, and to be organised had just completely paralysed me.

I hadn’t been able to delegate, or to put proper boundaries in my life. Partly it was being a perfectionist (not trusting anyone else to do it right and not wanting to look bad for having a poor result), but also — worse — what if they did it better than me? What if all of a sudden I wasn’t the best anymore?

It took a long time, but gradually I started listening to what God said about me, not what my boss, my peers or my annual review said. 

God said he made me, and he knew everything I would ever say or think or do, long before I did it [2]. He said he takes great delight in me [3]. And slowly, gradually, I stopped being afraid of other people being better than me. I stopped having to prove myself.

If Salieri had known that his value was something inherent, not based on his achievements, then he could have revelled wholeheartedly in the heavenly music spilling from Mozart’s pen, instead of being consumed by jealousy of achievements he could never attain. Don’t get me wrong — I still enjoy being praised for my achievements, but they don’t define me any more. I can ask for help, and rejoice in the successes of others, without feeling threatened. If you can grasp that you truly matter to God, that you are precious in his eyes, everything else falls into place.


[1] Antonio Salieri in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus
[2] Psalm 139:13–16
[3] Zephaniah 3:17


Questions or comments? Email Jennie