Long, but worthwhile, post alert!
Like many people, I listen to music when I work. It helps me focus and block out distractions. Most of the time it is instrumental type music (with orchestral movie soundtracks being my favorite, nerd alert!), but not all of the time. I do enjoy listening to a wide variety of genres and artists, especially when I need a pick-me-up or energy. One of my recent favorites is Benjamin Clementine, a UK based solo artist with one of the most unique voices and styles I’ve ever heard. One of my favorite songs of his is ‘Condolence,’ where he sings about letting go of and ‘sending his condolences to’ all of the self-doubt and insecurity that is weighing him down in order to live a better, more fulfilled life. This song really hit home to me from the second I first heard it! Choosing to be self-confident, even if you have to fake it at first, is such an empowering and freeing choice. But it is certainly a difficult road.
One of the very first things you will notice when you start studying or working in a STEM field is likely to be crushing insecurity and self-doubt. Maybe you’re one of the rare lucky ones who does not, and is instead full of confidence, but for most of us, this tends to be true. Sometimes called Impostor Syndrome, the overwhelming feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, creative enough, talented enough, skilled enough, etc., can be a constant ton of bricks on your back. This is especially true when starting out in school or at a new job. You see everyone else around you excelling, succeeding, and generally just being 100x more accomplished and capable than you are. You can’t help but compare yourself to them. And if you’re anything like me, you probably think that pretty soon someone is going to notice you are lacking, and swiftly send you home the failure you are. The worst part is the isolation it instills in you. You feel SO alone, and maybe even ashamed of feeling that way. You are terrified to talk about it, especially with anybody at your university or at your work place. You are convinced that nobody else feels that way, that everyone around you is brimming with confidence. And ultimately you don’t want to bring any more attention onto yourself. I know for me I would rather suffer unnoticed in silence, blending into the wall paper than to draw notice onto my perceived stupidity.
It’s a horrible, overwhelming stress that leaves a constant pit in your stomach. I know, I’ve been there more than once! I may or may not be there currently due to work and continued thesis setbacks ☹ Self-confidence does not happen overnight. If it did, we’d all be running around like Wonder Women on a daily basis 😉 Life doesn’t have to be this way though! Similar to my list of tips on getting through setbacks, I also have a list of things have worked for me in pushing through the heaving feelings of insecurity. Obviously life is a work in progress, and this is an area in my life that I am definitely still working on, but if any of these can help a fellow graduate student or new hire, then it’s all worth it!
- Know that you are not alone! You would be SHOCKED at how many people have struggled with impostor syndrome (aka pretty much EVERYONE) at some point in their life. People at all levels feel it. Students, faculty, managers, etc. It’s an inevitable part of life.
- Surround yourself with things that make you happy. This one is a bit cheesy, but you know what? Who cares! When you feel down, you just want to be someplace, cozy, familiar and safe. It’s worth making your work space one of those places! For me that means hanging big bright tropical wall art and collages on both of my work space walls, putting happy knickknacks on my desk, having diffusers or scented candles around, and keeping a never-ending supply of coffee and tea on hand at all times. Does it look uber sophisticated? Definitely not. But those are the things that make me feel happy and ‘at home.’ And those are the things that make me feel more authentically me. When I feel more comfortable, I work better. Which is basically the whole point, right? So surround yourself with what makes you happy and feel authentic!
- Letting go of perfection. This one is a real toughy for me. I am a Grade-A over the top perfectionist! And when you see everyone around you succeeding, you probably feel increased pressure to do everything at the highest level possible to attempt at fitting in. Anything less than perfect just feeds into the feelings of failure. You start to think ‘well if Sally can juggle all of this, I should be able to as well.’ While perfectionism may have served you well in previous grades/years, it may not be the best strategy for this new chapter in your life. With the increased demands of graduate school or a professional environment coupled with life demands, sometimes spending inordinate amounts of time on one task, trying to get it JUST RIGHT simply is not feasible. I don’t know about you, but I am not made of time. I have more things to check off my to-do list than I have the hours to do them in! At the end of the day, sometimes it’s better to get something done ‘good enough’ so that you can move on to another task then to cling on to perfectionism. This is a lesson I learned from my current boss believe it or not. Our department is really stretched to the limits right now, and it’s not uncommon for her to shout ‘Enough! This looks good enough! Let’s move on!’ I recommend making a priority list. Things like your thesis/dissertation work, a big major work project, job applications, etc. receive the highest priority. Everything else gets varying levels below those. That way you can focus your time and energy on the tasks that require it. I like to ask myself ‘will anybody die if I spend one hour on this task rather than a full day? No, ok then. Moving onto the next thing!’ I guarantee that people around are doing the same thing!
- Except mistakes. Another hard one for sure! If you’re like me, every little failure just makes you feel worse. You just want to crawl a little farther into the metaphorical cave and hibernate. But the reality is, you’re probably over thinking it. Take a deep breath. Reassess. Did the world end? Did you loose thousands of dollars? Will you end up on national news for it? Very likely the answer is no to all three. Chances are good that nobody even noticed in the first place! Mistakes happen. We are all human, we all get overwhelmed, we are all stumbling our way through life. At work just this past week, there was a HUGE scheduling mix-up that sent half our department frantically scrambling into emergency troubleshooting mode all morning. Just to find out it was a false alarm caused by a simple mistake made by the two employees who have been there the longest. Each have multiple decades of experience. And you know what? It was fine. Nobody died. We dealt with it and moved on. Just goes to show, mistakes happen to everyone.
- Take breaks! When you are struggling to keep up with the Jones’, you probably feel the need to keep going no matter what. That anytime not spent working is time wasted. But that’s not always the best way. I know for myself, the more exhausted, overwhelmed and frantic I feel, the worse I perform. I then feel even lower about myself, knowing I can do better. It’s a real defeating cycle. So, in addition to accepting less than perfect, sometimes you just need to take a break! Whether it’s a few minutes a day to go outside and take deep breaths, an hour for yoga or to walk your dog, a night off for your favorite indulgent TV or book, or even a couple of days off on a long weekend get-away, taking a break to recharge the old batteries can do wonders in resetting your mindset. Our minds and bodies need to rest! They cannot always be on 100% of the time. Taking a little time self-care is not just beneficial to your overall productivity, but absolutely necessary. You will feel better, hopefully less stressed or burned out, and hopefully more focused on what you need to accomplish. Once you start thinking of those breaks as necessary parts of the overall process, they will become easier and easier to incorporate.
- Volunteer at a cause you’re passionate about. When you are feeling really down and unworthy, it can help to get a scene change and do something good. You could volunteer at an animal shelter, as a tutor at a local library, you could give talks to local school kids about your field of STEM, you could spend time with residents of a nursing home, whatever lights you up! Nothing boosts your spirits like knowing you have made a difference in the world. I can personally attest that nothing makes you feel quite as good as seeing the face of a child beaming up at you because you helped them to see the world in a new way. Try it – even if you can only give a couple of hours every other week, once a month. Whatever time you can afford will be worth the effort! Life exists beyond your university or job. Go out and be apart of it!
- Confide in someone, anyone. As I said, the worst part of these feelings for me is the isolation it creates. Finally opening up to a coworker recently was like opening flood gates. I had no idea so much negativity had build up in me over time. Letting them out was so therapeutic. Turns out she felt the same way and was also feeling scared and ashamed about it all. Since then, we have become much closer and a real support system for each other. Reaching out for support can be a real game changer. If you don’t feel comfortable with confiding in someone involved in the university or work, confide in someone outside the situation like an old friend, significant other or family member. Chances are they probably think you are a spectacular genius kicking butt and taking names. When you feel so alone and down, a little fishing for compliments can be just the boost you need. It’s ok to need someone you love tell you how highly they regard you. If any of this isn’t an option for you, then reach out to someone online. Like I said in my previous post about setbacks, there is an amazing and ever growing online community of STEM students and professionals who are very transparent about their lives, the good and the bad. Reach out to them – reach out to me – just make sure to reach out to someone. We are all here to lean on each other.
Hopefully these can help! Overall, if you are feeling the weight of impostor syndrome, know that you are NOT alone, and that there are people out there happy to listen and help.
What strategies have you found to help you during those dark times?