After two years of working in various labs, organizing mind-melting spreadsheets of data too big to fit in a single excel file, coding minute gestures and facial expressions, and collecting saliva in test tubes, I had gathered my recommendations and written up my statements of purpose. I awaited responses from 13 social psychology doctorate programs.At first it came in just a trickle. “We regret to inform you…” You can tell that it’s a ‘no’ just by the size of the envelope. After opening the mailbox to four of those, I took the mail key off of my key ring, leaving the dirty work to my boyfriend. Every time one came in, it seemed to be yet another reason that I wasn’t good enough.
Yes, yes, they could only accept one or two candidates, and most of the professors I requested to work with hadn’t even met me. They probably had their own research assistants who were applying. Sure, that’s possible. Also there were still nine more schools. Some of them weren’t even that great, so I was bound to get in somewhere.
But the rejections kept coming. I didn’t get into any of the 13 programs that I had applied to. THIRTEEN failures. Over a thousand dollars in submission fees.
What Next?This was three years ago, and I haven’t applied since. It’s hard to pin down exactly why. One reason is that, off and on, I figure maybe I don’t really need a Ph.D. after all, but this echoes the false justification of the boy rejected on the schoolyard who yells back at the girl, “You’re ugly, anyway.” Another reason might be the thought of retaking the GREs, which initiates a tingling down my arms, leading to the slow perspiration of my palms and the quickening of my breath like a paranoid dachshund. Lastly, to pull off the remaining tattered bathrobe: A fear of failure.
When I listen a little more closely, that fear is specific. What if I don’t get in, yet again? It would be more evidence that I’m not good enough to get a Ph.D.. It would mean that something I submitted was off. I should have rewritten that statement of purpose. I should have studied for the GRE writing section a little bit beforehand. Or maybe my ideas are just not interesting. Would I really want to reapply? Or should I take this as a hint?
Aftermath of Failure
As I write all this down, I see immediately how irrational it is. How one-sided. I made everything all my fault automatically. I even backspaced the more embarrassingly dramatic stuff that came to mind first, but I’ll show you here: They rejected me because they think I’m not smart enough to go this route. Maybe I’m not — They’re experts at this, right? I’ve been preparing for this for over two years, which seems like plenty of time. I guess even they don’t value me. No one values me. (Whoa, this last thought makes my eyes water.) This is the real fear: I’m not valuable.Now that I’ve told you about it, I can easily see how over-the-top these thoughts are. “Nobody” values me? That’s a pretty big leap, I suppose, but when these thoughts crept through my mind, they went by automatically, hardly even verbalized by my inner narrator. A stinging feeling still lingers in my chest, even from just rereading these words. It seems that those thoughts that slip right past, kicking up a trail of hormones, are often ones we end up believing, whether we want to or not.
Until writing this, I realize that a lot of the thoughts I’m describing have been buried, latently determining many of my decisions. I had put my GRE books in storage, decided that I wasn’t going to re-apply, or at least, I wasn’t going to deal with deciding whether or not to reapply for a while. I sputtered for a while, teaching yoga, doing some team consulting, and writing music. All this was for very little pay, and much of it for free. This isn’t because I’m a philanthropist at heart, but because I felt that I wasn’t worth charging for.
Looking at Failure More Clearly
Sad, right? That’s not why I’m telling you. I’m telling you because I want you to see that I have been quietly making a mental basket full of evidence showing why I’m not valuable (oh jeeze, the watery eyes again, the lump in the throat). I’ve probably been doing it since I was a little kid. Remember the time I totally forgot my violin piece at my Brownies talent show?I’ve been developing this fear of being valueless, making it a warm, cozy home and knitting it a hat. It has been quietly influencing my decisions. Decisions about what I do for a living and how much I make are big ones, but it shows up even in small ways, such as the guilt I feel for not accomplishing my goals for the day. Then the fear subtly smirks, adding yet another nugget of evidence to the basket.
Sometimes, there is a little piece of me that subtly makes a choice not to push through my work and actually helps this fear become a belief. I add another stockinet row to that hat when I vaguely decide not to tough out my last task because, in some small way, I want that belief to be correct. At least I’ll be right, I guess.
Being Right or Facing Fear?
Why would I ever want this belief to be confirmed? At the time, way back in the dark basement of my mind where this decision is quietly made, it seems like being right might be worth something. Writing it out makes it seem so illogical, so surprising, to think that I would want to fail, even in a small way. The only rationale I can come up with is that there might be some comfort in knowing myself, even if it’s not the self that I want to be.I know that fear is down there, and I don’t know what life would be like without it. Maybe it’s like some sort of Stockholm syndrome, but it seems like I have embedded this fear in my identity. I’ve learned it about myself: I am creative, female, brunette, intolerant of any kind of bean, and scared that I’m worthless. This insidious fear has been living in my brain basement for a long time now. It’s no surprise that it has a toothbrush in the upstairs bathroom and tells me what it wants for dinner.
So, how do I deal with this unhelpful little shadow and rebuild my identity? Seeing what it’s been up to and how it manifests is undoubtedly the first step. Stepping back and looking at it seems to take away much of its power. When I’m listening closely to its whisper with curiosity and perhaps a bit of humor, my judgment of this little guy drops away. When my judgment is gone, I am free to consider other ways of dealing with it.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about specific actions that are helping me wrestle my confidence from its clenched mitts.
Neff, K. D. (2014). How being soft on yourself actually makes you stronger. Fulfillment Daily.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Schwartz, B. (2012). Why justice is not enough. TEDx-Swarthmore. Discusses the meaning of not getting into the school of your choice.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Mailboxes courtesy of ecstaticist
Playground rejection courtesy of maria clara de melo
Writing music courtesy of rockmixer
Knitting a hat courtesy of fuzzyjay
From its clenched fists weegeebored
Genna – you are a brilliant and fearless writer. I have been through my own bouts of “no one wants me” for the past 10 yrs. It’s hard and it hurts. I haven’t had the courage that you have, however, to really put it out there and I’m very interested to see what your Part 2 will be. Sending all the best with much gratitude for your bravery and honesty. – Lisa
What a moving and intriguing article.
Seems to me to resonate with what’s going on globally – the focus on abuse of children, women and other less powerful groups, all of which leaves a legacy of poor self-esteem.
At the same time the global web seems to be awash with systems for unhappy women to become apparently without ‘unattractive’ needs, thereby protecting men of low self-esteem from fear they won’t be able to meet those needs.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know – and await developments of the discussion – but does seem to me a public mental health issue of great importance, and wonder how this ties in with your proposed PhD?
May you be well and happy – Kate Inrei
Wow Genna – I can only imagine how much courage it must take to speak your heart out like this. It’s truly inspiring.
While I was reading your article I realized that a lot of my behaviors and strivings come out of this fear of not being good enough as well. I think one’s whole life can become one non-stop compensation for this fear, especially if we’re not aware of our subconscious motives.
This is definitely food for thought. Can’t wait for Part II!
I love this piece for many reasons. I am fascinated by your honest look at the fears many of us are afraid to look at for the reasons you describe so well. Enlightening. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your brave and honest article.
It resonated deeply in me. You have uncovered a deep truth in all of us.
I’m eager to read Part II.
With many thanks & much respect,
Thank you for sharing an honest self-reflective essay on a ubiquitous feeling shared by many and once by me. As I read through your essay two ideas came to me. These first words were spoken by Dr. Wayne Dyer (may be quoted inexactly): “If one has to choose between being right or being kind…choose kindness.” It seems it is so hard for each of us to be kind to ourselves, when we most need it. I trust you will find that kindness for yourself, as you work and process this loss of a dream…the loss of a dream for now. Secondly, I think of the ideas of self-forgiveness might be germane to you right now. As I grieved over the loss of a marriage some 12 years ago, I freely accepted the blame for this failed marriage and completely absolved my then wife of any failure for that marriage. With the help of many around me, especially a wise and skilled counselor, I learned that, in order to move forward, I had to first practice the act of self-forgiveness. In time, I hope that you take the next step in your personal journey, whether it involves reviewing and reworking your strategies for your PhD or whether it is an entirely different pathway you seek. You are most worthy to do so.
Kenny E. Williams
This is so real. And raw. And true.
Thank you so much.
It feels like a novel to read the two articles back-to-back.
Lisa – Thank you very much for reading and for the kind comments. I really appreciate your reciprocating my vulnerability, too.
Kate – I’d be curious to know more what you are thinking about regarding the state of the world. Please feel free to email me if you want to chat about it more thoroughly.
Steph – Thank you for the encouragement and for your own reflections on this tender topic.
Jan, Gillian, and Senia – Thank you for your kind words. You’ve let me know that I’ve conveyed what I wanted to in this writing.
Kenny – Thank you for your thoughtful response. You are absolutely right that self-kindness and an acceptance of the feelings that I’ve been experiencing has been helping me work through this and most other issues.
Until we understand our own intrinsic value because our own unique journey story so far we will be tossed by the waves of fear and other people who may not see the value of you because of their own unique journey so far.
You have something you feel passionately about enough to work so hard to get that message heard or research done … keep at it but realise that the achievement of being able to call yourself a dr. at the end of a PhD is meaningless to all those who will be helped by what you are saying or doing. It may even re-reinforce the neural pathways that are forming your fear of failure. Do the work because you belie in it, fight for it … it is important. Be careful of that reward of dr.Douglas, it may open doors and add tools to your mental toolbox in the process but those achievements are what is of value.
PS you don’t sound to me as though you are just waiting for that nice badge of honor, you sound to me as though you are working hard to do/say get into the eyes of the world something important.
Keep it real, remember there are many working just as hard and passionately in their day to day jobs because its valuable to them to feel they are doing something valuable. Own your own value don’t wait for people, organisations to confirm it by rewarding your hard work.
happy travels fellow traveler