Monday, April 20, 2009

I have no core self

I had another session with my therapist today. She always asks me how I'm feeling right at first, but instead of saying "I'm good" or whatever, I get to tell her how I'm actually feeling. This is a nice change, but it always leads to me breaking down into tears.

I started telling her how I usually feel good about life until one small thing makes me second guess myself. For example, I'm excited about going into teaching, but if someone tells me that I said something that went over the head of their kid, I start thinking I shouldn't go into education. Or, if I don't get a travel grant, or my paper still doesn't have a reviewer assigned (after two weeks!), I feel like I suck ass at research.

Basically, my confidence in my abilities - or my core self - is very fragile. I do okay until I get a tiny bit of criticism - or even a lack of positive feedback - and then I crumble.

As therapists do, she asked me to think back to my childhood and figure out what might have started this pattern. I thought about it for a while, and then told her that I was never really criticized as a kid, but things weren't really celebrated either. Getting a good grade, getting into university or graduating wasn't made to be a big deal - it was just a normal thing that most of my friends were doing. There wasn't even much fuss made when I got my masters, when I got into a PhD program, or when I totally kicked butt on the comprehensive exam.

So, although I haven't been getting negative feedback, I never really got any positive feedback either. I never had the opportunity to build up my confidence because nothing really seemed that important, extraordinary, or worth celebrating. This is one of the reasons why I need to hear that I'm doing well from other people - otherwise I have no idea. I have no ability to judge my own levels of success.

She asked me what percentage of people get their PhDs - it's about 1% in North America. If you count the whole world, it's probably 1/1000 or 1/10,000. The average IQ of PhDs is 135. PhDs are special people. I still don't think of myself that way, but I think I should start trying.

I see a lot of other PhDs that feel the same way (both in the blog world and offline) - that we're regular people who just lucked out, or are fooling everyone. We tend to look down on ourselves because we compare ourselves to incredibly sucessful/smart PIs/post-docs/other grad students. What we don't realize is, even if we are the "middle of the road" in academia, it still makes us pretty special. It's time we actually admit to the world that maybe we do have some sort of talent and intelligence.

I need to start celebrating the sucesses in my life instead of passing them off as "normal" or things "everyone else" does...even if it's normal in the academic world, it's extraordinary when you look at the big picture.