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I'm Not Perfect...Just Ask My Impostor Syndrome

A Colin Firth representation
of how everyone else perceives me...
Regardless of how self-confident I may appear on the outside and how well I may do in school, I am sure that I have suffered from impostor syndrome throughout my life. At my worst moments I am convinced that I am going to screw something up and end up getting kicked out of school...or quitting. At my best moments, I just convince myself to work as hard as I can and as long as I can in order to stay on top of things.For whatever reason, I have the tendency to let my fears get the best of me. I have the tendency to let my anxiety build up to the point where it threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Oftentimes, it builds up to the point where I suffer from a panic attack.

Long before I even stepped foot into my first college-level course...I convinced myself that I would fail out of college. My mom had passed away soon after my high school graduation and I had put college on hold until the end of summer. As a result, I was only able to sign up for classes at the very end of summer and could only choose between whatever classes were still open. By the time September started, I almost *KNEW* that I would fail out of school that year. I was doing fine in class, but I was convinced that I would fail every final or just end up failing the next semester.

A Colin Firth Representation
of how I tend to see myself....
When I didn't fail out of school that year, I started convincing myself that Biology was impossibly difficult for me. I can't explain why I did this to myself or why I started thinking this way, but at some point during my second year of college, I started convincing myself that I would NEVER EVER pass some of the courses I would have to take as a biology major. I'd never pass organic chemistry, physics, or a bunch of other courses that were simply too difficult for a shmuck like me to ever pass. In my mind, I was simply a South Jersey girl who had gotten in over her head. Who did I think I was, trying to become a scientist?!? I went so far as to get all the paperwork and signatures necessary to change my major to English....only to change my mind last minute. Contrary to what I had predicted, I somehow passed all the courses I was afraid of taking and even managed to get a research summer job with my organic chemistry professor. On top of that, I graduated summa cum laude and got a research/teaching fellowship to fund my master's degree.

Even with these accomplishments, I still felt a nagging feeling that I did not deserve any of the success. I felt unworthy of the degree I had earned and soon felt swamped by all of the material I had to prepare for the fellowship I had gotten. I felt so swamped that I began to worry about getting the work done and finishing everything on time. I started getting anxious about teaching to the point where I started getting panic attacks. My anxiety started to literally make me sick, as I fought to keep my fear of failure at bay. At some point, the fear of one day having to defend my masters thesis joined forces with my fear of failure as a teacher...causing me to become a nervous wreck one month before my classes began.

My dad, knowing how seriously I take school and how much I can torture myself over it, told me to go on vacation before I lost my mind. He used the oft-cited example of a cousin of his who ended up having a breakdown as a result of taking school too seriously. Though this cousin did end up going back to school and getting his degree years later, my dad did not want to see me go through what this cousin of his had had to go through. He also feared for my mental health because of the mental health issues that tend to pop up in my mom's side of the family. I was afraid to listen to my dad, because I had convinced myself that I had no time for vacation because of all of the work I had to finish. My thesis mentor also saw where I was heading and essentially kicked me out of the lab for the summer, telling me to go on vacation.

I bought a plane ticket and went on vacation. I had a residual panic attack one week into vacation, but got to relax for a while afterwards and felt fine by the time I got back...fine enough to have a phenomenal first year of teaching science to kids. The kids LOVED my teaching style and I soon became a model student in this fellowship program. Don't get me wrong, I still suffered from anxiety and fear of failure, but I had a good support base and these people helped me to the finish line. I certainly would not be here today if it wasn't for this support base consisting of my family, my mentor, my lab, and the Boy. The masters degree in molecular biology I got and the accompanying award I got from the department were possible because of THESE WONDERFUL PEOPLE. Had it not been for them, I would have dropped out long before I had a real chance to fail.

PhD program applications were another hurdle. Regardless of how well I was doing as a master's student...I did not believe myself good enough to ever be accepted into a PhD program. I became a nervous wreck again for a good part of my second fall semester as a masters student. As far as my fears go, impostor syndrome or no...the whole "I'm not getting into a PhD program" fear this is a pretty legitimate fear. Only about 1 out of 10 people ever get into a PhD program. There are simply far more applicants than there are seats and funding. My anxiety and fear caused me to hold off on applying until the very last instant. I literally was woken up from my sleep with a compulsion to get to my applications. It must have been a guardian angel giving me a shove, because I somehow built up the courage to try applying. The encouragement of my friends, family, and laboratory certainly gave me the strength to continue the application process even though it turned out to be confusing as well as tedious.

Even with everyone else's assurances, I considered my applications a lost cause throughout the waiting period. However, the spring semester brought a few surprises. Interview letters started trickling in and a few acceptance letters managed to make it into my mail. I had applied to 10 schools ranging from tiny Catholic colleges to some of the big Ivies...casting a wide net with the idea that at least one of them would bite. I never imagined a school like Columbia would ever look at an applicant like me until I got a call for an interview. I was wait-listed for quite some time and was about to pull myself out of the wait list several times. However, for whatever reason, I never withdrew my application. Something stayed my hand from that mouse click that would have meant closing a door on Columbia. Lo and behold, however, I got the (pretty late) acceptance.

This almost sounds like a Disney movie, but all of my acceptances meant nothing compared to my being wait-listed. I spent the next two years measuring myself up to the rest of my peers and convincing myself that I wasn't nearly as good a student as they were. I didn't understand statistics right away and had to take a pre-stats course. Everyone else had gotten accepted right away. No one else had ever heard of the school I'd graduated from...and everyone else seemed a lot more comfortable with the program than I did. As much as I hated feeling this way, I could not help but feel inferior. This inferiority, of course, stemmed from the impostor syndrome and it allowed my anxiety and fears to grow over time. Still, I worked hard and did my best to do as well as I could to stay in...regardless of how lowly I felt at times.

After two years of decent grades, I finally proved to myself that I would not fail out of Columbia due to grades. Mind you, I had put school in front of everything in my life besides God and my family. I had also devoted much of my sleep time as well as hobby time to school. Once classes were over, my worries turned into research worries. I haven't posted much on my blog recently because I've been dedicating much of my time to data analysis, proposal writing, and researching for this proposal. I shifted my priorities from class to research overnight and never took a day off out of fear of falling behind.
A Colin Firth Representation of
how anxious I've been feeling lately

This fear convinced me that I could not take a break because I had to finish everything as fast as I could. This anxiety convinced me that I needed to spend weekends analyzing data and/or researching for my qualifying exam. This form of all-or-none  mentality took its toll and I soon found myself letting my anxiety get the best of me regarding lab life and my qualifying exams. As you can probably guess based on my previous experiences above...I set myself up for a bit of a break down. This stress finally became too much for me to handle. It began with my blanking out at lab meeting whenever the PI would ask my a question. I was like a deer in the headlights...only with a dry-erase marker in hand and a half-drawn synaptic transmission model on the board behind me. This continued with my trying to make up for these experiences by reading more papers for my proposals or researching the topics I had blanked out on. Before I knew it, I started getting nervous about the smallest things...to the point where I started getting palpitations over the smallest research hurdles.

I've been getting more responsibilities in the lab since I finished with classes and was okay with balancing all of them for months. However, everything started becoming overwhelming...almost out of nowhere. Suddenly, I was convincing myself that I would never pass my quals. Suddenly, I was a failure just waiting to happen. Suddenly, I became incapable of even the smallest task. Suddenly, I became a disappointment to the whole program. Things don't always go well in the lab, but these minor setbacks turned into serious issues once my worrying started to spiral out of control. I started feeling tired these past few weeks and thought I was coming down with something, but it was mental fatigue from all of the stress and anxiety I'd been feeling...but had been reluctant to share.

Finally, this past week...I had another panic attack. I was meeting with the PI and almost without warning, I lost it. I panicked and all of a sudden I could not breathe...and began to hyperventilate. Embarrassing doesn't cover what I felt as EMT's rushed into the room to measure my blood pressure and pulse...as everyone else looked on and tried to get me to calm down. The problem is, I can't calm down when I get like that. It just runs its course regardless of who is watching or who is trying to help. My lab was certainly helpful in the whole thing and they did their best to make sure I was okay before I was finally able to stand up again and hide myself in my lab desk.

Based on the types of searches people make before getting linked to this blog, I get the impression that I am not the only one out there that suffers from impostor syndrome in the science world. I am also not the only one out there that suffers from this syndrome to the point where it leads to panic attacks. With this said, I want to let all my fellow impostor syndrome sufferers know that there are resources out there for people like us. After my latest panic attack, I've gotten in touch with the mental health folk at Columbia University and am taking action to prevent further attacks. As much as I want to be a data-producing all star with several papers under my belt, I have come to the conclusion that I must put my own needs first (to some extent) when it comes to my own mental health.

I am scared to use the term mental health because of all of the negative associations our society tends to put on these. My mother suffered from bipolar disorder...so I know very well how nasty people can be as soon as someone has any sort of mental health issue. However, I am putting my story out there because I want you all to know that it is OKAY for you to get help for things like anxiety, fear, impostor syndrome, etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting to take care of these things if doing so will make you a happier person with less worries. Our minds need as much attention and help as any other organ...and perhaps even more so considering how a poor mental health state can affect the rest of your body.

My first step was letting my PI and lab know what was going on. I didn't share my whole history with them, but I gave them the overall idea of what was going on. I let them know that I was having anxiety- and stress-related issues and that these issues were affecting my overall state of health as well as performance. History repeated itself after I let everyone know what was going on...because the next thing I knew I was told to take a vacation. Though I was torn between dropping out of the program or staying last week, the time I've spent away from school and focusing on my own mental health has helped me realize that it isn't the research that's the issue...it's my own perception of myself. I can't keep trying to quit things due to my fear of failure and I can't let my fear of failure dictate my life. I can't let these fears and these anxieties dictate my life.

A Colin Firth representation
of joyous triumph
With that said, I have done something I have always feared doing....I have scheduled an appointment with a mental health counselor. This doesn't mean that I am any less of a human being...any less of a student...or any less of a researcher. It means that I am going to get better because I have finally acknowledged my problem and am seeking help for it. With this said, I have also figured out a few other things that I must do from now on.

  • From now on I will take a break for myself (aka, willingly take a vacation) at least once a year in order to put my mind at rest for at least a few days each year. 
  • I will also be more open about how much I can have on my plate at a particular time. I will express my concerns if it feels like I have too much on my plate.
  • I will also try to stop thinking so lowly of myself. Luck didn't put me where I am now...and I must simply accept that.
  • I will also seek help for this issue regardless of what society thinks. Who cares if people look down upon me for seeking help? I am entitled to seek help for my own well-being and will do so regardless of what others think.
I will put other things on hold if I feel that I am going to do what I can to prevent future panic attacks by becoming more comfortable with myself and by becoming more attentive to my mental health. I know that this is a tough issue to confront, but if any of you ever feel like your anxiety and fears are getting the best of you, I highly encourage you to seek help about it. There is nothing wrong with doing something that will ultimately benefit your health. If you are a fellow PhD, grad student, undergrad, etc. please check out what services your school provides. Chances are there's a lot of resources out there for you...if you beat your fears and look.

Pax Vobiscum


4 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. It's really interesting and helpful - getting a glimpse through someone else's eyes at a life plagued by anxiety. While I've never heard of Impostor Syndrome, anxiety is something I'm definitely quite familiar with. I've struggled with it to varying degrees since I was a young kid. Mine is largely social anxiety, but I've faught panic and generalized anxiety as well.

    My life has been completely shaped by fear. I wish I could write a post about it, but I know my mom (and others near and dear) would read it, and I don't need that right now. I'm glad you're talking about your experiences, and I'll definitely pray that God grants you peace and healing. You're no impostor - you're a rockstar!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your prayers and extremely kind words. Even as a young kid I remember getting sick because I needed to catch up on something or other...not because I wanted a day off to play. As trivial as it may sound to those who don't go through it...it's hard and I've seen others like me in different fields with some level of anxiety. If it's not school-related (as in my case), it's relationship-related...job-related...etc.

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your own story...I was worried about the type of response I'd get to this post because it is so personal. It's always nicer knowing that you're not alone or, at least, knowing that someone else understands.

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  2. Good choice not going with English. For one, we NEED eloquent Christian scientists like yourself. You're amazing, by the way. Two, although I do believe it improved my writing, and though I feel that story writing is my calling, I am six months past graduation and am finding it difficult to find ANY job. I am thankful you probably won't experience the emotional abyss that is unemployment, but as evident in your post, we're all tied to one cross or another.

    P.S. I'm not doing something silly like applying to be a "story writer." Any job to pay the bills would do, which would allow me to write in my free time.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. I've experienced this same thing for the last four years in my current position. I never knew what to call it or how to describe it.

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