Something common for students: you are on a streak of good grades and you suddenly receive a bad grade. That was me and I was my worst critic. This post is about how I moved on.
As I received my test, like a knee-jerk reaction, I pulled out a calculator to calculate the percentage. Isn’t it interesting that a range of numbers can cause us to feel intense happiness and another range of numbers can cause us to feel intense anxiety? Unfortunately, without this consideration, I asked that the percentage console me. It didn’t. Staring back at me was a lifeless screen that shouted, “You aren’t worthy.” In that moment I doubted my abilities, fell victim to the imposter syndrome, and bullied myself. As I reviewed my test and understood my mistakes, my automatic response was, “How could I have missed that?” and “I am so stupid!”
While I did not explicitly say those words out loud, I internally bullied myself. Self-bullying seems much more dramatic when written or said out loud, but the reality is that most of us bully ourselves, whether conscious or unconscious, and the effects are just as damaging to our emotional health, as overt bullying.
In a sense, the way we bully ourselves is similar to the cyberbullying phenomenon. It is easier to cyberbully because of a disconnection: a screen makes it easier to say things we would not tell someone in person. The same is true for self-bullying: it is easier to say harsh things to ourselves because there is no one to filter or stop our harsh words.
This type of bullying feeds the imposter syndrome (also known as the “I am a fraud and don’t deserve to be where I am” syndrome). While the imposter syndrome can motivate us to work harder, it can also feed habitual feelings of discontent, doubt, and hesitation.
Because of a percentage, I thought I was an imposter. Because of a small failure, I thought I didn’t deserve to be where I am. Yet, I have been trained to know that merit is so much more than a test score, that I am more than a percentage, and that small failures are nothing to fear. I know all of these things to be true; I have faced much smaller and much bigger failures and have somehow moved on, but this time I asked, “Why do I routinely bully myself and insinuate the imposter syndrome, when facing failure?” I found answers in my blessings.
As a recipient of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, race is always on my mind. I recognize that 100% of my life is affected by my race. Consequently, 100% of my life is affected by my privilege. Given the vast blessings, opportunities, and advantages that my privilege warrants, failure seems like an offense. I told myself, “I must be a fraud.”
More blessings caused more critique:
How dare I obsess about a bad grade when someone else is reconciling being soaked in blood from the Bataclan attack in Paris. Shame on me for obsessing over a bad grade when accusations of terrorism are inhibiting desperate refugees from finding peace and starting a new life. Snap out of it, Daniella! The imposter syndrome is insignificant in comparison to my friend meeting the challenges of Down syndrome. This isn’t a self-bullying check; this is a reality check. And yet again, am I being too harsh on myself… or not harsh enough?
Doubt can motivate us and critical thinking is a blessing-- but we need to know when to stop, especially when critiquing ourselves.
I am reminded of the words of a good friend Jack Golub. He said, “You deserve the same compassion that you direct to others.” I would never call a friend stupid, tell her to doubt herself, or that she does not deserve success, because she failed once, or even multiple times. I would never tell a friend that her struggles are insignificant compared to the world’s problems-- I would try to empathize. Why am I so supportive to others, and not to myself?
I deserve the same compassion that I direct to others; I am slowly learning how to face my worst critic. Are you?