Fighting Doubts in the Wake of Success

My advisor once told me during one of our lengthy sit-down chats that “self-doubt is like Kryptonite to most students: It weakens them and halters any forward-moving progress or success. They allow their self-doubts to weigh them down and hinder themselves achieving success……However, you seem to make self-doubt your superpower…using it like fuel to push you forward.” 

He’s absolutely right. I have become an expert in using doubt as my own personal supply of self-motivation. And through that self-motivation, I keep my nose to the ground and work my fins off: writing applications for funding, working on side projects, going the extra mile on papers, attending conferences, authoring posters, you name it! I’ll do it! Combining my doubt-fueled motivation with my sheer love of archaeology has allowed me to have moments of success during my tenure in my Master’s program…..However, it has one nasty side effect: My self-doubt doesn’t stop when I find that I have been successful in an endeavor…

Even when I am faced with successes, I sit back and question myself or downplay the achievement. “Oh, there must not have been a lot of applicants this year,” “ha, that was a happy accident,” “why did they choose me, did they even see my test scores?”, or “hmmm they say it’s ‘good,’ but are they just saying that to make me feel better?”. While these questions definitely stem, in part, from the anxious side of me, I wish my doubts would be satisfied when something positive comes my way.

Where is this stemming from? While self-doubt is always popping up in my mind, this particular subject is rooted in a recent personal experience. A few weeks ago, I got some of the most shocking and exciting news I could dream of; I was accepted into my dream doctoral program (and I found out on my birthday nonetheless)! I remember receiving the email from the graduate school while waiting for the bus with my best friend. Pure fear had taken over my entire body. I knew I needed to read it immediately, but in privacy, in case it was bad news (I LOATHE crying in public…though it must admit it happens more times than I’m willing to accept). I raced back to my advisor’s lab to get my face in front of my laptop, locking the door on my way in. I didn’t want anyone walking in while I found out. I hastily opened my inbox and saw the email staring back at me. I took a brief moment to ask the universe to send me some positive energy and a dash of luck. I had been swimming in a pool of self-doubt leading up to this email regarding the possibility of getting into (or getting rejected) from this PhD program, and this was finally the culmination of all that stress and worrying. I opened the email, and with reluctance and anxiety bubbling over, I opened the attached letter… I probably made it to the 10th word of that email until I saw the “congratulations,” and I completely lost it! I screamed and immediately started crying…to the point that one of the institute’s staff members came to the lab to check on me, fearing I had injured myself. I was on cloud nine for a solid week! I had a future, a fully funded one, and for a brief moment, my self-doubt was squandered.

Then self-doubt started to creep in… “Was I really good enough for this program?” “Am I going to make a fool of myself when I start attending in the fall?”. I should be doubt-free and void of worries, however, I still have that voice in the back of my head feeding me doubts. Classic imposter syndrome, right? However, I had hoped my imposter syndrome would diminish after each success or achievement. Kind of like a tiered ladder system, where every new success would bring me one more step away from feeling like an imposter. Instead, I feel its voice in the back of my mind getting louder with every new affirmative action, screaming, “now you’re REALLY an imposter…just wait till everyone finds out you’re a phony”. While I’d love to say this is a result of my own personal background, I feel that this is a larger problem within the culture of academia.

Academia is riddled with self-doubt and the fear of failure…heck, almost every academic faces these crippling thoughts on a daily basis! Self-doubt is a constant presence that keeps us company throughout our education, and even after we graduate. But why do we downplay our successes? It’s like those people in class that get a 95 on their exam and kick themselves for getting 5 points wrong (while you sit there in disbelief that they would have the nerve to complain about getting an A). Yet, somehow, we have found ourselves becoming that overachieving student. Again, this is how academia has groomed us to think. We always have to be improving and making strides to be better. Even when we make a positive step forward, our self-doubts remind us that the path to success is never-ending. For example, you received a grant to do your thesis research (huzzah). But now you are faced with the reality that you need to actually conduct your research and provide meaningful results to satisfy the conditions of the grant. It can seem like a never-ending cycle…

Being in academia is a constant to-and-fro between success and failure, and I ultimately think it fosters a cynical outlook upon ourselves. It’s hard to feel positive about success when the next day is met with rejection. Balancing emotions can become difficult when hearing back from graduate schools, paper submissions, midterms, and reviewers. Whether we feel we are never good enough or are feeling the common pains of imposter syndrome, the negative feelings never seem to fully diminish during our moments of success. Simply saying, we need to not be so hard on ourselves isn’t going to reverse our feelings of self-doubt in the wave of success. And while I would never claim to have any answers regarding curing self-doubt, I’m determined to set one thing straight: Feeling happy in my moments of success… I won’t be able to stop feeling emotions of doubt, as to prevent that emotion would be unnatural (especially in academia). Still, I want to make a step towards balancing those negative emotions with positive ones…especially during times when I should be feeling elated, excited, and happy!

Thus, the ArcShark’s personal, and totally non-official, guide to fighting self-doubt in the wake of success:

  • Recognize your path! What work and effort went into this current success? Whether it was countless hours that were poured into a grant proposal or endless literature review or rigorous editing, you took a journey towards this goal and worked hard to earn your success!
  • Take a step back from the academic grind! Hooray, your research proposal was accepted, or you got an A on your midterm…now take some time for yourself! You’ve earned it, so allow yourself to take time and enjoy this happy moment.
  • When feeling the need to start picking apart the nature of your success and turn it into a negative, try piecing together positive elements surrounding that success and how that success affects you. Ok, you got 5 points off on your paper, but you still earned an A, which could positively play into your overall class grade.
  • Talk to someone regarding your success and physically voice your feelings of self-doubt. Often verbalizing your self-doubts regarding positive moments can help you realize that your self-doubts are unfounded and baseless.
  • Practice self-compassion! I know, hard to do in academia, but seriously! Be kind to yourself! Recent studies have shown there is a strong correlation between practicing self-compassion with positive mental health… and positive mental health leads to diminishing self-doubt during moments of success. 
  • Finally, embrace that self-doubt is natural… 

So, while the academic grind may feel like a never-ending cycle or a teeter-totter between success and failure, we need to strike that balance between positivity and recognizing the need for self-improvement. Resisting the tendency to drown in our self-doubt is easier said than done, but continuously tearing ourselves down with our own negativity doesn’t provide any answers or accomplish any goal.

In trying to take a dose of my own medicine, I’m starting to feel the self-manifested doubts surrounding my acceptance into my dream PhD program wash away. With that said, I’m still incredibly nervous and anxious to be taking the next step in my academic trajectory, but I am no longer questioning my success in making it to this point. The journey to balancing my self-doubt isn’t over, but I feel this is a gentle push in the right direction.

Till next time,

Keep on swimming

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