By Julia Miller
#Fearless Family Writer
I’m a sophomore at a small, liberal-arts women’s college. When I went back home for winter break, predictably one of the first things I was asked about were my grades. How were they? Were my classes going well? Was I struggling?
When I replied that I had received all A’s last semester, the other person would often smile, and say something along the lines of “Well, of course you did well,” or “that’s hardly a surprise.” While they were often happy for me, they never seemed surprised. And although that’s flattering in one sense, my reaction was rarely a positive one.
Because for me, there was no “of course you did well.” When I was in the library at 2 AM for the third time that week, there was no “of course” about my success. My grades, although not a surprise for the other person, were a surprise for me – especially when earlier in the semester I had spent an hour crying over a C. Doing well in school, in my career, and in extracurriculars seemed to be guaranteed to everyone else except me. At the end of the day, I wasn’t proud of my accomplishments, and I was terrified of failing.
Ever since I got to college, I’ve pushed myself. I’ve taken classes for seniors as a sophomore, I’ve had almost all A’s, I work as a tutor for other students while also running an on-campus organization. Part of that is because I truly am passionate about my education, my activities, and my classes. I love my professors and the work that I do, and I care about doing it well. I love being able to produce good work that I’m proud of.
But to me, a part of my self-worth is tied into the grade that’s written in red pen at the top of the paper. When I don’t get an A, when I don’t receive a callback for a position, I feel like I’m letting down my parents, my professors, and my peers. My very grip on my control over my life feels perilous, and the slightest event could bring it down. It could be getting a B on a quiz, forgetting a group meeting, being cast as the understudy instead of the lead. To me these aren’t setbacks or just life being life, these are signs that I’m failing.
This is the life of a high achiever with high levels of anxiety. I know logically that there’s nothing wrong with not having straight A’s. I know I don’t need to have an aura of success and perfection in everything that I do. But there are times when my chest is tight and my hands won’t stop shaking when I think that sooner or later, it’ll all come crashing down. If I don’t have – excuse the Mad Eye Moody reference – constant vigilance, then everything good that I’ve made for myself will disappear.
I’m not unique at all for feeling like this. Imposter Syndrome, according to the highly reliable website Wikipedia, is described as “ high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” I’m sure many students across the globe have had similar experiences to mine. But this concept might not be as familiar to parents, mentors, and other friends and family. Which is why there are a few things you need to recognize if you know someone who has Imposter Syndrome.
First of all, nothing is “of course” about my success. Everything takes planning, effort, persistence, and the help of so many other people. Saying that “of course” I did well diminishes the work that I put in, and only further reinforces that nothing except perfection is acceptable.
Also, no one puts more pressure on me than I do myself. If I’m struggling in a class, I don’t need you to tell me to spend more time on homework and go into office hours. Chances are, I’ve already done that. I need to be told that I’ll be okay, that struggling is not a sign of failure, and that I will improve.
Finally, at the end of the day, the things I’m most proud of aren’t my grades. Yes, I do like to rest on my laurels and appreciate my accomplishments. Yet what means more to me is recovering from a bad test, giving myself a night off when I need it, and learning to take care of myself. Letting myself breathe sometimes is far more difficult than any exam ever will be. If you want to be proud of me, be proud of me for that.
I’ll finish with one anecdote. When I came home for last winter break, I was able to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen since my freshman year of college. When she asked how I was doing and what was going on with my life, there were a lot of things I could I have told her. I could have said that I got a great new job, or that I was presenting my research at a conference, or that I had been cast in a solo role.
But the first thing that popped into my head was telling her that I had gone on anxiety medication.
It took me so long before I was even able to consider medication as an option, before I was able to recognize that having anxiety does not make me weak. I was far more proud of that than any grade I had received. Yes, over the semester I had improved intellectually and professionally. But to me, the most important thing was that I have improved personally. And that to me will always mean more than any number or letter will.
Thank you to Julia for sharing her remarkable story!
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