I have found lately that my confidence has waned (highly uncommon in graduate school I know!) I have felt like a “jack of all trades and an expert in none.” This feeling has actually been consistent throughout my working and academic career; being transient and collecting a lot of experiences, but never being in a place or position long enough that I felt truly competent in it. Now, in grad school (again!), I have that familiar but somehow more pervasive feeling of “not being good enough” and that I need to manipulate what is happening into a more comfortable space to be in, because this experience of groundlessness is really, really vulnerable.
This is certainly not unique to me. I think that a lot of people can relate to this feeling of insecurity. Many people, particularly women that I know, grad school or not, feel “not good enough” in many, if not all their social “roles”. Not a good enough student, worker, mother, friend, partner, and the list goes on. And there is the perennial “imposter” syndrome that gets talked about in graduate programs, like “if they only knew that I don’t belong here, then what might happen?” Underpinning these thoughts (and by the way they are just thoughts, we don’t have to believe them; revelatory I know) is one of not trusting ourselves to know what we need to sit with and comfort our own negative emotions, and that we “need” to be perfect or at least appear to be perfect to be acceptable and loveable, and in the academy, to be taken seriously as scholars.
What happened to being a learner? (said in a convivial, friendly tone). The vulnerability that comes from saying “I don’t know?” and “this is hard” and “this hurts,” is real, embodied, and visceral. It is not supported in patriarchal, individualistic, masculine-attributes-like- decisiveness-and-toughness-are-best dominant society and particularly not in the “all knowing, all powerful” hallowed halls of academic institutions. Saying what we feel is scary, and saying what we feel in a space where emotion, intuition, and self-reflection (this is often called “bias” in science) are not supported is truly brave. We are all researchers in one way or another, experts in our lives, constantly curious about and engaging with our world. We have to approach ourselves like we might approach the wonder that is our work; with compassion and open-hearted curiosity. And, you already are enough! That is the great news! No striving or “beacon of light in the distance, when I am finally smart enough or get that grant enough” work need be done. You are already exactly the person that you are meant to be at this moment! Yes you will grow, change, shift shapes, but at this moment, you are enough, warts and all!
I constantly have to work to be deliberate about taking that self-compassionate stance with myself and my own learning mind and sensitive heart. I have often seen my distractibility and relentless curiosity (lack of focus?!) as a liability. But resisting those feelings and judging them is, as the spiritual teacher and psychologist Tara Brach calls it, the ‘second arrow.” The first arrow is the thing that is happening and the second is your own judgments around that thing. Think about something minimally troubling that happened recently and your responses to it. Were they of curiosity? Did you honor that experience (“I am noticing that my heart is feeling tight and I want to run from this”) or comforting the feelings that got hurt? (what might ease my tight heart right now… or were there responses of judgment and shaming (why am I so sensitive, out of control, loud, impulsive, any number of shaming words and judgments that stream on well-worn mental tapes)? What tends to hurt worse and allows us to continue to sit in our own shame spirals longer; the kindhearted response or the mean one? The mean one only resists the experience that is already present, and that is the root of suffering, similar to the old adage “what we resist, persists” (recently quoted by Bjork, who, aside from that swan dress a la Academy Awards 2001, has got some spot on intuition).
So here goes, I don’t know a lot of stuff. I sometimes hurt people that I love. I am messy and imperfect. And yet, I am exactly the person, at this moment, that I am meant to be and my life looks exactly as it is supposed to, distractibility and all. I intend to be kind to myself, and sometimes I am, and sometimes I am not… and sometimes I am only after flinging that second arrow and then realizing the suffering implicit in that act. I am curious about who that person will become, and know that person is not a liability even if I do sometimes eat too much cake (or watch too much internet porn, kidding) or get distracted thinking about dinosaurs (or giraffes, they have horns you know) or....