I have no core self

I had another session with my therapist today. She always asks me how I’m feeling right at first, but instead of saying “I’m good” or whatever, I get to tell her how I’m actually feeling. This is a nice change, but it always leads to me breaking down into tears.

I started telling her how I usually feel good about life until one small thing makes me second guess myself. For example, I’m excited about going into teaching, but if someone tells me that I said something that went over the head of their kid, I start thinking I shouldn’t go into education. Or, if I don’t get a travel grant, or my paper still doesn’t have a reviewer assigned (after two weeks!), I feel like I suck ass at research.

Basically, my confidence in my abilities – or my core self – is very fragile. I do okay until I get a tiny bit of criticism – or even a lack of positive feedback – and then I crumble.

As therapists do, she asked me to think back to my childhood and figure out what might have started this pattern. I thought about it for a while, and then told her that I was never really criticized as a kid, but things weren’t really celebrated either. Getting a good grade, getting into university or graduating wasn’t made to be a big deal – it was just a normal thing that most of my friends were doing. There wasn’t even much fuss made when I got my masters, when I got into a PhD program, or when I totally kicked butt on the comprehensive exam.

So, although I haven’t been getting negative feedback, I never really got any positive feedback either. I never had the opportunity to build up my confidence because nothing really seemed that important, extraordinary, or worth celebrating. This is one of the reasons why I need to hear that I’m doing well from other people – otherwise I have no idea. I have no ability to judge my own levels of success.

She asked me what percentage of people get their PhDs – it’s about 1% in North America. If you count the whole world, it’s probably 1/1000 or 1/10,000. The average IQ of PhDs is 135. PhDs are special people. I still don’t think of myself that way, but I think I should start trying.

I see a lot of other PhDs that feel the same way (both in the blog world and offline) – that we’re regular people who just lucked out, or are fooling everyone. We tend to look down on ourselves because we compare ourselves to incredibly sucessful/smart PIs/post-docs/other grad students. What we don’t realize is, even if we are the “middle of the road” in academia, it still makes us pretty special. It’s time we actually admit to the world that maybe we do have some sort of talent and intelligence.

I need to start celebrating the sucesses in my life instead of passing them off as “normal” or things “everyone else” does…even if it’s normal in the academic world, it’s extraordinary when you look at the big picture.


Comments on: "I have no core self" (9)

  1. see… this is partly what I have heard too. The self esteem in my case sucks. The self confidence is good. That means, I believe in my ability to do things. But I feel like I am less worth….

    I was never really cheered on during my straight As and MSc. It was so “obvious” that I could do it. I never got a bad grade and that was probably bad in the end since I haven’t really “let them down” or “being the one who is let down adn it is ok”..

    Anyway, I wish you the best to remember that you are special and good at what you do. But (and this is important) even if you aren’t doing all things perfect doesn’t mean that it changes anything about you. good luck.


  2. In reading your post, I was reminded of this phenomenon that I came across a while back. I’m not at all saying that this is what is going on with you, simply that it may be related, or at least interesting for you to read about.

    Apparently “impostor syndrome” is quite common among highly successful (read: those with PhD etc.) academic women.
    Here’s the link: http://impostorsyndrome.com/


  3. MCH…good post. If I may…I just want to caution you on feeling like praise (or lack thereof) is what has caused the inability to judge yourself. My worry is then that you will associate praise with self-assessment, and self-assessment should come from SELF. Even if three days in a row you get pieces of bad news about stuff (rejections here, criticism there, etc), your self-assessment should stay the same – that you’ve got (or almost got) a friggin PhD in Astrophysics and you are damned awesome. There are lot of great people in history who…if they required cheerleading to go on or gave up because of lots of criticism…the world would be a lot different than it is.

    I do agree though, that PhDs are extraordinarily rare in the grand scheme of things, and that we get all skewed because of the sub-populations. In my 4th year of grad school I confidently announced to a friend that I was sure I was AT MOST, in the top 20% of the population in terms of intelligence. He looked at me like I was crazy and told me to stop and think about what I said. After REALLY looking at it, I realized that was so freaking impossible. But we keep challenging ourselves into more and more intelligent circles and our perspectives get all skewed….the DANGER is thinking that we know it all and we’ve got it all figured out. Because then you know there’s a problem. I’ve always felt the smartest people felt they knew very little, because, you have to be smart to know how much you don’t know. Only small-minded people think they know everything.

    So….build that core self, girl! Think about it! Astrophysics!!! Do you know how much that word strikes fear into my heart????

    Forget the micro-level feedback and look at the big picture. No one is perfect or has the perfect life, and micro-criticisms are absolutely to be expected.

    I just realized I have had this entire lecture when just the other day I blogged that I felt worthless because I’d been rejected for a job – LOL!!! I should take my own advice.


  4. Chall – I totally get where you’re coming from when you said you never let anyone down, and so you never really got cheered on.

    Hana – yes, I’ve read about that. It definitely is a factor for me, but I think there are other things at play since it occurs in all areas of my life.

    PD – ITA that I can’t base my confidence on other people telling me I’m good at whatever. That’s actually one big problem of mine, and one thing I was trying to say in my post (although I did not focus on it) – that I have no core self (self-confidence), so I need it from outside sources. I guess the point of my post was that my self-confidence was never really built up because I was never cheered on in my earlier days. Not sure if that makes sense?

    As for giving/receiving advice – people in general are like that, so don’t worry 😉


  5. hey – well I’m sorry that you feel that way. Making it to your PhD is pretty damn special, and don’t you forget it.


  6. I was going to tell you about imposter syndrome too. I just came across it in one of the essays in “Mama PhD” and it totally described the way I feel about myself if I’m not careful–that I’m just fooling everyone, as you said. Thanks for posting this.


  7. Mrs CH: I think there is a difference between self confidence and self esteem – but what you mean with core self (as far as I understood you). I’ve had it explained to me that self confidence it how you take on things in the world and your belief in your ability (phDs usually would have good self confidence since they complete their training). The self esteem is how fast you bounce back and go back to you. Like a bowling pin with a thick bottom that can wobble but won’t fall to the side.

    If that makes any sense?

    Furthermore, it has been explained to me that this is common with “good girls” as in “overachievers/perfectionists” since we tend to have been valued due to our actions (being Astudents and no problem) and therefore we are scared that we won’t measure up if we aren’t perfect…. and in this case perfect means “performing perfect”.

    And therein lies the core problem. We are valued out of our actions, rather than having a value of our own.

    I may be way off here? And I don’t presume to say that you are included in the “we”. I just need to write we or I so I keep track of where I am in this whole mess. And especially this time around….


  8. I completely understand what you’re saying about not having positive feedback during formative years. It’s really difficult to think of yourself as someone special if you were never told that growing up. It’s also true that you have to find a way to build yourself up so that your core self is strong and not affected by other people’s opinions.


  9. good post Mrs.CH.


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