You guys are awesome. The comments on and responses to this post were fantastic, and I wanted to follow up by letting everyone know that the crisis of confidence did come to an end. In some ways, just writing about it and coming to the realization that this is a pretty common experience helped resolve those questions about my qualifications and temperamental suitability to academic work. There are two Very Important Lessons that I took away from the experience (aside ways to perform better in an interview), and I thought I would share them here.
1. My constant need for reassurance and approval from others probably stems from my unwillingness to perform that service for myself. Yeah, that’s sort of Therapy 101, stuff that I covered in the first year of counseling, but it’s a surprisingly difficult idea to apply to one’s life. But the simple truth is that I am an intelligent person with more than an average share of common sense. I understand what the qualifications for doing this sort of job and living this sort of life are. I am capable of weighing my strengths and weaknesses, and I am capable of saying, “Sure, some aspects of this path I’ve chosen are really challenging for me, but I do actually belong here.”
Why don’t I do this for myself? Some it probably comes from growing up female in an environment where being uppity or over-confident was a liability. Some of it just comes from being a former teenager and fearing the social repercussions of thinking too well of myself. In therapy, I was introduced to the concept of the Inner Critic, which is that voice that basically tells you you suck. In many people with depression, the Inner Critic can be pretty abusive, but in a healthy person it actually performs an adaptive person. Your Inner Critic is there to tell you when you’re being an asshole, when you need to work harder, when you’ve crossed a line or done something that isn’t in your best interest. I guess it’s sort of like that concept of Conscience. It’s there, ultimately, to protect you. There have been certain situations in my life where I counted on my talent and the quality of my work to get me something (into my first choice college, for example), and I was blindsided when it didn’t work out. So, my Critic is sort of trying to make sure I’m never surprised like that again and consistently reminds me of my slim chances for success in anything. Basically, I have an abusive boyfriend living in my head.
I find it interesting that no only do I require explicit affirmation from other people but that in the absence of any other information, I tend to infer disapproval. It’s a sucky way of entering the world and trying to interact with others, but ultimately it’s also a way of externalizing my Critic, of taking all of the shit I say to myself and putting it in mouths and minds of others. Then I can sort of blame them for the fact that I feel terrible about myself. It’s my sister’s fault that I hate my body. It’s this professor’s fault if I hurt myself later on today. It’s my parents’ fault if I’m too scared to interact with people. Etc. Perversely, it sort of makes me feel a little better, like my depression is totally the fault of everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, but that’s a huge burden to displace on another person. My sweet partner tells me I do this thing where I fight with him in my head before he even enters the room. Usually, it’s because I’m feeling insecure about something–the cleanliness of the house, my lack of productivity that day, whatever–and I decide that he’s upset with me about it, and proceed to chew him out for being a demanding jerk.
2) Sometimes a little external validation helps. My Inner Critic knows that I require affirmation, and he thinks that makes me a weakling and constantly polices my behavior for anything that smells of “fishing for compliments.” That makes a pretty logical and simple task like taking my advisor aside to talk about a shitty mock interview more complicated, especially when I’m afraid that I might cry. At some points, my Critic sounds a lot like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, saying “there’s no crying in academia!”
I need a Rosie O’Donnell or Geena Davis type to remind my Critic that he’s an abusive has-been drunk. Anyway, I happened to run into one of my co-directors yesterday afternoon, and he could tell that I sort of had something I wanted to talk about. So, we went back to his office, and I explained what had happened (without tears!), and he was completely and totally sympathetic. When he found out who had conducted the interview, he informed me that one of those people is notorious for giving blistering critiques in defense and writing groups and committee meetings department wide, that she is pretty thick-skinned herself and therefore didn’t have a great bedside manner with vulnerable grad students, though she is a brilliant scholar and a rising star in the field. Furthermore, four other faculty members had approved of my job materials, which meant that the poor reaction of one of these interviewers was probably an anomaly. Not everyone is going to respond to every item in a job letter the same way. You can’t please everyone. This makes perfect sense.
So I wound up getting my affirmation anyway, and I did not suddenly become lazy or arrogant or entitled after hearing that yes, I belong here. Furthermore, it would be insulting to the faculty members who have supported me throughout the process to suggest that their good opinion doesn’t count, that their investment and confidence in me was misplaced, just because one other person–no matter how brilliant–had a problem with me.
I’m getting there guys, but it’s a process. Thanks for reading.