On self-doubt

On Wednesday, which happens to be when I wrote that post about lack of motivation, I had class. I’m only in one class – this one – so you would think I’d be able to handle it, but still it’s not going that smoothly for me. This class is, I would say, very advanced. I am taking it at a different institution in NYC, and so the experience feels more “different” and “other” than usual. On top of that, it uses a fair amount of linear algebra, which I never took but have needed for at least 3 courses now, so it’s got an odd history as a sticking point with me and I always struggle with it. I am convinced that I should have taken it as an undergrad, and I think that it should either be required for my major (it is at some universities) or that at least someone should have advised me that if I wanted to study advanced theories in my discipline, I should take it. Neither happened, and I did not take it, because I did not know that it would be needed, or even that it would be any more useful than any other math course that was not recommended in the department’s advising materials or bulletins.

Enough about linear algebra…

And furthermore, this one class I’m in now marks the first time I have ever been in a class where I am the only female. Now, I recognize I am lucky that I haven’t encountered that yet – I know that things are a lot better than they were 20 years ago, and even some of my peers currently tell me that in their undergrad departments they were in classes that had no women at all. But somehow I find that it is on my mind sometimes, when I’m there. The class has 12 other students, at least half of which are foreign students, and the professor is about 70 years old, and (of course) a white male. He is a big name in the field, and as such it is an excellent course to have the opportunity to experience, to learn this subject from him. But it somehow feels very surreal to me. It’s hard to place; it’s not really outright upsetting, but it just feels…odd. Strange.

When I was leaving class this week, a student said hi to me, and went on to note how I had been absent from class the week before. Aside from wondering where he was going with that, I also thought about how I wouldn’t have noticed if he was missing, but that I’d be hard to miss as the only woman in a room full of men. And that made me wonder, if these sorts of thoughts come up often for members of minority groups.

I’m not saying that this is a big deal, and certainly in this class I have never witnessed any discrimination, but it does make one think about the subtler aspects of …bias. The part where a person’s mental conversation is occupied with thoughts of how they are different. It makes me think of what it might be like to be part of a smaller minority, and thus feel more…alone.

With regards to the class, though, it’s mostly the material that intimidates me. I realized that part of my lack of motivation was a fear that I would encounter too much difficulty and find myself unable to overcome it. But I did manage to get some work done, and then I went to class, walking in embarrassed to both be late and to have missed the last TWO classes (heck, I’m even embarrassed to admit that here). I must look like a horrible student, I think to myself, as I shuffle towards a seat in the back of the small room, as if there were really anywhere to hide.

Distinguished Professor (here I imagine you read his name with a deep, authoritative voice) looks over at me and nods hello, even though he’s already started the lecture. I realize it’s a fairly friendly smile and that maybe I’m not that horrible of a student (I did email him and we talked about what I had missed), and settle into copying the notes and figuring out what’s going on. And do you know what? I understood it very comfortably. As the lecture progressed, some students in the class asked questions, and I realized that I knew the basics of the answers even before they were explained. As he lectured on, I realized that I could handle this class, that even here in week 7 I still knew what he was talking about, at least most of the time.

After class, I called Husband and told him this. It was a good thing I did, too, because the next night when I was a bawling basketcase over how overwhelming the quals are and how I couldn’t really handle a PhD program in my discipline, he was able to remind me that I was just telling him how I had not needed to be so intimidated by the class because I do understand what’s going on. I do usually tell him these things anyhow, but now I have the added incentive that I know if I tell him when I’m feeling confident, that next week or the week after when I am paralyzed with self-doubt about my abilities again, he can remind me, as he did last night, that I was just telling him how I am proceeding alright, getting my work and studying done, and that I can understand the class material and I do understand the core material of my discipline better than I did last year. And it will take me a while, but eventually, I’ll remember that I can do this.


6 thoughts on “On self-doubt

  1. Yes, you CAN!

    I often have to remind ecogeoman of his earlier confidence, which seems to rapidly come and go. When he tells me the little things he feels good about, it really helps me support him when he’s feeling low. So you are doing a good thing. šŸ™‚

  2. My husband also does this for me. At the time it usually frustrates me because I’m in my self deprecating mood and want everything to be dreary but in the long run it cheers me up and helps with my confidence.
    I try to remember that if something was easy everyone would do it but we do this to ourselves (ph.d, ect.) because we are up for the challenge and look forward to the rewards.

  3. Hehe, it frustrates me too when I’m in the mood to be self-deprecating, but I’m learning to take some deep breaths, listen to him, and not allow myself to indulge in the self-put downs. This last week, after calming down, we decided I should do something specific to make me realize I was wrong – so I decided to do one practice problem for the quals that seemed approachable to me. It turned out that I figured out that the method we had decided would work in group study sessions was forgeting an option, and once I had solved the problem I felt much better, not only having listened to Husband but having proved to myself that I could handle this.

  4. Something that I’ve had to learn and am relearning every day is that most other people aren’t half as judgmental as I am of myself. There are certainly some nasty dirtbags out there, but by and large, there are few people seeking out adversarial relationships with me.

    And also, fear makes it hard to succeed in a class. I signed up for “Operating Systems” and dropped it three times — before I finally just plowed through it on my fourth attempt and got a B. Looking back on it, part of the problem was my dismal study skills — but also, I was so scared that I wouldn’t understand any of it that I ended up not understanding it. Now that I’ve been working in the computing field, I encounter a lot of the stuff from that class on a daily basis, and really, it’s easy. I don’t know what I was so afraid of! šŸ™‚

  5. It’s really wonderful that your husband can give you those kinds of reminders. When I start to feel the panic and self-doubt closing in, I call my mom, and tell her how I don’t think I can manage whatever it is that’s weighing down on me. Then she reminds me of the last time I called her in dispair and points out that I pulled off the last overwhelming task, so chances are, I’ll pull this one off, too. We all need someone like that in our lives.

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