DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been reading this blog for a long time and have had nothing but good results from it: I managed to get myself out of a rather nasty downward spiral of negative thoughts and poor self esteem by taking what you’ve written and applying it to my everyday life.
Still no girlfriend but that doesn’t worry me any, I’m happy being single at the moment!
The reason why I made this post was because I’ve been having some issues with time, making plans and it’s effects on me.
For context, I’m in higher education (university) and as such that requires a HUGE amount of planning, scheming and plotting for getting to every class, performing all of the reading beforehand, making study plans for exams (even the ones that are months away), working on assignments and finding time to eat, sleep and keep hydrated in the process. I’m also a computing student, for additional context.
Now I have done a good job of that so far, if anything I like scheming! The problem is that I always carry the feeling of there never being enough time for work/revision/sleeping/ with me, and it never shifts no matter how much I do in that one field.
Heck, even when I take breaks there’s the jackassbrain part saying “you shouldn’t be doing this, you got X1, X2, X3 and Zero to do” despite the fact that I know that I’m still human and as such do need to take breaks occasionally.
Compounding the error is that in my plans I set informal deadlines for myself and get panicky/worried/mad when they aren’t met, reducing my capability to do effective work even further until I calm down and remember that I’m still human.
Essentially I’m trying to make plans that are metaphorically and literally five steps ahead then growing frustrated or downright furious when they don’t work out as I planned, this being a continuous cycle.
Ever since I went back to uni a few weeks ago, I’ve been going through a cycle of frantically planning anything I can, panicking at the plans changing, growing angry at myself for not completing informal deadlines on time or growing paranoid if I completed them before time and overall spending too much time in my own head space.
I’ve suffered not-quite-regular panic attacks followed by panicked bursts of work before, all while jackassbrain is intoning “if you planned better, you wouldn’t be in this position” over and over and over, only ceasing once either it’s completed or I’m in no physical state to do any more, at which point it starts to intone “That isn’t good enough, how dare you need a break”, or some variation on that.
I am looking into practicing mindfulness at the moment and that appears to be going well, but changing a longstanding mental process mixed with intense emotional reactions is never easy.
I know uni isn’t gonna be candyland (cause if so it’d all go to hell once things started to go off) but I don’t want it to be a complete mind-bending worryfest and ragefest for the whole couple years I got remaining here.
What I’m asking here, Doctor, is for anything I can do to calm myself down, relax with my planning and stop thinking as if one minor change or a couple big changes spells the end of my higher education career.
DEAR CLOCK KING: Here’s my question for you, Clock King: how much imposter syndrome are you dealing with right now?
I ask because it sounds to me like you’re doing something that a lot of people I know do: you’re trying to control for everything. It’s a way of trying to justify things and overcome that nagging voice in your head that says that if you screw up even slightly, people’ll twig to the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing. And once that first domino falls, it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes you’re a fake, a fraud, a mistake and then everything will go away.
If you can just get everything to work exactly like you want it to, where everything goes perfectly… then you’ll be fine. You’ll convince people that you’re where you’re supposed to be, that you know what you’re doing and that you deserve to be at this university and in this program.
At least for today. By tomorrow they may start to suspect, so now you have to repeat the whole cycle over again.
To make matters worse, this “MUST! BE! PERFECT!!” drive starts to filter into everything. If you let yourself be alone with your thoughts for just a moment, that jerkbrain kicks in and starts telling you “shouldn’t you be working? Shouldn’t you be studying? Don’t you realize that if you’re not studying right now then you’re probably going to lose everything?!? GET BACK TO WORK, SLACKER!” You’re doing the Red Queen’s race: running as fast as you can in order to stay in the same place. Small wonder you’re goddamn exhausted.
The problem is: people aren’t machines, Sherlock isn’t real and nobody can plan everything down to the smallest detail. Even in the finest clocks, chaos gets into the system and things come apart eventually. And when humans are involved… well there’s a reason for the old aphorism “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
So here’s what I suggest. First: you need to make peace with your imposter syndrome. You need to realize something important: people who don’t deserve to be where they are never question themselves. The most qualified tend to also be the ones who’re most convinced that they’re not. They’re the ones who are painfully aware of how much they don’t know. But the fact is: everyone with half a brain goes through this. It only looks easy to everyone to the outside. Think of it like a swan: above the water, they’re majestic and serene.
Below the water, they’re paddling like a motherf
So realize that you aren’t the only imperfect person there. But just as importantly: learn to accept “good enough”. Consider the piano. Pianos are finely tuned instruments and one tiny thing going wrong ruins everything. You, however aren’t a piano. You’re a man. And what is a man? A miserable pile of secr… wait no. A sack of meat and bone; that’s what you are. We’re giant messes and things rarely work the way they’re supposed to… but they still work out anyway.
There is so very little that can go so wrong that you can’t recover from it. And honestly? 99% of your career isn’t going to have anything to do with your grades, but your knowledge… which isn’t the same thing. And to be honest: you’re not going to have a higher education career if you kill yourself in the process. Remember: Imperfect and finished is always going to beat perfect and dead.
The other thing I suggest you do is start learning how to control your brain. Things like yoga and mindfulness meditation are great ways to force your brain to actually listen to you for once instead of just running off in its usual patterns. Get an app like Headspace and learn about focusing on your breathing and observing your emotions. The more you can center yourself and calm the screaming in your head, the happier you’ll be.
And failing that, there’s always weed.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)