Image: Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
During graduate school and the four years that followed it, I wanted nothing more than to find a career I enjoyed that came with a decent salary. Well, as I wrote in a recent piece for Vitae, I finally found that career in an alt-ac position at the University of Kentucky and I love it. But now I’m dealing with an entirely new set of strange emotions and I’m not sure what to do about them.
Lately, I’ve been hit with a nagging feeling that I can only describe as guilt. I spent so many years underemployed as an adjunct professor and working hard for very little money that I’m having a difficult time adjusting to a work situation that’s finally comfortable. I find myself fixating on the idea that I somehow got lucky with this job. I have to remind myself that I deserve it and that I worked hard to get here. These feelings evoke the impostor syndrome that many of us struggle with during graduate school -- the idea that we don’t match up to the level of our peers, and that someday we’ll be found out and exposed for the impostors we are.
Logically, I know this impulse is irrational. I know I’m doing good work and earning my position on the campus. But I can’t escape this deep-seated fear that, somehow, I don’t deserve what I have.
I often encountered that same mentality in my experience talking with other adjuncts. After years of working in temporary positions for little money, it’s easy to start internalizing a perception of inferiority and believing that low money is all you’re worth. It’s easy to begin thinking that you don’t deserve better. Even if your coworkers treat you well, it can still be difficult to overcome the implied inferior status that an adjunct position usually carries.
I think both the apprenticeship culture of graduate school and then the internalized inferiority I experienced as an adjunct are contributing to my recent self-doubt. I’m so accustomed to being surrounded by “superiors” that I’m having a hard time adjusting to a work environment made up of like-minded professionals and peers.
How do we convince ourselves that we deserve good things when they come our way? How do we adjust to a life that seems to be giving us exactly what we’ve always wanted? How do we accept those gifts rather than push them away because the comforts they bring make us feel guilty? Those are questions I’ve been trying to answer lately. Here are a few of the strategies I’ve come up with that seem to be helping.
Think About All You’ve Achieved
One exercise that’s been helping me is to consciously remind myself of the work I’ve done to get where I am now. For me, that means thinking about the 80-hour work weeks I spent researching and writing my thesis in graduate school. It means remembering all of the late evenings and weekends I invested in learning web design over the last several years in order to get the job I now have.
It’s much easier to accept that good things can happen to you when you know you’ve put in the time and work to earn them. It never hurts to remind yourself that you deserve to succeed.
Focus on Daily Successes
A guaranteed way for me to invite self-doubt is to dwell on failures or imperfections in my work. Unfortunately for me, I’m pretty good at critiquing my mistakes. If I’m not careful I’ll start finding all the reasons why I don’t deserve success, and the guilt always follows right behind.
Instead of dwelling on recent mistakes, try to pay attention to your daily accomplishments, even if they’re small. Maybe you wrote one really good email today. It might seem facile, but taking pride in your daily work can help break the cycle of self-doubt. Just be careful not to use a small success to justify slacking. The thing is, even the best workers sometimes have bad days when they don’t seem to accomplish anything. Don’t beat yourself up about those days. Instead, find one good thing and then move on.
Accept Yourself and the Gifts You Are Given
I know, easier said than done. Those of us who are prone to believe we don’t deserve success when we achieve it have a really hard time with this. We tend to look for reasons why our success was a mistake, why we shouldn’t accept a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. I struggle with this issue regularly. I’m sure it’s a big part of the guilt I’ve been dealing with over my new position.
The only way around this self-doubt is to be intentional and take it one step at a time. When you find yourself pushing away from something good, stop and ask why you’re resisting it. Are you subconsciously sabotaging a good thing because deep down you don’t believe you deserve it?
Here’s the deal: If your hiring manager, supervisor, or client is trying to give you something good, it’s because they think you deserve it. And you probably do. Accept it, say thank you, and don’t let self-doubt sabotage a good thing.