Hello Captain and friends!
This problem has been sitting in my mind, waiting to pounce, for months. Recently it came to the forefront and shocked me a bit.
I’m a 24-year-old graduate student pursuing a career that I’ve wanted since I was a preteen. Grad school has been good overall, especially for my confidence. I have wonderful friends, good family relationships (I live with my parents), and artistic hobbies that I enjoy (although I don’t put much effort into them). I was diagnosed with severe anxiety in 2014, did therapy for a year, and went on medication this summer. Therapy reduced OCD symptoms and negative self-talk, and meds have reduced daily nervousness. I’ve had four part-time jobs in food service, reception, and retail respectively. I always put my best face forward at work, and I make up for school-related procrastination with anxiety-fuelled planning and get really good grades.
But the other day I realized that I’ve never been good at anything, and I’m probably not good enough for my career path. My first boss called me “inefficient”. I made more mistakes at my second job than the newbies, even after four semesters. (Same goes for the campus kung fu club.) I was frequently reprimanded at my third job and got a few serious talking-tos. At my fourth job I often felt overwhelmed and scattered, and they didn’t call me back to work the holiday rush. I’ve never been fired, but I had to quit all of my jobs due to going to/leaving school. I wasn’t very good at my volunteer positions or hobbies, either.
Two days ago I got a performance review at my school internship. My supervisors are excited to ramp things up with me next term. Although my technical skills are at par, I’ve made social blunders due to my habit of acting without thinking when I’m anxious. In general, I don’t have the professional conduct skills to “fit in” at the agency or truly connect with clients. With some wheedling I got one supervisor to indirectly admit that if this had been a job, I’d have been fired by now.
Realizing that I’m bad at the work I value and have wanted to do for so long was awful. And I don’t know why I make so many mistakes. I realize that anxiety sabotages concentration and motivation, but now that I feel less anxious the problems have not gone away. I’m nearly certain that these mistakes were/are due to unchangeable cognitive or personality flaws. I started self-harming this summer to make my self-hatred more concrete.
I just don’t want to be incompetent anymore. I don’t want to let people down.
Tomato in the Mirror
First Priority/Disclaimer: If you are self-harming, that to me is an indicator that it’s time to revisit your mental health pro(s) or ask your school counseling office or your folks or your primary care doc or someone to help you find new ones. Think of therapy as a safe place to sort out the feedback you are getting from supervisors and from the inside of your head and to figure out what is true and reasonable. Think of it also as a place to examine the idea that temporary failures are an indicator of something “unchangeable” within you.
Now, the part that I can answer:
You are a graduate student, which means that this is a time of learning.
Your internship is for trying things and for being trained and gaining experience as a professional in your field. You don’t know everything yet and nobody expects that you will.
Some of the feedback you got from the company was negative, but “my supervisors are excited to ramp things up with me next term” is far from a dismissal. Internships can be discontinued at the discretion of the company, but instead, they are going to invest more time in teaching you.
Feedback in the academic world is different from feedback in the professional world, and it can be an adjustment for people new to the workforce to take it in stride. In fact, in my experience, better academic performers sometimes have the hardest transition here. Think of it this way: In school feedback is there to serve you. At work, feedback is there to serve the clients/customers/the firm first and you only incidentally. Students who are used to getting personalized feedback like “I can see how much you are improving at x skills, now work to develop y and z skills and you’ll be golden!” on a paper sometimes balk when the feedback comes as “I need you to correct the mistakes in this report before we send it out, thanks” before your boss turns back to the mountain of other work they are doing. If you’re used to getting a lot of praise for academic success, it can feel like your boss is angry or disappointed in you when they are most likely neither of those things; they just need the report to be right so they can send it out and it’s not about you at all. Because you are mostly smart and competent, it doesn’t occur to them that you would take “do it again” or “not that way, this way” the least bit personally.
Learning means going outside your exact comfort zone. If you only did what you were already great at, you’d never stretch or grow. You’ve bought yourself this time in school so that you can increase your knowledge and your experience and learn new skills, so use it. Take your internship, for a start. Here’s one self-evaluation process you could do:
- Make a list of all of your job duties, big and small.
- Which tasks do you enjoy the most?
- Which tasks do you dislike?
- Are there types of jobs in the field that maximize the first and minimize the second? Could you seek out positions that are more about research or technical skills and less about client support, for example? (If so, congratulations, you learned something from your internship about what it is you most want to do, which is one of the things your internship is for).
Alternately, being told you could use some polish and more attention to social skills isn’t the same as being designated “permanently terrible” at such things, and gaining some confidence in those areas will serve you no matter what you end up doing. So, what could you do to show your supervisors that you take their feedback to heart? What would you do if you could internalize the idea that they don’t want you to fail or think that you will fail? For example:
- Does your school’s career office do networking events & training sessions along these lines? Look for key words like “Soft Skills for Business,” “Leadership Skills,” “Emotional Intelligence At Work” etc.
- Could you join something like Toastmasters to give yourself practice and an outside-of-work avenue to improve?
- Check out Succeed Socially for tips and for a community of people looking to improve.
- Could you use the feedback you’ve received to create a checklist or study guide for yourself before a call or meeting with clients? Some ritual to remind yourself to breathe, slow down, listen more than you talk, take notes, give yourself permission to think about things before you answer questions (“Good question, let me take a second and think about that/Let me check on the answer and get back to you.“) or whatever it is you need to do.
- Could you ask your supervisor(s) or your professors/advisors for specific guidance? “Is there anything that helped you improve at x, y, and z when you were first starting out?“
None of those steps are going to cancel out an anxiety disorder, so treatment is still important, but social skills, including the business-y sort of social skills, can be learned and you can get more confident with practice. You aren’t a failure if the skills didn’t come automatically installed for you and if you have to work a little harder on them than others or than you think you should need to. If you read this site, you’ve gotta know that you are not unique in this respect, right? We’re all late bloomers here, whatever that means, since it assumes that there was at time that we “should have” picked this all up and that the time was definitely before now.
I hope you will check in with your mental health team, spend some time with those lovely friends and family of yours, make some cool art (and remind yourself that you know how to make something out of nothing), and kick a lot of academic and professional ass this semester. I think you are most likely right where you are supposed to be, learning what you most need to learn, right in the middle of blooming.