#818: Imposter Syndrome strikes again!

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

Dear Tomato:


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.




161 thoughts on “#818: Imposter Syndrome strikes again!

  1. The keywords “procrastination,” “scattered,” “inefficient,” “overwhelmed,” and “acting without thinking” leapt out at me from your letter. Look, I realize Captain Awkward has a strict “no Internet diagnosis” policy and maybe this comment will get axed, but you could be me in my early 20s prior to my ADD diagnosis. If no health care professional has discussed ADD or ADHD with you, please seek out testing or counseling specifically aimed at such. ADD can be misdiagnosed as anxiety, especially in women; anxiety and depression can be comorbid side effects (or separate syndromes), but treating them alone would not solve the ADD issue SHOULD IT PROVE to be a real and untreated source of your present distress. (If you encounter a health care professional who says it doesn’t exist in women or doesn’t manifest in adulthood, keep going til you find someone who does not hold to these disproven, outdated modes of thinking.)

    Maybe your brain is wired somewhere to the left or right of the bell curve. There is no more reason to be ashamed of a non-neurotypical brain that there is to be ashamed of dyslexia, dyscalculia, sensory integration disorder, or any number of executive processing differences.

    Best of luck to you, whatever course you seek.

    1. This is not at all a bad call, though it’s better site-rules-wise when recommendations focus more on the commenter’s own personal parallel experiences. However, that collection of keywords is pretty illustrative, so I’ll allow it.

      I was diagnosed with severe ADHD this summer after years of being told that “it couldn’t possibly be that, you’re a girl” and despite having periods where my depression and anxiety were under control and I was still struggling mightily with executive function (and still beating myself up with “why can’t you just do the simplest things?” messages) and it has been very helpful in being gentle with myself when I struggle certain kinds of tasks and organization. Grad school, especially if there is a good Center for Students With Disabilities on campus, can be a great place to get that all sorted out and get some support strategies in place.

      1. Yeah, as a woman with inattentive ADHD I was like, “I do have ‘unchangeable cognitive or personality flaws’ and there are still ways to cope with them.” My brain’s executive function didn’t grow quite right so if I ever go off my meds the same gaping chasms will open up in my attention span and ability to get my shit together. But I can work with it and plan around it. During the hiring process I tell my employers right off, “I can be pretty scattered sometimes so I’ve learned I need a lot of structure and routine and ways to be held accountable. For example, it’s better for me to schedule a time to come talk to you every week or two to check in on how a project is going than to wait for me to seek you out when I’m having trouble. If I’m having trouble I’m often just fighting to keep my head above water and it doesn’t occur to me to ask for help until it’s too late.”

        Because I’m good at, you know, my actual job. I’m irreplaceable at the meat of the work. But all the paperwork surrounding it? Ohhh boy. I’ve gotten good at saying, “Thanks for the feedback!” whenever my supervisor reminds me of some finicky step or other I’ve forgotten.

        1. Your second paragraph describes me perfectly too!! I am very good at my actual job but TERRIBLE at the paperwork, and when I just recently started with a new client, I explained that right off the bat. The first time I turned in paperwork to my new boss, she wrote back with five things I needed to correct, but having them written out in a numbered list like that made it super easy for me to correct, and I immediately wrote back to thank her for the feedback. Unfortunately one of my other clients still gets a bit testy with me whenever I make a clerical error, but despite them reprimanding me SEVERAL times (I do learn from feedback and do try hard to fix my mistakes, but keep finding new and creative ways to mess up! Hooray!), they continue to consistently give me large and important commissions, which they absolutely do not have to do, since I’m a freelancer. So I just want to agree that yes, even if some problems DON’T just go away, even with hard work, your skill and dedication in other areas may more than make up for it!

      2. I was diagnosed with severe ADHD this summer after years of being told that “it couldn’t possibly be that, you’re a girl” a



        Someone who has ADHD and was told “it’s a boy thing, and it’s misdiagnosed,” “You don’t have ADHD, you couldn’t do your job if you had it,” “You’re probably a secret GENIUS” (LOL WUT), “your problem will be solved if you eat whole foods” (Fuck off), and “if you take meds you are shill for the pharma industry/using a crutch.” (I’m not taking meds right now but holy shit that thinking needs to die).

        1. “You can’t have ADHD, your grades are too good (and you’re a girl). You’re probably spacing out in class because you’re not being CHALLENGED enough.”

          That was totally the case, every school guidance counselor ever! I definitely forgot to turn in any homework for entire semesters at a time because the classwork was just so damn easy!

      3. I don’t have ADD, but wanted to leave a comment because Tomato’s experience so reminded me of my own early work experiences. I did not have direct negative feedback, I had indirect negative feedback. Looking back now I realize I had a) no social skills; b) no knowledge of workplace “games” and how to play them. Captain makes a good point when she says that academically successful people can have the worst time adjusting to work life and that was absolutely true for me. Tomato, in a way, you are lucky you have gotten the direct feedback. You know what you need to work on and that it is possible to learn the skills necessary for success. i had none of that. I so congratulate you on reaching out and sending your post. It means you believe in yourself and your capacity for change. “Know thyself,” says the axiom, but “Love thyself” should be it’s companion. You will need to love yourself as you navigate this period in your life. Good luck and know we care about you.

      4. “I was diagnosed with severe ADHD this summer after years of being told that “it couldn’t possibly be that, you’re a girl” “


        *tries to refrain from throwing several things against wall*

    2. My thoughts exactly, says the diagnosed-with-ADHD grad student.

      If I were you, I’d at least investigate getting an assessment to rule the possibility out. Whether or not you have AD(H)D, you may find it worthwhile to read up on some AD(H)D coping skills and methods, as they can be very helpful for the chronically disorganised/procrastinatory, whether or not AD(H)D is part of the mix.

    3. (MHcP here)- I tell my clients all the time to check out the book Driven to Distraction by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, especially if they’re feeling guilty for having symptoms that might indicate AD/HD or are simply interested in it. That sucker got me through grad school without feeling like a total failure for being who I am and it flops away the myth that adult-female ADHD doesn’t exist. It does! The book has some great exercises to help you practice controlling anxiety/different things that look like AD/HD symptoms and it’s very encouraging of getting a MHcP’s opinion through face-to-face meetings.

      Tomato, be kind do yourself. Working on a different wavelength than is expected by other people in your job can give you great chances to enhance your field, find creative solutions to unexpected problems, and learn how to speak a few “type and personality” languages (people who speak in purple have to learn how to communicate with people who speak in numbers) which can enhance your flexibility and compassion. However it works out for you, being different is a wonderful thing- there’s nothing wrong with it and once you learn how your body and mind works, it’s a lot easier to find solutions that work for you instead of trying to force yourself to behave against your nature. Best of luck!

      1. My husband (adult-diagnosed ADD, *after* he’d finished his PhD in an incredibly ADD-unfriendly field) found Delivered from Distraction amazing. (same authors – Hallowell and Ratey – but 10 years later) He addresses a lot of the common complaints about Driven to Distraction, and adds new materials.

        As the spouse of someone who was adult-diagnosed, it makes SUCH a difference in relationships and ability to be reliable. Spouse used to hate himself SO MUCH and feel so incompetent and stupid (see above PhD, also he’s an amazing teacher) and now… well, he’s able to deal with it a lot better from having a biological reason for distractibility/hyperfocus. 😛 Not to mention the meds. Thank GOD for the meds!

        Tomato: All the best! You’re where you want to be, and like the Captain said, they’re excited to ramp things up with you! That’s a sign that you’re doing something really well!

    4. I’m going to go ahead and be the voice of disagreement here. I WAS diagnosed with adult inattentive ADHD until the clinic I’m at now (which is considered one of the better ones in the entire country) administered some rather rigorous neuropsych testing. Turns out I have OCD instead. Just as ADHD can mimic anxiety, so too can severe anxiety mimic the executive functioning problems associated with ADHD. In fact, the keywords sioushi honed in on all describe the experience of OCD quite well. OCD is heavily associated with intense feelings of SHAME. It’s paralyzing, hence the inefficiency, “procrastination”, and feeling “overwhelmed.” OCD is a type of anxiety disorder, the extreme anxiety that leaves one “scattered”, disorganized, and unable to prioritize properly. Add in the obsessions and/or compulsions and you get a perfect storm of “acting without thinking” because you felt compelled to act or were too obsessed with(worried about) something to calmly think your actions through.

      I short, LW, the fact thatyoufeel incompetent and like you’re letting everyone down is the shame of the OCD talking. I have the exact same thought ALL THE TIME ( funny how I can recognize it as false when you’re the one articulating it, but not when I’m citing evidence about myself from my life). The fact that you’re obsessing is what’s enabling you to come up with evidence to support the shame induced thoughts while discounting all the evidence that would contradict it.

      Btw, try to find a therapist who knows how to treat OCD. The proper treatment is exposure therapy where you learn to tolerate high levels of anxiety. The CBT used for depression or even ordinary anxiety disorders, the type based on reassurance thoughts, is actually counterproductive and will never work. Unfortunately, I speak from experience here.

      1. And this is why we have the “no armchair diagnoses rule!” Not because you or anyone else is wrong, but because we none of us have a clinical relationship with the LW that would allow us to do more than speculate.

        1. Agreed. But I also think that the main takeaway from this bit of the comments section shouldn’t be “It sounds like you may have X”, but “It sounds like you may have a neuropsychological problem of some kind that might be helped greatly by getting to a professional who can assess, diagnose, and treat such things”, and I think that’s great advice.

          1. I also agree with Dr. Sarah. I have learned a lot from this thread, and some of it may apply to myself (I am female who is likely Aspergers, and many parts of my life follow along with the letter writer and the commenters. At 45, these are new revelations, and I am finding some tools to function better, and also have been able to find to peace with the thousands of, “whys??” that come with these “conditions” for lack of a better term. Really any advice is going to be speculation, whether or not it is medical. I have now a few things myself to investigate next, gleaned from this section of comments. I only sought professional help for my “stuff” because a person whom I met through the internet said, i think you may have this, you may want to investigate further! If anything, I can more easily forgive myself for being “weird”, and also give others some sort of reasons to work with, and elicit a bit of their compassion and patience for me.

    5. I think my comment about those keywords also being pretty typical of OCD experiences got eaten. Shame and anxiety are HUGe in OCD. Just as ADHD can mimic OCD, so too can OcD mimic ADHD, at least in my experience. As a woman whose diagnosis was switched from inattentive ADHD to OCD after neuropsych testing at a highly respected clinic, LW’s letter really resonates, especially that last line. It is a thought that has invaded my head so frequently, it’s practically a mantra for me.

      1. The two are also often comorbid. Also, I think anyone with any form of mental illness in our disablist society is going to experience a lot of shame anyway just from not being able to do the things “everyone” can do.

    6. I am a woman who has been diagnosed with inattentive ADHD last month and have recently started medication for debilitating anxiety that comes up mainly in the workplace. I am seeing a lot of myself in the letter writer’s story too. Here are some things that I’m noticing in the letter that seem really familiar, a narrative thread around success / failure / underachievement, that I want to speak to:

      – LW, you are pursuing a career that you’ve been wanting since you were younger. You completed your undergraduate degree. You are working in an internship in your field. Your host company wants to continue to invest in developing you. You have worked part-time while studying. You’ve been brave enough to face your troubles with anxiety and seek out treatment and know the areas in which your anxiety affects you that you want to work on. You’ve built up your confidence during grad school. You’ve held customer-facing roles and have managed to ‘put your best face forward at work’ (this is not nothing!) These are really great achievements and I hope you can take a moment to give yourself credit for the work you have done and the things you’ve achieved, rather than purely focusing on what there is still to be done and the times you’ve dropped the ball a bit.

      – To be clear, I think right now your anxiety is making you focus hard on your shortcomings and overlook your strengths. I think in reality you are doing far better than you think you are. You say ‘the other day I realized that I’ve never been good at anything’. I’d like to encourage you to gently examine this belief, maybe with your therapist. You say you have wonderful friends and good family relationships: I don’t think you just ‘accident-ed’ into these. I suspect you are good at being a wonderful friend yourself, and good at being a loving daughter. You are good at working to manage your anxiety. I think you are good at both sticking with things (school, relationships) and trying new things (volunteer positions, hobbies). I think you know what you want and are generally self-aware and wanting to try your best and do well (‘I just don’t want to be incompetent anymore’) and be good to other people (‘I don’t want to let people down’). What happens if you tried to frame these worries in positive terms as goals, rather than in the negative as personal shortfalls and self-criticism? Rather than ‘I don’t want to be incompetent anymore’, what if you tried noticing that thought when it comes up and replacing it with ‘I want to learn to be totally kickass professionally over time’. What if instead of ‘I don’t want to let people down’, you notice your fear of disappointing others and tell yourself ‘I care about doing well for my sake and for others, because I am a caring, driven person who is passionate about her work’. The great thing is you have experience in monitoring your self-talk already.

      – You say that ‘in general I don’t have the professional conduct skills to “fit in” at the agency or truly connect with clients’. The Captain has made some suggestions about increasing your skills in this area. I would also suggest noticing someone in your workplace who you think is good at this part of their job and trying to write down two or three things they do. I’m not suggesting this so that you can compare yourself to them and feel bad that they seem to be kicking ass in this area professionally while you are struggling with it. I’m talking in terms of concrete behaviours as the idea is to de-mystify their skills by breaking them down into component parts that you can over time start to try out and practise yourself. You called them ‘professional conduct skills’ – a profession is a context, conduct is a way of behaving, and skills are learnable and not inherent.

      – I would also encourage you to spend some time noticing and observing the feeling of ‘not fitting in’ at the agency, as it’s possible that it’s just not quite the right workplace environment for you and that you are assigning your discomfort to your anxiety or your approach in the workplace, rather than being in a wrong-fit environment (which can make us anxious!) Regarding what you say about ‘truly connect[ing] with clients’………. my serious question would be, do you need to ‘truly connect with them’ and how would you know if you were truly connecting? I obviously don’t know what your industry or client base is, but if you basically understand what your clients want and can deliver it (and I know that is not always as simple as I am making it sound), then that might be a sufficient connection even if it is less emotionally satisfying than whatever it is you mean by a ‘true connection’. I wonder if there is a tiny bit of perfectionism or magical thinking happening when you think about how you ideally want to be at work – which might be a mental image of you as someone completely anxiety-free, mistake- and flaw-free, confident, who effortlessly schmoozes clients etc. It mightn’t be a realistic image even without anxiety at play, and it also mightn’t be necessary in terms of professional success to achieve that level of ‘true connection’. Worth thinking about, anyway!

      – On the subject of magical thinking and/or perfectionism, we don’t see other people’s errors, foibles, ugly thoughts, stumbles, embarrassments or idiosyncrasies as closely as we do our own and that can make ours seem far greater whereas really they’re just magnified because of proximity. Is there anyone in your workplace who struggles with the areas you struggle with? Can you notice how they try to improve? Could you guys buddy up and work on your client skills together and provide a bit of gentle coaching? Maybe being slightly vulnerable with someone and letting them be slightly vulnerable with you and looking at skills and behaviour together could help remind you that it’s OK to be good and not great. That it’s OK to be good enough and not shoot for 100% all the time and that taking away the pressure to be perfect and make zero mistakes will likely result in improved performance anyway! (And if reading ‘it’s OK to be good and not great’ made you physically recoil, I think perfectionism is something to be examined gently here).

      – I think you should not go fishing for the negative. I know that my anxious brain love to go over and over things looking for cracks, and a lot of my experience of anxiety is waiting for the other shoe to drop. You say that ‘with some wheedling I got one supervisor to indirectly admit that if this had been a job, I’d have been fired by now’ – why did you wheedle your supervisor during a performance review? You say ‘one supervisor’ – did you have other supervisors telling you that these areas were fine? I feel like you pushed for negative feedback and are now devastated by it and tying a lot of your self-image to it and I’m curious as to why you ‘wheedled’. Does negative feedback feel more ‘real’ to you than positive feedback? Did you need someone external and in a position of authority to confirm some negative thoughts you were having about yourself and your performance?

      – You say ‘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 myself sought help and I ended up feeling the exact same way as you – shocked and disappointed that even though I was feeling better, the problems that I associated with anxiety were still there! I saw a specialist who said my anxiety levels were still high and it’s just that they were so incredibly high before that now that they’ve dropped off a bit I feel OK by comparison now, even though in reality it’s still debilitating. Anxiety can be a chronic condition and if you’ve always had it to a greater or lesser degree it might feel like it’s less at play now, but honestly when I read your letter you sounded very anxious to me (although our stories are so similar that I could be over-identifying). I think you have ‘done the right things’ in terms of getting help and are maybe feeling anxious that it’s not gone away? But that is not really how it works. I’m learning that it’s about management, not cure, and even though I’ve known it intellectually for a long time I struggle with that emotionally. Maybe as anxious folk our markers for success are different than for neuro-typical folk. Maybe ours include learning to accept and manage our anxiety and even harness it for self-improvement and energy like you’ve started to (‘I make up for school-related procrastination with anxiety-fuelled planning and get really good grades’) rather than hating ourselves for the ways in which our brains work.

      – Finally – resources!
      * http://www.askamanager.org/2012/03/how-to-be-a-blunt-assertive-awesome-hard-ass.html and the Ask A Manager archives in general
      * https://captainawkward.com/2014/07/10/597-how-do-i-learn-to-take-criticism-better/ and https://captainawkward.com/2013/02/16/450-how-to-tighten-up-your-game-at-work-when-youre-depressed/ (sub out ‘depression’ with ‘anxiety)
      * https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en

      Sending you lots of love and compassion. Your struggles sound so much like mine that I would strongly second the recommendation to get ADHD checked out but also consider the idea that your anxiety is still more ‘at play’ than you thought it would be after positive treatment.

      I hope you find some peace and pride because I think you are already kickass and I am so sure that you will only get more and more kickass over time. I just hope you can be kind to yourself around anxiety, self-improvement, your profession and work, and what success looks like to you personally.

    7. I know that I personally felt, when I found out that ADHD often comes with a hefty dose of something called rejection-sensitive dysphoria, like I had finally found the underlying cause of my social anxiety that therapist after therapist insisted had to be there. (There wasn’t a precipitating event in my childhood, ex-therapists; I swear, I have literally always felt this way.)

      I’ve also found being on meds for both the ADHD and the anxiety at the same time is loads better for either than just taking the respective meds on their own.

      1. Oh. Wow. You just lit up an enormous unexplorable area for me. ‘Rejection-sensitive dysphoria’. I’ve been meaning to get tested for AD(H)D for months now. I guess now I really must. Thanks for commenting here, I had never heard of that aspect of ADD and it seems like I really needed to.

    8. I was just about to say the same thing. I’ve just asked or a psychiatrist referral to start addressing the ADD diagnosis that I’ve been pretending doesn’t exist since about 1995, because of all of those words.

    9. Yes, to all of this. ADHD is so complicated and the effects are so far-reaching that it can take years to figure it out. I’ve found a lot of helpful information at additudemag.com. (It’s kind of a hobby for me to follow the research, especially since my son, my husband and I all have it. Guess how clean our house is? 😛 )

  2. If it’s any consolation to you, LW: I was in your position once before. Feeling like I was never good at anything (even though I always got good grades), constantly getting overwhelmed with anxiety, procrastinating, getting reprimanded by bosses… etc. That was then. More recently, I have been described MULTIPLE times as “excessively competent” by my peers, and I am doing fairly well in my professional pursuits.

    I started getting treatment for my anxiety in 2011. It wasn’t until 2014 that this trend of competence started, and even then it was on VERY shaky ground for a while.

    I think you might be falling into the trap of thinking “I got treatment for my anxiety disorder, so it’s all fixed now! Any residual problems must just be me continuing to be intrinsically terrible!”

    Anxiety disorders can fuck with you big time, in ways you don’t even realize until later. And the treatment takes TIME. Real time, multiple years of time. I have been in therapy for 4.5 years now and I’m still not as “fixed” as I’d like to be–and you know, I probably never will be. It’s a continuous process, and you are in the thick of it, still getting your feet tangled in the weeds and falling on your face every now and again. This is a normal part of dealing with an anxiety disorder. You are not broken, and you are not alone.

    1. Word.

      Right now my anxiety disorder is informing me that there’s no way I can finish my paper in time so why bother to try, you miserable person you. Also, no, no, don’t go downstairs and get your medication. Just stay up here and read CA instead of writing your paper!

      (I’m going to get my meds as soon as I click “post comment”, I promise. Look, I’m standing up even before I click.)

      1. lol, that sounds a lot like mine. at the moment it’s telling me to stay on the internet, not go do whatever I actually wanted to do. such a nasty little voice, I wonder why it feels the need to be so mean all the time… :/

    2. Any chance you can tell my psychiatrist this? She’s apparently brilliant with meds, but she thinks she’s helping me by seeing me every other week, which means that at least once a month I get a lecture about how if I don’t show improvement, the director of the clinic will drop me. The rest of my team is wonderful, and I even have therapists who specialize in OCD (an extreme rarity), but I just don’t know what to do about her given that I wind up crying about 20% of the time after I leave her office. I actually originally came here to write my own letter to the Captain asking for advice, but then I saw that the current LW has the same diagnosis and a lot of the same feelings as me so I found myself pouring out my heart in the comments instead. Sorry.

      1. Oh god, that sounds so sucky.

        My thought is to come at it from a counterintuitive angle–when you’re super anxious about your performance and someone is lecturing you about how you need to perform well, often the urge is to only show them the most polished, most perfect part of you, and do all your crying and self-doubting in private. Which is understandable and makes sense a lot! But there’s another way to do it that’s kind of like interpersonal judo–instead of trying to fight their energy, move with it so you have all of their momentum, but you’re the one in control of just where it’s going.

        So go to either your psychiatrist, or someone else in the clinic you trust, and dedicate your time explicitly to talking about, “Psychiatrist keeps telling me I have to show improvement or I’ll have my treatment removed. This is making me incredibly anxious because I interpret it as a threat. It’s interfering with my treatment. I want us to address it so that I can keep focused on improving.” And TELL THEM if you’ve noticed yourself doing things that could sabotage your treatment, like deliberately witholding information that would make you look like you’re not improving, or dreading sessions/wanting to skip them/actually skipping sessions.

        Things to ask:
        -“What are ways for me to show that I’m improving? What metrics am I being measured by? How much improvement do I need to show?”
        -“Let’s explore different ways to encourage and motivate me that don’t come across to me as a demand or a threat.”
        -“How much warning will I have before you drop me from this treatment plan?”
        -“Can we talk about what will happen when I reach a treatment plateau and stop improving so dramatically? What resources will be available for me to maintain my progress and keep me from backsliding as soon as I stop getting such intensive care?”

        1. I appreciate your response so much! I have so much that I want to say in reply, but the mere thought of typing it all out is overwhelming (and probably unnecessary, so I guess this is good practice for me). I think my biggest concern is badmouthing my psychiatrist to her colleagues. I’ve been pretty open with my psychologist, so she definitely knows about things I’m doing which could sabotage my treatment. However, I try not to tell her how much I feel my psychiatrist lectures me and seems to unconsciously prefer a tough love approach for me, because I don’t want to cause workplace drama between them.

          Also, I suppose I’m concerned I could make things worse. Months ago, I tried to address the issue of her lectures directly with my psychiatrist using the “When you say stuff like…, I feel criticized” approach. Afterwards, most of her comments started with, “I’m not trying to criticize you, but…”

          1. As someone who works in the field, it’s less likely to cause “workplace drama” than just… workplace constructive feedback. Kind of like a mechanic saying, “You can’t see it, but when you do that thing it causes oil to leak out the back of the machine.” The word that gets passed around is like, “Hey, Client X was talking to me today, apparently when you mention treatment goals it makes her think we’re going to dump her if she has a bad week, but she’s been afraid to talk to you. She knows I’m talking to you, so maybe you could bring it up next time you see her?”

            I’m a therapist. I know that we depend a lot on client feedback to do a good job. So many people respond totally differently to different things, and it’s not until someone says, “Hey, that’s not working,” that we can always know what’s up. Sometimes it takes a few adjustments before we find the right fit for approaches.

          2. If you have no option to switch to another psychiatrist in the practice, I think you should absolutely discuss this w whatever other therapist you are seeing. It needs to be processed somehow bc it’s affecting your treatment negatively. If youre worried about badmouthing, maybe focus on the facts when you talk about it. “I’m have a bad reaction to my meetings w x doctor. They say this every 2 weeks and it makes me worry that this other thing might happen.” And then see what questions you get asked. If the therapist tells you off for dissing that other doctor, it might be time to find a new clinic. But hopefully that’s not what will happen.

          3. Her: “I’m not trying to criticize you.”
            You: “I understand that, but it doesn’t change how I feel when you say these things, and I’d really like to try and approach this another way if possible.”

            Although if you’re at the point where you’re afraid that being honest will make things worse, you really do need to speak up to someone who can help. Even if that means making an official complaint to the clinic management.

          4. “I’m not trying to criticize you, but…” is sounding an awful lot like “I’m not racist, but… [incredibly racist thing]” or “don’t take this personally, but… [personal insult]”

            that’s not cool, and I hope she stops getting away with it. and I hope you get better treatment than that soon. *hugs*

      2. EchoFlower, I’m angry for you. Others here are offering you sound advice about maturely providing feedback. I, on the other hand, think you have a Darth Shrink.

        Is there another psychiatrist in the practice you could switch to?

        1. I was thinking that it’s OK to fire your psych people. It sounds like her style and yours don’t mesh. And that’s OK. It’s not badmouthing, it’s discussing a problem.

          Talk to your psychologist about this. That’s what they are there for.

          1. And your psychologist can help you practice any discussion you need with your psychologist. Regardless, if you feel your psychiatrist isn’t providing you with the care you need, you are totally within your right to find a new one. Like breaking up with a partner, giving them reasons can be a kindness, and give them an opportunity to adjust and not make those mistakes with others, but you’re not obligated to give them any explanation at all.

      3. “at least once a month I get a lecture about how if I don’t show improvement, the director of the clinic will drop me”

        That’s sound medical advice, though. Like this one time, my stepfather-in-law had cancer, and his oncologist was frustrated at the lack of progress, so one day the oncologist threw down and was all “LOOK IF YOU DON’T GET BETTER I’M GOING TO STOP TREATING YOU” and my stepfather-in-law realized that it was Serious Business and got right down to kicking cancer’s ass.

        Does that in any way, shape or form sound reasonable? Of course it doesn’t, because this is not fantasy land. You have the right to considerate treatment. You have the right to find another psychiatrist who will not give you more anxiety than you had when you walked in. You have the right to feel good about making a positive choice to find someone who’s a better fit for you.

    3. My anxiety disorder actually got worse temporarily when I started treating it. I didn’t have my first panic attack until after I had been in therapy for several years.

      On the surface, that might look like I was getting ineffective therapy. But I actually think it was the other way around – as a fairly smart kid in a family full of anxious people I had learned and/or developed some pretty kick ass coping mechanisms for my anxiety, many which didn’t even look like coping mechanisms! (Except for the smoking.) As I successfully progressed through therapy, I started letting those coping mechanisms go one by one. And, much like when you first get rid of your training wheels, I proceeded to biff it right into the street.

      1. (Eep, the threading makes this look like it’s part of the crappy shrink conversation right above. It’s not. Fire that person if they’re not helping.)

      2. This is a great point! My partner is also very much this way–his panic disorder got WAY WORSE for a brief period after he started actually acknowledging that panic.

  3. God. Once again, the letter I was just about to write. Jedi hugs, LW. We’re young, we’ll get through it. We have a lot of learning to do, but we have time.

    Thank you, Captain, for the great advice.

  4. “…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.”

    Holy crap this exact thing happened to me last week, and I was still kicking my own ass this morning about it AND NOW I KNOW WHY. Holy crap. I’m 36 and been working in my career for 14 years. My mind is blown.

    I would like to second the Captain’s words about social skills being learned, not innate and immutable. I, too, once thought social skills was an either you have ’em or you don’t thing, but my talk therapist really helped me work on improving mine and provided me lots of tools. Some of those tools I rely on daily, and some I tried and went, “Nah. Not for me.”

    I notice that you refer to personality and cognitive flaws. My dear LW, you are a perfect human being. You may have some personality and cognitive differences that are outliers on the spectacularly colorful and diverse rainbow that is humanity, but you are not flawed, you are not an error, you are not a failure. You are a person of great worth who can contribute and create and succeed. To substantially paraphrase the film “Meet the Robinsons”, we can learn the most from when things deviate from our perfectionist plans, the key is to keep moving forward, opening up new doors and trying new things.

    I believe in you, LW. I know you’re going to do amazing things and have some adventures along the way.

    1. I, too, once thought social skills was an either you have ’em or you don’t thing, but my talk therapist really helped me work on improving mine and provided me lots of tools. Some of those tools I rely on daily, and some I tried and went, “Nah. Not for me.”

      Most people who meet me think that I have good social skills but what they don’t see is the role playing that goes on at home so I can practice them. While I was in college I would have situations where I was put into a leadership position and I would make my sisters and mother (I lived at home) practice potential scenarios that filled me with anxiety. I’d have them role play the different reactions I was afraid of and honestly it helped. Being prepared for those situations in the event that they popped up made me feel more confident in my abilities. As I’ve gotten older and progressed in my life and career I’ve actually had some of those odd scenarios pop up and was able to get through them with minimal issues. Now when I have something come up that fills me with anxiety I have my husband role play those social situations with me. it really helps.

      BTW…my 10 year old daughter has noticed that I prepare for social situations that make me nervous and she’s started to do the same. It’s helped her most recently in asserting herself with a girl at school who was being unkind to her, to the point where the girl apologized for making my daughter feel bad.

    2. Chiming in here as one of those annoying people who has good-to-excellent people skills: I learned them too.

      In my case, my wiring, though tricky in other ways, makes me both sociable, though not necessarily extroverted, and hyper-attentive to the cues of people around me (this has its problems but).

      It took studying sociology and anthropology for me to realise just how much learning went into the whole business, because for fieldwork I needed to unpack and analyse my own socialisation and then learn the social skills needed to join a different group. It happens to be a form of learning and work I enjoy so much I don’t process it as ‘work’ usually, which is handy, even if there are days I would glady swop it for half the same talent for organisation and a side order of good spatial awareness, maybe with a topping of ‘good at math’.

      I’m painfully aware that this may sound like bragging. This is not my intent. What I want to say is, it’s work for everyone, and I think knowing that can be helpful for people who find it hard and feel like everyone around them got their social skills from the good fairy at their christening, and despair because they got something else instead.

      People’s basic aptitude varies widely. Nearly everybody can make it through the social skills equivalent of high-school math, one way or another. Some people take longer. Some people go further, faster. Some people need a way of learning that isn’t ‘pick it up as you go along’.

      How much people enjoy this form of learning varies widely. Some people just want to get through their day without giving offence or making things awkward and go home and hide. Some people are highly energetic extroverts

      The situation and social group a person grew up in varies widely: if your family of origin wasn’t a great environment, or they were lovely but themselves undersocialised, that makes a difference.

      So be easy and kind with yourself, but take heart: the important word in “social skills” is *skills*.

      But gaining skills is … just gaining skills.If you persist at learning them, and at finding the right way of learning for you, you will learn them.

      Also, I would like to suggest that for those who learn best by reading, Miss Manners can be very helpful, not because I think she’s always right or without big sometimes problematic blind spots, but because she is, kind of, doing Anthropology Of US/Western Society in her books. She explains the history and current reasoning behind each piece of advice, often extensively, so basically you’re getting to watch someone lay out a whole theory and practice of How To Social, in really a rather geekish way, and that can be really handy as you construct your own.

  5. This is good advice. I’d also like to address this part of the letter: “With some wheedling I got one supervisor to indirectly admit that if this had been a job, I’d have been fired by now.”

    Don’t wheedle people into insulting you. If you really press, you’ll eventually get the negative answer you’re looking for, and you’ll take it to heart because you already have a low opinion of yourself, and it confirms that. If your supervisor really had a problem with you, they would have told you. Try to trust that people who treat you positive-to-neutral think of you as positive-to-neutral.

    1. “Indirectly admit”, at that. LW, don’t do this to yourself! This is not helpful feedback, and it’s not something that can help you improve. It is exactly the equivalent of the “no you’re haaaaaave to tell me why you’re breaking up with me!”

      From the advanced and decrepit age of 37, I can tell you that a lot of your worries look a lot like many young neurotypical people just starting out in their careers. That definitely doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea to keep getting help with your anxiety and self-harming, or that you shouldn’t check out some of the resources on ADHD and similar, but it is also possible that your are just experiencing fairly common “adjusting to the workplace” issues.

      The other thing is that you may finish your postgraduate degree and you internship, get lots of help with your social skills, learn masses and … figure out that this career and this workplace are not right for you after all. That would be a bummer: it seriously sucks, when you’ve wanted to do this since you were small and then you have to go and figure something else out instead. But lots of us do that in our twenties (I did – PhD, half-hearted attempt at an academic career, before realising that didn’t suit me at all and becoming a careers counsellor, which I love, and I know loads of other people who are also much, much happier in their careers they found as adults after a false start or two.) It is survivable, and you can survive it. It isn’t by any means the worst that can happen. It means a year or two of confusion, whilst you figure out that Thing You’ve Always Wanted isn’t going to work out, some floundering whilst you figure out why it isn’t working out, some time looking at your skills and experience to figure out what you do like and are good at, and then you start off on the new direction, and you approach it differently and bring with your some of the knowledge and skills from your first career. You aren’t anywhere near the stage of deciding to give up on this career path yet, but if you think the worst that can happen is that you find out that it’s not right for your after all – that is a survivable outcome, and you can find something else to rock instead. 🙂

      1. Seconded! One thing I did not see in the letter is some variation on “I love doing this” and that is simply a sign that, like so many decisions pre-teens make, it was not a plan that would last into adulthood 🙂

        It can seem daunting to choose another career path, but it is far easier now than it is when one is in middle age, with a partner, children, and mortgage.

        1. I want to address this just because the idea of “the sooner the better” might freak LW out even more. It’s literally never too late for anything. My dad is seventy and in his third career. He changed at 25 and 50. I went back to school at 26 while caring for a disabled husband, went to grad school, was widowed, left a doctoral programme ABD, and am now a PI for a major STEM programme. My degrees are all in Classics.

          You never know where life is going to take you, and hopping off a ship that turns out to be headed someplace you don’t want to be can be done and can turn out wonderfully. 🙂

          1. I agree! It’s never too late.
            This past weekend I was able to attend the first ever Broadway Con in NYC. There was a wide range of theater lovers attending this event and a lot of really wonderful stories from guest speakers that kind of made us all want to leave home and make a name for ourselves in the NYC theater scene. One woman attendee around my age (early 40’s) stood up and said that she felt like it was too late for her to have a career in the theater scene and that made her sad. Another attendee, a man who told us that he was 69, stood up and told the story about how 12 years ago he was a teacher at a high school in the Boston area. He had always loved theater and always talked about it with his students when he got the chance. Some of his students encouraged him to start blogging about his thoughts on theater. He dismissed the idea because of his age, but they insisted, so he gave in. Within a few years he was traveling to NYC regularly to see Broadway shows as well as attending local regional theater. His blog grew and grew and suddenly he was being recognized by some of the best theater critics in the business. Now, at 69, he’s an award winning theater critic with a huge following. His message to the other audience members was that age should never stop a person from pursuing their dreams…because you never know what will happen. 🙂 I found that to be so inspiring.

          2. Good points, all. I’m just sharing my experience that when we realize changes might need to be made, better sooner than later.

            Of course we can come up with something new and interesting in our lives at any time. And I’m not saying LW needs to choose another course; I was simply noting that zie did not say how much they loved it, now.

            I’ve seen too many just hang on even after they knew it wasn’t for them. And that’s a burden no one needs, but especially not someone already juggling challenges.

          3. One of my colleagues is a successful professional in her field, and a grandma, and successfully tried out for a famous Texas-based pom pom oriented organization a year or two ago. You never know what you might do!

          4. I went back to school at 36, for a field I’m going to have to get a doctorate in. My friends are greatly supportive, but knowing it was possible had to be the first thing that happened.

    2. Yes, this. And also – you’re an intern! I’m on an internship kind of thing at the moment and I am a) doing pretty well and b) would totally be fired if I were an employee. Because I don’t know how to do half the things an employee needs to do yet, because I’m still learning. That’s why I’m there.

      (And this is the mantra I repeat constantly to myself because oh, I get you LW. I so get you.)

      1. Quite. ‘If this were a job’…. But it isn’t a normal job. It’s training. They get cheap labour in exchange for understanding that they will be working with someone less experienced and skilled at all aspects of the job as an experienced employee, who will need more training and coaching and will take longer to do things. It’s one of the reasons interns tend to get paid little.

        Don’t judge yourself by the standards of an experienced employee. You’re an intern. You’re _supposed_ to be a beginner at everything.

        Also, if you have to weedle someone into ‘admitting’ something less positive ‘indirectly’, chances are they hadn’t actually considered it a serious problem.

  6. am I allowed to mention ADHD here? because you’re reminding me so much of my younger self, and I could easily be projecting, but “overwhelmed and scattered” is one of the things that led me to researching ADHD-PI and discovering I might have it. it’s worth reading up on at least – and methods for coping with ADHD might be helpful even if you don’t have it. (like checklists! checklists are your friend! 🙂

    I’d also like to point out that “get really good grades” and “never been good at anything” are directly contradictory (if nothing else, you are good at getting good grades). watch out for contradictions like that, they’re a sign that anxiety/depression/etc. is lying to you. another cognitive distortion is this “unchangeable cognitive or personality flaws” idea. you can change your brain. it’s a hell of a lot of work, but it’s worth it, especially when you start seeing the ridiculousness of the part trying to trick you into believing you suck. 🙂

    you’re a wonderful human being (we all are), and you deserve happiness, and nothing can take that away from you. if your self-management skills need some work, you can work on them, but don’t confuse a lack of skill for an inherent flaw or any kind of self-worth judgement. *hugs*

    1. I’m glad you brought up cognitive distortions because I noticed that too and it reminded me a lot of an internship I had in college.

      I was going through a rough patch in college when a supervisor at an internship asked me to dress more professionally at work. My jerkbrain took this totally reasonable request and somehow turned it into YOU ARE NOT WORTHWHILE AND WILL NEVER BE SUCCESSFUL (I was also recovering from a very unexpected break-up, trying to work two jobs and go to school full time so jerkbrain had a lot of power). I started having uncontrollable crying jags at work so I saw a therapist who had me carefully journal my thoughts every time I got upset. If something went wrong (like, I made a mistake or faced even minor criticism) I would go from there straight to I AM A TOTAL FAILURE with pit stops at every past mistake and rejection I had ever faced. Once my therapist pointed out that this is not super rational I was able to start challenging my own thought process; when I started to get upset I could slow down my spiraling thoughts and stop myself way before I got to the point where I thought I was worthless. I was never diagnosed with anxiety but I think this is a pretty typical symptom.

      LW, I would challenge you to re-examine some of the conclusions you make in your letter and how you reached those conclusions, ideally with your therapist. If your supervisors are giving you more responsibility (that’s what ramp up means, right?) then I seriously doubt that you’re ‘incompetent’ or ‘not good enough for [your] chosen career path.’ When I read your paragraph about your performance review and try to parse what your supervisor actually said from your interpretation of it I get: We’re excited to give you more responsibility and your technical skills are solid, one area for improvement is client interaction. That’s two good things and one area for improvement, a pretty typical performance review, especially for an internship. Sometimes in performance reviews managers spend more time talking about your weaknesses than your strengths, only because there isn’t much to say about strengths. You’re good at it! Nothing to say! As AnotherAnon points out, if you’re getting good grades then you’re definitely good at something so clearly the conclusions you’re reaching don’t match reality and maybe your therapist could help you separate reality from jerkbrain perception.

      I’m also squinting my eyes very suspiciously at ‘with some wheedling’ and ‘indirectly admit that. . . I would have been fired by now’ What were your supervisor’s actual words and is it possible he or she meant something much less dire than you interpreted?

      Also, social/professional conduct mistakes are very typical early on in your career and pretty much the entire reason internships exist. Professional behavior can be difficult to navigate because different fields have different cultures and sometimes there are even different behavioral expectations for various departments within an office. For example, when I was reprimanded for not dressing professionally enough it was because I was taking my wardrobe clues from one of the full time employees (generally a good idea), the office’s graphic designer (not a good idea). In my first job out of high school I made a HUGE blunder by talking to a reporter without thinking about political consequences for the organization (luckily nothing I said was ever published). I was later reprimanded in front of my entire team. To give you some context, I am one of those people who is naturally gifted at professional interactions like networking and partnership building, and I have made some major mistakes in my time. Don’t beat yourself up too much for missteps in professional interactions, it happens to the best of us and it doesn’t mean you’re bad it.

  7. I read this letter and felt I could tell what feedback the internship people might have given, and how surprised they would be that the OP felt she was failing. It sounds to me that they really felt it was worth giving the OP advice, because with a bit of improvement here and there, she’s going to be fantastic. And then the organisation gets to benefit from all the great things OP can do for them.

    As the Captain has said, an internship isn’t expected to operate at the level of a professional job. Most interns would be let go from a more permanent role, because they’re not yet qualified. But that’s fine; interns are only judged against professional standards so that managers can help them develop into those professional roles in a couple of years’ time. Please, OP, try not to see this feedback as negative. If the internship is continuing, that means they think you’re great.

    1. Yes this, internships are for learning how to work in a workplace because school (as you have learned) is terrible at teaching that. So have some patience with yourself and see this as another learning opportunity.

    2. Yes, this. You’re an intern because you lack important skills THAT YOU ARE STILL LEARNING. If you could already do this job at a professional level and not be fired, you wouldn’t need to be an intern; people would pay you the going rate to do this kind of work. Instead, you are still learning. It’s okay not to be good yet at something you are learning! In fact, it’s a pretty necessary step. It’s where everyone starts.

  8. Cutting yourself is serious. Her medications may need to be adjusted. I would suggest taking a break from school and focusing on getting well. School can wait a while.

    1. I agree that self-harm is serious, but I’m not sure your advice is wholly warranted. We don’t know what form the self-harm takes, how frequently LW does it, etc. It’s possible–even likely–that taking a leave of absence from their program would put LW in an even worse place. Having a structured day, every day, can be very important. Continuing to move forward in their career path, rather than on hiatus which can feel like quitting, is probably beneficial. Lastly, they might depend on the student health system for their treatment.

    2. I am really not thrilled with this advice.

      Medication is not the be-all end-all of mental health treatment. You can still be anxious and depressed while medicated properly. Not everyone’s mental illness responds to medication the same way (or at all, for that matter!), and sometimes people have to make careful compromises between reducing the symptoms of the illness and the terrible side effects of the medication.

      Leaving school can be very difficult; getting re-admitted can be impossible. The newspaper at my alma mater recently published an article about the hell one student went through after being forced to take a “voluntary” leave for her mental health, which I would recommend to anyone who thinks this is an easy solution. http://tech.mit.edu/V135/N36/leave.html Taking a break from school is incredibly emotionally fraught and can bring a whole bucketload of judgment down on someone who does it from family and friends, and that’s aside from the possible financial repercussions of losing your scholarships/teaching fellowships/other funding because you had to take a break.

      There a host of factors that make this decision an extremely difficult one, and throwing one “just get better meds and take a break” out there like it’s totes simple and straightforward seems contemptuous of the work the LW has already put in to pursue their chosen career and cope with their mental illness.

      1. Yeah, this. Plus there is a hell of a lot of bias against people with mental illnesses in academe, still. Yes, it’s illegal, but I can think of a handful of people I know “let go” from their programs because of severe depression, anxiety, etc. Of course when pressed, the reasons were for things *other* than mental illness. Academe can be sick and unhealthy in so many ways.

      2. I agree. Medication changes and drastic lifestyle changes can also be precarious when you’re already struggling.

        I do think LW should give some thought to what’s absolutely necessary to do right now, and where they could possibly take a break (even just carving a few more hours out of the week, if that’s all that’s available). Staying in touch with psychiatrists or doctors about medication is also always a good idea when that’s affordable.

    3. I don’t think she needs to quit school (I never did when I was college age), and I’m glad I stayed in school. Home was worse than school for me, and I felt that throwing my whole life plan off track would actually make more stress. However, for a semester, I did take fewer credits (13 instead of 18 and easier classes), and moved to a smaller, better living arrangement (from huge dorms with no one I fit in with, to a liberal campus ministry building with only a few other like-minded people, and a responsible adult in the form of the pastor who worked there during the days). I didn’t tell everyone, either- just said I was having a rough time in my life and wanted to focus on myself.

      Anyway, that’s what I did. Having a more relaxed schedule and calm living space might help the LW get what they need.

      1. Yes! This is exactly what I’m doing this semester; I have a lot of stuff to deal with, so I went part-time, and one of the classes wasn’t working out so I dropped it. Two classes this semester gives me both a schedule and some time to work on my stuff.

    4. Ask Cara, wow, that seems more judgemental and less kind than I generally expect the commentariat here to be. Cutting, like other self harm, can be “serious”, and can show up in a situation where the person needs immediate professional help, but it also can be a somewhat misaligned and unproductive coping strategy. And it sounds as though the letter writer is getting professional help, and wrote to the Captain looking for other suggestions. Would you tell someone using a more socially approved coping strategy that she should drop out of school until she gets “better”?

    5. [Moderator Note]: Hi Cara, I suspect you were coming from a deeply concerned place, but I think this is simply outside our ability to know based on the letter. In my response I tried to foreground a recommendation to check in with mental health pros, and other posters have outlined why breaks from school might not be the best idea right now, partly because school might be the place with the most resources and structure to help the LW and partly because people having “OMG, WE MUST SEQUESTER YOU” reactions to self-harm adds to the turmoil and stigma around it.

      Everyone else: You’ve done a great job addressing Cara’s statement constructively so far. Let’s get back to addressing the LW and not veer too far off topic with more responses directly to Cara. Thank you!

  9. I have hired several people directly out of academia to work for me, and they have all been terrible at their jobs at first. I have made more people cry on accident than i EVER wanted to. You are not alone in finding this transition difficult, but you ARE ahead of the game because you are getting feedback, and now you have the opportunity to learn from it! That is SO important. And I know you are dealing with anxiety and a lot of issues, but I want you to know that you CAN make this transition.

    I have a lot of thoughts about this that I will attempt to enumerate for you based on things I have seen green employees struggle with.

    1. Listening & Taking notes. This is actually all I want from people that start working for me, for like the first 6 months. I want them to listen VERY carefully to what I say, and ask questions if they don’t understand. One of my new hires will sometimes follow up on conversations with e-mails outlining what he thinks I said to do, and asking questions, which is slightly annoying but ACTUALLY GREAT because it avoids miscommunication when I am hurriedly explaining things.

    This is especially great because when you are focusing on listening and learning, you are not bothering people in the work hierarchy. You are listening and trying to learn, and showing deference to people who are more experienced. It is also useful for conversations where people are not talking to you. You can learn a lot about the place you work if you keep your ears open.

    This is also hard for people from academia, because sharing ideas there is encouraged. So not contributing feels like you’re not doing what you are supposed to do, but you ARE doing what you are supposed to do, which is to get good at your job. Which brings me to the second point.

    2. Companies are hierarchies, but they are very complicated. Learning who to not piss off is a serious challenge. We actually had a “Final Four of Fear” in my office last March voting on who in the office was the scariest. (Only moderately tongue in cheek, I got 4th place.)

    The thing that is extra hard when you are just starting out is that while you have just a couple supervisors… it is better to act like everyone is your boss. Not in the sense that you do what they say, but in the level of deference you give them. It’s hard and it sucks, but if you can get yourself into that mindset it can help you learn a lot, because even the receptionist knows more about the company than you do as an intern. Though they might not have your education, they have institutional knowledge that can be very useful for you.

    3. Leverage the information that is available to you. If someone gives you a document with a bunch of information in it, or access to historical work that has been done on a project, and you ask them questions that could be answered with some research, they are going to be like. 😐 Sometimes you HAVE to ask, but if you can figure things out on your own, sometimes you will learn other information incidentally. And if you come to me showing that you’ve already looked it up and asking for clarification, I will feel like a jerk that my notes are bad, and not irritated with you for not reading them.

    Honestly I have done way more learning in my career than I ever did in school. The difference is that there is no final exam, there is no “i dont’ need to know this anymore.” No information is disposable. So the skill you have already been using, learning, is a skill you can just keep leveraging for your whole career.

    4. Making mistakes is a thing that happens. It is. You will continue to make mistakes throughout your professional career. Sometimes you wont even make any mistakes and people will still be mad at you anyway, so coming to terms with this now is helpful. Every time that I make a mistake I ask myself: How do I avoid making this particular mistake ever again?

    Sometimes the answer really is “Suck less” and I do my best to not wallow in it because there are OTHER THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE. But often times there is something I need to remember to do, or a way I can improve my workflow to avoid said mistake. I can double check things with other people or with my own work. I can set up processes for myself that do repeated tasks correctly so I don’t have to remember how to do them all the time.

    Here’s an example, I suck at keeping track of notes, notepads, notebooks, I always end up leaving them somewhere. So I started doing all of my note taking in Evernote after I missed some client requests because I lost my notebook. Problem solved, everthing is searchable and I have it on every device ever.

    Sometimes you just need to find ways to set yourself up for success! If that means organizing your work area or your files, or your to do list or anything that you can do to make your own life easier for yourself. For me part of that is also getting enough sleep, and not partying on nights I have to work. It’s just not worth the mistakes I will make at work on Friday, to go out on a Thursday.

    I also want to super up vote the Captain’s script of “Let me check on that and I will get back to you.” Checking in with your boss or with your materials and giving someone the right answer the first time, is not a thing most people will get angry at you for. (As long as you actually do get back to them relatively soon.) It shows that you are concerned with the quality of your work. At any given time i have a running list of questions I need to answer for other people that I put them off on so I could think about it.

    Eventually this will get easier, the transition is very hard, but you’re already ahead of the game. You have managed so much already, you can certainly manage this. Just try to focus your anxiety on finding ways to make work easier for yourself, with shortcuts and plans and organization, rather than turning it inward against yourself. Everyone struggles at work sometimes.

    At some point you may come to realize that this particular company is also just not a good fit for you. Every place has a different culture and different ideas about what is good and useful and helpful. And some places are just not a good fit for certain people. That doesn’t mean the entire career path is closed to you. The fact that you care SO much about it and already have a solid knowledge base and training means that you have a leg up. And with more time and practice and learning you will be a superstar. Just focus on expanding your existing skills with new business skills.

    1. I think these are great observations and I would just add, experience = things learned from prior mistakes. If you are in grad school, you probably are very good at being a student. Learning a profession can be a bit different (as Shinobi42 said). That can be hard, but the fact that your supervisors want to have you take on new things suggests that they see you learning and growing in the right direction.

    2. I do want to add a small note to the advice of “act like everyone is your boss” – first observe your office culture before you do this. In a lot of workplaces, a junior or new hire deferring to everyone means that they end up with everyone else’s work, with no time for their own. Listen to what your coworkers are telling you, sure, but check with your boss before taking on responsibility for the entire team’s output.

      1. Oh yes, absolutely. I just meant in terms of how you speak to them, not in terms of taking on their work. We get the occasional young person who likes to ‘splain things to the more senior employees, and it is not helpful to their career path.

  10. Re: self-harm. I’m just grateful to see another adult talking about it!

    I’m 25 and started doing it when I was about 9, and then it went on about 9-12, 14-almost 17, and for several months when I was 20. Then, I failed a major professional exam by half a point (and no appeals, because F you!) This has led to another six months of grinding poverty (not officially below the poverty line, but it’s small comfort when one has to decide between food and tampons because rent is so high), and we had to put off our plans to start a family because I obviously can’t start my real job without licensure. I felt like such a failure that I self-harmed when I got my results.

    I haven’t gone back to it, but we can’t really afford counseling either. But, the reason I’m writing about it here is because I lied to my spouse about it. I told her it was our (non-declawed) cat and even made it look like such. She’s been so stressed out trying to keep us afloat that I just haven’t wanted to add more on.

    1. Hey, not to, like, tell you what to do or anything, but you should probably tell your spouse? Just, speaking as someone who deeply loves someone with depression and anxiety myself, I never feel burdened or more stressed out when they tell me what’s going on, or been going through their head. It usually is a bit of a relief, actually, because I love them and I can tell something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is. When they tell me, at least I can comfort them. Being able to do something, even if it is just listening or soothing, helps me as well as them.

      So, if you needed some encouragement. Also, it’s helpful to know, “I cut myself because I was stressed,” versus, “I cut myself because I was battling suicidal thoughts.” I would rather know than not know. Stay brave.

    2. If keeping things afloat is so stressful that the non-SI-ing member of a partnership is stressed out of her mind? It sounds like it is really, really time for you guys to start accessing community resources. Not just finding low-cost counselling, but also things like food banks, support groups, and social clubs. Because what the self-injuring is really saying here, what you’d really be saying to your spouse is, “This is untenable and we can’t cope like this.” So if you tell her, you have to be open to her trying to change the situation to make it more bearable.

      Be prepared for hard conversations to be really stressful–to raise your heart rate, your blood pressure, your stress hormones. Be prepared to take a break in the middle of them, to do something to calm down, to have pre-arranged moments where you pause the stressfest to comfort and soothe each other so you remember that you still love each other.

      Self-injury generally happens when people feel emotions that are so painful and uncontrollable they don’t have any other way of coping with it. Any good treatment you pursue is going to focus on finding concrete, physical ways to deal with your emotions that keep them from getting totally overworked. So it sounds like it would be a good idea for you and your partner to address this problem together as a general regime of “how to de-stress without costing a ton of money or making everyone’s life harder.” That means adding routines to your life aimed at helping you lift your mood and making your body a happier place to be. Literal “5 minutes a day” stuff, because if you can have a dance-off in the kitchen or a play-session with your cat or if blasting a certain album is a sign that you’re feeling like shit and need cuddles, and if you can do it consistently and repetitively, you teach yourself that even when you’re stressed you have an escape valve and therefore feel less trapped and helpless.

    3. There is no extra credit for doing things the hard way. What I mean by that is that there are programs and food aid things that can help you, and not using them because of pride or feeling like you aren’t in dire enough straits does not earn you anything other than more stress. If you don’t have the spoons to track down the info, lean on friends or family or even people here.

      Having something concrete that I can do to help a friend or family member I’ve been worried about makes me feel a strong sense of relief, even if it’s just “please sit in that corner and keep me company while I try to clean”. So try not to feel like asking someone to help you find help that you qualify for would be bad or wrong.

      This is not what forever will look like for you.

  11. I’m breaking my lurking silence to comment on this post because I could be the LW in a number of ways and I wanted to share my experience. For years I was the exact same way, and the adjectives “scattered,” “overwhelmed,” “inefficient,” “procrastinator,” were how I was described, and eventually, after years of hearing these damaging words, it was how I described myself. In addition I added the words “ditzy” and “flaky” to this. Not only that, I also had moments in my chosen career path in which I felt I wasn’t cut out to do what I desperately wanted to. It all came to ahead just before I turned thirty, while I was – you guessed it – in graduate school.

    It was after reading this blog, and many other blogs, that I decided to get tested for ADHD and ADD. I got the real-deal psych-testing, which I was able to do through my school on an income-based pricing system, combined with my health insurance company. Because mental health care in this country is slow and sucks, it took me a full year to complete the testing, which involves several appointments and a rigorous five hour test with a psychiatrist, but it was WORTH IT.

    The test was recommended to me by my therapist who recognized some ADD symptoms – she said I had 6 out of 10 or something like that. This was enough that she could have given me meds. But she highly recommended the testing and I am glad I did it because it turns out that I do NOT have ADD or ADHD.

    The test is so comprehensive that it covers almost everything that could have caused the symptoms I was having. What it revealed was that it was the anxiety and depression itself, caused by internal and external things – workload, stress, negative thoughts, relationship and deep-seated childhood issues, all came together to mimic the symptoms of ADHD. This was important because often meds for ADHD can increase anxiety, which would have been very bad for me.

    It’s been over a year since I had the testing. Based on the results, I was placed with a therapist who was able to cater to my very specific needs, and I have been receiving targeted therapy to deal with my issues of disorganization, my feelings of being overwhelmed, and the negative self talk that has exacerbated these problems since my childhood.

    The therapy is not easy – it is work. I sometimes hate going, as it has opened some ugly stuff that I had ignored for years, or that I didn’t realize was happening. But I have noticed, slowly and surely, that things have been improving. I’m now in my fourth year of my doctorate and hoping to finish soon. I made some life changes that eliminated certain triggers that made my symptoms worse. Interestingly, the more confident and at-ease I feel with myself, the better I perform, and the less I worry about criticism from others. And even more interestingly, the more I remember how much I actually love my work, and place the love of doing it above the fear of failure, or the need for success, or criticism/approval from others, the better I do the work, and the more I love it.

    I share all this with you because I know those terrible feelings of self-loathing, fear you aren’t good enough at what you love best, and the constant trying and trying and feeling like you come up just short. And I won’t lie, it still happens to me. I still digress. It’s still hard. If I make a mistake it’s really hard for me to avoid feeling exposed, like people have discovered I actually suck at what I do, and then to start the familiar downward spiral.

    But from reading your letter it sounds like you ARE good at what you love to do. Get the help you need, remember you love it, and in turn that will help you to love yourself. Best wishes, immense hugs. You can do it.

    1. This is a really great comment. I know from being anxious that often the anxiety feels necessary for good performance–like, if I don’t beat myself up I won’t want to do well! But like you, when my anxiety decreases, my performance actually gets way better. If I’m beating myself up all day, EVERYTHING feels awful and bad and like a failure, and then I kind of freeze up and just do what I can to tread water. But if I can be gentler with myself and recognize that there are several things I’m doing well, it’s easier to spot the ways that I’m messing up and take concrete steps to solve them.

    2. Your comment touched on a very good point. I don’t want to sound judgemental, but I did find it kinda weird when the LW mentioned her going through grad school and having been treated by experts before without there being any sign of executive function issues; I’m not saying that the LW lacks some sort of “ADHD cred” or something, or that people can’t live with the condition laying undetected until much later in life, many of the commentors here are proof of the contrary.
      But I do think LW should prioritize their anxiety first before adding anything more to their mental health plate, especially and most importantly because there is self harm involved.
      Now, speaking from experience, I can recall quite a few instances where my focus issues were apparent, that didn’t mean I got bad grades, I was interested in school subjects and most of my friends were the ‘smart kids’, so it’s not like I flunked (a lot); I do very well with structured teachers and professors who evaluate class activities other than tests, and I’m also in group activities, but with subjects where I’m left to my own devices, I’m not so good. It happened a lot with homework, example:
      -Friend: Wow! Those math problems where really easy.
      -Me: Yeah, kinda boring.
      -Friend: Took me like half an hour.
      -Me: 0.o …. it took me an hour and a half!

      Having gone through a bout of depresión in my teens, I can tell, there’s a big difference in how I felt then, and how I feel (and almost always felt) in terms of my ADHD.
      When I was depressed, I didn’t feel like doing much of anything! Sitting down or standing up for almost any task I needed to focus on became frustrating because I was irritable and nearly constantly felt like either crying or punching a wall, or both.
      With ADHD at it’s worst, I can sit down with the best mood in the world and willing myself to understand something with all my might, read it, not get it, have someone explain it to me, still not get it, try harder, get frustrated, then I feel like crying and/or punching a wall.
      In short, it’s cause and effect:
      ADHD->looses focus->gets frustrated->feels like crap
      Anxiety or depression->feels like crap->looses focus->gets frustrated (and feels more like crap).
      Once again, I’m only going by my own experience here, and I’m not trying to say anything like “you didn’t go through ‘X’, so you can’t have ADHD”, the LW could very well have some sort of executive function, but that is up to a professional to diagnose.
      I just found flyingpig’s point very compelling both due to their story and what they said about medications that can clash with each other. Also, tho there should be no shame in having mental illness, being diagnosed is still a big deal personaly and it does change your perspective on things, so maybe the LW might benefit by trying to get to a better place, where things can feel like ‘normal’ to them and taking it from there. Hopefully, they’ll get there soon.

  12. The advice about professional feedback not being personal is very wise.

    LW, I also have an anxiety disorder (in my case PTSD) and it makes concentrating at work very hard. In addition to all the very good advice people have already given, I want to say that you are not alone in fighting this particular demon, and stuff like this is one of the reasons anxiety is so damaging and difficult. It’s a vicious cycle : anxiety makes it hard to concentrate, and difficulty concentrating leads to the kind of issues that feed your anxiety.

    I have two pieces of advice for dealing with this.

    1) step up your self care generally. I also have a back injury that prevents me from doing physical work sometimes. When I don’t do my stretches or overexert myself, I am even less capable of doing anything.

    Just as neglecting physical self care makes me less able to do physical tasks, neglecting mental self care makes me less able to do mental tasks. For me self care looks like therapy, exercise (ideally aerobic), and regular interactions with friends and family.

    Please work on figuring out what you need to be mentally well, and put as much effort and dedication into that as you do into your studies.

    2) putting the issue aside.

    This is very hard to actually do sometimes. But when I am trying to do XYZ difficult thing for work, my brain likes to dump all the reasons I am terrible and don’t deserve my job on me. It’s a trap. There is no productive outcome to this. If I’m trying to deploy the website/debug the page/ figure out what the hell the graphic designer wants me to do, thinking of all the times I’ve been late to work (or whatever) is the opposite of helpful. It’s not that it isn’t a real problem, but it is one that I need to solve when I am not already focused on something difficult.

    When you’re at work and dealing with a tough problem, and the chorus of “I’m not good enough” comes up, see if you can schedule a time to deal with All The Reasons You Are Terrible, like later that day you can write them down or whatever. Because right now is not the time to solve all your problems, it is the time to do Specific Work Thing.

  13. When dealing with bosses etc, no news is often good news.
    Basically, if they’re ok with your work, typically you don’t get feedback. They’ll tell you if changes are needed, if they don’t say anything, they’re ok. (After many years of having bosses saying nothing, I’m finding it very odd to have a boss who actually says thankyou.)
    Also, there’s a reason that “fake it till you make it” is a saying. Many professional people feel they are adlibbing/treading water, despite actually doing a good job as far as their bosses/clients are concerned.
    Can you find a mentor in someone in a similar role/networking group that you can ask for tips? (without negatively describing your work, you don’t need to do that, they are likely to be flattered to be asked for advice).

  14. First time poster, long time reader 🙂

    Your local Department of Vocational Rehab (DVR) would be GREAT for helping overcome some barriers to employment, be an intermediary between your boss and you to catch issues early, help with solutions, etc. I wish I had worked with them when I had trouble with employment but didn’t know about them. Now my son is utilizing their services. It’s a great resource.

  15. Are you familiar with “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets? Basically, fixed mindsets believe that achievement comes from “natural talent” or is fixed and immutable, whereas growth mindsets believe that hard work and practice are the best way to get good at something. I’m seeing some examples of fixed mindset in your letter, and wanted to encourage you to think about the possibility your brain is being mean to you.

    I second the Captain’s advice to check in with your mental health team.

    Interestingly enough, I was recently diagnosed with ADD in my 30’s as part of a comprehensive mental health screen. But because I have lived with it for my whole life and found ways to cope with it, we made the decision not to try to treat it, as doing so would make another condition worse. I bring this up to point out that it is possible to find ways to work AROUND preexisting conditions. Even if the trouble you are having is based on an “unchangeable issue”, you still could find ways to work around it and improve your skills.

    1. everyone’s different, but for me personally, I’ve found that it is best to work WITH my symptoms than against it.

      1. I have ADD, and I’ve found the same thing. Allowing myself to jump from task to task, as log as I’m coming back to them and finishing them, helps me get things done. It probably looks less professional from the outside, but I am organized and wrap up the things I am doing, and it is at more productive for me than trying to make myself focus on one thing (or one piece of a particular thing) for extended periods of time.

        How that manifests will vary by person, of course, but learning that I could let myself do that has increased my productivity and organization immensely.

      2. It has been the same for me. I’m better as a person with ADHD than I am as an imitation of a person without it.

  16. “I just don’t want to be incompetent anymore. I don’t want to let people down.”

    ouch. I feel you there. In sorry you’re going through such a rough time right now. I hope your support system can help you through this. But also understand – these feeling are (unfortunately) quite natural when you want to do a good job and it’s something important to us.

    The last 2 years I’ve worked with a team of perfectionists and I worked very hard to try to keep up to their standards, and constantly felt like I was failing. When my big boss suggested I transferred to work with another group (good PD for me) I was surprised by how much my team lead said she was shocked and sad because they’d miss my hard, and high quality work and attention to detail- things I thought I was letting them down on!

    More recently (i.e. This week, my first week on the new team) I asked my new team lead if I could leave early one afternoon a week, and in the conversation I said in that half joking, as depreciating voice we use when bringing something we don’t like to light, and want to make light of it “it’s probably a bit cheeky, I start working for you and the first thing I do is ask to leave early, ha ha (isn’t it so funny, please don’t hate me and change your mind)”, and she said “well no, the first thing you did was come in and clear up the cupboard (that she’d wanted cleaned) and completely prepared your work space – it looks great, mine’s a mess!”

    In both cases my perception of my bosses’ feelings were off because I wanted so badly to do well, and the dear Captain is right that in a work situation often the feedback we get is about where to improve so we don’t have the “you are doing great and your work is what I want part” only the “…except this. This needs I change (hopefully they add in what way!)” because that’s simply what they need addressed.

    May you come to have confidence in your abilities, find your strengths in the workplace, learn how to deal with your weaker areas and also that having some weak spots is part of life and particularly common when you’re still getting the hang of things! Jedi hugs if you want them.

  17. Hi LW.
    I just want to second the part about feedback changing in academia. I’m a grad student too and this was a really hard transition for me, to the point of breaking down in my professors office because I thought I completely sucked once I got to the more independent part of my program. My advisor was really surprised and supportive and managed to convince me that I was doing great. But it really felt like I couldn’t do a single thing right! You really need to be your own feedback in a way. It helps me to keep a daily list of things that I did well. Good luck!

  18. Count me as another example of social skills being a learnable thing. I was an extremely shy child, to the point that someone really should have made an effort to figure out why I was so withdrawn. In the last year-ish, I’ve heard from more than one person that I’m friendly and personable. It’s been almost ten years since I graduated from college (I’m avoiding naming my age because I don’t want anyone older than me who’s still struggling with social skills to feel shitty) and it took me that long to get pretty decent at making friends with people and interacting with strangers. LW, please don’t beat yourself up about not instantly being perfect at something that many people take years and years to learn.

    I think you deserve some extra slack because of your mental health, too. It’s fantastic that you got a diagnosis and treatment, but you still need time to catch up. I don’t think it’s fair to expect yourself to suddenly be perfect just because your meds are working. My understanding is that meds get the anxiety out of the way so you can actively work on stuff instead of just desperately treading water, not that you’re a failure if you can’t instantly fix everything when you find the right meds.

    Oh, and concentration is a skill too. It’s one I’m struggling with as well. It may be that part of your problem concentrating is that you never got the chance to build your concentration muscles while your anxiety was dragging you down. I have some really frustrating procrastination issues and part of it is just breaking the habit of immediately switching focus when I try to start a task that I’m not absolutely 100% certain how to do.

    1. I started trying to learn social norms and skills by rote in my very late teens. I’d love to say it was earlier than that, but it wasn’t. I was raised by wolves, basically, and am sort of living proof that there are no innate social skills, because I am now reasonably socially proficient, and often described by people as kind, personable, friendly, socially adept, that sort of thing. I started by reading books and watching tv and movies and observing what seemed to be social norms in media. I would then compare them to the social norms I observed in the people around me,and attempt to reproduce the ones that seemed to actually be norms. It took a while, and unfortunately what usually happens is that you Master The Thing that was your far-off goal at the beginning of the process and then are like, oh, crap, that was just the tip of the iceberg!

      But it can be done–and the cool thing about pasting your social skills on in adulthood is that you have the opportunity to think through and really understand the norms you are reproducing in a way that people who learnt them early and for whom they are ingrained (not innate!) didn’t really have a chance to. I think obviously that learning them at the developmentally and socially appropriate age is better overall, but there are also benefits to learning them later.

      However, LW, your professional skills ARE still in that acquisition mode, and they should be! Professional skills, even professional-social skills, are a very different thing, and they also tend to be highly context dependent. Internships are a great way to learn professional-social skills in a variety of environments! You are okay. 🙂

      1. That learning social skills by rote idea is genius! I just kind of fumbled around until I became less terrible at interacting with people, I think I would’ve learned a lot more quickly if I’d done it more systematically.

        You know, that’s a really interesting point about having the opportunity to think through social norms instead of just absorbing them when you’re very small and taking them as gospel. There are things that I know I’m expected to do as a woman (taking all responsibility for my husband’s social life, for example) that I just don’t because I don’t feel like it and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet.

        In a weird way never fitting in has been useful to me because I’m so used to it I just don’t care much anymore. I work in a field I really love that’s massively male dominated and if I had ever fit in I think I would really struggle with always being the only woman in the meeting. LW, maybe one day you’ll be amazing at mentoring your own interns because you’ll remember what it was like to think you were terrible and everything was terrible and would keep being terrible forever.

        1. Needs must when the devil drives. 🙂

          I’m not going to say that it didn’t have its problems, but overall I’m very proud of myself for the things I’ve accomplished despite being raised by wolves. And it caused a habit of observation and introspection about social norms that I find very useful.

  19. If you are self-harming, your treatment IS NOT WORKING anymore! Everything else needs to wait until you’ve seen your mental healthcare person RIGHT NOW. I’ve had serious clinical depression with self-harm and suicidal ideation most of my life, taking treatment for it for ten years now, and I know from personal experience that these things cycle.

    Your brain and body change. You will have a treatment that works, being doing very well, then something will change chemically (even if life is great, no stress) and you will not be doing so well. Then badly. Then “holy fuck this shit is so awful that cheese grater is calling for my hand!”

    It is sneaky, it is gradual, and I am just starting to learn (after 4 cycles of this) to notice the symptoms at “not doing so hot” instead of “sinking Titanic”. Meds need to be adjusted sometimes, it’s normal, and society’s idea of “pushing through” is a big fat unrealistic lie.

    Get everyone on TeamYou aware of what’s happening, now, and get thee to your healthcare!

    1. Addendum: For comments further up (in reply to Cara), this is serious. LW states zie has been doing well, not having as many issues, and suddenly (to zer) is feeling so bad zie needs to self-harm as a coping mechanism. And the phrasing “I started self-harming this summer to make my self-hatred more concrete” is a CRY FOR HELP! Again, personal experience. I needed actual physical wounds partly because I felt no one would understand or believe how badly I was doing without them. “Concrete” evidence!

      Forget the argument of whether taking a break from school or “sequestering” LW is good or bad, and for the love of God stop the “medication isn’t always the answer” bull. Been there, lived it, ritually burned the T-shirt because FUCK YES it helps, even if it doesn’t “fix” everything.

      This is clearly a downward spiral, and I am furious because I have lived LW’s letter, and nearly killed myself because of crap advice not helping.

      Having a reevaluation with your mental healthcare person is not a bad thing, adjusting meds is not a bad thing. And only be able to “cope” by self-harming most assuredly IS a bad thing.

      1. Hi. Blogger ON medication here. First paragraph of response = “CHECK IN WITH MENTAL HEALTH PROS.”

        That endeth the extent that I or you or anyone here is able to consult re: LW’s mental health. We are not qualified to counsel them or recommend specific remedies.

      2. I have also lived parts of LW’s letter and needed completely different things than you did to recover. But like Jennifer said, I think we can all agree that checkin in with professionals is good.

    2. This lady needs strong supports, therapy, and medication. She is clearly overwhelmed (anxiety) and depressed, which could lead to a mental break down.

      1. The LW would most likely benefit from additional support and medical care!

        However, WHAT medical care (and what other steps, like a leave of absence from school) is up to the Letter Writer and to medical pros *who know them*, NOT total strangers reading a letter from at least several weeks ago. Leaving school (an environment where the LW is doing very well) is not an automatic response and fear of being made to leave school or other over-reactions can prevent people who are self-harming from disclosing or seeking help.

        Cara, you have made your point. Stop now.

          1. The way you (Ask Cara and Caraval) have been discussing this make me horribly anxious and stressed and I am not even the original letter writer. Now you are being rude to the Captain, who has been polite and has kindly assumed that you have the best interests of the Letter Writer in mind.

            Please consider that your, shall we say, unilateral and extraordinarily strong language might well make people, including possibly the original Letter Writer, feel that they are unwelcome, bad, wrong, broken, and do not belong in this space (for example, because they might have a “mental break down”). Perhaps that might be counterproductive?

          2. Molly . .. you’re stressed and anxious over comments on a blog? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.

            Furthermore, how is what I’m saying counterproductive? I work with people with SIB. This is very serious. To downplay this is counterproductive. She needs to hear the truth.

          3. This site’s comment section is relatively unique on the internet by virtue of NOT being a total cesspit. It is that way because when Jennifer says “stop talking about the thing” we STOP TALKING ABOUT THE THING.

          4. Please read the site policies before posting any additional comments and yes, stop this line of discussion now. The site is not a democracy and not every opinion will get a full airing. If that doesn’t work for you, your browser’s “back” button should take you handily to the rest of the Internet.

          5. Ask Cara works with people who self-injure and her response to self-injury is “freak out and drop everything”.

            God help us. And help the people Ask Cara works with.

  20. “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.”

    “technical skills are at par” – so you are good at something! You have good technical skills.

    For the other stuff, can you set up a meeting with a supervisor and talk about the social/conduct stuff? That’s an area that you can get mentoring and training in. And, tbh, it’s often an area where people are expected to simply know the unspoken rules and codes, but so many people don’t! It makes sense for you to be struggling to find your feet with that stuff during an internship. Perhaps when you get feedback, you could request that you get something written to accompany the review of your work? It might help for you to see it written down that you are doing well at x-thing, and excelling at y-thing, and need to work on z-thing. It makes it easier to remember that you have x and y totally under control, and that it’s not all about z.

    1. So much yes to all of this, esp. on the importance of professional mentoring or coaching for the social stuff at work. I used to get told all the time in performance reviews that I wasn’t assertive enough. And I had no idea how to get more assertive, just on my own. Then I got paired with a supervisor who was so assertive, she was like a bulldog driving a steamroller. Working with her really helped me learn where the line was (for me) and showed me where – and how – it was appropriate to push in a professional setting.

    2. I was thinking this also! And from the LW’s description of the structure of their program, it sounds like their career path may be something like social work, some form of counseling, some form of teaching, etc., so I wanted to say — those are, in general, fields where the internship phase really EXPECTS you to come in with good technical skills and weaker “professional conduct”-type skills. That’s the whole purpose of the internship — to teach you the things, like professional conduct, that are important in your chosen career but really, really difficult to learn any other way than on the job.

  21. I just wanted to say that I feel you, LW. For a long time, it seemed like every time I started a new job I would go into it wanting to do an awesome job and then found myself struggling to be even mediocre. All I can say is time and experience were what made it better for me. I’m doing pretty well at my current job, and just remember that everyone makes mistakes and feels stupid sometimes.

  22. Here is an idea that has been helpful to me, a perfectionist A-student who is failure-avoidant and sometimes self-sabotages:

    Always make new mistakes; it means you’re learning.

    Look, we never, ever stop screwing up in life. That can be depressing, but from a certain angle it is also LIBERATING! A screw-up is an opportunity to identify a thing you don’t know how to do yet, and try and do it better. Probably the next attempt will also not work out, but if you screw up in a new way that means that you learned something, and that is a success, because now you have identified a whole ‘nother thing you get to learn to do! Reframing failure as a necessary, celebratory step on the pathway to success takes the sting out and makes it kind of fun. It’s like going bowling with your dork friends and having your whole goal being a gutter ball a little further down the lane next time – eventually you find that you’ve nudged it all the way out of the gutter and your friends are shouting STRIKE!! and buying you beer. It takes a long time, and if you just looked at that score sheet, there would be a lot of zeros that didn’t really really reflect the incremental improvements, and you might walk out before you made all the new, interesting, on-purpose mistakes that improved your game. NOTHING feels as good as that strike, and then the next one, when you realize that actually you Learned A Thing from every damn gutter ball.

    We wear the grooves of our thinking deep, and in your letter I can here deep, fixed, ruts of thinking about yourself as Bad At This. But social skills are learnable; organization is learnable; efficiency is learnable; stopping to think is learnable. They take practice to do well, like everything else, and we do not always see the practice that other people put in (and therefore believe that they have automatic talent that we lack). You may not have an head start at pursuing your chosen career because you have not put in this practice yet, but you are passionate and thoughtful and can choose to develop the skills that you currently lack. I know because I did this; my chosen career requires serious organization and swanlike calm, which are skills that do not come easy to me, and I strategized and practiced and reflected and cried after my reviews and clung to the developmental arc and realized one day that my papers were in order and my first reaction to crisis was not panic but a steely raised eyebrow. Not automatic, not natural, not easy, but I learned it. (I now have my sights on a bunch of new skills that I don’t have yet, and am actually about to leave a job because it I am too good at it and missing a challenge.) STRIKE!

    Thinking this way – that failure is natural and normal and necessary to growth – is 100% not how we are taught to, especially when we are good students who have always been smart enough and good enough without needing to push too far outside of our comfort zone. But if you are making a new mistake, it means you have taken a new risk, attempted a new skill, and you cannot learn without doing that.

      1. YOU rock. Because bowling a 300 means a whole lot of hilarious misses first, and those fools messing around and accidentally bowling in the wrong lane are the future league champions.

        * I actually know nothing else about bowling, except that I prefer candlepin by virtue of regional pride.

  23. Depression was seeping out of that letter. Every bit sounded dejected. It could have been me, I was tempted to check my sent folder to see if I sent it. My question is different – am I very smart, or do I just have a wide vocabulary and unusually good command of the language? Some other people say that I’m very smart, but I’m not sure they aren’t just all fooled.

    If you’re self-harming ‘to make my self-hatred more concrete’, it is definitely time to revisit that mental-health team. I used to think like that. It never works. You will guaranteed hate yourself more, but it won’t /help/ you any. But do you want help? If some nasty little voice in your head is saying ‘but some people just should feel depressed’, then it’s definitely time to revisit that mental health thing.

    1. It feels like I’m quite familiar with your question, and where it might come from. I’m sure you know that ‘smartness’ is found in a wide number of areas, whether vocabulary, ability to manipulate numbers, understand people, and so on. We spend our formative years being categorised as smart or not smart by parents and teachers, anxious to get us through the hoops to a successful adult life. Then we get there, and it can take a while to realise that those categories are now irrelevant – they were useful for others to categorise our potential.

      To do well in life we’ll need a wide range of mental and physical skills. Some will come naturally and some won’t, but what matters is how we develop ourselves. We don’t have to prove our worth to anybody, and our various levels and types of smartness will change as we take on new challenges and drop others.

      So how do we get a sense of self worth, if attributes like intelligence are not what determines it? It’s a lifelong question for me, but I now try to give myself the same respect I’d offer any other living thing – we all have the right to be here and experience life.

    2. My question is different – am I very smart, or do I just have a wide vocabulary and unusually good command of the language?

      Oh. Hello me.

      This is a question that, even after having managed to build myself up over the years to become fairly self-confident (or at least turn the self-deprecation into humor instead of deadly seriousness), I still ask myself. I’ve asked it basically my entire life. People tell me I’m extremely intelligent! People have told me this ever since I was thrust vulnerable and mentally combative into the world of school! And yet I…just do not see it at all, no matter how many good hard looks I take at myself. “I have trouble with this thing and that thing and t’other thing and you can’t be smart if you have trouble with those things, or in fact any things” is the message I have been given and internalized since my formative years. I know it isn’t true – well, probably – it isn’t likely to be true – oh, balls. No, I know it, but making myself believe it…

      Brainweasels. Sigh.

  24. I want to look at your previous work record and re-frame it. You said you worked “food service, reception, and retail”. I think that because these sort of jobs are devalued and underpaid by the corporate powers that be, we begin to think that they are thus easy and can be done well by any reasonably competent person at any time.

    And we all buy into that, even we don’t want to. I think your jerkbrain is saying, “I was even bad at the easy stuff! That means I’m going to be bad at my dream job too.” But that’s not reality.

    Food service, reception, and retail careers have their own challenges and skill sets like any other profession. Some people get really really good at waiting tables or managing restaurants or keeping an office running or selling jeans. Maybe they’re naturally good at some of it, but a lot of those jobs are skills that need to be honed. You are not a naturally bad person for not having naturally a skill set that made it easier and not immediately mastering these positions. They take a lot of time and determination to get right.

    I know that when I was in those jobs, I was also new to the workforce, and there’s a learning curve just to that – besides the usual developmental stuff, you’re starting to understand what it means to have a boss and co-workers, which is a task that can only be accomplished through experience.

    You’re on the right track. You are figuring it out. Keep at it, and keep asking for help.

    1. Also, the particular skills of those particular fields? Lots of short-term memory, high executive function, able to track and remember multiple details about multiple parallel processes. Table 3 wants no mayo on their burger but before that Table 4 needs their appetizers and Table 1’s ready for their cheque, or, Hello and welcome to Company, Bob is out would you like to leave a message, welcome back sir here’s a parcel that got dropped off for you, hi little Timmy let me patch you through to your mom. Like, that is stuff LW has said she SPECIFICALLY struggles with, and it’s the kind of work that is so brain-eating and onerous that the kind of people with graduate degrees pay somebody else to do so they can settle down and do their own work.

      So LW started off working in fields specifically difficult to them. So it’s no wonder that set up a story of, “I’m a bad worker and don’t have marketable skills.”

    2. Glad someone flagged this. Even more than what’s said above: those entry-level low-paid jobs, especially in retail and food service, but also low-paid office jobs, tend to be ABUSIVE to employees. Partly because sometimes the managers are jerks, but mostly because the whole system itself is abusive to the people who find themselves in those jobs, and that manifests itself in all kinds of ways.

      LW, please, you have my personal permission as a Random Person On The Internet to (a) take any feedback you got about your performance in those jobs with a GREAT BIG OLD GRAIN OF SALT, and (b) refuse utterly to let any of said feedback reflect on your view of yourself as a human being.

      In other words: feedback from abusive people/abusive situations is NOT generalizable to who you are. You’re free to ignore it and move on.

      Easier said than done, I know, and I’m not trying to pretend it’s easy either, but I am throwing it out there because I think it’s important.

  25. LW, I feel like your letter could have been written by me a year or two ago, and I just wanted to give you some encouragement. First, the biggest difference between your situation and mine is that your internship has not given up on you! Mine did. And while it was an incredibly stressful situation (and they did it in kind of a hurtful way), looking back they were right about one thing – it just was not working out. I was trying very hard to make it work, but it wasn’t a good fit. My point is, if your internship felt like you were a lost cause, you would know. Just because it’s not a “real” job doesn’t mean they couldn’t end it if it wasn’t working out. And it doesn’t sound like that’s how they feel at all. They’re excited to keep working with you and challenging you! They had to be “wheedled” to “indirectly admit” to something negative about you! I know that that negative bit wants to stick in your head more firmly than any of the rest of it, but I think the good outweighs the bad in their opinions about you. They like you. Take their comments as ways to improve, as learning experiences, not something bad about you. And anxiety’s a bitch, you probably will still feel like the negative comments mean something is wrong with you – but hopefully you can get into therapy and have a safe space to explore that and wrestle with it. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, considering you’ve been in therapy yourself – but it helps, it really really helps.

    There’s something else I want to share too. I’ve been on my meds for almost two years and sometimes the improvements in my mental health were so slow I didn’t realize they were happening. I’d notice how much better I felt in some ways, even if other things hadn’t improved at all, and think “Wow, this must be it, this must be what me-on-medication is like” – only to realize a couple of months later that some other aspect of my daily functioning had sneakily improved while I wasn’t looking. Certain parts of my anxiety improved immediately after I started taking medication, but there were other things I didn’t notice until over a year later. I’m not an expert on medication and I don’t know what you’re taking or how it compares to mine, but my experience was a slow burn to say the least. I think part of it was simply having the energy to work on myself once the most severe anxiety symptoms were gone, and part of it has been a gradual change for the better in my brain chemistry. Either way – you’ve only had about six months to experience you-with-medication… or maybe I should call it you-without-unfair-brain-chemistry! I’m sure it’s already a lot better than what you were used to, but I think it’s going to keep getting even better, especially with the help of a trusted therapist as you’re working through it.

    Hang in there LW! Two years ago I was flailing and wondering if I would ever find something to do with my life, now I’ve been hired at a job that I love where I feel competent and I kind of still can’t believe it’s really happening. You will get there too! I believe in you!

  26. Hey, LW, I want to talk about the feedback you were getting at those four part-time jobs. One thing that the Captain did an awesome job of pointing out is that academic feedback is usually given in the spirit of “what’s best for you, the student,” whereas professional feedback is usually given in the spirit of “what’s best for the company that’s employing you.”

    Here’s the thing, too – sometimes “what’s best for your employer” isn’t going to line up with your goals or your career path, ESPECIALLY if it’s coming from a part-time job that in no way reflects on what you want to do with your career or life. I used to get dinged all the time at cashier jobs for not being passionate enough about the company’s purpose…when my personal #1 priority was to do a solid job, get paid, and go home when my shift ended and bring zero work stress home with me. Their priorities didn’t match mine, so I wasn’t going to beat myself up for not being jazzed enough about Big Box Generic Office Supply Store’s corporate purpose when I was leaving the job in two months.

    With regard to your internship, it’s great that you want to learn and grow. Professional criticism doesn’t mean you’re a failure. In almost every assessment, good managers are SUPPOSED to write down something for the employee to work on, because the idea is you’re always supposed to be growing. If your supervisor or manager or mentor gives you 100%, it generally means that you’re not learning or they’re not doing their jobs. If you’re getting favorable reviews and then they’re talking about something you need to work on, that to me says that they like you, and they’re invested in furthering your growth.

  27. I wanted to comment on the other end of the problem – what to do if, in general, you’ve been working for years for a desperately wanted career, only to find out it’s not working. After you’ve done the requisite self-care and calibrating your perceptions of your performance vs your actual performance.

    There are a lot of reasons why this can happen – you can find out you don’t actually like the work that the career really involves, or that you are lacking in some important skill or characteristic that’s vital to the job, or your health issues (mental or physical) even when properly treated interact badly with the demands of the job, or you’re good, but not good enough to get the job you want, or there are things you want more than that particular career (like living in the same country as your spouse, or a decent salary). This sort of thing particularly common in highly competitive, highly demanding careers where there are a lot of very good people competing for a small number of jobs – academia and creative fields are particularly prone to this.

    The first thing is to realize that this is normal and acceptable, and very common. When you start the process – often in high school – you don’t know what the field is really like in the nitty-gritty details, and you don’t know what your priorities will be ten or twenty years down the road. The second is to evaluate what drew you to the field in the first place, and what parts of it you do like, and what parts you are good at. That can give you the knowledge you need to go to the third step, which is to figure out how you can move on – do you want to train for something totally different, or can you move sideways into something that emphasizes the parts of it you like and are best at.

    And it can be incredibly liberating and relieving, if you’ve been trying to stick at something that just isn’t going to work, to end up doing something that does fit well. For me, I ended up moving sideways from a research track career to one working on the more technical end. It turns out I like and am good at problem solving and technical work, but am lousy at long term research planning and writing papers, and work best when I’m given definite projects and regular feedback.

    1. I really, really like Po Bronson’s essay What Should I Do With My Life? which he wrote as a kind of summary of his book of the same name, where he interviewed dozens of people about how they ended up doing the work they do. It’s freeing to realize that not only is career-hopping normal and acceptable and common, sometimes it’s beneficial. Sometimes being a Career B with a Career A background of deep intensity is invaluable. I met a lot of people in therapist school who were practicing doctors, lawyers, emergency personnel, or military officers, who realized they wanted to do something different–but their backgrounds made them absolutely unique and priceless.

    2. Yep, all of this.
      Plus sometimes the field changes on you!
      New technology makes the day-to-day job very different from what you expected when you started training, or a specific company becomes a leader in the field and everyone scrambles to of what they do – which isn’t the parts of the job you focus on, or a related field takes off and yours stagnates and you don’t get to do what you wanted without retraining for the related field, or a bajillion other things that no one could have predicted at the outset.

      None of this is your fault. It’s OK. You will be OK.

  28. One thing that may be helpful in the long term is to seek out mentors in your field who were not naturally good at it.

    It can be hard to find such people, of course, because people don’t typically go about their jobs or their training of trainees talking about how much they struggle or struggled. But if you can see hints in anyone already in the field, that their style or personality seem similar to yours, that may be someone to get to know better and observe more and see what happens. The nature of this varies. But look for the less social people and see how they handle sticky interpersonal situations. Look for the disorganized people and see how they manage themselves in time and space. See if you can find any anxious people succeeding.

    So many people go into fields that they both love and are naturally good at. And so it can be harder for them to teach, train and mentor people who love the field but to whom such skills do not come as naturally. But there are probably some people in the field who have achieved competence through work-throughs and work-arounds and conscious compensation strategies. Those are the folks who are going to have actual practical strategies for you. They can tell you HOW they learned to do things, not just tell you to magically DO them.

    I’ve found this to be true for everything from math teachers to folk dance teachers to medical school professors.

  29. LW, I just wanted to reassure you on the poor social skills thing. I’ve gotten a lot of flack over the years for my poor social skills, especially when I was younger – my inability to think before talking, my insensitivity and often brutal honesty, not being able to tell when someone wasn’t interested in what I was saying, talking too fast and too much and then, on the other hand, totally clamming up and coming off as cold or aloof or disdainful.

    I always thought that my inability to see the invisible social rules was a permanent character flaw – certainly, other people made it out to be – but it’s really, really not. It’s not easy to get past, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of failing and I’m so far from finished learning, but these days I’ve been called charming and charismatic. Several of the psychologists I’ve spoken to in the last two years have told me that my current perception of myself as socially inept and awkward doesn’t match their impression of me, and my customer service skills have gone from “mediocre at best” to “actually notable”

  30. What jumps out at me here is the fixed vs growth mindset. Check out some of the writing of Carol Dweck. Or Norman Doidge for that matter. Being less than perfect at stuff just means you’re trying hard stuff.

    The second thing is the idea of equating skills with your worth as a human being. That’s bullshit. It’s hard to convince someone of it if they don’t feel it, but your success or lack thereof in your school or career has zero whatsoever to do with anything. I mean it has all kinds of practical benefits and it’s rewarding and all that, but the idea of it as some kind of ‘measure’ of your human value of of the meaning of your life? Absolute and total crap.

    (please excuse if there’s a language policy here – I can rewrite using more polite vocabulary)

  31. Hell, I’ve been in my position for three years and I still get this feeling way more often than I should. My boss is actually very generous with her compliments and says thank you for routine things (which took some getting used to), but no matter how many times I hear that I’m doing well and have a good work ethic and am a valuable team member, I still keep worrying that one day I’m gonna get myself up and fired for one of the few things I DO have trouble with. It’s a tough mindset to kick, but my point is that you are far, FAR from alone in feeling like this, and sometimes it really is just the jerkbrain talking.

  32. I want to comment specifically on Toastmasters et al. I have some social anxiety, and it certainly messes with my personal life, but the Worst Thing was that it made me terribly unhappy about public speaking. The internet was a godsend because it meant I could have a career involving strangers without having to actually deal with them. But eventually things took a turn where I had to speak to groups a few times a year, sometimes hundreds of people, and this may not sound like much, but it was my single biggest stressor.

    I went to Toastmasters for help, and my local one turned out to be a place where you’d talk for 4 minutes and serve as audience for 56 minutes. It seemed like a lot of time for how much practice you got. Then I tried an improv comedy workshop and I liked that better: it wasn’t a big group, but I’m just as triggery about small groups, and there was a lot more “on” time.

    A lot of what they said in improv-land seemed on point to me. It’s hard to be funny if you’re not relaxed, or if other people aren’t helping, so you have to learn not only to relax yourself, but also how to be supportive to others. A lot of the practice was calling people out on all the little pushbacks and shutdowns that just about everyone constantly hands out to each other, not out of real hate, but only because we’re all trying to get through our own agendas and nobody else is exactly on the same team.

    Experiencing a space where all that was tagged as wrong was an eye-opener for me. Being almost always afraid around people had made my life feel like a constant battle of micro-aggressions, and seeing the part of that which is real called out and turned off was so helpful — my feelings might be too strong to be useful, but they’re not just coming out of nowhere! I can’t say I got very good at comedy, but I think I did learn something that’s made me easier to be around, as well as professionally more effective. Maybe even funnier. Anyway, the public speaking got easier.

    So there’s another suggestion, if there haven’t been enough suggestions yet. Luck with it all.

    1. neat. 🙂 I’ve been thinking about improv, but I freeze up *hard* when I get scared, so I worry that I’d be too big a problem for them to solve, or want to solve. it looks like a lot of (terrifying) fun, but freezing up really derails that sort of thing, and I don’t want to interfere with other people’s fun…

      1. Improv! Great suggestion! I can’t believe I forgot to mention it. Second City Training Center (uh, where I WORK, which is why I can’t believe I forgot to mention it) has classes just for folks with social anxiety issues, and the good news is that you CAN’T mess it up, really. Messing up is the whole point, and if you freeze, your fellows will rescue you until you unfreeze.

  33. I wanted to echo the “social skills can be learned” stuff. I also used to be a person who thought I was socially defective, only had friends because of dumb luck/the grace of god, could never learn to be good with people, etc. A decade ago I couldn’t have made small talk with a total stranger to save my life and now as a stripper my job is to go up to total strangers and convince them to give me their money. Whether you memorize Succeed Socially or read some books from the library or whatever, just remember that it takes a lot of practice. Don’t expect to be perfect at everything right out of the gate, **keep trying**, and you’ll get better at it.

  34. LW, first time commenter. I really hope that you’ll be able to find solutions for negative self-talk. I know it really sucks having no confidence and maybe feeling like the world is so hostile. If there’s any place or activity that’s healthy that makes you feel in the now or less aware of yourself and your failures, I hope you find the time to do that. And also to exercise, regularly, in the ways you enjoy, and eat, and sleep, and do other things generally incompatible with hating yourself.
    If that’s a possible issue please be careful with using alcohol as a coping mechanism. I self harmed from age 18 to maybe 23 or so and hurt myself a couple times seriously, more than I intended, because of alcohol.
    There is a lot I guess a person needs to get better, like medication and a good social support system and a good counselor, etc. but also try to latch onto activities that make you feel good and accomplished. Dont worry about service and retail jobs like the ones you mentioned. They’re stressful and not for everyone, including yours truly.
    Part time jobs I recommend: photo printing studio. Computer lab at university. Animal related jobs (animals don’t judge). Data entry.
    Anywayyy that was long, but please take care. I’m not in exactly the same boat but I was kind of a wreck in my early 20s and I’m alive and kicking and mostly positive thinking at 30!!

  35. LW many people have shared their experiences to try and say “you’re not alone”; I’m going to add mine too.

    Following a bad accident 15 years ago I went on meds for PTSD, depression, mild anxiety and a bit of obsessiveness (not quite OCD). I had to repurpose my life; I could no longer follow either of my two chosen careers – one that I was just good at (IT), and one I had potential to be fabulous at (opera). Other things I’ve tried since have “failed” because I wasn’t instantly as successful as I was in my chosen fields… which had taken 10 years and lots of study/training to achieve. Go figure.

    I’ve been on pretty much the same meds for 14 years now – apart from when the Pain Clinic added one for pain control that actually *caused* suicidal ideation (yeah good choice doc); sometimes I’ve been actually happy, not just “even keel”, and then something happens – maybe just getting overtired – and the crap death spiral begins: the negative self-talk, the lifelong catalogue of abysmal failures, avoidance of any task with the potential for anything less than stellar perfection (it was only after my sister identified this issue in herself that I realised I did it too and it might not be just procrastination).

    I had a bad downward slide last year; my sister and I talked about *stuff*, helped each other out of our bad places. I started coming back to happy but more is going on and I’ve had to go back up to max. dosage… and it’s been really. very. hard. to get out of it this time.

    Several things are helping: 1) right dosage of right meds for me; 2) talking with my sister again because she Gets It; 3) counselling (subsidised because I’m on a low income); 4) taking a step back from high-pressure situations (where I can); 5) doing something Just For Me. In my case that’s going way overboard with 30-odd swan plants covered in over 400 monarch caterpillars.

    LW, a lot of us have been somewhere close to where you are and we do Get It. Please believe us because we all want to help you – commenters here talk about “jerkbrains” or “brain weasels” because they know it’s not the real you/me/zie/hir, it’s the bit that needs help. Is there a medical professional you can talk to? Maybe some face to face therapy or even just someone you trust that you can open up to. Also: I’ve mentioned elsewhere about turning mum’s narcissistic habits into a positive – in this case it was her habit of dumping something unsatisfying for the next big thing; I choose to see this and do it myself as recognising something is Not For Me and actively searching for some way I can make a difference… including a difference in my weekly bank balance ;-P

    Good luck and all the best wishes and Jedi hugs you can handle. Remember you’re allowed to laugh at life too.

  36. LW, I can offer some advice on the poor social skills thing. I’m a great faker at being normal/like everyone else now, but it took a lot of work. What I did was mimic what other people who seemed to “get it” were doing. This sounds super basic, but it was so hard at first. I had a rough childhood and relatively little socialization (my mom is mentally ill and kept us home a lot, basically) with my peers. I didn’t know how to have friends because I didn’t play with kids my own age, and this weirdness sort of kept up with me throughout high school, although I eventually made a few friends. I certainly wasn’t cool or popular, and I really resented that this stuff came naturally to everyone else.

    One other piece of advice that I’m going to offer you is that it’s better to take a bit longer to do a good job or find the right answer than to blurt out something incorrect or act strangely. Not knowing how to handle a situation or answer a question is actually fine, and expected. I regularly deal with difficult people in my job, and have become a master at saying “no” or “I don’t know” when appropriate. Even when I think I know an answer to something, I will often confirm with my boss.

  37. Two thoughts:
    Although you’ve dreamed of this occupation since you were a child, perhaps you may have to reconsider whether it’s actually right for it. There’s no shame in backing away for a while to review.
    If you haven’t had a full medical checkup recently, maybe it’s time for one. Some health conditions, such as low thyroid levels, can lead to trouble concentrating and thinking.

  38. LW, your use of the word “wheedle” jumped out at me, so I looked it up. It means to cajole or artfully persuade, etc, but what I took away from it was that wheedling is indirect and manipulates. I never knew how to ask for things (or that I could) because I didn’t know how to name them. This CA site is the College of Using Your Words, and it’s thrilling and empowering.

  39. LW,

    First, I want to second the Captain’s advice about revisiting your mental health professionals. It sounds like you could use the extra support. If you haven’t had it done before, consider some psych testing. I had testing done in September to check for ADD. I didn’t get a diagnosis, but it was helpful to pinpoint where I was struggling and why my brain works the way it does.

    Second, it sounds like you have a lot on your schedule. I was the same way in college: two part-time jobs, full course load with three literature classes, choir on Sundays. It was too much, and I was completely burned out by graduation. Signs of burnout: trouble concentrating, high anxiety, chronic exhaustion, and repeated mistakes. People who are introverted, highly sensitive or prone to anxiety disorders have to have manageable schedules with regular breaks and self-care penciled in. That’s just the way it works. If you’re going into a high-stress field, you’ll need to brush up on those boundary-setting skills and create a schedule that works for you. Is there anything you can cut out of your schedule now? Some activities you can drop or put on the back burner until you have your degree? Think about it.

    Third, as a fellow anomaly in the social skills department, learning how to navigate the professional world takes time and practice. When I first started working, I wanted contact with no one. I was terrified to pick up the phone or attend meetings with clients. But having done it for a while now, it is getting better. My advice: listen to some professional development podcasts or subscribe to such blogs, and ask a boss or more successful coworker to mentor you. Ask them to be honest with you: “That thing I said to the client, was that ok? I have to give the CEO some bad news; what’s the best way to handle it? Am I dressed right for this meeting?” Then take a deep breath and know that your bosses will notice and appreciate your genuine efforts to grow.

    Lastly, you say you aren’t good at anything, but I highly doubt that. Surely there is something you do better than most other people in your class or field. After all, you are in grad school! And there is a reason your professors keep sending you to these internships. While it is good to work on areas of weakness, I encourage you to invest even more in improving your strengths. It doesn’t matter how awful you are at the social aspect: if you can move widgets or write award-winning proposals or appease that one mega-bucks client no one else can stomach, your job security will be ironclad. If you don’t know what you are good at, ask. Your professors will tell you! Even if it is something as simple as having great integrity…hey, even that can get you a security clearance to work with confidential material. And that’s $$$$.

  40. “I was diagnosed with severe anxiety in 2014, did therapy for a year, and went on medication this summer.”
    “I started self-harming this summer to make my self-hatred more concrete.”

    It seems like these two events happened in relatively close proximity. Which one came first? Because if the self-harm came first, then you must’ve identified the problem and sought out help pretty quickly and efficiently, so good job! But if the medication came first, maybe talk to your doctor about changing your meds? Because I know I was on ADHD meds for about half a year, and it took me months to figure out why I was feeling so persistently, pervasively awful. Like, don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of psych meds, but sometimes the side effects can be sneaky.

  41. I commented above about how role-playing for social situations that make me anxious has helped me get through life. But I wanted to comment on the advice from CA: “Could you join something like Toastmasters to give yourself practice and an outside-of-work avenue to improve?”

    Toastmasters rocks!!!! I recommend it wholeheartedly. My last employer had a Toastmaster’s club and I was able to grow so much there. I’m the kind of person that as long as I am prepared I can function well. I loved drafting speeches ahead of time and working on calming my nerves for those public speaking moments at my company. That was helpful…but the thing that helped me the most were the “icebreakers”. This was a torturous experience for me, but really helped me because it was in a safe space. Basically it boiled down to being given a question then and there and having two minutes to answer it. Some of the questions/scenarios were silly: You’ve invented a perfume that smells like Bacon. How would you sell it to us? Others required some thought: What are your thoughts on gay marriage / gun control / that particular politician and why? After your two minutes were through, feedback from those who listened was given. The thing that I took away from those icebreaker sessions was that we often have the tendency to jump into an answer without taking the moment to hear the question and think about the answer because we’re sure that it feels like this gaping moment of silence that needs to be filled. It’s not usually the case.

    If you can pinpoint the situations that are making you nervous you can let your toastmasters group know that this is what you’d like to work on and they will help by making sure you work through those situations in a safe place. Seriously…go check out a group. They are so fun…and just know that you don’t have to commit to the first group you observe. Find a group that works for you.

    I am off to check my local meeting list and see what’s out there close to me. 🙂 I need to get back into that. 🙂

  42. The mental health professionals and medication angle has been handled, so I’ll add that many people find mindfulness to be very helpful in dealing with depression, anxiety, etc, and not add anything further there.

    For me, a pragmatic approach to my depression/anxiety helps in managing my life while dealing with my stuff. Mental health stuff stinks, I still have to do well enough to get by from day to day.

    Following up on the advice regarding skill building, there are several things that may help, specifically: seeking out mentorship and training in your work place/schooling and working on your interpersonal skills and building habits.

    I found “The 7 habits of highly effective people” gave me a starting place for structured personal development. The book can be a little dense, but the underlying concepts are good. One of the principles is having small personal victories. You’re not expected to be successful over night, but working consistently toward becoming successful will give you small successes which you can recognize and celebrate. It has helped me personally and professionally.

    Seeking out mentorship. Good managers and workplaces give you training and mentorship. Even with the best education, you will not know *how* to do your job when you get one. Ask about mentorship, training, and development opportunities during interviews (and research if the company has these in place prior to interviews). These are tools to help you succeed.

    A common trap managers fall into is not clearly stating expectations but holding subordinates accountable to meeting those expectations (sometimes with revisionist history where you should have known). Ask for clear objectives, seek clarification, and check in/give updates on progress. If you need clarification, ask for it, of you need guidance, your mentor should be able to help. Also, keep a log of work done and your meetings with your managers (e.g., date x, met with supervisor y, about issue z; received direction/feedback to do ____). This will give you a sense of what you’ve accomplished and track successes and show how you’ve worked through challenges (it’s also pretty handy to have to show that you’ve worked to meet expectations).

    Best of luck.

  43. This is my first time commenting as a long time reader, because this line really jumped out at me “With some wheedling I got one supervisor to indirectly admit that if this had been a job, I’d have been fired by now.”

    I’ve been a manager for a few years now and generally any negative feedback I give is reserved for occasions where the error is a egregious or a yearly evaluation. In both those situations, I take a lot of time to plan out what I’m going to say. If one of my employees repeatedly asked me how they were doing in minute detail, eventually I would probably say something wrong (even on my lovely anti-anxitey meds, I’ve got some social issues too. Managers have the same mental health issues as anyone else) that could be misconstrued.

    My point is, that ‘wheedling’ is a bad tactic for getting feedback. Let the manager give you the best they can give you after one request.

  44. As someone who is struggling with workplace performance and a bunch of anxiety and has recently started on new medication and seeing new specialists and so on, can I just say how much hope I’m feeling reading these comments? Seriously y’all. I’m tearing up and feeling the love.

  45. I don’t know if this will help, but throwing out one more personal work story. I have been at my job for almost 7 years now. I love my job. I ROCK my job. Multiple other employees come up to me on a regular basis to ask me for help in teaching them things about my job, because I am good at it. And I STILL have times when I mess up, make stupid mistakes, and do things that I couldn’t even have imagined. We’re talking basic stuff. Because all of us mess up, even with experience. So I don’t know if this will help make you feel any better, but even the pros do dumb stuff, misread fellow employees/customers, and so on. I try to keep going and not make the same mistakes twice, but otherwise just accept that it will happen. (Which is WAY easier to type here than to live out, but I try.) So good luck, and know that this does get better.

  46. LW, I just want to tell you that with your anxiety, having actually finished your undergrad degree and progressing through grad school is SO HUGE. What great accomplishments! This is so much harder for you than it is for someone without anxiety, and you totally deserve to pat yourself on the back for it. I’ve got anxiety too, and I’m 33 and going to school 9ish credits a semester to finish my first associate’s degree. You are doing GREAT.

  47. I don’t know if this is an appropriate concern to raise here, so apologies in advance if I mess up. First of all, LW: you’re not any failure, a bad person, or any lesser human being for self-harming. I wish for you to start feeling better soon so you don’t feel the need to resort to it, and I hope the advice from the captain and the comments is helpful. However, you’re not bad or selfish in any way for resorting to it. You shouldn’t have to feel afraid or ashamed for disclosing it. Your words matter, and a good way to undermine the stigma that surrounds mental health is talking about it, so cheers on you for that. Hope you start feeling better soon, and find more safe spaces where you can discuss these matters without judgement 🙂
    Second of all, I haven’t seen this raised yet, but I haven’t read through every comment, so apologies if this has already been resolved.
    That said, Captain, do you think it would be appropriate to include a content warning for self-harm at the start of the post? I don’t want to silence anybody, and it’s nothing explicit, but the sentence “I started self-harming this summer to make the self-hatred more concrete” felt like a punch in the gut, in a bad way (not your fault, LW! You didn’t do anything wrong, nor are you responsible for my emotions), and I’m worried it affected other people too.
    Thanks either way, hope I managed to phrase the request in a non-offensive manner. I apologise if I didn’t.


    Okay no not really but I am a person with a similar background and similar issues and I’m roundabout a decade older.

    I am here to tell you a few things. One of the things is that I suspect the solution is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I have a raging anxiety disorder and was trying to do CBT for it but had limited success because ACTUALLY the source of most of my anxiety is the horrible crap I am telling myself about myself. I’m not afraid of driving, or bats. I’m afraid that I am secretly a horrible failure and I am one tiny mistake away from everyone finding out, at which point no one will ever love me again.

    Does that sound familiar? Because I really expect it does.

    What sounded really familiar to me in your letter was how you talk about the criticism you’ve received. This is also how I hear criticism. I’ll get lengthy feedback and I’ll lock onto the one or two things I perceive as negative (which I think the giver of criticism meant more in a context of “you’re lovely but if you improve upon these 2-3 things you will be fabulous”) and CLUTCH THEM CLOSE TO MY HEART FOREVER. My perception is incredibly biased. It’s like, have you seen videos where people with body dysmorphia stand in front of a mirror in their underpants and they’re super thin, and then they draw a picture of themselves based on what they see in the mirror and they draw a really fat person? That’s me with feedback. No matter what’s actually in the mirror they see a fat person, and no matter what’s in the feedback I get I hear “YOU SUCK”.

    There was a specific incident that made me realize this — in a grad school class I got a paper back and I got a terrible grade and the prof had written scathing criticisms of my work on it. It sent me into a spiral of depression that lasted for weeks, and I could barely look the professor in the eye. I was convinced she hated me. At the very least she realized what a dismal failure I was.

    Two or three years later I was trying to find a citation, and I remembered I’d definitely used it in that paper, so I fished it out. Cringing because I was going to have to look upon my shame.

    I got an A- on the paper. Maybe a B+. A perfectly reasonable grade in any case. What I remembered as scathing criticism and had cried over REPEATEDLY was actually… well, criticism, but along the lines of “This is okay but it’d be better if you did Y”. Also several compliments, which I had not remembered at all.

    Unfortunately my response to this revelation was to go “HA HA ME, YOU ARE SO SILLY” and move along. So here I am 10 years later, still fixating on all negative feedback and ignoring positive feedback. My first annual review at work crushed me. Literally, I cried for two days. I suspect this response was not reasonable, but I’m pretty sure I lack the ability to see it realistically.

    So I’m in therapy. And it costs a lot. And it’s really hard (therapy night is takeout night because I’m too exhausted to fix dinner after). And I cry. But I’m doing it anyway because it would be SO NICE to believe I am competent, and I have it on good authority that the only thing standing between me and that belief is my jerkbrain, not my actual competence.

  49. As someone prone to shame-spiraling and feeling like I suck at everything, I’ve found it really helps me to track my own work performance in concrete terms. For the kind of work I do, tracking time spent on each task or project is pretty effective (mistakes = more time spent fixing them). Over time I can come up with an average speed for any particular task, and I can use that information to either try to improve or to remind myself that I’m doing well when my self-perception becomes skewed. I started doing this because of a job where the boss was happy with my speed when she was observing me, but always unhappy if she only looked at what I achieved by the end of the day when she wasn’t in the office. Because I started to independently track my time, I knew my speed was consistent whether she was watching me or not, and that her perception was skewed. I still had to suck up the criticism with a smile, but knowing internally that she was wrong made a huge difference to my state of mind. The trick here is to apply this to your self-perception.

    I suspect that your performance is not as bad as you think. You’ve never been fired, your supervisors are excited to keep working with you, and you had to pry to get some serious criticism. (which by the way – if I had been paid at any of the internships I did in school I would absolutely have been fired, I sucked. But I learned and now I have a “real” job where I do pretty well) Your supervisors at the internship think you are worth the time and the training – believe them!

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