Musings on self-esteem and whether to pursue a PhD


 To say I had not expected so many positive reactions to my first real blog post in about a year would be an understatement. But it was just the positive reinforcement I needed to actually take this seriously again. I want to start putting more effort into the things that give me joy, instead of just zoning out after another taxing day of working from home. Intentionally putting more balance into my days, even if it's not the path of least resistance.

Another thing that has kept me from blogging, or from searching for a bit of  "depth" in my social media musings, is that my self confidence has taken a bit of a hit over the past few years. Maybe that's what I'll blog about first.

It all started with me getting the opportunity to pursue a PhD.

Or rather, it all started when I was a little girl, being praised for being a smart kid. I experienced an atypical academic career, to say the least. My parents uprooted us, moving from the Netherlands to Belgium, and we ended up in a tiny little village right in the middle of the conservative, Catholic countryside. Which in Belgium meant that primary school was gender segregated, and that the only girls' school in town was run by nuns. 

 

Me before my first communion
 

Being an anxious little kid who was not brought up with religion, the idea of having to go for regular church confessions with an actual priest, while I didn't know my Hail Marys from, ... well, that's the only prayer I actually know a name for. You get the picture. I freaked out, didn't want to get caught up in all of that, and after receiving my first communion I ended up choosing to go the the all-boys school instead because they didn't have nuns and because religious lessons were optional rather than mandatory.

So there I was, a 6 year old girl with a Dutch accent in a Flemish all-boys school. Of course I looked for an identity to protect myself from their taunts and to create a sense of security. My identity became "being the smartest girl in class". And for a long time, tying my self-worth to my academic achievements served me well. I was never a social butterfly, I didn't see myself as being especially creative or pretty, and I sure as hell wasn't athletic. But I was smart. I rode that identity all through high school, past a magna cum laude university graduation, into a PhD offer that felt like the logical next step "proving" my self-worth.

 

my amazing fellow doctoral researchers were definitely the highlight of getting a PhD
 

But then I looked around and saw that every other doctoral researcher was at least as smart as I was. Article rejections stuck with me, while getting my work published felt more like a lucky fluke. Negative feedback from my promotor was on constant rerun in my mind. I developed performance anxiety. But I got through it, finished my PhD within the four years allotted to me, and managed to score the job of my dreams. And then I got laid off

Losing my job took a huge hit on my feelings of self-worth and security. And for a while, I felt like I'd processed it, let go of those feelings of failure and loss and gotten back on my feet again. But over the past year I've realized that the fact that I find it so hard to feel pride over my accomplishments isn't normal. Nor is the fact that, where I used to have a voice and a perspective I loved sharing publicly, I rarely engage in public debate anymore. Or that I used to enjoy doing, creating, thinking, trying new things, and that my first reflex when considering that now is "no one will care and what's the point if you're not great at it".

 

starting the #wijoverdrijvenniet hashtag, a prelude to #metoo, is still without a doubt my proudest accomplishment

I carry my past with me, and that will never change. And many of the issues that I'm dealing with were already with me, in the background, before ever starting my PhD or getting laid off. But I want to get closer to being that confident young woman I was, excited to leave her mark on the world, proud of what my mind could do. Still can do. I want to be less complacent, to put myself out there and connect with people more.

So here's my second blog post. I don't know where this is going, but I hope I get closer to myself along the way.

Moral of the story: should you pursue a PhD? If it's what you truly want: absolutely. But also get therapy.


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