This semester I will be finishing up my junior year at St. Mary’s. Normally I would do an end of semester blog recounting the various lessons I’d learned. The past couple of semesters I haven’t done this. I think it was mainly because the past three semesters have ended on such low notes that it just robbed me of my words.
When I first started at St. Mary’s I felt like an outsider. This is a very traditional campus. Not so much traditional as in Catholic, but traditional in the sense that most of the students are recent high school graduates living on campus. It felt strange being almost ten years older than anyone in my classes. It also made forming friendships rather hard as well. For the most part I just stuck to myself. I was the invisible over achiever. But there was always this overwhelming sense of not belonging and this fear that someone was going to figure out I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Making an A should have been thrilling but it wasn’t. Sure I would smile and post my high marks on my blog but it was all fake. My accomplishments only resulted in more stress and anxiety. I’ve never felt like I earned my A’s. I always thought it was just because I knew how to take tests or bs my way through essays. I would never do my homework then look at my notes 20 minutes before the exam and still make really good grades. I would do a paper a couple hours before it was due, putting almost no effort into it and still make an A. And with every A came even more pressure to make more A’s. I was always terrified at the idea of getting less than an A and having someone say “I knew she didn’t belong here!”
Then in October of 2009 my entire house of cards collapsed and I was left totally exposed. In the span of two weeks I lost my health, my semester, and my trust in a man that meant the world to me. I remember feeling so helpless, broken and lost. But in all that there was still an air of determination to get through it. So I took what was left of the broken pieces of my life to a therapist and asked for help.
Ironically when my therapist told me I had this Impostor Syndrome I started failing. I’m not really sure what happened. Part of me wonders if it wasn’t some subconscious attempt at finding proof. If I stopped using my grades and relationships as a validation of myself as a person, and started having to find internal sources of my identity, what identity would I find?
So I failed.
This wasn’t a deliberate attempt to fail. It just sort of happened. I didn’t wake up one day and say “I’m going to try and fail.” I was doing everything that had worked before, everything I had been used to but it wasn’t working. I had always made A’s and never had to really try and now I was trying really hard and barely passing. It didn’t make sense.
But that initial failure gave me something priceless.
When I took the class again in the summer I worked as hard as I could. I put all my effort into it and in the end I got an A. When I saw that grade I just cried. By that point I was mentally exhausted and all I could do was cry. It was the first A that I felt I had earned.
So I started my junior year last semester. I tried really hard, even at the expense of my other classes and gave my hardest math course everything I could. I finally pushed past all my social anxieties and asked questions in class, asked for help during office hours and spent a lot of time studying. In the end my anxiety won. I failed my final exam and thus got a C in the course. I also ended up with a C in a course that I hadn’t paid much attention to for the sake of the first one. It was a pretty crushing blow. It basically left me feeling exactly as empty and broken as I had exactly a year before.
So here I am starting the second half of my junior year. I was scared to have to face the professor of the class I failed. I felt like a disappointment. I’ve worked for him since he started at St. Mary’s. I spent a lot of time in his office getting help. I felt like I owed him a better grade. He’s an exceptional professor, and I hated feeling like I’d let him down. Of course realistically I doubt he’s given it much thought. I walked into his office today to sort out my work study hours and he was his usual self. I’ve been faking my feelings for most of my life, so it wasn’t too hard to mask how ashamed I was.
However when I walking through the quad past all the other students starting their new semester, it dawned on me that I had failed. Not just once, but twice. I had failed and no one pointed me out for it. No one came out to pull off my mask and expose me. I had put in the effort and earned my grades, even if they weren’t good grades.
I had always been afraid to fail. I always felt like the world was watching, just waiting for me to screw up and prove that I’m not good enough for this endeavor. So it seems a bit ironic that after I had wiped away my tears, and gotten past my bipolar tendency for fatalistic thinking, that I found a strange sense of comfort.
It was as if my university was a loving parent. Once that gives you everything you need to succeed then steps back to let you make your own way. It praises you for your accomplishments and picks you back up from your failures. I’m not a religious person. I don’t even know if I believe in God. But when I walked on campus this morning and saw the Virgin Mary looking down on me, I was filled with this overwhelming sense of inner peace that I haven’t felt in a long time.
It was just like a loving mother extending her arms, bandaging the wounds to my pride, and then sending me out to try again.