Loose ends

I expected this week to be difficult, because it is the last week of the first semester of my graduate program: papers were due, exams were taken, loose ends were tied up before the holidays, and I have been running around trying to get everything done, trying to be a model student.

I still have moments of doubt about this whole enterprise of getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Doubt in myself, about what it means to have had a serious mental illness, and to place myself in the situation of wanting to help other people in distress. The thought dogs me: Am I well enough?, followed by: Am I good enough for this? Will I be able to do all that is required of me?

The way that I have dealt with my insecurities this semester has been to apply myself whole-heartedly to my studies, as if by knowing enough about statistics, IQ tests, neuroscience and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I would somehow proove to myself and others that I was worthy of being in a Ph.D. program. The voice in my head presented a clear rationale: Even if they found out about my eating disorder, no one can say that I am a bad scientist. I have been objective to a fault: clear-headed, perspicacious, and critically-minded in my classes, my research job, and my encounters with faculty.

What I didn't know was that I was coming across as arrogant.

My faculty adviser and my research supervisor broke the news to me earlier this week, in two of the hardest conversations that I have ever had. I was so worried about doing something wrong in school, about failing to be brilliant or thoughtful or punctilious enough, but now it turns out that I was barking up the wrong tree altogether. I am a first year graduate student. There is no need to take so much responsibility on myself. I just need to study moderately hard, plan a second-year thesis, and do whatever my supervisor tells me to do at the research site. No need for intellectual pyrotechnics, no need to take on additional activities to impress my superiors, no need to rush ahead when I am fine just where I am.

My adviser reminded me, in breaking this news to me, that there are two main reasons why people come across as arrogant: either they are insecure, or they are very smart.

While I would like to believe that mine is the latter case, I know that I feel insecure about being in my Ph.D. program, but for reasons that he would probably never imagine.

I fear that I will never be able to help other people unless I am completely healed.

I fear that I will fail to help a patient because I have missed some critical piece of research or treatment technique that might be appropriate for them.

I fear that I will commit some act of negligency, like the psychiatrist whose inattention led to my father's hospitalization last winter.

I fear that I will let down my patients as I have been let down by doctors and therapists in the past.

So many fears! And yet it does me good to get them out on paper, and to own them as my own. I don't think of myself as arrogant, but as afraid and anxious. And, even before the eating disorder, my way to allay my anxieties has always been to learn more, as if knowledge itself was protection against my own fallibility, my own humanity. I believe that intellectual achievement would act as a talisman against all of the boogey men and long-legged beasties that lurk in corners. I made sure that, whatever else happened in my life, my academic accomplishments were seal-tight, and so I have been safe for a while. Just as I wrote in a previous post, Whatever else happened, at least I was thin, I have been operating by the assumption that Whatever else happens, at least I am smart. At least I had that much, when so many other things seemed beyond me grasp.

Chuan and I are about to go to China for two weeks, and I will have time to think about all of this there. There couldn't be a better time for me to step outside of my regular patterns and let the rhythm of travel carry me forward.


Honeybee said...

What incredable news! I am amazed that they needed to take you aside. Were they worried for your sake that you were going too far with your studies...that you may stress yourself out too much? I am shocked.

Lisa said...

Oh yikes, that must have been awful to hear. I suffer from the same "well, at least I'm smart" line of thought, and sometimes it bites me in the ass. When I do inevitably make a goof, it makes me question my whole identity. And earlier this quarter I was informed that in striving to be professional, I came off as cold and detached. CRINGE.

However, confidence as hard-won as yours is something of which to be proud. Try asking some of your classmates; they might have experienced a similar criticism.

Ai Lu said...

Yes, it was very difficult to hear! I think that I also try too hard to be professional, and pull off the "ice queen" persona without even trying. It strikes me that this must be related to my perfectionism, which is related to my eating disorder...and the cycle goes on.

Gaining Back My Life said...

I hope you travels bring you some inner peace.

It is hard to tell, but I always have come to the conclusion that one is incapable of fully helping another without crossing the same paths at one point in time.

Please, back away from yourself for awhile, breathe, and allow yourself to view life as those around you do; to be taken seriously, lightly, and humorously, avec un grain de sel.

Okie said...

Have you read "The Poisonwood Bible?" That second to last paragraph reminded me of Adah from that book. :) Maybe you should read it? It's very...psychological. Like Adah, you hold on to knowledge and your eating disorder as "what you have" (but Adah doesn't have an eating disorder, she has a physical disability). But I bet you'll be happy to know that Adah eventually gives up her disability (which was only in her head) and becomes some kind of renowned doctor and becomes, I think, quite happy because she learns to just do what she loves. :)

Emily Jolie said...

Dearest Ai Lu,

This post resonated with me in so many ways. In fact, most of your posts resonate with me, and I know we could sit for hours and hours, talking more about all the experiences, attitudes, and perceptions that we share!

Going through school to become an acupuncturist, and especially towards the end, as I was getting close to graduating an entering the professional world, the question of being good enough and having enough to offer came up for me a lot! In fact, I think it played very strongly into my ED. I felt that I couldn't possibly be good enough, have learned enough... I wanted to stay in school forever, keep learning, avoid going out into the real world and having to take full responsibility!

What I have found is that, by just doing... going out there and offering what I do have... getting over my fears of not being enough... just being who I can be... and, repeatedly, receiving terrific feedback!... I started to see that I am good enough! That I do have a lot to offer!

Granted, I will never know it all. I will never be perfect. I will never know all the things or have all the skills that the next person has. (If I start comparing myself to someone else, I will never be good enough!) But I have things to offer that noone else does! And that's what people come to me for!

I have this firm belief that everyone who shows up in our lives does so for a reason. Consequently, I believe that every patient who shows up at my office is there because I have something to offer to them. Something they need. Something that can help them. So I do my best to give them what I can and trust that it will be exactly right for them. Of course, that's not to say that I can give them everything they need! What I give them is just a piece of the puzzle. A small piece of the whole. But I can make that small contribution, and it just may make a world of difference for them!

Of course, it's always a two-way relationship, and I get so much from my patients! I have received so much healing from my patients! I am continually blown away!

Ai Lu, I know you have a tremendous amount to offer to your clients! You are going to - and already do - touch so many people's lives in a positive way!

Something to keep in mind is, too, that we are all human. People make mistakes, and, chances are, you will make a mistake some day. But the best you can do is to show up, every day, as yourself, and be the best you can be. Be as present as you can be. That is the best you can do, and that is enough! You, my dear, are enough! :)

I still carry within me a comment a very dear friend made to me several years ago. She told me that, just by showing up, I was offering my patients so much! Just by showing up and being me! That has made all the difference for me. Of course, it's not an excuse not to strive to better yourself and learn more. But, ultimately, just showing up as oneself is enough!

thinking of you, dear friend, and wishing you a wonderful time on your trip to China!

with love,


ania said...

Dear Ai Lu,

I hope that you are having exactly the sort of trip that you need/want.

Safe travels to you.

With warmth....

Emily Jolie said...

I hope you are having a wonderful time in China, dear Ai Lu!

with love,