In all my 10+ years of running, I had never taken to beach running until 2020. I had first started with running on the famous gravel track around the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, enjoying the sound of the forgiving crunch under my feet. In Sydney …
Dear Star, You turned 11 yesterday. You wanted a sleepover with three of your best friends. Eleven short years after you made me a mother and were completely dependent on me to survive and thrive, all you wanted was to scream and giggle in your …
Every day I wake up and feel like a failure. Today I decided that has to stop.
I’ve somehow only just realized that these beliefs about myself are, in the balance of things, really not helpful. That’s an understatement, to be fair. It’s a bit of a revelation to me because (a) for a long time, I wasn’t even aware of these internal beliefs, and (b) when I became aware of them, I simply thought they were normal, there to be helpful, and an accurate description of the situation.
This sense of being a failure and not being “good enough” has been pervasive through many parts of my life, and I’ve been a “high functioning achievement addict” since I was in kindergarten. But it’s also brought a degree of anxiety, distress, and at times paralysis. It’s compounded by the fact that my role as a researcher is incredibly competitive, with the most coveted grant schemes having almost a 90% failure rate. My role as a medical doctor is fraught with fear – what if I make a deadly mistake? Failures in medicine don’t just affect our self esteem – they affect others’ lives. And so I’ve created, in my achievement addiction, the perfect storm of how to feel like a failure at all things.
I’m slowly climbing out of this hole I’ve dug for myself for the last 40 odd years, and I’m writing this in case anyone out there can relate, whether or not you’re a clinician or academic or struggling with another part of your life that sends you mistaken messages that you are a failure and not worthwhile.
I’ve gradually changed my strategy to be solution-oriented instead of wallowing in my own misery, and here are some of my ways out.
- Look after myself first. I nurture my physical wellbeing as much as possible with regular exercise, a whole food diet, and enough rest and sleep. Without these foundations, it’s just too hard.
- Self-compassion. I have written a lot about this and it’s really the building block of how I begin to carve a different future for myself. I hope it will help you too.
- Challenging limiting beliefs. I’m currently doing a well-validated e-mental health course called MoodGym. Challenging beliefs is one of the strategies to combat negative thoughts. For example, what is the evidence that I am a failure? I have behind me a string of achievements and more. I have spent some time looking at the evidence that I am not a failure.
- Adopting a growth mindset. This one is really helpful. With any “failure” or setback, I look for what I can learn from it. Every setback is seen as an opportunity to grow. I’m starting to end the day with a list of what I’ve learned that day instead of what I’ve ticked off. It’s a work in progress and you can read more about Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset here.
- Practising mindfulness. Mindfulness encompasses not just paying attention on purpose from moment to moment. A crucial component of mindfulness is I accept that it’s uncomfortable to not achieve my goals. That’s ok. I can sit and live with the sense of discomfort, even locate it within my body (tight throat, tight chest, neck tension). I use the Smiling Mind app at night, and snatch moments during the day to tune in to how I’m feeling, bring my attention back to this world, and sit with any discomfort I’m feeling.
- Humour. Sometimes life just gets all too serious with all this achieving. I love to laugh each day and a good laugh certainly helps put things into perspective all of a sudden. Here’s some humour for you that I think many of you can relate to – Michael McIntyre knew about the coronavirus! I laughed at this one until tears ran down my face.
- Resetting my own internal expectations. This one is something I’ve just started to work on. All my life I’ve based my self-worth on external recognition of achievements. Praise and recognition from others, grateful comments from patients, awards, exam results, acceptance letters from journals. If I don’t have these external reminders that I’m not a failure, I find it difficult to believe in myself. I’m working on creating my own internal expectations for myself – based on my effort, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve grown, rather than if I won a grant or an award. Watch this space.
- Recognising my right to being worthwhile, outside of any achievements. The drive to do things that make an impact is certainly beneficial to others – I’ve cared for hundreds, if not thousands of patients; influenced practice with my research; and most importantly, served as a role model for many. But what if I had done none of these things? Is my worth as a human being only tied to what I do? I am changing this narrative because it can’t be true. Everyone is worthwhile – each and every one of us, regardless of what we do. Everyone has the right to a happy and fulfilled life. I matter – simply because I am human.
- Focussing on doing my best. I can’t do any more than what I can do, and I should be proud of the fact that I’m doing my best at all times.
- Just stepping away from it all. Taking regular breaks from my professional life helps immensely. Stepping away from the computer on Friday evenings always seems hard at first because I’m stuck in a dopamine-inducing habit of checking emails and trying to tick things off my to-do list. By that time it’s been five long days of very hard work and hard work is my dopamine hit – if I am working hard, I feel like I am a good person. But once I shut down the laptop and enter a different world of relaxing while watching a movie, playing board games, sleeping in, spending sunny days at the beach, and even gardening, I feel like the restrictive yoke of my achievements and my sense of failure disappear, and I can focus on just being Over the years I’ve been able to claw back my weekends, for the most part, and they are now a very tightly guarded precious resource of mine that I will fight for tooth and nail.
My life has been an endless and at times very exhausting series of level jumping. Each new achievement introduces me to an even narrower field where it’s harder and harder to be outstanding and where even amazing achievements are seen with the lens of “not good enough”. What was good enough for the previous level (eg being a PhD candidate) is not good enough for an Early Career Researcher, and so on. With each passing year, I’m required to be even better than before. I’m hopeful that with the strategies above I’m able to stay focused on the right things (effort, lifelong learning, self-compassion, internal expectations) rather than chasing the endless validation of my worth as a human being.
I matter. So do you. So do all of us.
Well, hello there! I feel very guilty for not following up with Part 2 of this series in a timely manner. Thank you for reading and commenting, and sharing amongst your fellow PhD mothers (and dads). The response to my first post on how to …
I thought you would be a halo of peaceful luminescence, interspersed with cute yet amusing events such as laughing at how little sleep I had had. I thought my baby would look at me and smile on Day One (I know, right? Nobody told me otherwise…)
Instead you dragged me, completely unaware, into a place of terror, confusion, at times despair, and you threw me into a deep hole of where I felt like I was drowning in my own inadequacy. Why won’t my baby stop crying? When will I get some sleep? What day is it? Why can’t I get this right? Why is everyone else coping so well? I pleaded.
You brought me strange gifts – guilt, mostly. I felt guilty all the time for not being a good enough mother. You brought me exhaustion like I had never known before. Anxiety – lying in bed with my heart pounding in my ears, not able to breathe properly. Self-doubt. But with these, you gently brought some other gifts into my life. And tentatively, I began to notice and accept them.
You brought me connection. In those early days, I learned who my tribe was. I walked for hours with my tribe and our babies. Some of them were experienced mothers with adult children who emailed me from across the seas, with encouragement. Their babies had been like mine. They turned out ok. More than ok. They knew what I was going through. There was light at the end of the tunnel.
I now know how to seek out my tribe, wherever I go.
You brought me tenderness, and with that a fierce protective love that buffered me through those difficult early months and years.
Courage in the face of vulnerability.
Empathy. Compassion for people who are in a dark and desperate place. I can now sit next to them knowing that is probably all they need.
Humility. Awe. Hope.
You forced me to confront the neuroses that had haunted me all my life – my impostor syndrome, for example – but that I had always managed to blithely ignore because I was a young, carefree child-free adult who could patch over these difficult emotions with my holidays, my yoga classes, my fancy dinners for two, my weekends filled with enjoyable and non-confronting things like having coffee in a trendy cafe, or visiting a museum. I now know what I must do instead. Be mindful. Name emotions. Channel my wiser self. Practise gratitude. Reset my comparisons. Be comfortable with the discomfort. Breathe.
One of your most difficult lessons was about self-care and self-kindness. I get it now.
Each year, you bring me an opportunity to reflect on how time is marching on. Those wrinkly babies grew into chubby toddlers, boisterous preschoolers, and I now have a ten-year-old who prefers to keep her room door closed, thank you. My child-free friends have to rely on New Year and birthdays for this opportunity, and they don’t get to see how much life changes in one year. With each milestone – first steps, toilet training, reading, learning to shower on their own – we let go, just a little bit more, with both joy and trepidation.
Thank you, Motherhood. For the gifts you brought. For your wisdom, even when your lessons were harsh and I resisted. Thank you for the joy. And the heartbreak. It has made me authentic.
Thank you for the opportunity to make memories for two of the Earth’s members.
And thank you for turning me into a leader.
On our ten-year anniversary, I can honestly say I’m so glad you entered my life. And will continue to gratefully accept all the gifts and lessons that are yet to come. My heart is full.
As some of you might know, as well as being a GP, I am a postdoctoral researcher trying desperately to balance work and life, and learn a little bit about this thing called “resilience”.
For the past two years I have been researching Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is incredibly common – around 1 in 10 women in Australia will have symptoms of it, and those symptoms range from difficulty falling pregnant and irregular periods, to hairiness where you don’t want hair to grow, and even anxiety and depression symptoms. As the women in one of my studies said, the “whole package deal” of PCOS is pretty confronting. But the thing that concerns a lot of women is the weight gain that can be more stubborn with PCOS.
I’ve been looking for a non-pharmacological treatment that may be able to help with some of the symptoms of PCOS, and naturally acupuncture comes to mind because it’s a treatment I’m familiar with (being a trained Chinese medicine acupuncturist as well as Western doctor) and it’s also a relatively safe treatment.
Some preliminary studies suggest that acupuncture may be helpful for weight loss, in conjunction with lifestyle changes, and so I went about looking for funding for a trial on acupuncture for weight loss in women with PCOS.
In a serendipitous turn of events, my encounter with Bearded Man, which I describe in my post Why I’m Done With Impostor Syndrome, led to a little pot of funding for my clinical trial.
I really really enjoy clinical trial research, because I get to talk to so many people about what it’s like to live with what they live with. I talked to hundreds of women about their hot flushes. Now I talk to dozens of women about PCOS. But I need more women.
This is therefore a shameless plug for my clinical trial, my pride and joy, on acupuncture for weight loss in PCOS. We have an amazing team of some of the best researchers in the world in PCOS behind us, and my research assistant Adele is also pretty fantastic herself.
This is for women in Sydney aged 18-45 who are not on the pill, Mirena/other hormonal treatments or Metformin, and who aren’t planning on getting pregnant in the next 3 months.
We desperately need to find more options for women with PCOS so they can lead healthy, happy lives. Please consider sharing with anyone you know who may be interested and who lives in Sydney. They can sign up for our trial here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My family know that I am in no way a gardener; instead of having a green thumb, I seem to not be able to keep the least demanding plants alive. Until now. A few months ago, a good friend told me that I could plant …