Reflection

Dealing with your Doubting Demons

SophiePowellSTEPSThis post is by Sophie Powell. Sophie is currently a PhD Student in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

We all have moments of self-doubt, it’s only natural. For many this happens during a PhD with looming deadlines, presentations and The Boss looking on. But sometimes this self-doubt grows into more than just a little nagging feeling and becomes more prominent in the mind, leading to feelings of anxiety which sometimes even get in the way of getting important things done. Procrastination then becomes an escape from doing what makes us anxious, as a way of avoiding those negative feelings which get us down and make us feel uncomfortable.

Since starting my PhD I have been experiencing A LOT of this! We all have our different reasons behind these feelings but for me personally this stems from not wanting to appear stupid in front of my supervisor and other higher ranking scientists in my field, who might ‘find me out’ and not being clever enough and kick me off my course. This leads to me getting very nervous about having meetings and asking for help, not the most helpful attitude for completing a PhD, but I just can’t help the spiral of negative feelings around tasks that I don’t want to do!

The thing is, I’m not a shy person and I certainly don’t worry myself about what people think of me in everyday situations! In fact, in certain situations I am the exact opposite of the anxious person I become in the lab; I love to dance salsa, I have done for about 9 years. When I hit the dancefloor I undergo a further personality change, I become over-confident and to be honest a bit cocky! Ok, a lot cocky…There isn’t a person in the world who can tell me that I can’t dance and when I’m on the dancefloor I act as if I am the best, regardless whether this is anywhere near the truth or not! I have total faith in my own ability and nothing makes me as excited as dancing as perfect as I possibly can! Whilst this isn’t always the best attitude to have in life, as it would be exhausting to be so super-competitive in everything that I do, I think it would do me good to have salsa Sophie come into the lab and start doing some science!

I have found so far that the best way to deal with anxiety is to focus on the positive aspects of what I have achieved so far, such as being on my PhD course in the first place and the fact that actually I haven’t done anything to prove that I am as stupid as I think I am. It also helps to simply imagine what life would be like if I didn’t worry so much; you can’t simply forget about your deepest fears I appreciate that, but by imagining how relieved and confident I could feel if the worry didn’t exist, makes me question why I’m not that confident all the time, much like myself on the dancefloor! Why not try it?

Feel free to share any tips you have for keeping the worry demons at bay!

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with your Doubting Demons

  1. As you say, self-doubt is not necessarily a problem; it helps me to really examine the detail of what I am doing, to prepare thoroughly and to understand the rationale behind my actions.

    If I find it difficult to control anxiety about a specific thing I try to unpick the worries in advance of the situation; I allocate myself some anxiety time and focus on what makes me feel uncomfortable. Naturally we want to avoid the feelings of anxiety that come when we think about what we are afraid of but you have to desensitise yourself to it by becoming familiar with it.

    My supervisor will find out that I am stupid: you can normalise this, compare yourself to other people in your situation; it is normal for a supervisor to know more about a subject area than you at the start of your PhD project, do they really expect you to be an expert at this stage? (If you are in your final year and the answer to this is actually yes then you might actually be an imposter).

    Think through the worst thing that could possibly happen; you make a mistake or ask a silly question; so they realise that you are a human being and fallible just like everybody else. One or two wrong-headed questions does not a stupid PhD make!

    Then when these anxieties re-emerge at some later time you have some ammunition to throw at them. You can cut them off with pre-thought out mantras: “…does not a stupid PhD make!”, and hopefully this will help you to cut off the worries and be purposeful in your actions.

    Do you think any of this would help you?

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