When Self-Defeat Is Your Worst Enemy
Last winter I took one of the hardest required courses for my computer science major. I went into the course thinking that, because I wasn’t strong in advanced math, I wouldn’t succeed in a theoretical computer science course. Programming is my strong suit, but this course involved zero programming and was completely abstract. My fear of failure often made thoughts such as these cross my mind:
- If I fail or drop this course can I actually succeed in this major?
- If I don’t do above average will my professor think it’s because I’m a woman, black or both?
- Will the professor or my peers see my failure as a confirmation that underrepresented students cannot succeed in this field?
The retention rate for underrepresented students in computer science is incredibly low. Women make up less than 20% of computer science majors and blacks and latinos make up less than 15%, according to Think Progress. I was so afraid of failing and contributing to these dismal statistics.
Despite my fears, I still worked rigorously. Fortunately, my professor was extremely dedicated to his students and held office hours nearly every day. I went to his office almost every day and got a peer tutor. Although I received average grades on my homework assignments, I failed every single test.
I felt defeated. Even though I was learning a great amount, I still wasn’t able to translate that onto an exam. Every time it was time to take the exam, my original fears resurfaced, which lead me to convince myself there was no way I could be good at this.
If you are thinking this story ends with an amazing turn around, me overcoming all my fears and acing my final, think again. Although I didn’t do well on the exams, I passed because of the work I put into my assignments and since my professor recognized the overall effort I put into the course. After reflecting on this hurdle, I realized that I didn’t give myself the chance to really succeed. Here’s what I learned:
If your professor or peers think you not doing well is a reflection of every student with a similar identity or background, that reflects on them — not you.
Do not burden yourself with the idea that you are representing everyone from your race, gender, orientation, etc. You are your own person. No one should conflate your individual thoughts to those of an entire people. You don’t have to prove yourself to those who can’t even see you as an individual.
You won’t be good at everything and that’s okay.
Being a master of all trades sounds great in theory, but it is nearly impossible. Once you find something you are good at, be proud of that and hone that skill.
If you go into something with the expectation of failure, you probably won’t do well.
We can be our own worst critic. If you put yourself down before you even start something, you’ve already created a barrier between you and potential success. When you try something new, go in with excitement, and expect that you will learn something. Success is different for everyone, don’t use your peers’ success as a measure of your own. When you go into that new class or learn that new skill, make realistic goals for yourself and use those goals to motivate you through the tough times.
Learn from the experience regardless of the outcome.
I realized that timed exams aren’t the best way to measure how well I learn something. Instead of constantly putting myself down, I’m trying to learn ways to curb my test anxiety, and take classes that have more projects than tests. If the outcome is not what you had hoped for, try to figure out what you can do better next time. Use it as a lesson to discover what does and doesn’t work for you.
You come first.
Your physical, mental and emotional health is what’s most important. Don’t jeopardize your well-being. If you feel you are in danger of damaging your health in some way please talk to someone. That class, or new job, or whatever the circumstance may be, might not be right for you. Practice self-care often and do not let your fear of failure ruin your ability to get through your everyday life.
Overall, work hard, take care of yourself, and learn from your hurdles.
Originally published here.