I feel this is going to be one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever had to write solely because it requires me to confront my own bull and take accountability for my shortcomings. It’s also hard because it’s the first time I’ve ever truly struggled with something that I’ve set out on and it feels like a big personal failure even though logically that’s probably not true.
A well-known part of research is that sometimes things just don’t work out the way you would like. It’s almost an inside joke that you have to mentally prepare yourself for things to go wrong so that you won’t give up trying when all your efforts don’t produce the desired results.
Going into this MSc I was so excited about my project and the various possibilities it presented. I was so intrigued by the challenge. So invigorated was I by it, I jumped into the deep end without knowing whether or not I could actually swim. And now I feel like I’m barely keeping afloat. Barely able to remind myself to breathe slowly and let my parasympathetic nervous system take over every time anxiety sends me down a spiral of heart palpitations and nervous jitters.
This feeling was exacerbated a few weeks ago when my supervisors raised concerns about my project and gave some constructive criticism. The thing about criticism is that regardless of how helpful it can be; it can still pack a pretty hefty punch. Instead of being motivated, as was probably intended, I left that meeting feeling deflated and dejected. I felt as though every effort I had put into this project was worthless. I felt I clearly wasn’t “mastering” this med science thing. I felt worthless.
The truth is I felt my world was unravelling around me and I could barely keep it all together. It’s like I was watching all the tethers slip away and there was nothing I could do about it. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know if I wanted to do anything about it. I think a part of me wanted/wants to let it all go and start anew. I’d find myself filled with heavy resentment every morning before heading to the lab. I’d lay in bed for hours each morning contemplating why I would voluntarily subject myself to a high-stress work environment until the high-functioning autopilot in me decided to take over and get the day started.
I’m not one who easily cries (except when it comes to movies and books- the empath in me can’t help but shed a tear whenever a scene is remotely heartfelt) and yet I found myself struggling to keep my tears from falling.
It’s weird. It’s not that I believe I don’t have the skills to complete this project successfully. No- skills can always be learned and I think for what it’s worth I’ve done pretty well teaching myself concepts I felt I wasn’t well versed in. I think I just hadn’t mentally prepared myself for the possibility that my lab work might not work the first time around nor made any contingencies, and now it’s all crashing down on me like a ton of bricks.
It doesn’t help that that the year is almost over and I should be finishing up this MSc. Instead, I’m having to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be finishing this on time and will probably need extra months to figure out how to make it all work. I don’t know. I think what I’m struggling with the most is accepting that just because something I’ve tried has failed doesn’t mean that I am a failure.
A beautiful thing about the passage of time is that it provides you with some distance and mental clarity. I’ve realized a few things since my mini-breakdown. The first is that it would be easy to console myself by painting my supervisors as the bad guys, but the truth is there are areas where I was probably slacking, areas where I could’ve approached things differently, asked more questions, sought more help. Time has allowed me to introspect and it hasn’t been easy for me. No one likes to admit when they are wrong but it has helped me gain perspective.
I will admit that I’m still emotionally fragile about it all but it’s comforting to know I’m probably not the only one- postgrad degrees are notorious for shaking up people’s mental health. I say this jokingly but it’s actually such a serious issue. One I hope to write about properly once I have the emotional capacity.
For now, dear reader, thank you for allowing me to process my thoughts and feelings in this somewhat incoherent post. I know I usually like to give solutions wherever I see problems but this time I’m afraid I have none to offer. I’m still working through it. Maybe I’ll have solutions for you once this part of my life has resolved itself but for now, here's a song that's been getting me through it.