BLOG: Experiencing self-doubt

Brace yourselves; this is a long one.

TLDR:

  • Dealing with self-doubt can be hard, but remember that you are where you are because you worked hard to be there, you deserve to be – others clearly think so or you wouldn’t have made it this far.
  • The only person you should compare yourself to is your past self. No matter what other people around you are doing, you’re doing an amazing job at being you, and no one else can do it better than yourself.  

My imposter syndrome is made worse by people always thinking I’m younger than I am. “You’ll be thankful when you’re 50 and look 30” people always tell me. A part of me thinks that some way down the line I’ll suddenly start looking older than I am instead – from one extreme to the other – very pessimistic of me I know. But I think the constant undermining of my age has affected me, even if subconsciously. Let me tell you a few anecdotes:

  • When I was 18, I was working behind a bar and someone came up to me and asked if I was old enough to be working there.
  • When I was 19, I got IDed when I tried to buy a scratch card – you have to be 16 to buy these in the UK.
  • When I was 20, having moved out for more than two years at this point I ordered a Tesco delivery. In this delivery I ordered some stamps. When the delivery driver arrived, he asked me: “are your parents home?”. I was 20. He then proceeded to ask for my ID and refused to give me the STAMPS until he had checked I was old enough to receive them. To this day I don’t know how old you have to be to buy stamps and why they would put a restriction on them – what am I going to do, lick them?
  • Aged 21, I was at the airport one morning, walking through duty free. A woman was handing out free samples of vodka to people walking by, but didn’t ask if I wanted one. For some reason, I wanted to make a point so asked for a taster. She looked me up and down, very condescendingly said “er… can I see some ID?” I showed it to her and her tone changed straight away from talking down at me to “oh I’m so sorry ma’am”. I ended up with a free taster of vodka that I didn’t want – it was only 11am! – but felt slightly satisfied that I’d proven my point.
  • Even now, aged 22, I still get IDed everywhere I go. I went to a bar recently with some friends. They were allowed in right away but the bouncer put his arm in front of me as I was trying to enter and asked for my ID. I went shopping with some friends recently and didn’t bring my ID as I wasn’t buying alcohol. My friend was, and the shop assistant refused to sell him the bottle despite him being 25, with a full-grown beard, simply because I was there too. I’m 22.
  • My favourite story will always be this time I was on a plane and I asked for a glass of wine to have with my meal. The steward reluctantly gave it to me but went straight to my dad and informed him that his daughter had ordered a glass of wine. My dad told him “well, she can do what she wants – she’s 21”. “Oh! I thought she was 14!” – 14!
  • The other day, a colleague at work turned to me one day and said “Millie. I know you look young. But you act old”. Despite it seeming a little odd, I think it was a compliment and he was saying I was mature for my age.

Anyway, I could write a whole blog piece just on times people thought I was younger than I am but back to the topic at hand. All this was to say that I look younger than I am and this has affected my self-confidence. I think people sometimes see me as a little girl who is incapable of doing things, and this always makes me feel out of place, even with people my own age.

When applying to university I wanted to go to vet school. I didn’t get in for two reasons, the main one being that I didn’t have any work experience which is required in the UK. Not having this experience meant that I did not even get offered an interview with the vet schools that I applied for – let alone an offer. In the UK you apply for five schools in the first round of applications. While my peers were all receiving offers from almost all places they applied to, I was receiving rejection after rejection – so you can see how that would’ve affected my self-confidence.

My fifth application, my safety net (as you’re only allowed to apply for four vet schools and have one back up option as it’s such a selective pathway) was to do biological sciences in Glasgow. I was also not given an offer for this. I was predicted grades a lot higher than their requirements, so didn’t understand why I didn’t get an offer. My parents suggested that maybe they’d reached their quota of EU students who get free tuition in Scotland – but even so, my thoughts were just “why wasn’t I selected as one of the few?”

The second reason I didn’t get into vet school was that I didn’t get the grades whoops. The reason for this, or at least the one I tell myself, is that in France they do a subject called Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre (SVT), in which you study both biology, which I loved, and geology, which I hated. The exam for our year was almost entirely geology despite usually being more evenly split – so I didn’t excel.

After that, I’m sure you can understand why my imposter syndrome was strong even before I got to university, and why my confidence was knocked even from the get-go – not to mention the bullying I experienced at school which didn’t help my self-assurance.

I eventually got an offer to the Royal Veterinary College through extra – a system designed for those who got no offers. I was to study Bioveterinary science, so was quite happy as I was going to be studying the science behind veterinary medicine. This helped my imposter syndrome a little as our year was full of people who also wanted to be vets but who didn’t get an offer or the grades. But I soon didn’t feel as clever as my peers after I failed one of my modules and scraping a pass in another (36 and 42%). This was completely new to me. The lowest grade I had ever gotten before was a 40% on a formative exam when I was 13 – after I received this I sulked for the entire lesson and stormed out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang and before the teacher had finished his lesson – not my proudest moment.

I was used to being the smart kid. I’ve always been at the top of the class. I remember people at school would suddenly be my friend when there was group work to be done and compare their grades to mine and would exclaim “omg I beat Millie” with a shocked look on their face. Looking back at the time I see it wasn’t meant as malicious and was even almost “nice” as it meant they looked up to me, but at the time it seemed to highlight the fact that I’d failed. Most of the time it wasn’t even a fail – I would have gotten a 90% and them a 92%. My parents would always comment “What did you get wrong? Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes next time” and I know they meant well, and I’m glad they did as they raised me to be the hard worker I am today, but that also reinforced my impression that anything below perfection was not acceptable. My maths teacher in my final year of school had let me know that none of her students had ever gotten 100% on the Maths baccalaureate exam and that she was excited that I was going to be her first student to do so. She then joked “what went wrong??” when I “only” got 95%. When I didn’t get the grades I needed to apply for vet school the following year, a friend turned to me and said “How did you only get 65%? I got 80% and I didn’t even revise”

No one ever meant anything by it, maybe a select few back at school, but all of these incidences definitely knocked my self-confidence and played a role in my feelings of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a big part of any job, any responsibility. My dad tells me he didn’t feel like he should be in charge of a plane for a good few years after becoming a pilot, despite the thorough training they have to go through. To this day he jokes that he’s worried he will get found out at work as if he was not meant to be there.

I even have imposter syndrome at being an adult – when do you start to know what you’re doing? There are still times where I’ll turn to a “more adulty adult” for help with things that I don’t know how to do. I think being an adult is just blagging it until you make it, or so my parents tell me “Growing up is not feeling like an adult: it’s just realising that you have to make your own decisions because no one else can. You never feel like you’re qualified to make them but you just realise you have to.”

an owl struggles to stay on a branch as two others sit silently
FIG 1: I don’t think I’m alone when I say I don’t feel competent to be an adult yet?

At university I did eventually find myself – but I was still questioning what I was going to do with my life. For the first year, the plan was still to apply to vet school as a post-graduate degree, but as time went on, I wasn’t completely sure of this and should I really commit to another four or five years of extortionate tuition fees for a career I wasn’t 100% certain I wanted to pursue?

Whilst exploring my options, I went to a careers forum organised by a lecturer at my university. One of the careers showcased, was a career in academic publishing. An editor from an academic journal came and described her career path and what she does for a living. I could combine by love for journalism and my love for science? How had I not considered this in the past? After this I joined JYI, which also had a role in improving my self-confidence. I wrote articles and worked with editors to improve my writing. After a year or so, I became an editor myself – here my imposter syndrome kicked in again – did I have the skills necessary to tell authors how to improve their own writing?

Six months after that, I was promoted to Managing Editor. I was in charge of a whole department. This in itself was daunting and I felt like I didn’t belong. The other executive board members had been there a lot longer than me and all seemed to know what they were doing. The Editor-In-Chief at the time had only joined a couple of weeks before me so we explored the roles together. I think we both felt like imposters at our first in-person meeting. Since then, I have become Editor-in-Chief myself and I’m now heading up the entire editorial board. The CEO and I joke that we’re like penguins herding sheep – not qualified at all but giving it our best, and isn’t that how most people feel?

FIG 2: We often feel out of place as CEO and EiC of JYI, and joke that we’re like penguins herding sheep – under-qualified but giving it our best

From my time at JYI I have realised that imposter syndrome does improve over time – I felt very out of place at my first executive board meeting, I felt very out of place hosting my first editorial board meeting. But now, I have started to feel a lot more confident in what I’m doing. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel imposter syndrome at other times! When some of the executive board discuss their science, I feel very out of place once again as I have now taken a bit of a step back from the world of applied science. They can go into so much depth about so many different aspects of the work they do and things they study that I feel like I don’t belong.

I did a placement at the Pirbright Institute – an academic research setting where my friends were either doing a PhD or considering one. I felt almost pressured to do one myself – not by anyone per se, just from my own internal pressure. All these people are doing a PhD – should I be doing one too? I felt like an imposter as I didn’t want to remain in academia.

Skip forward to today. I’m an editor of my own magazine. Do I feel out of place? Very. Does this mean I’m not able to do my job? Not at all. The magazine is at an all time high and we’re continuing to grow, even though my imposter syndrome just makes me think “what if it’s not that we’re reaching more people, but instead it’s just my parents visiting the website over and over again?”

Going to conferences is an interesting one – especially as people automatically assume I’m a student. They’re always taken aback when I say I’m the editor. They tend to ask for clarification: an editor or THE editor? People always say “an editor at only 22?” which makes me both incredibly proud of my own achievements, but also makes me wonder why other editors end up doing so much more before getting to the stage I’m at. What skills do they have that I don’t? What am I missing? Feeling like you don’t belong isn’t helped by being younger than everyone else. Although saying that – I went to a media event in Madrid last month and I wasn’t the youngest! Because one of the speakers had brought her baby with her….

In my role I talk to people in all walks of life, I interact with presidents and CEOs of organisations on a daily basis, I speak to all sorts of vets and researchers who are so big in their field – and I’m just lil’ ol’ me.

One day where my imposter syndrome was at an all time high, I had received a personal invitation to a conference where a royal was to attend and give a talk, and I had just been invited to a press day in Madrid, all expenses paid. I suddenly felt like I didn’t belong. I’m only 22, haven’t even technically graduated yet, despite having a master’s degree – how is this my life?? But that same day I sent my magazine to print. As I looked over the magazine, my first that I’d been 100% in charge of, I felt so proud of how it looked and the quality of the content within it, that I took a moment to think: “I did that. This is what my hard work has amounted to.” In that moment, I felt like I belonged.  

I’ve only been in the job three months and I’m starting to feel a lot more confident already. It still seems weird to not have to ask for permission to do anything – I can make the magazine look how I want it to look, I can commission the content I want and I can go to the events I want to. It took a few times where I’d ask my boss for permission and he’d just reply “Millie you don’t have to ask, you’re the expert!” which just doesn’t seem real. But at what point do you become an ‘expert’?

I think the key, for me anyway, to overcome my moments of self-doubt and imposter syndrome is to stop and think: why am I comparing myself to others? It’s just a thing we all do, no one is immune to it. As humans we tend to strive for the approval of others to validate ourselves. It took a while for me to realise what an achievement being an editor at 22 is. It took someone in my field to comment that they had to do years of work before they got to get to a similar position. Why didn’t I realise how well I was doing until someone else told me?

I have to keep telling myself that I do belong. I worked hard to get to where I am, anyone can tell you that. People have total confidence in me to run my magazine, so shouldn’t I have confidence in myself? Sure, there are times where I have to do things where I don’t know what I’m doing or how to handle a situation, but I have a lovely team I can ask for help and that doesn’t mean I’m not meant to be where I am. It just means I have even more to learn and even more scope to grow and accomplish so much more.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, here is my attempt at some words of wisdom. The only person you should compare yourself to is your past self. Strive to be a better person and keep on improving. You’re where you are because you worked hard to be there, you deserve to be – others clearly think so or you wouldn’t have made it this far. No matter what other people around you are doing, you’re doing an amazing job at being you, and no one else can do it better than yourself.  

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