Keeping my own insecurity in check
August 14, 2017 2:10 AM   Subscribe

I am a hardworking, high achieving woman of color in an extremely competitive field. A younger POC has recently started seeking my advice. I am happy to be as helpful as possible-- I want him to succeed!-- but I am also noticing myself feeling competitive and insecure, and sometimes have the urge to bring him down a notch. How do I keep these things in check?

The advice-seeking person, let's call him Bob, is actually the same age as me.
Bob and I are in the same PhD program-- I am about to finish, and Bob is entering year 2. I am a queer woman and Bob is a fairly heteronormative man. We both have what we jokingly call the "immigrant work ethic"-- the feeling that we must work as hard as humanly possible, because there's no other way-- because we both are first-generation immigrants, speaking English as a second language.

Despite having a fair number of grants and awards to my name, and having set a few records in my department, I have been plagued by crushing imposter syndrome and an unhealthy dose of "I have to prove myself." I've been working through these issues, while continuing to work as much as I can.

Bob started seeking my advice on how to navigate life in the program. I generally like Bob, and I would love to see another POC succeed. Bob reminds me a great deal of myself at that stage-- he's driven, focused, and basking in the possibilities his future holds for him. He's also so insecure, and needs constant attention if not adoration. I don't blame him-- I was like that. His insecurity manifest more often as hubris ("other people can just pass this exam, but I have to pass and score the highest ever or I can't live with myself") than as self-doubt, and I do wish he could be a little more reflexive of his stright male privileges. But all in all, I understand what he's going through, and I am happy to be of help.

In the process, though, I find myself feeling threatened, and I feel tempted to keep him in his place. I feel angry for his confidence and what it says about my own struggles. I am envous of him for the possibilities that haven't foreclosed, and for the cockiness that I know only comes with naivite. I feel small and unworthy when I compare myself to what he *could* be in six years if all goes well.

I know these feelings are not all that rational, and Bob's success doesn't necessarily mute my own (specifically, when it comes to recommendation letters). These feelings also run against my personal politics. How do I keep them in check, without letting my own insecurity bleed into my interactions with Bob-- or, worse, into the advices I give him?

I wish I could ask my own WOC mentors how they deal with that. But I don't want to be implying that I'm a hot shot threatening them, or project my own insecurities.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think all phd students should be issued a therapist on arrival. Do you see one? Does Bob? Can you recommend one to him? I started seeing a therapist in the middle of my phd studies and wish I had started going way earlier.

Also I think you can be supportive but also dial back the amount of attention you are giving Bob. Be honest, say that you are stressed and need to be selfish in your time to wrap up things and start (or continue) applying for jobs. If you are friends with other people in your program maybe you can have biweekly lunches or happy hours for three or four of you (including Bob) so the social pressure is distributed a bit?
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:48 AM on August 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

He's also so insecure, and needs constant attention if not adoration.

From whom? From you? I think framing this issue as being all about your insecurities leaves out some possibilities, such as the service mentality that women academics often have and are penalised for. Why is it your job to mentor and manage Bob to this extent? Where is his advisor? And why on earth is it anyone's job--professional therapists apart--to manage his need for 'constant attention and adoration'? If he has such a need, that seems like a personal problem he has, which would be best addressed by him doing the work of figuring out what it is reasonable to ask and expect of others in a professional setting and how he can manage his psychological needs without being unprofessional and overly demanding of colleagues. Your job in relation to that is surely to model for him what is and is not professional in your joint field, by being unresponsive to unprofessional and unreasonable demands and responsive only to professional and reasonable ones.

I'm not saying, of course, that you should be coldly selfish and 100% focused on your own project to the exclusion of ever helping anyone else. I am saying (1) you should be aware of the gendered dynamic in a relationship where you are always the person offering aid and comfort and never receiving any, particularly in a professional setting and (2) you should work to counteract that dynamic, by ensuring that you carefully guard your time and manage his (and your?) expectations of what you can and should to do for him. If you are in your final year of a PhD program and he is in his first, he is really more like a slightly junior colleague than a mentee and it is perfectly reasonable to ask yourself what exactly he is willing to contribute to make this relationship between you reciprocal. Is he willing to read and comment on your work? If you need to debrief about teaching or a conference or the process of research, is this someone who will lend a ear and help you think through any issues?

If the answers to these questions are yes, you may be right that he is a great colleague and your anxiety about him overtaking you or whatever is all about insecurity and imposter syndrome. On the other hand, your gut instinct may be right that he is demanding too much of you--and demanding things that he would not ask e.g. of an older male colleague in your position--and that you need to step back a little for your own self-protection. I think you need to reflect more dispassionately about the exact dynamic here before you decide that your main task is to suppress your anxieties and be even more giving and selfless. I'm hearing a few alarm bells, though only you can know if they're really there.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:30 AM on August 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am white but I am a PhD scientist and I think I know a lot of your feelings regarding younger bright colleagues.

I would suggest that when you view yourself as Bob's mentor, then his accomplishments are partially to your credit, just as your own accomplishments are in part a credit to your adviser. Accolades are not zero sum!

Anything Bob does to shine will bring fame and glory to your adviser, your lab, and maybe even you. It's not clear if you are co-authoring work with Bob but if that's feasible I would suggest it, because that can help you fit in to the role of senior colleague, who sees young bright Bob as an asset to the team, not threat to her place.

The stuff I've published with junior lab mates has been some of the most pleasant collegial research interaction I've had, and I look forward to doing it again when I can.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:36 AM on August 14, 2017

I have a feeling this isn't going to be the most popular response on the block, but I think you can help him less. I think it's something you should do for yourself and it's not selfish. Nobody has to mentor someone to the point of suffering. You can be supportive still, but you don't have to be this person's guide if it's no longer working for you.

You're both in the same program-- it's not like you're a seasoned tenured prof and he's brand new. Constant adoration and attention? I wouldn't do that for anyone but my cat and even then, sometimes it's like, enough already.

You've helped him a lot; you can continue to help him a bit. Someday the little bird has to fly, though-- you seemed to manage on your own.

Look how much you've written about this, look how it's chipping at you and stressing you out. I'm gonna say it: I think it matters that he's a man and you're a woman. I do think women tend to sacrifice too much for men in academia and the workplace. I know I have in the past.

I know these feelings are not all that rational,
Nah. When you're at the point of managing someone's anxiety and insecurity to the detriment of your own, it's perfectly rational to want to cut back.
posted by kapers at 7:01 AM on August 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm white, but I've had similar internalized stuff about female colleagues, and it helped to remind myself that the capitalist kyriarchy likes to make us all think that we have to compete with each other, that there are only so many slices of pie to go around, so that we fight each other for crumbs rather than lifting each other up. A lot of my anxiety on the issue is due to the cultural programming, and naming it explicitly to myself can help me set it aside.

That said, I think others are making good points about whether you're going above-r and beyond-er what's comfortable for you. A therapist can be a good sounding board, but the farther away you get from white/straight/affluent/English-speaking, the harder it can be to find a good therapist. Going To Therapy As A QTPOC, Without Being Harmed, Erased Or Baffled is a good article with some questions to ask potential therapists.
posted by lazuli at 7:04 AM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Male privilege in academia is a real thing. In my experience doing my PhD, it was incredibly frustrating watching younger men who were as smart as me (but not smarter) get accolades and leapfrog through things with easy confidence and self-assurance that I scrabbled and fought and compromised for. And, there were times when I helped them in a way that ended up being self-sabotaging, and that was frustrating. You can totally tell him to be reflexive about the way his straight male privilege affects his grad school experience, and that might also make the things he asks for and support he needs more reasonable. After my best grad school friend commented on how productive his fieldwork was relative to mine, I gave him a very detailed explanation of all the gendered things I dealt with in fieldwork that he did not by virtue of being male. And he opened his eyes and apologized and stopped being stupid about those things, and then I resented him and his wild successes less.

Academia isn't a zero-sum game, but your own mental energy and care are finite resources. You have gone above and beyond your responsibility as an informal mentor. It is not selfish to step back and point this grad student to other resources. The more he learns to take advantage of other resources and multiple sources of guidance, the more successful he will be. Especially as a person of color in a homogeneous environment, developing multiple support systems is in his best interest.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:57 AM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

so that we fight each other for crumbs rather than lifting each other up.

This is what I meant to say too. And despite what I said above about accolades not being zero-sum, cooperating with a defector can leave you burned. I was giving Bob the benefit of the doubt in my earlier reading, that he is not the type to try to take sole credit for shared work, or sole credit for your work. While I do generally still recommend trying to work together with him as coauthors on a project, trust your gut assessment of his trustworthiness.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:03 AM on August 14, 2017

Continue mentoring Bob, but make sure that people—especially your superiors and mentors in your program—know that you are doing this. That way you get credit for being a leader, mentor, and supportive colleague, and also some of Bob's accomplishments will reflect on you. People in the programs you'll be applying to later will want to know what you're like to work with as well as what your research accomplishments are, and if your recommendations show you as being not only a great researcher but also an asset to whatever team you're on, that can only help.

Do set appropriate boundaries, though. Being in a PhD program is stressful and demanding to begin with, and you need to carefully manage your time and your sanity. Consider farming out some of the emotional stuff to somebody who is more qualified. Most schools have some kind of counseling services available to students, and pointing him in that direction on the basis that you don't really feel like you can help him with that aspect of his journey might be the best thing for both of you. Don't let mentoring this guy become such a big part of your life that it's degrading your performance or making you crazy.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:28 AM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Women and especially PoC women are unfairly expected to be caregivers all the time and put their own feelings aside to serve and teach others. It's bullshit. If the situations were reversed, how much do you think Bob would help you? Especially if helping you started to feel bad to him?

I don't know a single man who would continue to be a dedicated mentor if he didn't enjoy it. I know hundreds of women who would continue to mentor and serve even if they hated it. Break the cycle!

Get Bob to write you a reference letter for your mentorship. Make sure it's a good one. Make sure your own "bosses" or whoever that is in this context know about your mentorship.

Then, I suggest you subtly ghost on helping him. Don't announce you're stopping as it will cause drama. Just gradually become too busy. Keep wishing him well and never publicly badmouth him or the relationship. Just shift your focus on to your own things, where your focus belongs.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:12 AM on August 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

Most grad students, even very very smart ones, don't make it through their programs without significant struggle, self-doubt, even psychological breakdowns. Many leave. I know the archetype of hubristic, self-absorbed, optimistic young male grad students you mention, and most of them struggle more than the average when they get a long way into their program and have to face up to the fact that they aren't the best, or when they realise that writing the thesis is psychologically really tough. Or when they get squashed by someone more senior who they respect. I expect he is going to hit that wall at some point, rather than sailing all the way through with the same mentality he has right now. (Source: was a grad student (white, but female), was intensely irritated by fellow male grad students like the one you mention. The new grad student who told me when I was writing up my thesis that he intended to complete his in his first year, because he didn't see what the big deal was, and then he'd have three or more years left to publish a lot of papers and build an amazing CV is still, nine years later, not finished and is thinking of dropping out. I am now a supervisor to grad students and see the same extreme swing from over-confidence to rock-bottom self-esteem repeated over and over, and it's definitely not limited to the white men).

If you like him as a person and want to be his friend, I'd suggest sticking with him for now, and you will find that your feelings towards him become much less irritated and much more compassionate when he gets to facing the kinds of challenges I mentioned above. If you don't like him as a person, or don't want to be close, I don't think you owe him anything other than the solidarity that we feel for anyone who faces the same kinds of challenges we do ourselves (fellow grad students, or fellow members of a disadvantaged group). That is, don't badmouth him, obviously, and maybe occasionally provide a listening ear or sympathetic advice, but only inasfar as he reciprocates this.
posted by lollusc at 10:10 AM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I know these feelings are not all that rational

The man is sucking your limited energy to feed his own "need for constant attention if not adoration." Your desire to limit this suckage is about as rational as it gets.

You don't need to undermine him or take him down a peg &c, but you do need to serve yourself first. That means not letting your energy go towards being his mommy or his audience-girlfriend. He can be a colleague, he can even - maybe - be a mentee who reflects well on you, as long as you are careful to frame your interactions in a way that that ensures you will receive credit for this mentoring. Don't do anything that doesn't visibly, tangibly help you as well, and no helping just because you feel guilty or because he feels entitled to your time and attention.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:15 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

You need to manage your impostor syndrome. And you have my permission to stop trying to help somebody who needs less help than you - if you guys are friends, you can stay friends, but you're really, frankly, not senior enough to be his mentor. NOBODY will give you brownie points for this. Nobody, so don't fight an ideological battle over it. You can see yourself in Bob's position, but I think the frustrating thing is in a few years, will he really be a person who is giving back and propping up the self esteem of young women several years below them in the program? No. So you can have political values of sharing and giving but still not give until you bleed.

This actually might be a time to lean on those mentors you have - not sure what the dynamic there is. Don't give when what you really want to do is take. Impostor syndrome is a weird thing in that you've written about your success and work ethic and then written that a second year, someone much less qualified than you, is making you feel small you contemplate their future. It is ok to avoid situations that make you feel small. But what are you going to be doing in six years? Are you excited about that? Does that make you feel big? All of this rest of the question is the chaff, you have to figure it out and maybe need a little cheerleading these days to do so.
posted by benadryl at 2:14 PM on August 14, 2017

If you haven't already, I think you should first be gentle with yourself about these feelings. Graduate school is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome and can foster anxiety over scarcity of funds, positions, fellowship opportunities, etc (especially in the current era).

Then on top of that, you've got to deal with the mind-fucks that come with marginalization, with being a WOC under white supremacy and queer in a heterocentric world. That's not just gonna heighten the imposter syndrome, but it can leave one with the feeling that the system will not allow enough space for everyone--sort of the academic version of the Indians on TV problem. And then on top of that, you've got the expectations that women are supposed to be supportive of men and not expect anything in return.

If any of that strikes a chord, then again, don't beat yourself up about them. Mull over these feelings and work through about why they might be there and what sort of fear is driving them. It is totally natural to have these feelings because we're in a culture that is pressuring you, programming you to feel this way and the result of all of it is a breeding ground for resenment and anxiety.

When these feelings come up during your interactions, you might try a few things:

First, again, acknowledge to yourself that the feelings exist, that it's OK that they exist. Let them be there. It's OK if they're there, and they don't have to define your actions. Mindfulness exercises might help with this.

Second, try to look at his behavior outside the context of your grad program. Does he meet your expectations for similar relationships? Do you feel respected, or dismissed? Enriched through your relationship, or drained? The mentorship aspect makes this tricky--he likely won't be able to provide you with equal help. But he should try when it's an option, and he needs to respect you and your experience, both professionally and with respect to your identities that he doesn't share (LGBTQ+, woman, etc). Maybe compare him to younger friends you've advised (who aren't in your program), a stranger whose question you've responded to on the Internet, any students you've taught . . . Because if you still bristle at his behavior, well, maybe Bob is just a dick. When the world is shitting on your community then everyone has to stick together. But that principle is to encourage people to work a bit harder at living up to the ideals of building a fellowship, it doesn't mean you have to tolerate assholes. It also doesn't mean setting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, if that is the way you're feeling.

Finally, if you decide Bob isn't an asshole, then during your interactions be thoughtful about your immediate response, and when he's asking for help you don't have to answer immediately. Take the time to sit with his requests and think about whether they're reasonable or not and how your feelings might influence his decision. When you need the self-care actively back off from the relationship and let him know that you can't be there for him at the moment. Trying to sacrifice your health out of a sense of duty isn't just terrible for you, it will poison your relationship. If he really is worth mentoring he'll understand. And if he doesn't, well, that tells you everything you need to know.
posted by schroedinger at 2:26 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah--and if you trust your WOC mentors with other emotionally dicey situations, then give them some credit about this one. You're not the only person to have gone through this, and again, feeling this insecurity is not the same as acting on it.
posted by schroedinger at 2:28 PM on August 14, 2017

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