Johns Hopkins can be a pretty competitive place, particularly during finals. As a campus, we often place extremely high expectations on ourselves to be academically perfect, ace every test, and amass impressive extracurriculars while simultaneously managing the social demands of college life (such as they are during the COVID pandemic).
We believe that if we can’t immediately grasp a difficult concept, this means we aren’t smart enough. We compare ourselves to classmates and feel inadequate, assuming that things come more easily to everyone else.
In this sort of environment, it is easy to succumb to an intense anxiety that we don’t belong here, we can’t measure up to the genius of our peers, and we have only tricked admissions into letting us in.
This is a feeling known as impostor syndrome.
When we view our lives as quests for achievement at all costs and view failure as the only possible alternative, it can be hard to escape an endless loop of thoughts that confirm our belief in our own inadequacy, laziness, and unworthiness.
As finals approach, each exam or term paper may feel like a definitive measure of our intelligence and self-worth.
Does this sound like you?
If so, how can you combat the anxiety and self-doubt of the Hopkins academic pressure cooker?
One way is through a conscious cultivation of self-compassion.
Having self-compassion means attending to your own suffering, just as you would notice the suffering of a child you saw fall and hurt themselves.
If you walked right by that child, you wouldn’t be giving yourself a chance to feel their pain and empathize with them. When you do feel empathy for that child, it engenders a feeling of warmth towards them and a desire to help.
You would not blame that child for being hurt and berate them for not trying harder to avoid falling. Instead, maybe you would recall a time that you had hurt yourself as a child. You would connect to that pain. This ultimately leads to a recognition that mistakes, suffering, failure, and imperfection are a part of a shared human experience.
Self-compassion means treating yourself the same way you would treat this hypothetical crying child who scraped a knee, or a wounded soldier, or an elderly person who just experienced a loss.
It means treating yourself with attention, kindness, nurturing, care, and an understanding of the common experiences of hardship. It means not dismissing your own pain and struggles as meaningless and petty, or judging yourself harshly for mistakes.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has broken down self-compassion into three parts: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is warmth and understanding in the face of anxieties, feelings of inadequacies, and failures at perfection. Instead of scolding yourself for not knowing an answer on a test, you would tell yourself, “I really tried my best. I can do better next time, now that I understand this answer.”
Common humanity is disputing the feeling that you are uniquely bad, worse than those around you, and the only person suffering. Instead, you seek to connect to the feeling that suffering is human. It is a normal aspect of our vulnerable mortality. We are not alone when we suffer; we are part of a rich legacy. Pain and feelings of inadequacy while striving towards goals that are not always met form the vibrant palette of human life.
Mindfulness is approaching our negative emotions with balance. It is not trying to push them away or blow them up beyond what they are. Allow your negative feelings to wash over you and eventually ebb, like a wave. Observe your experiences with an open and nonjudgmental mind and broaden your perspective towards it. These experiences are some of the many that you will have over the course of your life. All emotions eventually fade, which does not deny their importance. Rather, it highlights the receptive nature and versatility of the human mind. Most importantly, pay attention to what is going on inside of you. If we do not attend to our emotions, we cannot have compassion for ourselves.
What can self-compassion do for us?
Well, it can help make negative feelings fade faster, and allow us to feel healthier, more balanced, and ultimately happier. It also helps make us feel a greater sense of self-worth, because through self-compassion we are showing ourselves love and care. This is something we all deserve.
We will not always achieve what we want in life. We will encounter obstacles, make mistakes on exams, and fall short of perfection. This does not make us impostors; it merely makes us human. By accepting and cultivating this awareness, we can be kinder to ourselves and to all the other fallible humans we encounter at Hopkins.
Watch Dr. Neff’s TED Talk to learn more about self-compassion. Her journey towards this practice began when she herself was a Ph.D student.