From Guest Contributor: Kristine Loh (SWE President, 2018)
Growing up in a “traditional Chinese” household, I was taught that for a woman, humility comes first. My parents emphasized that for women, it’s important to be quiet, obedient, and humble. In fact, women should keep most things to themselves, including opinions, beliefs, and successes. This is what their parents taught them, and what their grandparents taught their parents, so on and so forth. No one likes an arrogant person, and even if you’re good at something, there’s always someone out there who’s better. Unfortunately, what my parents intended to be a lesson in humility turned into my inner demon of deeply internalized perfectionism and a pattern of denying my success.
When my parents tried to teach me to be humble, I understood it as “sharing your success is bad, keeping it to yourself is good.” To them, bad things happen to good people, and if other people knew about your success, you might be a target (or just plain disliked). They wanted to protect me from dangerous, potentially jealous people. For example, if a family friend directly complimented me on something I did, my parents would brush it off and say “but look at all of the things Kristine’s bad at, she’s not the perfect daughter.” However, when I wasn’t there, my parents would sing praises. It was confusing. Granted, being an Asian-American is confusing. It’s hard to balance traditional views of how women should conduct themselves with current American ideals of being a strong, independent woman. Long story short, now, when someone compliments me on a success, I brush it off and usually say that it wasn’t a big deal. Most often, I say “I tried my best” instead of fully accepting the compliment. In times like these, I remember one of my favorite movies, Mean Girls. Please see the GIF below.
I’ve always had this fear in the back of my mind that if I completely agree with someone’s compliment, or if I didn’t return a compliment, people would see me as arrogant or just full of myself. Because of this fear, I’ve struggled with self-doubt throughout college. I’ve hidden my success to not seem arrogant, and because I hide my success, I often forget about it. It’s not very healthy, and it’s especially not helpful in award applications or interviews, where you’re literally supposed to brag about yourself.
One of my darkest moments was after a faculty member tore my application for a prestigious scholarship apart, questioning whether I even wanted the scholarship. (To be fair, I wasn’t very good at bragging about myself, please see the previous paragraph.) She pretty much ended her review suggesting that I don’t actually know what I’m doing, but rather people just told me what to do and I went through with it. She is one of the reasons why I have internalized imposter syndrome, because she literally told me I don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t win the scholarship, and since then, I’ve had a really hard time being kind to myself.
In October, I participated in a Self-Compassion Workshop hosted by Drexel’s Counseling Center, per my counselor’s recommendation. She recognized that I had a hard time dealing with perfectionism, and I needed help. WOW – this workshop made me deal with my demons in ways I never thought I could. We learned about self-compassion breaks, which systematically helped us deal with times of pain and suffering. As an engineer, I appreciated having a list of steps I could refer to when my brain wasn’t being nice. The most impactful exercise we did was an inner child exercise, where we visualized a time where we were in pain as a child, and imagined an older version of ourselves comforting the hurting child (even writing this now, it’s hard to hold back tears). Actually, that exercise is what inspired me to write this blog post. This exercise unearthed all of the pain I felt growing up, and how that pain continues to impact me today. Loving yourself and being kind to yourself takes time and conscious effort if you aren’t doing it currently, and sometimes, we all need a bit of help. I would highly recommend attending the self-compassion workshop, as I think we could always learn to love ourselves a bit more.
After participating in the workshop, I can safely say that I’m much better about accepting my success and knowing my worth. Thinking back on that dark moment, I realize now that I forgot some pretty important facts. I forgot that I was hand-picked to apply for this scholarship, and not everyone gets the chance to apply. I forgot that I had supporters who knew about my research capability, and who cheered me on (and continue to cheer me on) even when I fail. I forgot that this scholarship is one of the most competitive scholarships in the U.S., and obviously, not everyone wins it. This workshop taught me to take care of myself instead of hurting myself further. Now, I use self-compassion when I feel the self-doubt slowly creeping up. If you take anything away from this dump of feelings, please know that you are always worthy of love, especially from yourself.