Harriet Frew shares some common insecurities in research and some approaches to them. Harriet is a specialist counsellor offering transformation programmes to support women to feel great about food, eating and their body image. She is also a contributor to local BBC Radio, offering her experience and counselling expertise in this area. You can learn more about Harriet Frew on her website.
Working in a research environment can offer much intellectual stimulation, camaraderie and mutual support. You probably immensely enjoy delving into the depths of your subject, alongside others who equally share your passion and enthusiasm. But sometimes you may feel plagued with doubts and insecurities about your ability. You may wonder if you are really clever enough to do this research. You may feel inferior to others around you who seem to be excelling and coping with ease.
From my experience, at one time or another many researchers have experienced these feelings. As a counsellor, I have supported numerous university students and also staff members who outwardly seem to be shining in their field, with their writing, speaking and professional development, when inwardly they are feeling utterly insecure and lacking in confidence.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this happens. The bar can be extremely high within academic institutions and achievement and excellence become the normal expectation. It could feel a world away from your school days, where you may have felt more confident and secure in your abilities when together with a broad range of peers with differing academic abilities. It is worth remembering this, when you are being particularly hard on yourself.
Common insecurities and what to do about them
- ‘I shouldn’t be here; I’m not as good as others. Everyone else seems more skilled and talented than me’.
Remember that just because everyone else may appear to be self-assured in their outward presentation, it does not mean that they necessarily are. In some institutions being vulnerable about struggles is not encouraged and there can be a culture of covering up and presenting a coping front. Many people might struggle but no one lets on.
You will not be alone in your anxieties. If you feel comfortable to do so, you can be an agent for change in encouraging a culture of being more open and sharing struggles. Often, when someone speaks up, others do too. It can be incredibly helpful to gain reassurance and empathy from your peers when you recognise that they are too in the same boat. Try to see openness as a chance to connect and also a way of feeling less alone. Try not to compare. Instead, back yourself. Acknowledge your own personal strengths that you personally bring. Aim to be the best version of yourself, rather than a second rate version of someone else.
- ‘I need to do everything perfectly’.
Trying to do everything perfectly can often lead to exhaustion and burn-out. It can prevent you from engaging in a social life and downtime. A perfectionist might only notice the things that haven’t gone so well or are lacking, rather than appreciating the majority of tasks that have gone smoothly.
This relentless pressure of perfectionism can stop you from enjoying the ride. That can be a disappointment, as no doubt you have been drawn to your subject area because you enjoy it. Actually, you want to be looking forward to your working day, rather than feeling an overwhelming sense of dread. Work hard and strive for excellence without pushing yourself to destruction. Learn to take the pressure off and be kinder to yourself in your words and actions.
- ‘Work always has to come first, no matter the cost’.
When you are passionate about your subject, you are more likely to devote time and energy, pouring your heart and soul into your work. Within certain limits, this can be hugely satisfying and enjoyable. When this is done at the expense of your health, then you might well suffer both physically and mentally. Getting tired; getting backache; not eating well; feeling exhausted; it might all take its toll on your body. You may be left with little energy for the essential fun and pleasure necessary to maintain well-being. So think about your current health. Would it be helpful to take some time to invest in your emotional and/or physical health?
You were probably drawn to research as you valued it and wanted to make a difference in the world. Stay focused everyday on the worth that you bring personally, valuing your health and well-being alongside your work.
Many thanks to Harriet Frew for this guest blogpost. We’ve found similar themes covered in the excellent MOOC “How to Survive your PhD”, in case you would like to read further (and possibly discover others who are experiencing the same insecurities). And don’t forget to join Piirus, to make more connections!