Around this time a year ago, I was not considering applying for physical university. (For those of you who don’t know, I was studying with the Open University, a distance learning institution, at the time). I didn’t see it like this in the moment, but looking back I think I had almost written the whole idea of attending university off. It seemed so inconceivable to me, for many reasons, and that led to a total dismissal of it all.
Now, heading into my second term at uni, I thought it might be a good moment to reflect on that experience, and those feelings, in the hope that it might reach someone else going through something similar… So what was the main issue then?
I didn’t feel good enough.
I lacked the confidence and felt scared to fail. It was almost like there was no point in even trying because I could never succeed. I’m not sure why this feeling was so strong in me, objectively I was always at the top of the class, or near it, in academic subjects. PE was my weak point. *Shudders at the repressed memories of drowning in freezing mud in games of ‘tag rugby’ on the school field wearing shorts in the dead of winter*. Apart from that though, I didn’t really have much to complain about. I did well in all my subjects at school and didn’t even get bullied for being ‘nerdy’. I kept my head down, did the work and, evidently, did it well.
So why such a strong lack of belief in my abilities?
This is a question I’ve spent hours mulling over throughout the last few years – from GCSEs to college, I never felt confident I had done something well in school. It wasn’t primarily that I was embarrassed to admit that I was good at academic things, the issue was that I could never actually feel that I was successful in the first place. I always thought I was going to fail. No matter what. Especially when I jumped into the intensity of IB at college (this is a school programme known for its difficulty and pressurising atmosphere).
I always felt like everyone was better than me.
I would panic that other people were understanding things I couldn’t, or doing work I had somehow missed. I lacked the passion for maths and science subjects, I felt self-conscious in foreign language classes, and my writing felt clunky and childish in essay-based subjects. All of these emotions, no matter how irrelevant they were to my ability to get good grades, culminated in a feeling of inferiority.
Yet somehow, I made it to university.
I took that deep breath. I got my act together (at the very last minute), and applied. I was accepted. I turned up for Freshers’ Week. I made it through term one with all its accompanying deadlines. I had time to reflect over Christmas, and I’m back for more. Somehow, the person feeling all those things listed above survived the start of university.
So did I overcome these feelings?
In a sense, yes. In a lot of ways, no. I think I have a more balanced view on things now; most of the time I am able to separate out objective reasoning from irrational fear. But it’s by no means an easy thing to do. And sometimes it’s a skill that’s beyond me.
‘I feel like this, what do I do?’
…might be the question on your mind. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. Confidence isn’t something that you pick up pre-packaged in a supermarket, microwave for five minutes and consume in two gulps. It is (for some of us) a painstakingly difficult skill to learn, and keep reinforcing, as we grow. What helped me to get to the point where rationality could win out over emotion was a combination of:
I took two gap years to rebuild myself and construct a sense of confidence after leaving school. That temporal chunk gave me space for recovery and reflection, and as cliché as it sounds, it healed a lot.
Different life experiences
I collected up a lot of skills, some applicable to university life and some not so much, in my two years out. I worked in several very different environments, brushing shoulders with all sorts of people. I travelled and lived independently. I started a blog and developed my creativity. I did all sorts of things; these experiences gave me bucketfuls of confidence that helped make up for my capricious belief in my academic abilities.
I chatted to people who care, to give me a reality check on my abilities. Not people who would tell me everything I do is great, because that’s not believable or realistic, and just won’t help. But people who spelt out my strengths alongside the things I needed to work on, giving me the space to chat about how to nurture and manage those things.
These three elements worked together to build up one important thing: perspective. I now know, and by know I mean feel it in a visceral way, that other people find some things hard and some things easy. That university is daunting for everyone. That we all learn different things at different times. That grades aren’t everything. That mental health is more important than seeming successful. That other people really aren’t that bothered about how you’re doing academically – they’re busy thinking about themselves.
This has allowed me to be here. And I think it’s something you can learn – you don’t have to be stuck forever. But I don’t think it comes from isolating yourself or even reading more textbooks. If you’re anything like me, no matter how many good grades you get you still won’t think it’s possible for the next exam to go well. I think perspective, and the confidence it can give you to go out and reach for your goals, comes from living, trying new things and having a chat every now and then.
But hey, that might just be me: let me know what you think in the comments ❤
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