Triage for Self-Doubt

rejection-cartoonI found out today that I’ve been passed over for a couple of jobs that I thought I was really well qualified for.  I didn’t even get an interview.

Rejection is always deflating, especially when you expected to be very competitive!  More generally, any time we are suddenly confronted with our own inadequacy can be very emotionally jarring.  This happens all the time to us graduate students—I don’t know about you, but I start to question myself every time I have a conversation with somebody that I realize knows way more than me about a field I thought I was well versed in.  Even people with a lot of self-confidence, I think, feel occasional pangs of imposter syndrome.

Whatever triggers my self doubt, these scenarios are absolutely a time for exercising the classical virtue of fortitude.

Within the Stoic world view, that initial feeling of disappointment and embarrassment is neither good nor bad: it’s perfectly natural.  “We cannot avoid that first mental jolt,” says Seneca, any more than we can avoid “having another’s yawn provoke our own, or avoid closing our eyes at the sudden poke of another’s fingers” (On Anger, II.4).

yawning
You just try not to yawn.  You. Just. Try.

What counts to a philosopher is what you do next: Do you buy into the self-defeating, irrational narrative of despair?  Or do you take the event as a time to be rational, and to do your best to respond excellently (that is, with virtue)?

Doing the latter is tricky, because it means that I have to—in a moment of emotional vulnerability—quickly find a way to cognitively reframe the situation in a healthy way. As any counselor will tell you, getting to that healthy point of view sometimes takes a good deal of skill (which is why psychologists write whole textbooks on the stuff)!

Recently, I’ve found a particular passage from Epictetus to be useful.  Whenever I feel overwhelmed by my own failures or by the relative successes of others, I crack open the Discourses and read this passage as a kind of triage:

It is good for you to know your own preparation and power, that in those matters where you have not been prepared, you may keep quiet, and not be vexed, if others have the advantage over you.  For you, too, in syllogisms will claim to have the advantage over them; and if others should be vexed at this, you will console them by saying, “I have learned them, and you have not.”  Thus also where there is need of any practice, seek not that which is required from the need, but yield in that matter to those who have had practice, and be yourself content with firmness of mind.

Discourses, II.6.

And there—magically, instantly, I am able to reframe the scenario in a healthy way, and to focus on the moment and what I should do in the future, rather than on the skills or performance I’ve failed to achieve in the past.

The Stoics counseled us to keep quotes like this in our back pocket—better yet, our memories—so we could draw on them in moments when they are needed.  I’ve found this one useful a number of times in the past few weeks—I hope it helps you too.

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3 thoughts on “Triage for Self-Doubt”

  1. Well, having been on the academic job market the first ten years or so after my own graduation (which was in 2002), when at least some years the overall situation was better than it is at present, I can certainly empathize with the disappointment you feel.

    If you look at the process, it’s not even really you that’s being rejected – though it feels that way. It’s rather your application, usually one out of somewhere from 200-1000, that a search committee is probably giving a fairly cursory look at.

    At any given time, there’s some positions out there that are being advertised, but which aren’t really open – they already have a candidate in mind. One’s academic pedigree – though a rational survey of the field would show this shouldn’t really be a factor – often plays a major role as well. And that means that the pedigrees of the other applicants – many of whom might not really be interested in the job – plays an equally major role in getting them interview slots. One could go on and on about how arbitrary and frequently disconnected from any real merit the hiring process is in academia. . . .

    There’s several other passages of Epictetus that deal with a similar theme to the one you’ve cited – saying, essentially: if you want to be invited to dinners, but you’re not, realize that you needed to kiss quite a bit of behind. That’s the entry price. Those who did do that get in, those who don’t are passed over. Epictetus goes on to say: so. . . that’s not really what you wanted after all, was it? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that – in different modalities – in the academic job market.

    Still a tough thing to deal with – and I think relatively tougher for your generation of recent grads/grad students than it was for mine.

    Liked by 1 person

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