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Was it really wonderful? Exploring my self-doubt.

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

The Window, Zhivotkov Vladimir Vladimirovich.
The Window, Zhivotkov Vladimir Vladimirovich.

March began by giving talks to two different universities in two different parts of the world. The first one was for an online seminar series which was held by the department of mathematics at Ariel University, Israel, and the second one was for UC Santa Cruz, USA. The first one was on the 2nd of March at 8.30 am, the second one was just a week later at 6.00 pm. On March the 2nd, I woke up at 4:30 am, eyes blurry and sleep-deprived. I made some last-minute changes to my presentation, making sure that all the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted. I gave my talk, answered all the questions with enthusiasm, accepted congratulations, said farewell to everyone, and then turned both my computer and myself off. I had a weird feeling and I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d done. I tried to ignore that feeling but it was there.

The next morning I got an email from the chair that read “Dear Dr. Fatma Ayça Çetinkaya. Thank you very much for your wonderful talk.” When I read this sentence my first reaction was to not believe what he said. It wasn’t wonderful, he was being kind, that’s all. Yesterday’s weird feeling was still there. For a couple of days, I mostly slept, didn’t eat much, binge-watched tv shows, and repeated the “thank you very much for your wonderful talk” phrase in the back of my mind. Being hard on myself led to inaction.

Then I started thinking about the feelings I was experiencing. What was going on, why couldn’t I believe people had really enjoyed my talk? I have been giving seminars at international conferences since I was a master's student, and along the way, I learned how to speak in front of an audience. Why was I still feeling this way with a long publication list and many other professional successes under my belt? During those inactive days, I also spent a lot of time on social media. One day I tweeted something along the lines of “ok I did this, and then I got an email saying that but I don’t feel like the email is telling the truth. What is this called in psychology? Is it impostor syndrome?” I got two replies to that tweet from other female academics. The first tweet was from a very successful theoretical particle physicist. She said she recently got a remarkable grant for a project and when she learned she got the grant her first reaction was “oh, they must have a lot of money to spend”, and she then finished her tweet by saying we often don’t embrace our achievements/accomplishments. The second tweet was from a dear friend of mine who is an outstanding psychologist. She said it could be impostor syndrome, or it could be related to my early childhood development.

As a woman who was born and raised in a patriarchal family/society, I was often made to feel like I wasn’t good enough. I was a quiet, well-behaved, responsible child. I was required to meet other people’s expectations and I had to be contented with what I had. However, I had already painted a picture for myself of who I wanted to be, and whenever that picture didn’t match with people’s expectations I was belittled which led me to develop seemingly unfounded self-doubts. One method of overcoming this internalized self-doubt is to practice externalizing my accomplishments. I pretend that my skills and knowledge are possessed by someone else and then I ask myself “Is that person qualified?” In the end, both that person and I happen to be qualified enough to get back to where we left off.

March began by giving talks and followed by a couple of days with a lack of self-confidence. I tried getting rid of it as soon as possible and continued by giving a start to co-organizing an online seminar series which has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I finished the month by submitting a new manuscript to a high-quality journal which I have been hoping to be published in (#fingerscrossed). Maybe the trigger that activated the instinct to turn myself off is related to the male-dominated environment of academia, which I believe needs to be discussed in detail in a different post. Regardless of where my self-doubt came from, I am happy I was able to orient myself to a more satisfying, productive, and self-aware place.

March 2022, Rolla.

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