For an acute period of 10 days, first light would wake me from a fitful sleep at 5am. Then, like clockwork, my whole body would start to shake. I felt paralysed by fear for a few minutes each morning. On morning ten my wife said what needed to be said ‘We’re going to see the doctor’.
That was summer 2015. I had just finished my MSc and had a fully funded PhD lined up (both at Oxford University). The prospect of starting a PhD filled me with fear. I was always the smart one and over the years I had built my whole identity on my academic achievement. That foundation finally began to crumble as I struggled through my MSc - I wasn't the smartest anymore. My sense of worth was so closely tied to my academic success that as soon as that success was threatened, I became fragile. I made a difficult decision that summer - I turned down my PhD at Oxford. I returned to South Africa and took a job that barely required an undergraduate qualification. I was humbled and felt lost - but an important inner transformation had been set in motion for which I am so grateful.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I started a course of medication that would last 5 years (on and off). There were many days I simply could not function. The darkness in my mind and heart was often overwhelming and I felt powerless. Feelings of meaningless dominated - what was the point of life? Medication has helped me function and do the hard but essential work of dealing with unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs and replacing them with healthier ones. Seeing two counsellors and working through cognitive behavioural therapy also helped immensely.
The biggest lesson I have learnt over the last 5 years is to recognize that my value as a person does not (I repeat DOES NOT - I had to repeat this to myself a million times) lie in my academic success. I have slowly learnt to disconnect my sense of worth from my success. For me personally, I have found a more secure identity through my faith in a God who sees me as valuable quite apart from anything I do or achieve.
It’s been a long and ongoing journey, but I now feel more freed up to pursue excellence in my work for its own sake, for the sake of others, and for the sake of the planet (I am a conservation scientist). I no longer feel the need to prove myself through my work. I have to keep reminding myself - “Tim, it’s not all about you!”. I am wary about giving advice as each person’s struggle is unique. If you are feeling similar feelings of inadequacy, my ‘top tip’ is to fight hard against the temptation to see your work as a way of proving yourself and to embrace the truth that you are valuable, inherently and to your loved ones, quite apart from your success at work.