I’ve been feeling quite terrible about myself for some time. There is this aching, gnawing, unwavering feeling inferiority that has taken over my life since I was 11-12 years old. I’m dealing with a great deal of stress relating to schoolwork and college applications at the moment and I am an honors-level student, yet I feel so inferior compared to my peers. Everyone around me seems to be prospering in terms of academic ability while I have plateaued since sophomore year. For a few weeks at a time on and off, I hit a low were I feel absolutely empty and hopeless- depressed being an understatement. I’m really struggling with determining whether I am too hard on myself and suffering from that good-ol’ imposter syndrome or that I am delusional and this is my way of making excuses for being a chronic failure. This self-doubt is eating me alive. Can you please provide me with some words of support or validation?
How one feels about oneself does not always accurately reflect the truth. Emotionally, you feel inferior however, you may be cognitively wrong. That is not uncommon among people with depression. I can’t know if you have depression based on only a short letter but it may be a possibility. Only an in-person therapist, who evaluated you professionally, could determine your diagnosis (if any). I’m simply making the point that it is common among people with depression to be cognitively inaccurate regarding self-judgments.
People with depression typically don’t think highly of themselves. They don’t see themselves as worthy and lovable and often minimize the good parts of their lives.
In your letter, you wrote that “everyone around me seems to be prospering in terms of academic ability while I have plateaued since my sophomore year.” In that statement, you are judging yourself against your peers. In your assessment, you are not doing as well as they are. They have surpassed you and are doing better than you. In fact, not only are they doing better than you, but they are prospering while you remain stagnant.
If I were your therapist, I would analyze the veracity of your statement. Here are some of the questions I would be asking:
- Who is “everyone around” you? Who are you referring to specifically?
- What evidence do you have that they are prospering? Have you surveyed them individually to know that they are doing better than you?
- Are you comparing your grades to theirs? How did you get access to their grades?
- How do you define prospering?
- How do you define plateaued and what does it mean that you supposedly have “plateaued?”
- What evidence do you have that you have plateaued?
My professional guess is that you likely have no objective idea how your peers are doing. You may not be feeling good about yourself and are making assumptions about yourself relative to your peers. People with depression often believe that others are doing better than they are. They know it because they “feel” it to be true. “However, feelings are not an accurate representation of the truth. The truth is all that matters.
You mentioned being an honor student. It’s not easy to be an honor student. Sometimes, honor students tend to be perfectionists. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by rigid thinking. Perfectionists strive for flawlessness in everything they do. They have an extremely low tolerance for mistakes. Their self-esteem and self-confidence are directly tied to their performance. Cognitively, they are “all or nothing” thinkers. Perfectionists tend to be very harsh judges of themselves and suffer as a result. This personality trait is associated with anxiety and eating disorders, among others. Psychologically, it’s always better to be cognitively flexible rather than cognitively rigid.
You also wondered whether you are being too hard on yourself, whether you are delusional, if you have imposter syndrome or if you are simply making excuses for being a chronic failure. Again, if I were your therapist, I would be analyzing these statements in great depth.
It’s likely that you are being too hard on yourself and are not delusional. Imposter syndrome is a euphemism for people who are extremely high achieving but who continuously judge themselves as being failures even though the truth would suggest otherwise.
The term “chronic failure” is more evidence of the harshness with which you view yourself. Your honor student status does not comport with the idea of being a chronic failure. The type of language you use about yourself is harsh and it may suggest that you are a perfectionist.
It’s possible that your feelings of inferiority are heightened because you’re under a great deal of stress. Because this has been a problem, since you were 11 or 12 years old, you should try counseling. I would recommend cognitive behavioral therapy. It will teach you how to objectively analyze your self-judgments. It’s always best to see reality clearly and not make errors in judgment. I suspect that you may be an overly harsh critic of yourself and are suffering because of it. Therapy could correct your thinking and help you to see reality more clearly. The end result would be you suffering less and getting rid of the emotional distractions so that you could focus on the next phase of your life. Try to take the pressure off and good luck with your college applications. Thanks for writing.
Dr. Kristina Randle