I was in a rut. I lost my job in June due to the pandemic and I have been relentlessly applying for work and summer clerkship programs for the past two months. As I faced rejection email after rejection email, the excruciating weight of feeling like a failure began to crush me. The countless hours I had spent painstakingly perfecting my application, the stupid apps I downloaded to prepare for psychometric testing and all the LinkedIn stalking of HR personnel all boiled down to… “unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful.”
I had applied for 11 positions, only to be knocked back and told I did not get the role. I felt embarrassed by my inability to secure a new job. I felt like a letdown to my parents, to my friends, and my potential. I was insecure that I didn’t have a job. Funnily enough, I was not worried about financial security, but rather my self-worth. My self-worth was so intrinsically linked to working, that losing my job utterly destabilised my sense of self. I did not feel like me, I felt like a smaller, more insignificant version of myself, even though nothing else in my life had changed. Although job hunting is undoubtedly stressful, it should not have debilitated my self-esteem to such a dramatic extent. As I was getting ready to throw myself a pity party, I began to dissect my feelings and reflect on exactly why I got so unduly upset over it. Putting on my Freudian cap and psychoanalysing myself helped me realise that migrant children like myself tend to link achievements with our self-worth.
Migrant parents are trying to set up a new life in a different country, which is especially difficult for non-English-speaking parents like mine. It was implied that being a good student at school was the bare minimum in helping reduce their burden and lessen their worries. From a young age, I would only be praised or given attention if I had hit a milestone. I only recall getting verbal praise twice in my upbringing. First was when I got accepted into an academically selective school at age 12. Second was when I graduated from aforementioned school with a 99 ATAR at age 17. Doing well in an end of term test and winning awards were not milestones that warranted verbal praise. I simply ought to get ‘A’s, play in a youth orchestra and be an award-winning public speaker. My parents seldom expressed pride in my achievements; I felt that I had to exceed their expectations for them to be proud and love me as their daughter. Intentionally or not, I had created a fiction in my head that their love for me was conditional.
As a young adult, I have carried that expectation within myself. Although my parents have grown to be disinterested in my university life, I have internalised their high expectations of me. I had created an external identity around achievement, goals, and milestones through rigid internal expectations of myself. I had set a standard for myself that I would get good grades, be in a leadership position at university and work in an area related to my degree. I was convinced I needed to tick off this checklist for me to be happy, successful and worthy.
When I did, I felt cautiously confident. When things went pear-shaped and I was thrown off course, my confidence plummeted. Tying my ‘success’ with self-worth was no longer productive, loving or sustainable. I cannot put myself down every time things do not go to plan. I do not need to tick off a checklist to like myself, nor derive confidence from it. It has taken me 21 years, and the ensuing challenges of a public health crisis for me to learn that I am worthy simply because I exist.
Realising this is liberating has empowered me to take control of my narrative. I can see my shift in mindset through my applications. My self-perception directly translates to how I present myself in job applications. My previous lack of confidence meant that I was often understating my experiences and qualifications for a particular role. Not only was this detrimental to my job hunt, I was also belittling my achievements — subconsciously putting myself down. My mindset of ‘oh I should’ve had this experience anyway’ was not conducive to selling myself as a prospective candidate. Once I let go of my mental gripe, I started using more assertive language and better framed my talents, which translated to confidence on the page.
Mindset shifts are immensely powerful. I feel much lighter, and much more grounded once I learned to separate my self-worth from my achievements. Although I am still trying to get comfortable with navigating changing amidst uncertainty, I have learned to embrace the unknown and trust the process. I am worthy, because I am.