On being mentored

Sometime in my last semester of college, I found myself crying on my therapist’s couch.

Okay, this is vague – I spent a lot of my last semester of college crying on my therapist’s couch. In retrospect, I was genuinely in the throes of an existential crisis, but a major perk of being incredibly high-functioning is that I’m able to compartmentalize my anxiety away to do what needs to be done. As a result, when I wasn’t spending whole cursing out my capstone, I seemed as put-together as anyone on the cusp of graduating could be expected to, uh, be. But make no mistake: every single therapy session I had that semester, I spent crying into my therapist’s succulent that I was cradling to myself.

During one such succulent-cradling occasion, I cried to my therapist about how, despite the fact that I felt like I was a mentor to so many people, I didn’t have a mentor myself. How at that moment, with the dizzying array of possibilities ahead of me, the one thing I wanted above all else was a mentor. I felt petulant. Had I not been lucky enough with the support of my peers and professors? Why did I need a dedicated mentor?

I still don’t know why it hit me so hard then. My guess is I was self-flagellating at all the things I hadn’t done during my five years at Northeastern. Like so many students, I was terrified of going to office hours. I didn’t want to bother professors. I felt like all I would do was make a fool of myself. It was enough to be a presence in class and know that, at least, the professor knew my name (maybe) – but to go out of my way to bother them? I didn’t want to hoist myself as a burden onto anyone.

But since my third year, whenever I was at a panel or in a position of advising undergrads, I always said (and still say) that the one thing you should do as soon as you come across a professor you’re interested in is to go and see them. I was exposing myself in saying that. I was extolling the virtues of having a mentor and revealing the secret to finding a mentor after years of having missed out on the same experience myself. The best pieces of advice I give all come from my own mistakes and misfortunes. But when I’m not advising people, those mistakes and misfortunes sit deep in my belly like a rot. In therapy, the rot translates to crying into a succulent while running my fingers over its fleshy leaves.

(Have I painted a vivid enough picture of my lowest moments for you yet? Should I mention the amount of used tissues scattered at my feet? I’m baring my soul to deliver this quality content!)

What I was really getting at was that I didn’t know how to reconcile the mistakes I had made in college with my then-uncertainty. There was so much I could have done: I could have offered to do research for faculty, I could have tried to get things published in earnest, I could have joined more clubs, I could have spearheaded more initiatives, I could have made a better show of things during my co-ops. I could have, and – by my logic – all of these mistakes could have been rectified had I just had a mentor to guide me. It would have been that simple.

It wouldn’t have been that simple, but I needed to think in black-and-white at the time. As always, it was about accountability: by blaming myself, by pinpointing a singular cause for my condition, the uncertainty became slightly more surmountable.

Now that I’m sufficiently divorced from that situation, I can say, with relish, that I was being dumb and reductionist. (ASIDE – that’s one of my favorite words: reductionist. What a good word. And what a great insult, even at one’s own expense, both academically and in real life). Of course it’s nice having a dedicated mentor, but in doggedly pining after a mentor, I had my shutters closed against what I’m so immensely privileged to have: a whole constellation of support, comprised of friends, family, and professors.

It’s been a year since, and I’ve recently come into some good news. A large, decidedly South Asian part of me always wants to hold good news close to my chest. I’ve been burnt by nazar before, and there are just certain things I don’t want to ruin for myself by casting the news far and wide. I’m not ready to share that news on this platform just yet (soon, hopefully!), but as soon as I got this particular piece of news, I set about telling the people closest to me. My family, of course, my dearest friends – but beyond that, I realized, I had professors whom I desperately wanted to tell about this news. Right after firing off an email to a fifth professor, I realized – full of warmth, and – that I had been doing my betters a disservice. I’m not going to pull up the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of mentor (though, uh, here) but I had talked myself into such a specific definition of mentorship, that I had forgotten just how many people have been in my corner since I first got to Northeastern in 2013.

If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what my definition of mentorship entailed. All I knew was that I didn’t have one of those. On the contrary, I have several mentors, many of whom probably had no inkling I looked up to and wanted to emulate them, among both professors and peers. It’s natural for us, as humans, to feel like we are alone in our moments of pathos. The existential crisis is not a particularly social experience. Tunnel vision does not afford the opportunity to glance around and see the many others who are trudging along beside you, and, more importantly, those that are cheering you on from the other side of the tunnel. But joy is exultation, and in exulting, we open ourselves up to a shared experience. In the course of my exultation, I allowed myself to follow my intuition, and I realized I already had people in my heart to whom I wanted to parse some of my joy for the sheer reason that they helped me get to my joy.

If there is a definition of a mentor more appropriate than simply “someone who guides you towards finding joy; someone with whom you can mutually exult,” then I don’t want to know it.

I’m still here

I can explain my absence pretty well, though I can’t necessarily excuse it. For the past half-year, I have been busy either studying for the GRE or working on applications for PhD programs in political science. When not doing either of those, I work full-time as a research assistant. When not doing any of those three, I have been making time to read and write poetry.

I am incredibly, unbelievably happy. I absolutely love my job. For the first time, I feel like I have a genuine shot at a poetry side-hustle. I have an idea of what I want to do in the near-future, and that is deeply reassuring. And, since I am the way I am (i.e. incapable of taking any good news in good faith), all of this means I am filled with abject terror at the prospect of losing this happiness and, specifically, of failing. And right now, the biggest possible/plausible failure for me is a failure to get into a doctoral program in political science.

At this point, I should apologize. Not having written anything that isn’t a poem or for research purposes in months means I’ve lost my ability to write in a way that’s charming, relatable, or funny. And maybe I shouldn’t reduce this to charm, commiseration, or funniness.

I’ve talked about imposter syndrome a lot in the past. The concept isn’t new to anyone anymore, and that’s good! The more accessible this idea becomes, the easier it will be to talk about imposter syndrome and its effects on people. My specific imposter syndrome makes me feel like the best con-artist in the world; that I’ve duped everyone into thinking I’m intelligent and capable, when really I’m a slacker, a procrastinator, a plagiarist, a regurgitator. But I’ve done that concept to death, and I think what’s worse than the imposter syndrome is the opposite: if I’m not an imposter, if I truly am successful, if I truly am worthwhile, then the fall will be even worse. At least if I fail as an imposter, I’m getting what I deserve. That’s justice. That’s accountability. I can self-flagellate and feel a grim satisfaction. But if I fail as Neiha Lasharie, then what happens?

My therapist and I had a breakthrough recently. She was listening to my usual self-deprecating diatribes (“I’m a horrible person masquerading as someone with good intentions,” etc) and then, after intently scribbling something in her notes, said, “You’re gaslighting yourself.”

I felt like an old-timey bank robber, suddenly thrown into sharp relief by a helicopter spotlight. “Oh. I am.”

My therapist went on to say that it was obvious that I had picked up the language of gaslighting from people throughout my life, that it wasn’t something inherently in me, but a learned behavior. And if it was learned, then that meant it could be unlearned. I felt both guilt and relief. Guilt at the fact that I had been doing unto myself what I swore I would never let anyone else do to me, and relief at knowing. I’ve seen a change in myself over the past few weeks since that breakthrough, but it has opened up another avenue of fear. I’m assuming that my imposter syndrome – and maybe that of other people – is related to the self-gaslighting behavior that I’ve learnt. But I’ve become so used to my imposter syndrome as truth that I don’t know what is on the other side of overcoming this obstacle.

I love taking responsibility for things that aren’t my fault, and the gaslighting is absolutely the reason for that. But if I am able to suppress this urge to gaslight and be honest with myself and give praise where it’s due, then I will also have to face myself and be honest about my shortcomings, in a way that’s realistic and healthy. I will have to face my failures as a matter of fact, rather than something that can be grandiosely ascribed to a personal defect. I’ve grown comfortable in my self-perception of being a con artist. I’m comfortable being the villain in my story. I don’t know how to see myself as a nuanced person. It’s easier for me to think my boss hates me because of a mistake I made than to accept that my boss could move on with her life and expects me to move on with mine after said mistake was corrected.

I keep going back to the same question: is this a form of narcissism?

My therapist told me to write a positive poem about myself, and it took nearly a month for me to get something down. It became my favorite poem I’ve ever written, but getting into the headspace where such a poem was possible was a month-long endeavor. I felt uncomfortable praising myself, as if allowing myself to admit to any goodness in me would immediately make me fulfill my destiny as a narcissist. And narcissism, in my logic, is how you become a monster. And monsters are the reason I’m even trying to get a doctorate in political science to begin with.

Maybe that’s not it. Maybe the reason I’m reckoning with this “what’s on the other side of self-loathing” problem is that I still don’t trust myself to be responsible for being a source of good in the world. I want this doctorate because it is a way to assure my responsibility. I cannot be of service if I haven’t learnt all I can – for me, for myself, a PhD is the minimum qualification for being worthy of service, for being a truly Good Person. I’m forcing myself to jump through ever-higher hoops because I want to see if I’ll fail. I’m trying to reject my null-hypothesis:

H0 – Neiha Lasharie is an inherently bad/unintelligent/narcissistic person and therefore shouldn’t be trusted with a doctorate in political science.

It turns out, as far as I’m concerned, my testing isn’t complete yet.