In-between thoughts: can you have a conspiracy theory about yourself?! Asking for a friend

Holy cats, it is scheduled. I have a date set for my philosophy MA culminating oral exam. I have chosen three papers as best representative of my work, chosen three professors whom I feel know and appreciate my work enough to be incisive and kind critics, I have a sense of what “substantial revisions” I am going to make on my focus paper, and I have stocked up on antacids and sleep aids. I am prepared for what I need to do to prepare and trying desperately to stave off feelings of doom.

Oral exams are my nightmare. While I have no problem talking in front of a crowd (I love it, in fact!), I have a real fear about talking through my own complex ideas. Under scrutiny or pressure, I get tongue-tied, nervous, and consequently so consumed by self-doubt that words fail me and do not do justice to my ideas and thoughts. This is not to say that I’m always right, just that in these situations I feel like my ideas deserve better articulation than I feel I generally give them. I am working really hard to get a more accurate belief of my abilities (neither self-punishingly undervalued nor self-aggrandizingly overvalued), and talking things out has always been an area of my biggest intellectual insecurity. I’m afraid, deep down, that this whole time, over all these semesters and through all these papers, I have been pulling the wool over my professors’ eyes and I really don’t have any idea what I’m talking about and really don’t deserve to be here.

Basically, I afraid I’m not smart enough to know what I’m talking about philosophically, but smart enough to convince everyone that I do. This is how conspiracy theories function. I have a conspiracy theory about my own abilities.

I think part of my linguistic paralysis stems from childhood. Part of it is just raw personality, certainly. But I grew up in a household that didn’t really care what I thought. My dad’s beliefs and opinions were all that mattered because they were, obviously (she says sarcastically), correct. Why would it matter what I thought, other than to make sure all my thinking aligned with his?! I learned at a really young age how to adjust my thinking to what other people thought if there was any conflict. I never learned how to trust myself to have good, contradictory ideas.

Thinking of how my upbringing shaped my intellectual well-being has only made more clear to me the importance of intellectual generosity. You know, when someone sincerely tries to understand what someone else is arguing in order to fully grasp what she means, sincerely believing they have something to say that is worth considering, rather than just trying to find a way to argue what he/she already wants to argue and believe. This wasn’t modeled to me as a child, and partly as a result of that I doubt almost everything I think and panic at having to defend my own thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments. Gaining confidence in my thoughts and then in my ability to articulate my thoughts has been an uphill battle. Being a woman in a rather sexist field of study (and a sexist society) has not helped. (Don’t worry, my department itself has been amazing — no complaints of sexism on my end.)

So my oral exam is presenting a bit of an opportunity for me to work hard on one of my biggest insecurities: trusting myself that I do know what I’m talking about and that my opinions are ridiculously valid. Spectacular.

It also doesn’t help my nerves knowing that if I pass “with distinction” I will be automatically admitted into the PhD program. At least my performance in a dreaded oral exam on a deeply complex and intellectual topic doesn’t determine my opportunity to pursue something I have wanted for decades now. OH WAIT. Double spectacular.

Oh, and did I mention they scheduled my oral exam on my birthday?! Say it with me: spectacular.

I already want a nap April 1. And/or lots of booze March 31.

At least I’ve got these pipes going for me. Maybe I can arm-wrestle for PhD admittance?!

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