When meltdowns lead to breakthroughs

I graduated with a master’s degree in Applied Communication this year. I learned a lot about myself throughout the course of the program…including how prone I was to meltdowns.

I actually never had a meltdown until I started in this program, which may come as surprise to some of my professors and cohorts. The meltdowns quickly became a coping mechanism, especially at the start of each semester. A master’s program was a big deal and I did not want to mess it up. I even expressed in my application that I had not been a great student in undergrad and that I was ready to redeem myself in graduate school. And because I had put that out there, I felt like I had to prove it to myself at every turn. I did not want to let anyone down, from my cohorts to my professors. That led to putting extra pressure on myself, which, in turn, led to the constant meltdowns.

One of my favorite meltdowns, which I now fondly refer to as the “Bob meltdown,” taught me something about myself that I had never realized. The “Bob meltdown” happened in the first semester and was the result of a group project where Bob, one of my cohorts, and I were in the same group. I had written the first draft of a section for a paper and Bob turned it into something that was worthwhile and intelligent. It was then that I realized that I would never be as good a writer as Bob. I kept comparing what I wrote to what he wrote and tried to figure out what it was that he did or knew that made that paragraph so much better. I obsessed over it. I could not get how we both read the same material and produced such different results.

My friend Julie was over one night and I was in the middle of my “I’ll never be as good a writer as Bob!” sob story when she stopped me. She asked if Bob was white and I said, “yes.” She asked if English was Bob’s parents’ first language and I said, “most likely.” She asked if my parents were white and if their first language was English. I said, “no.” She stared at me; I stared at her. I still wasn’t connecting the dots. Julie is also the child of immigrants and the first in her family to go college and pursue advanced degrees. She pointed out that our parents could not help us with our homework when we were little because they did not speak the language. She pointed out that we have been a step behind our peers our entire lives. Until she pointed it out, I never realized how much of my academic – and professional – life had been impacted by the fact that English was not my parents’ first language. I always wore my “child of immigrants” badge with pride because I know what my parents sacrificed to give me advantages they never had. I didn’t realize how much of a disadvantage I was at until Julie pointed it out. And once it was pointed out, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Even some of the phrases I use on a regular basis are grammatically incorrect but it’s what I grew up hearing, so I didn’t think twice about it. Now I think twice about everything I write and say in class or at work.

The moral of the story is this: sometimes we don’t realize we have to overcome because we just overcome.