My shame started early, but I really began concocting stories to make me more ‘perfect’ from the age of about 15. There’s a lot to cover, and a lot of it is too painful for me to even consider right now, so I thought I would start with my Masters degree, which I completed in my late twenties. I’ve always proudly announced the fact that I got a distinction.
I knew the institution was an ex-polytechnic (these were lesser rated institutions in the UK that all got university status in 1992), and I suspected it wasn’t the best university even at the time of application but I had the choice of Westminster or Imperial as no one else nearby offered the conversion course I wanted (I could have moved, but I was living with my ex-boyfriend so it wasn’t really an option at the time – we split up, so maybe I should have considered my choice more carefully, but that’s more shame so we’ll leave that for now). The Imperial fees were £10k, Westminster was £3k. I couldn’t afford Imperial.
For years I have kind of glossed over that choice, hanging onto the fact that I got a distinction (the highest award for a masters degree), and ignoring the status of the university itself.
So today, I took a deep breath and looked it up in the league tables, both for my subject and as a whole. Westminster is in the bottom quarter of UK universities. I’ll just write that again, shall I? The university I got my masters at is one of the worst universities in the UK.
I kind of knew this, but I’d never bothered to verify it. I had just ignored it.
On facing up to this fact, and repeating it to myself, I felt actual physical pain in my chest. The pain of failure, humiliation, and shame. Why? Because I have always been told how clever I am – my parents drummed it into me as a child, and because it feels like a part of my identity to be academic – at primary school I was never the pretty one, I was the boy-haired clever one. And also because one of my oldest friends, who I seem to have a complex relationship with (more on that later), went to Oxford, straight out of school. The best UK university.
I felt so upset, my chest hurt and I wanted to cry. Then I got angry and thought that I may as well have not gone to a shit university at all – I’d be better off deleting it from my CV and identity. What a stupid mistake. I’d rather have no degree than one that says I am shit, right? But of course that is also a form of false identity that prevents healthy self-acceptance. To deny it is the same as making it out to be better than it was. Both are an attempt by me to avoid feeling ashamed.
But here’s the thing – I don’t need to feel ashamed. The shame is all in my head. It’s there because I didn’t live up to my parents’ label, and because it isn’t the view I have constructed of myself, and because I feel as though my friend feels superior to anyone who didn’t go to Oxford, especially me, and it was my way of competing with it – well at least I have a masters with distinction. I sat there and breathed through the feeling, sinking deep into the pain and humiliation and regret and everything else. I just experienced it. No fighting, no anger, no self-pity. And it started to pass. Because you can’t walk around like that all the time. So I just kept thinking about it, and breathing, and telling myself the facts. I got a masters degree from a not very good university.
And you know what? It’s okay. I went and dug out the certificate to take a look at it. It was still a worthwhile experience, I still worked hard, and I got a job at the end of it that I loved and couldn’t have gotten had I not done a masters at Westminster. It doesn’t mean I’m an academic failure. But I have to accept that academically I don’t present as a superstar, no matter how clever I was told I was as a child, and no matter how much I feel as though I should or would if life had been different and I’d had more supportive parents, etc. It doesn’t mean I’m an idiot for choosing a less well-respected university without checking up on it first. It is what it is. And it is a part of my whole. I don’t need to hide it, big it up, change it or lie about it. Welcome back to the real me.
So many years I have carried around that shame and feeling of failure. But maybe I can let that go now. I can just state what I did for what it was. It’s a relief not to have to make it seem better so people don’t judge me.
Now, as painful as the moment was, that wasn’t too bad. I am anticipating that other things I need to deal with will take a bit more than a few kind words to myself, but we’ll see.