Imposter Syndrome, Culture Shock, and Anxiety: What Living in Germany Has Taught Me

Transparency is important to me, not only because of my belief that it helps me reflect and work through these issues, but also because in my experience it has helped others feel not so alone in their own insecurities and struggles. Maybe I can write about transparency in another blog, but tonight I am writing because of my opinions about transparency and how it can help me and other people.

In my personal and professional life, I am exceptionally open about my struggles with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, for those of you who do not know, is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Imposter syndrome manifests itself in insecurity. In my experience, it’s been near crippling insecurity. What’s even worse is that my biggest insecurity coincidentally is my intelligence, which is not surprising because it is incredibly common in academia, especially among women, first generation college students, and people of color.

Although I would argue that I have fought with imposter syndrome all my life, I did not know what imposter syndrome was until 2013 after a conversation with my advisor. When I told her I was not smart enough to go into graduate school after I showed her my CV, she explained this phenomenon (but not before she lectured me for not being kind to myself), and there I began to make larger connections about my own identity and experiences and how they tie together with this construct.

Since moving to Germany two months ago, what I am starting to realize is that my academic insecurity is tied to my intense anxiety. It’s sad to say, but Germany has not been as fun as I had anticipated. I embarrass myself almost every single day. I am finding it very hard to rely on other people for help because I can’t be as independent as I am accustomed to. I never learned German before coming here. Every time I talk to someone, I have to ask “Sprachen Sie Englisch?” and hope that they can speak English at LEAST a little in order for me to handle my business. Even if people are happy to help, I find myself starting to have anxiety attacks, during which a voice in my head starts to say “You’re useless. You don’t belong here. You didn’t deserve to get the job you got. You’re a fraud.”

I am a student of applied linguistics, but before starting my first year of my master’s, I had never travelled abroad (long story.) Therefore, culture shock is completely new to me. My degree prepared me to teach classes independently. My degree taught me the theoretical framework about acquiring a second language. My degree taught me about understanding the differences between monocultural and intercultural mindsets. What my degree DID NOT prepare me for the feelings I would have failing at language and culture in a particular culture. And this is not a criticism of my program; I don’t think ANY program can. I know logically that I shouldn’t feel bad that I can’t speak a language well, that it takes practice to master a language, and that failure is inevitable. Rationally, I know what my issues are, and they are not necessarily tied to my intelligence- just knowledge. I don’t speak German, and I know very little about German culture.

My anxiety has gotten completely out of control. It doesn’t help that my usual methods for handling crippling anxiety are very hard to obtain in my “German life.” Working out and maintaining a healthy lifestyle was how I dealt with anxiety and stress. I used to work out almost every single day- biking 9 miles (14.5 KM) a day, teaching Zumba twice a week, and having a divalicious personal trainer who kicked my butt once a week. I was eating much healthier and not living on a diet of mostly bread, cheese, and French wine. My old routine consisted going to a local cafe early in the morning, chatting with baristas, and plowing through as much work as possible before I went downtown to sit in my office and take care of work there before classes. Here, I don’t have Zumba classes. I don’t have a bike. I don’t have a cafe to go to where I can talk to others (in English without feeling bad about speaking in English.) I don’t even have proper running clothes for the weather so that I can at least run.

Although I realized my anxiety has gotten out of hand, I realized today that my anxiety was ESPECIALLY bad during a conversation I had with someone I started dating last month. He asked me why I hadn’t taken care of an errand I had been needing to run for a month now, to which my honest answer was “because I had to talk to people.” He said he would have helped me, but I felt stupid about asking for help. Therefore, I didn’t.

To tie everything together, I genuinely feel as though my imposter syndrome feeds my academic insecurity, which is triggered by not knowing German, which feeds my anxiety, which is made worse by culture shock. What a sentence!

So, what am I taking away from my experiences with this anxiety?

1. Usually, I find that when it comes to healing, it gets worse before it gets better.Taking this year to come to Germany for a job was when I decided that I needed to use this as a time to grow as a person, educator, and student as well as to reflect on what I was missing from my life. I came here with growth in mind. If my usual trend is right, maybe the worst has already past.

2. Find better ways to cope with imposter syndrome. I have been reading a few articles online (such as this and this.) Some things are much more helpful than others, but at least I can try to start internalizing that my lack of German knowledge is not an indicator for how intelligent I am.

3. I have to find a way to adapt to a different life. My stay in Trier is temporary, and I am finding myself completely miserable. I don’t want this to be my entire experience here. Here, I don’t get to teach Zumba (although there is possibility this might change), bike, or go to cafes, but I can find other ways to get the same benefits that these things gave me.

4. I have to allow people to help. This is tied to the last point, but it’s important. I have been incredibly lucky to meet lovely people here in Trier, including but not limited to my magnificent colleagues and other international friends.

5. Come to terms with the fact that I can only learn so much German. It doesn’t matter how much I study; I don’t think I will be fluent enough before I leave Trier to have conversations. I can strive to be functional without abusing myself along the way. 

I apologize if this is a convoluted, messy blog. It’s a result of the thoughts I needed to resolve. I feel much better after typing this. What I hope that you can take away is this: For my friends and family, being in Germany is hard, but it’s a learning experience. For those who came here with similar problems, know that you are not alone and that we can help ourselves by determining what we need. There is not a one size fits all solution in my opinion, though we might have similarities. My last take away is optimistic: imposter syndrome and culture shock are irritating, but at least we can learn to grow from our experiences.

 

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4 comments

  1. Love you JDM
    You have been an inspiration to me and learning that even you, an academic bad-## has anxieties, reminds me that no matter how amazing I think of someone, we’re all human beings with struggles and anxieties. Therefore, your courage in expressing your anxieties and struggles makes you even more beautiful as a person to me and also inspires me further.

    Like

  2. I went through a lot of this myself when I first moved here. And some things (imposter syndrome) keep rearing their ugly heads. But I’m very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of very positive and encouraging people (including you!), and we look out for each other!
    Sorry my comment on your post comes so late, but I hope it makes you smile nonetheless!

    Kopf hoch!

    C x

    Like

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