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Feeling Like a Failure: FGLI

June 05, 2020


The setting is an 18 year old child from a low income background coming home to his or her parent after his or her first semester at Stanford in the present day. The student’s name is Jessica/Kevin, who is hard working, ambitious, and academically gifted. The student feels great pressure to do well in college because the student is the first in the family to go to college, and wants to be able to get a good career in order to help out his or her family. The family also has lots of financial stress. The student really feels like the family is counting on them, and so really feels the burden of responsibility.

However, the student is doing poorly in college because of imposter syndrome, feels different from everyone else, feels academically overwhelmed and had difficulty adjusting to college, but also does not really want to talk about it too much at first, because he or she feels that he or she does not want to burden the parent with more stress. The student feels a sense of shame because the student feels like he or she is letting down their family’s expectations.

Version 1: (non-optimal model)

Parent has a history of jumping to conclusions and comes from a place of extreme concern for the student but is controlling and accusatory. The student also has an older brother who did not follow the same path but had a teenage pregnancy, and now works as a waiter at a restaurant and lives with his girlfriend taking care of their baby.

Student-parent conflict:

  • Parent: believes that the student is not making the right decisions at college and is not working hard enough. The parent feels like he or she is working very hard to support the family and support the student in college, and is upset when he or she hears about the student’s grades because the lower grades than high school means that his or her student is slipping and not making the best choices in college.
  • Student: wants to make their family proud and knows he or she carries a lot of expectations and responsibilities but is having imposter syndrome at the college along with typical difficulties of college and may also come from a neighborhood with less educational resources so he or she may find college more challenging that his or her peers.

Teaching points:

To parents: don’t jump to conclusions. There are reasons that your child may be doing poorly in school for reasons other than not working hard enough. Some of those reasons might be something called imposter syndrome, which is being put into a new circumstance (in this situation, going to college), and then feeling that you don’t fit in and don’t belong, that they made a mistake in choosing you to be there (feeling like an imposter). Let your child speak, be curious and lively listen to them in a non-judgmental way. Make them feel safe enough to talk to you about their feelings. This is an effective way to show your support and love to your child.

To children: you and your parents may be thinking of different things. A parent not understanding the struggles you are going through does not mean they do not love you or do not want to help you, although they may not know how to. Share your feelings and the challenges you have, and point out the reasons why you are feeling a certain way since your parent may not understand what the reasons are. Also, know that your parent may be expressing their worry for you out of love and good intentions, although they may not understand how to effectively show their love at this point.



Non-optimal Model

C: Hey Mom!

P: Kevin! Welcome home, sweetie! How was the flight in?

C: It was good. I watched a lot of movies.

P: How was your first semester?

C: It was good, it was good, I had fun.

P: You had fun?

C: It was good. (P: Ok, ok)

P: How did your classes go?

C: They were good. I learned a lot of stuff, and had some really cool professors.

P: Good, good, but how are your grades, though?

C: Um, like they’re good, they’re good.

P: Kevin, why aren’t you telling me what your grades are?

C: I just said they’re good.

P: Yeah, but you usually tell me about all the As you got.

C: Yeah, I got, um, what do you call, I got an A in biology.

P: Ok. You took a lot more classes than biology.

C: Yeah. Yeah I did. Um, yeah.

P: Kevin, what grades did you get in those classes?

C: I got, I got um…I got some Bs. And then…um—

P: Kevin, that is unacceptable! You got Bs in your classes?

C: Yeah, but—

P: Kevin, what else?

C: I got a C+ in calc 2.

P: Kevin! Oh my goodness! You’re doing drugs, aren’t you?!

C: Why do you think—

P: I can’t, I can’t imagine any other way you would have gotten a C.

C: I got a C+ because calc 2 is super hard and the (P: You should have worked harder) professor was really confusing.

P: You should have worked harder. You should have worked harder Kevin, and not do so many drugs.

C: I’m not doing drugs!

P: You’re partying, you’re off at school, you should have stayed at home. You should have stayed here and stayed at home so that you could study here and we wouldn’t have to worry about this.

C: You’re accusing me of doing drugs and I’m not!

P: Partying! I know what the kids do at college!

C: I’m—

P: Who are your friends? Who have you been hanging out with?

C: Everyone at the school is super smart, all right? It’s not like high school where there’s like, you have some people who look like they’re not going anywhere or making all the wrong choices. Everyone at college is working super hard—

P: And you’re not working hard enough!

C: I’m working super hard too!

P: If you were working hard enough, you wouldn’t have gotten a C+, Kevin, oh my goodness. How?

C: But Mom, I don’t know how to say this, but I worked super hard, and it felt like everyone was smarter than me!

P: You should have studied more and not partied as much.

C: I was—

P: I don’t know what you’re doing up there, Kevin.

C: I was studying a lot. And sometimes I went to a party (See I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!). But everyone goes to a party sometimes.

P: If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?

C: That’s so dumb! When you say things like that, it’s so dumb! Like, Mom, I go to one of the best colleges in America. No one in our family has gone to college and you don’t understand. I feel so different there from everyone else. All the other students there are rich, except me. You think that like—

P: I don’t understand?! You don’t understand! We’re working our butts off here so you can be at this great school! And you’re getting C pluses?

C: You think that I don’t understand that you guys are working super hard? I get it, I know, I know you guys work super hard and I am working super hard because I know you guys are working super hard! I don’t want to be getting bad grades, I want to make you guys proud and I wanna do well! I know you guys are counting on me, and I’m trying, I am, but I couldn’t….

P: I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.

C: You always are jumping to conclusions, and even in high school you would think that I’m not coming home because I’m smoking weed with my friends because I was actually at math club after school but you didn’t ask so you just thought I was messing around.

P: Yeah.

C: You always think I’m not making the right choice, when I am trying to make the right choices. I know you guys worry I’m going to turn out like James (C’s brother), and have a baby when I’m not ready and be bussing tables, but I’m not!

P: I don’t think you understand what the right choices are to make sometimes.

C: You haven’t been to college so you don’t know what it’s like. I feel like all the other kids, it’s like they already have taken all these courses, or are all smarter than me, or are doing better than me even though I’m working super hard. Maybe admissions made a mistake. Maybe I should’ve just stayed home.

P: Maybe I’ve never been to college, but I know how to work hard, and clearly you’re not working hard enough. We’ll talk about this more when your (insert other parent) gets home!

Optimal Model

C: Hey Mom!

P: Kevin! Welcome home, sweetie! How was the flight in?

C: It was good. I watched a lot of movies.

P: So how did you like it? Your first semester’s done. How did it go?

C: It was good, yeah. I learned some cool stuff at college and started making some friends. My roommate—I was telling you about him—he’s really cool. And, um, I have some friends I made (P: That’s good) that I hang out with on the floor.

P: Now how about your grades?

C: Um, my grades are good, they’re good.

P: Yeah? (C: Yeah.) Did you get straight As again?

C: No…I didn’t.

P: What…what did you get this semester?

C: Um, I got…I got, I got Bs. I got some Bs.

P: Ok, is that it? All Bs?

C: I got Bs and Cs.

P: Sighing, Kevin.

C: Mom, I was afraid, I was afraid you were going to react like this. I really tried really, really hard at college.

P: Long pause. I know you did. I always spend a lot of time harping on you about working harder and studying and getting good grades, but I know you’ve always worked hard. You’ve always made us really proud. So would you tell me about what happened?

C: I feel like I’m…I feel like I’m failing you guys cuz everything’s really hard there. I feel like I’m the first person in our family to go to college and I just thought I’d do better there. I know I was a straight A student in high school, but it’s really different, and everyone’s really different from me.

P: What do you mean?

C: Sometimes it’s really hard for me to—it feels overwhelming because all the other students, their parents are like a lawyer or a doctor or they work at some kind of big company. I’m so different from them and I feel like I don’t belong. They all seem to know the stuff we’re going over in classes already. I’m trying really hard to succeed because you’re counting on me, I know everyone’s counting on me. You guys always support me, but I’m failing you guys.

P: Long pause. Why do you think you’re failing us, Kevin?

C: I don’t know, I just feel like, you guys always have a lot of trouble with money, and like James, he didn’t go to college, he has a baby, he’s working as a waiter. I always feel like you guys always counted on me to help you guys out with everything and I’m always trying to work hard at school and be different from him.

C: You guys were always proud of me and how I did in school and I always felt like you guys were counting on me to succeed and do well for everyone so I could get a job and help you guys out. But I’m not really doing well in college. I feel like I’m failing you guys.

C: I feel like I don’t belong there. Like I should have just stayed home.

P: First of all, don’t say that. You worked hard. I’ve seen you work very, very hard, ever since you were a kid, and all through high school and I know how smart you are. You belong there, just as much as any of those other rich kids—

C: (interrupting) But how do you know that?! You didn’t even go to college! You’re just saying that.

P: After a brief pause. I know that you’re very smart, and you belong there.

C: How do you know that?

P: I know how smart you are and I’ve seen how hard you work. I think—I think…I’m glad you’re talking to me about this. There’s been a lot of pressure on you for a long time.

C: I feel like you guys never knew! I always felt like you guys already had so many problems.

P: We never had to worry about you because you always took care of everything.

C: Yeah, and I didn’t want to add to that. I wanted to make things better for you guys, but I can’t. I can’t do well at college.

P: Sweetie—

C: Maybe I’m not the success you guys wanted me to be or think I am.

P: I never want you to feel that way, Kevin. We’re so proud, we’re so proud of everything you’ve done, proud of you for getting into (insert school name). We’re proud of you.

P: You’ve done such a good job, and been so helpful and so smart and resourceful, and we just took that for granted.

C: …Thanks, Mom.

P: We’re here to support you ok? (C: Ok). No matter what comes up. There’s nothing you could do to make us disappointed. We’re so proud of you.

C: Thanks, Mom.

Submitted by Mohamed Kane on August 11, 2020