062. A Part of Me

tldr: or a part of me?

Blog post (#2!) on MIT Admissions.

Warning: this blog features spoilers for the video game Celeste regarding the plot. I highly encourage you to play the game if you haven’t, it’s one of my favorite platformers. But there are spoilers. So. If that really bothers you, go download the game, play it through, and this blog will be waiting for you when you’re done. You have been warned. (I will also clearly note where spoilers begin and where they end.)

1. Voices In My Head

Song: Voices in my Head, Be More Chill (original). [Right now I plan to keep finding music to go with my posts until I deem it cringe]

Fact: imposter syndrome exists. If you don’t experience imposter syndrome: I am glad, because it is more painful and hollowing than nearly any PSET or bad relationship that I’ve ever gone through. If you do: I’m so sorry I know what that feels like, and you are not alone [and if you believe otherwise that is just the imposter syndrome talking].

A comic of a large creature labelled Imposter Syndrome approaching someone sitting in a chair, scared. (original comic by Shen Comix)
Imposter syndrome: always there, always grinning, ominously. (original comic by Shen Comix)

My experience with imposter syndrome has been a somewhat interesting one. For me, imposter syndrome just sort of, exists. It’s a voice in the back of my head reminding me how behind I am, or how ahead others are. To some extent, I’ve learned how to quiet this voice: I just cover it up with the confidence of facts.

Fact: I am on track to graduate, and so, in two years, I should have a degree in mathematics from MIT. Fact: There are plenty of people who are “ahead” of me in math, whatever that means, but I still enjoy doing math and that’s what matters. Fact: Learning is a process, not a competition, and I’m excited to be going through it.

Typing this out, these facts almost feel like Stockholm syndrome. I’ve just sort of, grown around this pest I can’t get rid of.

Sometimes, I wish I could get rid of the voice. That it didn’t just linger in the background, poking and prodding at my insecurities. But I also don’t know who I would be without it. Isn’t that terrifying?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after I attended the first Women in Math lunch seminar of the semester last Friday (9/16). This seminar/informal conversation [with free food, always a plus] featured Jinyoung Park, a Szegö Assistant Professor from Stanford. At one point during the interview, she was talking about imposter syndrome in a way that I related to quite a bit: she personified imposter syndrome as a Part of Her. She (roughly) said:

“I don’t want this Part of Me to stop me. I don’t want this Part of Me to win.

This is very different from how I visualized my imposter syndrome. Sure, I don’t want this Voice in my head [which is frankly quite irrational albeit persuasive] to win similar to Park, but the way she described her experiences with imposter syndrome personified it. Made it human. Made it, competitive. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned a bit of while at MIT, it’s how to deal with a competitive spirit.

2. Part of Me

Song: Resurrections, Celeste (Original Soundtrack)

After first hearing the depiction of imposter syndrome as “Part of Me”, my mind went to the video game Celeste. This game [that I spent way too much time playing my freshman year] follows protagonist Madeline as she attempts to summit the treacherous titular mountain.

There is a lot to say about the gameplay, music, and plot [all of which you can read about in CJ’s amazing post on Celeste], but the plot point I want to particularly focus on is the character named “Part of Me.”

Plot spoilers begin here.

One of the most interesting parts of the game, in my opinion, is its lack of bad guys that platformers usually have. The Bowser in the Mario franchise, and the Hollow Knight in,, well, Hollow Knight [another amazing game go play it and come back /half joking].

But in Celeste, it’s just Madeline, the mountain, the various whimsical characters she meets along the way, and oh yeah, her anxiety.

Badeline, aka “Part of Me”, is a personified version of Madeline’s anxiety and depression. In early parts of the game Madeline is driven further along by Badeline in an epic chase scene, while later on we see Madeline confronting and challenging her reflection. But it is only when they agree to coexist as both true and valid parts of Madeline that Madeline becomes stronger [mechanically and emotionally] as a result of it.

Spoilers vaguely end here.

So, where does that leave me? Confused. To some extent. I mean, Celeste, like Park’s depiction of her imposter syndrome, is yet another clear case of personifying insecurities so that one can battle them and hopefully make it out the other side. 

And this personification is clearly helpful! I mean, I had been picturing my imposter syndrome as something in my head and that was unhelpful. It was frustrating feeling like my biggest battles were just in my head, and it isn’t as though personifying them changes the fact that they are internal feelings, but it does? Doesn’t it? Personifying imposter syndrome turns insecurities into “some asshole whose opinion I couldn’t care less about anyways.” And I unfortunately get the opportunity to deal with people with opinions like those all the time.

So personification is a helpful way to think about various parts of myself, but for some reason this still feels unsatisfying, because in the end Madeline, like Jinyoung and myself with imposter syndrome, learn to coexist, but this doesn’t always feel possible.

3. Parts of Me

Song: Past Life, by Jules Paymer

There are a lot of parts to me. Some of the largest parts are ones that require the least amount of worrying because they’re so grounded in facts. 

Like the fact that I’m trans. You might think that this fact would play a large role in my life, which to some extent is true, but mentally it’s rather light. Facts sort of work that way; they simply are. So while I spend time thinking about trans-related topics, it doesn’t weigh on my mind. At one point it used to, but it doesn’t anymore. This is like Badeline. Badeline learned to coexist with Madeline, and Madeline with Badeline. Both characters have their own innate faults, but they can both merge to form a stronger collective.

But there are parts of me, the smaller, less identity-intense parts, that feel so much heavier. They feel like a pebble with the mass of the sun, begging to be picked up but at such a large potential cost.

Maybe this would be more clear if I stopped being so vague.

Some parts of me:
– I like math.
– I like education.
– I like to write.

For the sake of this blog I’ll just focus on these three. I have loved these three parts of me for as long as I can remember. And that has been great while I’ve been in school because all three of these parts can continue to coexist as I take math courses, teach classes, and write blogs. But around the corner, slowly but surely, is the year 2024. The year that I graduate from MIT. What happens then?

Well, I hope, I will get to more closely pursue any of these aspects of myself that I have come to love. I can get a PhD in math and teach classes for the rest of my life to fulfill the first two parts. Or travel the world writing expository pieces on education and communication. Or I could try my hand at writing math textbooks or a math blog. I don’t know. But whichever way I choose to go, I feel like I am letting some part of myself down.

I can try to continue pursuing all of these options equally but that doesn’t seem smart. That would lead to one of two cases as far as I can tell: 1) I become just ~eh~ in each of these parts or 2) (more likely) something gives way and I get hurt in the process. My identity get’s hurt in the process.

I can visualize these parts of myself distinctly. It’s like, there’s one with chalk in her hair, one with a pen tucked behind her ear, and another clichely eating an apple [because I ran out of ways to personify these parts]. And then, there’s me. Who doesn’t want to let any of them down because they are parts of me. They’re tangible. Their dreams are my own. I worry that any one of these parts can’t thrive without diminishing the others, but I also know that realistically I can’t grow if I don’t make any choices about what I want to do.

So what do I do? I don’t know. But writing this out, I think I found a somewhat common link.

4. Spontaneity

Song: Soldier, Poet, King, by The Oh Hellos

Fact: I believe that I will one day be truly happy doing *something* related to math, education, or writing, and I know that I won’t be happy in the long run if I try to do it all. Fact: I don’t need to know what that *something* is yet.

These facts are ones that are based on feelings and intuition, but as of right now, this is as close to true as I can make the statement. I don’t truly know that I would find true happiness that way, I just know that I have felt happiest when committing to my hobbies intensely and intentionally. I mean that’s how I got here *gestures vaguely*.

What frustrates me most, is that if I chose one of these Parts to chase after, I think I could make their [i.e. the Part’s] dreams come true. I wish I could just pick one and go for it. I wish I was spontaneous.

I don’t think I am a very spontaneous person. I try to sit with my thoughts and ensure that I’m not acting too irrationally. And yet, the most amazing things can happen at the drop of a hat. I can fly to a state I’ve never been to before and live there my freshman fall (another story for another time), and I can decide to teach a class (yet another story for yet another time).

So why is it so hard to just decide what I’m going to do with my life?

Well, for one thing, maybe it’s because I keep viewing the decision as affecting the rest of my life, as if putting my heart and soul into my work also means literally putting my soul into it. But also, maybe it’s because being spontaneous requires energy. Energy to put in the work, and the mental/physical energy to be okay with the possibility of failing.

I don’t think I have that energy right now. I want to! I really do. Maybe it’s the many cups of coffee running through my veins, or maybe it’s the fact that I have two more years here, but I don’t have that energy right now. I will have the energy eventually I’m sure of it. But right now, my energy has been going into growing at MIT.

The past two years I’ve grown into myself quite a bit. I mean, as a concept, “myself” existed before MIT, and a version of “myself” will exist afterwards, but those concepts were defined by my environment more than anything else. Before MIT, I was just a kid who liked school, nothing more, nothing less. Who knows where I’ll be two years from now. Who knows, maybe (hopefully) one day soon I will be ready to go on an epic quest to explore the world outside of MIT. But for now, I’m not quite ready for another adventure. For now, this desire to be spontaneous will have to just remain a part of me.

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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