Throughout undergrad, everyone would constantly congratulate me, all the awards I was getting and all the papers I was publishing and everything else that was happening. But I knew inside that I was constantly failing myself. I wasn’t making friends. I wasn’t talking to people. I wasn’t eating properly. I wasn’t sleeping.

I wasn’t going out or doing anything that most college kids were doing. I didn’t go to football games. I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t have any traditional college experience. And I think soon, my senior year, I was realizing that I was failing myself in the biggest way I could. And I started trying to change that.

I’ve always had very high expectations for myself. And that’s kind of coupled in with being a perfectionist and having a constant sense of not failing if I’m not doing 100%. And I kind of saw that taking a different form when I came to undergrad.

I was an international student, and so I was very excited when I saw all these different opportunities that I could get involved in. Coming from India, I didn’t have so many opportunities to get engaged in clubs or to do things outside of class. I’d really have to go out of my way if I wanted to do something. And so here, it was just as easy as sending an email saying I’m interested or just applying quickly online.

I started out by getting engaged in multiple clubs and multiple projects and just signing up for all the different teams that I could. And I wanted to do it all. And it slowly kind of became a lot unhealthier for me, and I didn’t see that happening.

It was almost like I was using this as a coping mechanism, because doing multiple things meant that I didn’t have to do everything perfectly. So when I would turn in a report that didn’t have the perfect margin spacing or the color scheme or the font that I wanted, I could let it go because I knew I was focusing on so many other things. And so it was OK that this one thing wasn’t 100%.

But it kept getting unhealthier and unhealthier, because I also had this constant awareness that I wasn’t succeeding at anything. I wasn’t perfecting anything so I really wasn’t succeeding at all. And so I was constantly trying to balance the need to do multiple things with the fear that I was still failing at everything.

And I had a small breaking point in sophomore year. I had taken on two jobs. And both of these jobs I absolutely loved. One was a teaching assistant and the other was a supplemental instructor. And it wasn’t just my supervisor who was counting on me for these jobs. It was also the students that I was teaching and mentoring. And it was also my colleagues who I was distributing the workload with.

And so it was very important for me to keep that job. And halfway through the semester dropping a job was a complete no-no. But I was having a really hard time managing my time. And I remember there was this particular day where I thought I’d almost failed a math exam. And so that kind of made me really nervous.

And I went into my supervisor’s office saying, OK, we really need to figure out if I can reduce my hours. I don’t know if this is working out. And so she thought it was a simple issue that could be fixed by just kind of laying things out on a timetable. And she printed out this little timetable and brought it to me.

And the first question she asked me was, when do you wake up in the morning? I couldn’t really give her an answer because I had been kind of drifting in and out of sleep in my bed with a laptop and books and the light on. And I hadn’t actually been going to bed or waking up, so I didn’t really know when I was sleeping or how many hours of sleep I was getting or when I was waking up.

5:00 AM was the first slot on that spreadsheet, so we just put down 5:00 AM and moved on. And she asked me, when do you have breakfast? And I couldn’t remember the last time I had breakfast. And then she asked, OK, let’s put down something for lunch. And I hadn’t really been sitting down and eating lunch. I’d kind of just been running around, grabbing something on the go or eating on the way to class. So we couldn’t really put down a time slot for that either.

And then she asked me about dinner, and I kind of was on campus going to meetings, going to dance practice, going to this and that till like 12:00 in the night or 1:00 AM. And I wasn’t really getting home and I wasn’t really eating dinner either. And so she realized that there was a much bigger problem that I was not seeing.

She kind of helped me list out all my commitments and how many hours I needed for each of them. And it physically was impossible to fit those hours in a day or in a week. And kind of seeing everything in a spreadsheet really helped me open my eyes.

As an engineer, I kind of finally saw what I was doing wrong. And so it was very difficult for me, but I ended up dropping the two jobs. And to this day, it kind of hurts to think about it. But I just had to do it because physically it was impossible to keep going that way.

And for a while, it worked. It was great to have a little bit extra time on my hands. I remember friends that I was texting from across the world were noticing my voice change and were asking me, oh, what changed, because it sounded so much more relaxed and lighthearted. But eventually, with the free time, I kind of kept filling my time up with more things. And I kind of reached back in the same place from where I started.

I think the second realization point was when other people started noticing and making excuses for me. I mean, I had been making excuses for myself all along. But when other people stopped promoting me to leadership positions and discouraged me from taking on more work, started giving my work to somebody else in a team, that’s when I realized that I didn’t like the way things were going. I wanted to be more in control of what my time would look like and what I was working on.

And initially, I internalized that as my own failure. I thought they weren’t promoting me because I wasn’t doing a good job. But after a while, I finally asked them for feedback and said, hey, I’m actually interested in this position. Why didn’t you consider me? And they told me that, well, we didn’t even think about you because you already have so much on your plate. You’re already leading these other clubs. You don’t need this additional leadership position. It’s not going to help you.

And again, I kind of didn’t like that, so I kind of forcefully asked them to consider me for a position. And I went into the interview and gave them my resume as I usually did. But this was a different interview. They didn’t want to look at my resume to look at my experiences. They wanted to tell me what I should be dropping.

And they went through my resume step by step, asking me which club am I going to drop and how much time am I going to make for this leadership position. And that was truly very painful for me, because every time I thought about dropping something, I would have a flashback of, what would 10-year-old Kanika think about this? I would have jumped at the opportunity to work on a robotic hummingbird or a radio controlled aircraft. And thinking about letting go of that opportunity absolutely terrified me and made me think about how upset that would make 10-year-old Kanika who could have never imagined that I would have this opportunity in the first place.

So I hesitated a lot. I dropped a couple of things. I kind of was on the edge about some things. I said, oh, I might drop this, but I didn’t drop it, and kind of hung around on the edge for some things. And other things, I just hid them from everyone else. I pretended like I was going to go home and go to bed when I actually had two other dance practice sessions that night.

And it went on for a while. But senior year, I finally was forced to have to make more time for myself. I had to really start thinking about what I wanted to do after graduation and make some critical decisions about going to grad school or applying for jobs. And so out of compulsion, I was taking time out to think about my future. And I realized how much better I felt with that little extra time.

And that helped me remember a quote that a friend of mine had told me during freshman year. She had told me that there’s no such thing as saying no or uncommitting. It’s really like we all have a fixed number of marbles and we can choose which bowls to put them in. So if you need to take time for yourself and make time for self-care, all you can do is take some marbles out from one bowl and put them in another.

Another strategy that I used to attack this big problem was seeking feedback. So the first– I had been asking for feedback from people who weren’t promoting me to leadership positions. But this was a truly, very helpful strategy when I was struggling in an internship.

So at this internship, I didn’t feel like my skill set was really matching up with the job description. I was having a really hard time keeping up. And I wasn’t meeting the expectations that my manager was setting out for me. I asked my manager for feedback, which was a very difficult process, because you’re making yourself vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there.

But by asking feedback, you’re already admitting that you’re ready to learn from this experience, that you’re ready to move on. And you’re accepting your failure and you’re OK with it. And I remember my manager specifically told me that, just because you’re here from 7:00 AM to midnight doesn’t mean you’re actually getting that much work done. Like if you actually know what to focus on and you spend that much time, and you take time off and actually come back with a fresh mind, you’d probably get more work done.

And him giving me that feedback was truly critical because then I knew how to strategize my time and I knew what to work more on. And also, initially, I was only focusing on the negative feedback because that was what I was waiting to hear and know what I wanted to work on. But I slowly started listening to the positive feedback, as well, because that helped me to realize what my strengths were and what was helping me get through this and what was helping me do a good job at the same time. And so it kind of helped me figure out how to use my strengths to work on my weaknesses. And that was a great strategy that’s helping me even today in grad school.

And the final strategy that I think helped me the most to get through this hard time was mentorship. It started out very informally when a student reached out to me in junior year. He said he wanted to talk to me and ask me about some experiences that I had gone through.

And I remember it was a busy day, but I still sat down and took out quite a number of hours from my day. And I found myself really feeling light and relaxed as I was telling him about mistakes I made during freshman year and what I would do differently. They tell you you don’t get a do-over, but it truly felt like I was getting a over because I was finally forgiving myself for the mistakes and moving on and helping somebody else along the way.

Even today, I struggle with perfectionism. Grad school is not easy and constantly questioning whether I should be spending so many hours on research or if I should be focusing on my classes. And then you’re still getting those emails with those opportunities and I still want to join every club. But I asked my advisors and my professors for feedback so I can strategize how to focus my time in my classes in research.

And I still have my mentors that I talk to every month, and I get feedback from them. And they tell me if I’m doing something that’s not too healthy for me. And at the same time, I’m attacking every problem, little by little, remembering the marble strategy. And if I want to do something, I kind of just reshuffle my marbles and can make time for things that are important at the given time, that line up with my priorities. And that’s been helping me a lot as well.