An Infinite Barrage of Mountains to Climb

Ryan James Spencer

This Tuesday I went to my last therapy session for the year. In that session I finalized a relapse prevention program for my obsessive compulsive disorder and recapped strategies I learned to handle various stressors in my life.

I’m one of those exuberant but actually shy people. I love reading and programming because I’d rather be in an internet-equipped mountain cabin away from the rest of civilization than on a boat in the Caribbean partying. I spend a great deal of time honing skills through study and experimentation. The studying has, and sometimes still, makes me anxious and exhausted.

A lot of people experience this; they learn new thing after new thing and when the mountain seems climbed and truly conquered they look up again only to reveal a new mountain waiting for them to ascend. If only they climb that next one will they truly be done. It is a lie. There is never an end to the mountains.

This hurdle of seemingly endless mountains is partly why people feel constant imposter syndrome. I do. I also feel imposter syndrome when I am full of self-criticism by attaching my self worth to my productivity. Thought challenging is a convenient way to question the validity and usefulness of the thoughts we might encounter that attempt to undermine us. If the thoughts still plague us despite challenging them, it can also help to try thought defusion where one displaces the importance of a thought, or thoughts, to something less dominant by various means. For example I sometimes imagine someone whom I would not trust their advice as saying the plaguing thoughts to me. This makes it easy to ignore the thought then. I know it's there, but like a hand on my lap instead of a hand in front of my face, I barely notice it's presence.

Education matters and in a technical field it is unavoidable. If you don’t want to stagnate you need to keep pushing to improve your skills and knowledge. Pushing towards discomfort is good! It is the essence of growth to push until we are uncomfortable. But continually pushing towards things until the bucket of energy is dry withers away at who we are. We can become not only paranoid from the rampant thoughts of imposter syndrome but also burned out from our desire to improve. Rest is a crucial part of the process. Get uncomfortable for a bit, take a breather, repeat.

Full disclaimer: I am not a medical professional of any kind. All I can do is try to share some things I've learned that were prescribed and work for me. Writing this article is more for reminder than it is for sharing. I give no warranty as to the use of anything said in the entirety of this article. If you are able to attend therapy and think it might benefit you in any way, shape, or form, by all means you should try to attend. Getting personalised support is best. With that said, How do I learn and stay healthy these days? Here's some things I've picked up in my time wandering around:

  1. You are not your work. Your work is its own thing. If you are your work you can not have a critical, and therefore healthy, stance towards it.

  2. If you don't feel dumb you aren't learning and everyone who is learning feels dumb. You need to pursue this feeling all the while reminding yourself that everyone feels this and it does not signify that they, or you, are a dumb person. As they say, it's not about being right but knowing the truth. People who are always right don't go through this process and don't actually obtain any deep understanding or learning.

  3. Compare yourself to yourself. Your history is yours alone and it isn't logical to try to cookie-cutter other people's tales onto your own. Track your improvements not by comparing yourself to others but by comparing yourself to your past.

  4. Life itself is not work. Some people might argue that it's OK to dump all your time into studying or hacking on side projects or whatever but the reality is we need different entertainment for our brains and we need to give it rest. Simply "taking a holiday" from your studying or work where you do literally nothing is a fantastic way to replenish your excitement for the things you are passionate about.

  5. Excitement is healthy and an absence of it is a warning flag. It helps clarify what you want to concentrate your efforts on. Yes, sometimes things will be boring when you learn about a topic but that doesn't mean you have to read the entirety of Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming to make a program (although it certainly might help). If you can make the task at hand fun you will probably replenish your store of energy all the while retaining information more effectively. Doesn't this contradict my argument that we need to get to the state of discomfort to grow? Not quite.

  6. Questions can be fun. Having a healthy sense to question everything is what makes people smart. We want to tirelessly get at the truth but the process of getting there need not be a slog through a muggy swamp on a hot summer afternoon. You may have had that giddy moment exclaiming "Aha! It works! But why?!" and whiled away another stream of hours on the problem, and resulting problems, at hand.

  7. Flexibility is a key to happiness. Rigidity towards expectations on ourselves and others can lead to a lot of misery. Accepting that things don't always go to plan and that life is messy goes a long way.

There's always another mountain and it is daunting but hopefully something I've said here will help make overcoming it, and the chatter of self doubt that tends to comes with it, easier.