Her Voice

I Spent Years Hustling For My Worth — How Chasing Validation Nearly Cost Me Everything

I'm literally getting my Ph.D. because I felt like I wasn't good enough. Is that healthy? No. But will I stop overachieving? Probably not.

I should have probably stopped at the first master's degree, but I didn't. Instead, I got another master's degree. And when I decided to get my Ph.D. I told myself when I was applying to Ph.D. programs that I just wanted to be the smartest person in the room and that people would see my value because I am “Dr. Allen.”

I believed having a Ph.D. could make people view me as worthy and know how much I deserved to occupy space. People would undoubtedly see me as a difference-maker. They would think I matter.

I was wrong.

I remember moving to West Texas to start my Ph.D. program and truly believing this was the fresh start I needed, but every day, I was reminded of my Blackness. On the first day of class, I met my cohort, and of course, to nobody’s surprise, I was the only Black student. But I took it in stride, and I said if they just saw how smart I am they will accept me, and I’ll make friends because we are all in this together.

So I showed up every day, dressed nice, and smiled, but no one wanted to be my friend. I mean, they were nice, and they smiled when they saw me, but no one truly cared about me. I did not make one single friend, so during the first two years, I was alone because no one bothered to act like they saw me.

I pushed myself even harder and even faster. I decided to do the most in my power to be seen. I got all A’s, spoke at events, and won awards to show everyone that I was important. I volunteered to help out at events and even joined organizations.

People still did not see me.

I remember sitting in one class where a professor felt so uncomfortable talking about the experiences of Black women that she just ignored me. All semester, she ignored me. Even after voicing my concerns about her not talking to me or acting like I existed, she turned to my white counterpart to ask him, “Do you believe what Nia is saying?” Like my words and feelings were not enough coming from a Black woman. Luckily, he agreed with me and told the professor that I had been treated differently by her.

Even though he had my back, my professor just further validated my feelings that even in this space, getting the highest level of education, I am not enough, and who I am or what I have experienced does not matter. Because they don't see me.

The classroom was not the only place I was ignored. I was ignored at events, in the hallways, and even in the local community. It was like no one could see me, which made me feel like I could not see myself. I was determined to finish school earlier. They would see that once I got the “Ph.D.” letters behind my name, I mattered just as much as they did, and I fit in.

The one thing I set out to prove to the world was breaking me down in ways I never imagined.

I became stressed, so I pushed myself harder. My body fought back, but I did not listen. I gained over 100 pounds. I had constant anxiety and panic attacks; my skin broke out so bad I didn’t recognize who I was anymore. But I kept telling myself to just keep going; so I accelerated the speed.

That all came to a head in June 2022. I found myself in the emergency room because my heart was not functioning normally. I was hooked up to all these machines to monitor my heart, and finally, I got scared because here I was at 33, thinking I was about to die.

My 7-year-old son was going to lose his mother, and all the stuff that I wanted to prove so bad would not have mattered at all because the most important person to him in this world would be gone.

He knows me beyond my accomplishments. I am the person who fixes him breakfast every morning, laughs at his jokes, and cheers him on at soccer games. And to him, that’s just enough.

When the doctor came into the room to tell me my fate, I will never forget the first three words he posed to me, “Are you stressed?” And I took a long pause and just simply said, “Yes.” I replayed every single thing over in my head of what I had been doing: pushing myself harder, the burnout experienced from being the only Black person in a space, and the nights I cried myself to sleep. So yes, I was stressed, but who isn't, right? The doctor told me to monitor my stress, get some rest, and sent me on my way.

Rest? What is “rest” for Black women?

I made up my mind that the doctor did not understand the pressure I was under as a Black woman, and I just could not “rest.” Resting means I am doing nothing, and people would think that I am lazy, right?

So, I did not stop.

I kept pushing myself until one morning when I broke down and cried in the Starbucks parking lot after an anxiety attack. I had been pushing myself so hard that I was losing myself.

I remember sitting in a meeting with my dissertation advisor later that day. She told me, “Your priority in this world is your health, your son, and your family; everything else comes later. Don't let this degree stop you from realizing that and being able to enjoy those things later.”

She was right.

From there, I acknowledged how burnt out I really was trying to prove myself, push myself, and hustle for my worth.

I started to look back over my life and realized that I never saw my mother rest, and I know my mother sacrificed her rest for me. She wanted me to have the best education, she wanted me to go to undergrad debt-free, she wanted me to own my first car outright and she wanted me to have an advantage in life.

I realized I never saw any Black woman in my life ever rest. They were always on the go because they had to be, the world literally depended on Black women to change it.

But that ain’t my problem anymore.

I stopped to breathe and started focusing on me. I left the middle of nowhere Texas and decided to take my time with earning my Ph.D. And now, when people ask, “What are you going to do after you get your Ph.D.?” I simply smile and say, “Nothing.”

I won't lie; sometimes, the feeling of worthiness stops me, and it still does sometimes. I realized I equated my sense of being or feeling like I am enough to how many goals I achieved or how many degrees I get, a lot of Black women do.

So instead of putting my worth and value into the “Ph.D.,” I put it into me.

I made my dissertation about Black women and our power, and honestly, it fed me more. I put my own worth and value into the work that I do and only things I can control. For me to feel I am good enough and that I matter, I have to matter to myself. I learned to celebrate the wins, no matter how small or even how big. I learned to tell myself constantly that I am enough for myself and that being enough for me is okay.

Now, I can rest in the fact that the need to feel "good enough" is not worth dying over. It is not worth my son losing his mom.

I think as Black women, we push ourselves so much because we feel we have to show people we deserve to be in certain rooms. I thought by doing the most or being the best at every single thing I was proving that I was not only good enough but that I belonged, that I was deserving. But in learning that to feel good enough, I have to matter to myself. I have released myself from the standards of others and freed myself to accept myself.

I am worth it. I do matter. I am enough.

And I am more than deserving.

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