Sometimes I really need help with school, but I’m too ashamed to reach out to my professors for help. I feel slightly embarrassed admitting this, but the truth is that first meetings terrify me in general and the added pressure of wanting to impress my professor usually makes things worse.
But I like to have good grades and I always weigh the pros and cons carefully inside my head. Do I not show up to office hours and risk having a mediocre grade? Or do I suck it up, show up and potentially increase my chances of scoring an A?
Even though I may have to deal with an incredible amount of anxiety, I usually prefer the second option.
Today, my aim is to share the strategies I use to cope, whenever my brain tries to convince me that stepping into that office will lead to overwhelming anxiety.
First meetings are always daunting
The first thing to do is validate your fear. After all, you are meeting someone for the first time and I’m guessing that part of you secretly — or not so secretly — wants to impress them. You can try to remind yourself that you’re in the same boat as everyone else. Show yourself a little bit of compassion and tell yourself, “First meetings are scary, for everyone. It’s normal to feel afraid especially because people are so unpredictable!”
Try a few cheerleading statements. Act like you’re confident even though you may not be. It’s the old ‘fake it or make it’ trick. Tell yourself something like, “You are doing the best you can and that is enough. Even if you screw up, even if you end up throwing up in front of your prof because you’re so nervous, it doesn’t mean you’re a complete failure or a bad student.”
As a side note, I used to work in customer service and I once threw up all over the counter in front of a customer. Sounds awful, right? Yet here I am today, laughing, writing about the experience and not feeling the slightest bit of shame!
Whenever I feel nervous about something, I ask myself: in 20 years, will this even matter? Will I even remember? When you are able to widen your perspective, you realize that one potential bad meeting won’t destroy you — or your academic career, for that matter.
So, what if meeting with your professor ends up being a disaster? Coping ahead entails imagining the worst-case scenarios and how to cope with them. For me, I feared that I would show up to my prof’s office, mumble the whole time, start crying or lose my voice completely. Although these scenarios were highly unlikely, I still imagined how I would cope with them, if they were to ever occur.
For me, the solution to all three scenarios involved a vulnerable response on my part. If I mumbled, cried or blanked out, I would simply plan to say, “I’m sorry. I’m a bit nervous to be here.”
This is emotionally risky, but I think students sometimes forget that professors are people and they have feelings too!
Another big part of coping ahead for me is relying on my support system. I imagined telling my friends about the situation so I knew that if I stepped out of a disastrous first meeting, at least I would have someone to debrief with me afterwards. That way, I wouldn’t feel so alone in my struggle and I’d get plenty of validation!
Identify your objective and come prepared
I know this may sound silly, but when I’m really nervous to go speak to a prof, I write everything down on a piece of paper and rehearse it ahead of time. Does this behaviour determine whether the meeting will go smoothly or not? No, but it’s a simple way of coping with anxiety.
Plan for awkward silences
Even though conversations can’t be planned in advance, having an idea of which topics you want to address is beneficial, especially if you’re afraid of awkward pauses. My favourite technique for breaking awkward silences involves asking my professor a genuine question about their research or interests. This works on so many levels. It’s important to remember that sometimes, nonverbal cues are just as powerful as verbal ones. So, if you’re stuck or can’t comprehend what your prof is saying, take a deep breath, nod your head and offer a smile.
Most important of all: REWARD YOURSELF
The most important thing to remember is that showing up to your professor’s office is in itself an accomplishment. So if you manage to show up in the first place, congratulations! Even if things go terribly, the intention and willingness behind your actions is what matters. And I’m guessing that the first meeting will be the hardest one to get through — afterwards, you’ll probably find it easier to reach out.
The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.
If you have feedback or want to see something covered in a future Mind Your Mind, email email@example.com.