update: I’m embarrassed about the year I got my degree

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who was embarrassed about the year she got her degree because she had failed a class and then gone back to finish until years later (#5 at the link)? Here’s the update.

I wrote to you some time ago. I was struggling with the shame I felt about the year I got my degree. I thought I’d share an update.

I have to first thank you and the commenters for your kind advice and insights. To clarify some points: the degree I was studying for wasn’t a professional degree, and the job I got had no requirements in that respect (it was in a call centre). I had colleagues with all sorts of degrees and colleagues that didn’t have degrees, and we all worked the same job. When I was hired, I had been honestly hoping I’d pull through on the class. I got my grades after I’d been working at the job for a few weeks, and neither HR nor my boss ever followed up with me to confirm I had graduated.

After my letter was published, I did get the opportunity to tell work about my degree when HR systems were updated, and I decided to do so. I had accepted that I’d be fired immediately for coming clean, but decided I could live with the guilt and shame no longer. Guess what happened? A whole lot of nothing. No one cared! I hadn’t been hired because of what I studied, and I didn’t continue to be employed because of it. I ended up staying at that job throughout COVID, and was promoted again during that time.

I did realize, from all of this, that I struggled with anxiety and imposter syndrome. This won’t make sense to a healthy person, but the fear I felt about this situation was so real and so crippling. I’ve been going to therapy, and it has been so helpful. It helped me to realize I have thought patterns that aren’t realistic. I grew up in a household where it was drilled into me that a failure of any kind would lead to me being a homeless, drug-addicted prostitute (I wish I was kidding or exaggerating). Believe it or not, yelling at a ten year old that came home with a B on a test about the things she’ll have to do to men on the streets to survive does fundamentally change her thinking! Several commenters speculated that I was perhaps the type to be overly anxious, and they were very correct. There were some other commenters that talked about their own journeys with education, and pointed out that if I’d had a colleague that told me all of this, I wouldn’t think of them what I think of myself – which is also totally right. Anxiety had led to a very warped self-perception, to say the least.

I am happy to report I’m doing much, much better now! With the work I’m doing in therapy, I’ve made some great strides in managing my anxiety, and I was recently offered a new job, which I accepted. I’d like to thank you and the commenters for the reality check. I needed it more than I thought, and I’m very thankful I wrote in.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. Momma Bear*

    I think the step of getting therapy is even more valuable to you in the long run than getting the degree. I’m glad you are taking care of your mental health.

    1. ThisIsTheHill*

      Co-sign. Anxiety spirals can totally warp the way you see yourself & the world. Kudos for getting the help you need!

    2. OP*

      OP here – thank you so much, and I couldn’t agree more! I’m happy to report I am doing much, much better now. I’ve been at my new job for a month and I absolutely love it! I definitely wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on a new opportunity if I hadn’t done the work, and I’m glad I sought it out.

      1. Hippo-nony-potomus*

        I’m glad you are doing better!! :) :) :)

        I also grew up in a “anything bad = failure” household. (They berated me if I didn’t walk away from an *informational interview* with a job. Total entitlement plus dysfunction.) It took me a long time to figure out that it hindered my success in life. For a short time, it will drive you to achieve; however, even for someone who really believes in excellence and merit, there’s always an element of fear to that achievement. There’s fear that you aren’t good enough, fear that anything less than 100% is failure, fear that your worth is tied to your ability to produce at this crazy high level forever. Fear is not a long-term strategy.

        That’s great for getting a middle school student to bring home As, but it just terrible for developing an ambitious, hardworking, functional adult. Failure is actually an integral part of success – trying things that don’t work but not being so stuck on the idea that they “must” succeed that you can’t walk away, bouncing back after something doesn’t go as planned, etc.

  2. Hawthorne*

    I also come from a home where “drug addicted prostitute” was a threat re: grades. I see you, OP.

    1. LZ*

      Where I grew up it was a sin to not work to your full potential and to squander your god-given talents. Here for you both, Hawthorne and OP.

    2. PollyQ*

      My parents assured me that I’d turn to thievery and go to jail. I’m sorry to hear that there are so many of us out there, but at least we’re here to support each other’s recovery. OP, congratulations on the great strides you made!

    3. JSPA*

      I only got, “living under a bridge.” As that always struck me as a potentially awesome way to live for a while (this was in an area where there were not actual people doing it, which turns out to…not be so awesome), it was not a particularly warping (or threatening) threat.

      1. KaciHall*

        My parents tried that. Then I saw the ‘van down by the river’ skit from SNL when I was about ten and realized it was just as ridiculous in real life as it was on the TV. They managed to mess with my head on plenty of other ways, but it’s hard to take them seriously when all you can picture on your head is Chris Farley as a motivational speaker.

  3. sub rosa for this*

    I come from a background where asking how to do something would get you screamed at, but doing anything wrong would get you smacked, so I totally feel you.

    I’m so glad you’re in a better place now. I really hope you keep up with the therapy and learn that you’re a good person who deserves good things.

    Sending ninja hugs!

  4. Anonforthis*

    Oh boy. I hear you, OP, and feel very seen.
    I also come from a family where I was once cross-examined by my dad for an hour over a “C” in phys ed. This was in 6th grade.
    In college, I had straight A’s except for one “B” and graduated as the valedictorian of my class. My dad still, to this day, 30+ years later, brings up that “B.” I wish I could say I was kidding.
    Is it any wonder that I struggled for many years with anxiety? When I had to leave my graduate program in my early 20’s because I realized I just hated it, I ended up taking a year off from school altogether just to regroup.
    I am mostly healthy today, with the help of a wonderful therapist, but anxiety and imposter syndrome are no joke. I’ll keep you in my thoughts, OP.

    1. Linley*

      Yeah, I come from a family where if I got a 98 my parents wanted to know what happened to the other 2 points. It messed me up for a long time, well after I went out into the professional world. I nearly quit my grad program when I was doing my first master’s because I was so burned out and it took me months after I finished to recover.

      1. wittyrepartee*

        I think my fiancée’s family was like this. I still have to talk him down from these feelings. “You just said you did bad because you got a 90%- meaning you missed 2 question. Getting 2 questions wrong like… essentially doesn’t matter. You did fine.”
        I went through a graduate program, and that’s essentially how I had to learn to think to get through. Feeling shame over every lost point is a useless waste of energy.

      2. Frauke*

        My family is the same (literally. I once brought home a 98% and the first words out of my mother’s mouth were “what did you get wrong?”).
        It wasn’t malice on my mothers part, more transferring the way she treats herself onto us. There weren’t dire consequences either, just a… focus on mistakes and risks.

        It still screwed us up fairly badly. We’re all fairly successful, but anxious and unhappy. And they wonder why.

  5. animaniactoo*

    I just want to give you a hug and maybe yell at your parents some about how they’re doomed to all sorts of things for being bad parents. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that, and love that you’re managing to recover from it and move forward and be successful despite them. Yes. DESPITE them.

  6. Mid*

    I dropped out of school due to my mental health and was absolutely convinced I would never get back into college, everyone would judge me, I’d never get a job, etc.

    Turns out, finishing my degree later actually helped me in a lot of ways. I had more work experience right after graduating than others did, because I worked while I wasn’t in school. I got more scholarships for being a returning student than I did originally. And literally no one has ever questioned my resume and the dates on it (and I no longer have my graduation date on my resume anyway.)

    I’m so happy for you OP, and I hope you find peace and healing.

    1. wittyrepartee*

      I transferred schools because of my mental health, it was a fabulous move for me even though I had to learn to explain it for a few years. And you know what? It’s just… common. It happens all the time. People need to take time to take care of themselves.

  7. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    I grew up in a household where it was drilled into me that a failure of any kind would lead to me being a homeless, drug-addicted prostitute (I wish I was kidding or exaggerating). Believe it or not, yelling at a ten year old that came home with a B on a test about the things she’ll have to do to men on the streets to survive does fundamentally change her thinking!

    This is horrifying. I hope you are not putting up with this any longer, even if it means ceasing contact with your parents permanently.

    1. AGD*

      Yeah, this makes me feel physically ill. Absolutely sickening. No one should ever, ever, ever treat a child like that for any reason whatsoever.

    2. Generic Name*

      Yah, I agree. This is child abuse. Therapy is really a wonderful thing, and I’m so glad you are doing better, OP!

    3. JSPA*

      Anxiety has enough genetic components that it’s possible the parents were in their own unreality cycle. Doesn’t make it “not abuse.” Or “not damaging.” But it can sometimes help to realize that one’s parents were battling their own demons, as opposed to being completely gratuitously cruel. (Unless they were, I suppose.)

      “I commit to not passing it on” is a potent motivator for sticking to therapy, though!

      1. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

        The damage is done whether the parents were victims themselves or not.
        Its time to break the cycle and if they cannot understand what they have done and are extreme damage it caused then the OP should not feel obligated to speak to them ever again.

  8. Anon (and on and on)*

    I struggled in college and my early career due to my mental health, so I relate to this a lot. Good for you for taking care of yourself! I highly recommend Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff to help create more positive self-talk. It helped me a lot!

  9. CRM*

    As someone who also deals with severe anxiety, I know how shutting down the negative self-talk and imposter syndrome can be so difficult! Major props on finishing your degree OP, and with the strides you’ve been making in therapy. Sending all the best vibes!

  10. Jinni*

    LW thanks for your honesty about those earlier messages you received as a child. You aren’t alone in this kind of parenting, trust me.

  11. Observer*

    Oh my!

    I’m soooo glad that the response to your “revelation” at work helped you to realize that your self-perception was off base. And also that you are in therapy and it’s helping you!

    If you ever wonder if it’s worth it, even though you see how much better you are feeling and doing, think about this. It sounds to me like your parent(s) was dealing with uncontrolled anxiety, too. Which is to say that stuff like uncontrolled anxiety doesn’t just make the anxious person miserable and affect their work. It also often leads to behavior that really hurts others. As a good person who might be dealing with some self-esteem issues along with the anxiety, it’s worth remembering this if you ever wonder if you “deserve” the help you are getting, or should “spend / focus so much” on yourself.

  12. Berlie Girl*

    I am there with you. I had a rough childhood and dropped out of high school my sophomore year and ran away from home and spent years being a homeless street kid. I was a straight A-student in advanced courses until then. Years later after I got myself back on my feet I signed up for correspondent classes and got my high school degree at the age of 20. Even though I technically have a degree, I still think of myself as a high school dropout and have hidden my high school degree away as I am embarrassed by it.

    Now I have been self-employed and running my successful business for 25+ years, but I still feel like an imposter about that degree.

    1. Jean (just Jean)*

      Please don’t feel ashamed any more. I’m sitting here saluting you for turning your life around–and quickly! When I read how you finished high school I expected, after seeing the sentence “Years later” to see that you accomplished this after many years of adulthood, meaning when you were in your mid-30s or older. Instead I read that you graduated “at the age of 20.” That’s great! Don’t under-appreciate your hard work and success!

      If the grouchy voice inside your head continues to insult you, remind it that age 20 is only 2 years beyond the so-called usual age of 18 for high school graduation. Then tell that grouchy voice to be quiet, lie down, and take a long nap. And not to bother you about this ever again.

    2. whynot*

      Jean is absolutely spot on. I know it is easier said than done, but tell that little voice to go find something better to do. You are no imposter. You shouldn’t have had to go through what you did, but you have clearly come through it and built a successful business as well, and this internet stranger is very impressed.

    3. A Feast of Fools*

      I had my bi-weekly 1:1 with my [relatively new] manager this week. I said something about my brother now living with me and that it was taking up quite a bit of my mental reserves because he was / is homeless. He’d been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s trailer home, not out on the streets, but still homeless nonetheless. And, like most other homeless people, he has addiction issues.

      That led my Master’s of Accounting, CPA, successful-by-all-measures manager to reveal that he’d been homeless in his teens. He’d dropped out of high school to work, but he and his mom couldn’t make enough to pay the bills (his mom had addiction issues).

      He eventually got his GED (in his 20’s), then did the work-study thing to earn his way through college. He purposefully chose the campus catering facility so that he would have food to eat.

      I graduated from high school mostly on time — I had failed out of 9th grade after getting suspended for a month for selling speed in study hall, so I had to repeat that one grade — but I dropped out of college because full-time work and keeping my grades up was too much for me at the time.

      I went back to school in my late 40’s to finish my Bachelor’s and get my Master’s.

      My manager and I had a thoughtful discussion about Imposter Syndrome and how it feels like we’re fooling all the people who were born on 3rd base that we work with. I told him that I am doubly proud of “breaking the cycle” of my family of origin because I *am* able to fool people! They have no idea that my mom was an alcoholic who shot my physically-abusive step-father to get us away from him [he lived]. Nor do they know that I dealt drugs in junior high.

      It may have taken us longer to get to where we are now but — damn — that’s a medal to be proud of not a skeleton in a closet.

  13. I am so sorry...*

    I grew up in a house like you did, OP, and yes, it does cause anxiety. My mother belittled every job I held because the jobs did not fit her idea of success and glamour. She wanted me to get a job in the fashion or retail industry, kind of hard to do in the rural Midwest. As a result, I turned down jobs I might have enjoyed trying to find one she deemed successful.

    I wish you the best!

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I have almost the flip side of this.
      Blue collar, barely-graduated-high-school parents who couldn’t understand, and thus mocked, the smart, college educated, successful daughter.
      I don’t have a “ glamour” job, but I’ve had interesting jobs that enabled travel to Europe and all over the US.

      1. I am so sorry...*

        That is fantastic, MissDisplaced. I’m happy for you.

        I think a behind-the-scenes job was more in line with my interests and personality.

  14. MEH Squared*

    I’m sorry you went through that , OP, and I can relate. I recently went through a life-changing event and ended up grateful to come out of it alive. I was forced to spend three months with my parents, which did a number on me as my being alive wasn’t enough for them. No, they had to harp on what I was going to do with my life while I was just sitting over here grateful to HAVE a life.

    I think therapy was a great choice on your part and I hope you continue to kick your anxiety in the ass.

  15. BBQ Shapes*

    My dear letter writer, it sounds like you’ve had a tough run. Your update shows a lot of courage and self awareness. You’ve done such an amazing job just existing, just living with all of that weight on you every single day – because I know it was hard work. And even on top of all that you’re growing and getting better! Auntie Shapes is so incredibly proud of you, letter writer. You’ve got this.

  16. Boof*

    “yelling at a ten year old that came home with a B on a test about the things she’ll have to do to men on the streets to survive ” wow op that is terrible, sorry your parents/guardians were, well I’d count that as emotional abuse, it’s so off base and mean.

  17. Lily*

    For all the other posters on this thread who had crappy childhoods, I cannot recommend enough The Crappy Childhood Fairy, Anna Runkle, who can help guide you through CPTSD.

    1. Generic Name*

      I’ll chime in with another book recommendation: “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect”

      This isn’t aimed at childhood abuse, necessarily, but survivors of abuse often have trouble with boundaries: “Set Boundaries Find Peace”.

      I’m also in therapy for C-PTSD, and I’m a fan of bibliotherapy in conjunction with my talk therapy

    2. Dino*

      Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” has done more to repair my relationship to self-talk and judgment than any thing else I’ve ever tried.

  18. quill*

    Congrats! I’ve been treating my anxiety for more than four years now, and trust me when I say that work gets better.

  19. Michelle Smith*

    Therapy really can be so life-changing. So glad to hear that yours helped improve your life as well! Congratulations on the promotions!

  20. Jed Mosby*

    OP, I just finished my bachelor’s degree 20 years after I left college. I’m in my 40s.

    Guess what? Nobody at any job I ever held ever cared, ever. I proved I could do the job and that’s what mattered. There were jobs I wasn’t considered for just due to the lack of a degree, but that’s their loss.

  21. Anonymous*

    Oh wow this this reminded me about something I’ve not thought about for years.

    When I went to university I resat my second year and ultimately dropped out. I applied for a job that didn’t require a degree but could be seen as an entry level job for a recent graduate (think admin with the opportunity to progress onto higher admin roles or onto project teams). The application required me to put my years of higher education study and degree classification–so mine showed 3 years at university and N/A. The application went in after teaching had finished but before final degree classifications were released.

    They never asked me about this at interview and it turned out later that they had assumed I was a recent graduate awaiting my grade, rather than a dropout.

    To be clear, the problem here wasn’t me trying to play them. The application form was unnecessarily rigid and only had space to write dates plus 2 or 3 characters in the grade section, and we could only submit the form, with no other material like a cover letter accepted.

    One of the managers, who hated me, tried to get me sacked over it, but luckily I was good (or at least not bad) at my job, and she was the most unpopular person at the place by a country mile, so I outlasted her.

  22. MissDisplaced*

    I’m glad for you OP. It is difficult to ignore those voices and we should all be kinder to ourselves.

    One word of advice. Be very very careful when you interview for new jobs to make sure you don’t end up with a manager like your parents were to you who make you feel “less” in any way. It would be doubly destroying for you should that ever happen. Follow Allison’s advice and ask lots of questions!

  23. Never Too Late*

    #5: I graduated from college at 29 because of some untreated mental health issues. Not only do I think I got more out of my experience as an older student, as a hiring manager I now see unique resumes like yours as an asset. You managed to balance work, school, and your personal life at the same time and still got things done? Holy time management, Batman. Gotta interview you!

    1. allathian*

      Sounds familiar.

      I was a smart and lazy kid who got a B+/A- average by basically listening and taking some notes in class, I rarely read through any material until I had to revise it for an exam. If I’d worked harder, I might’ve had an A average, but I never got the anxiety, probably because my parents were decent and didn’t expect a straight A average from me. This MO served me well up to and including high school, but college was a shock. I’d never needed to work hard to study before, and that in combination with an unhappy relationship sent my mental health into a tailspin. I’m lucky in that tuition is free up to a Master’s degree here, because that meant I could take easy for me language classes and skip taking the classes in my major that I didn’t have the energy to do. But it took me 8 years to do a 4-year Bachelor + Master’s degree that most people manage to complete in 4 or 5 years. And that with access to low-cost therapy through my college’s health center.

  24. Candi*

    “yelling at a ten year old that came home with a B on a test about the things she’ll have to do to men on the streets to survive”

    I just can’t even. I know there’s (incredibly wrong) parents for whom anything less than absolute perfection is unacceptable, but this is a low I haven’t seen before. OP, I’m so sorry you had to live with this.

    It’s never too late to get your degree. (Relevant factors permitting, of course.) I first took classes right out of high school, but dropped out due to lack of funds. 20+ years later, I’m on track to get my degree in a year.

    You got your degree, and you are an awesome person besides. Go you!

  25. Dust Bunny*

    I finished college all in one shot but I did have to go an extra semester and I changed majors the beginning of my senior year when it became clear I wasn’t going to survive my original field of study (I had taken a lot of classes in the second major already, and some accommodations were made for me for classes that were similar to that field).

    Nobody cares that a I bombed chemistry. This has literally never come up. I know tons and tons of people who started degrees, had life get in the way, and finished later.

  26. Anonymous Bosch*

    “…yelling at a ten year old that came home with a B on a test about the things she’ll have to do to men on the streets to survive…”

    While there is no excuse for treating a child this way, if the OP’s parents came from extreme poverty or massively dysfunctional backgrounds that would at least explain their behavior.

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