Ostensibly it would not seem to be so: the sun is shining, I have a safe and lovely home, a supportive partner, and I love my work. Everything is fine—but I am not.
I am sitting in the garden, trying to compress the rising panic, breathing slow and deep to ebb away the tears building behind my eyes, and the tightening of my throat. Earlier today I got up, did my yoga, had a healthy breakfast, chatted to my partner, then got a tea and sat down to work. But as I scrolled through my emails, for no apparent reason my anxiety kicked in. Every small request or notification was somehow more pressure than I could bear.
So, I stopped. I shut down my laptop and walked away. I told my partner how I felt and came outside. And then I sat here in the garden thinking, I had to communicate this to you all: it’s okay to stop, it’s okay to put yourself first.
Putting Yourself First
This was a lesson hard learned for me, and I still struggle with it. So ingrained in me is the need to be productive that I am channelling my anxiety to write a blog post! (Seriously though, I do often just force myself to take mental health days off). So many of us in academia have conditional beliefs about ourselves (e.g., that we are only worthwhile when we produce something). Low self-worth, imposter syndrome, and boundary issues (inability to separate ourselves from the work) seem to come with the territory. This drives so many of us to overwork, throwing ourselves into a downward spiral where nothing is ever good enough. So, although I love it, this environment is toxic to someone with my mental tendencies.
Overwork is lauded, and publish or perish is rammed down our throats daily. Yes, we overinvolved academics produce stellar work, detailed and beautifully expressed, without bothering colleagues with the ‘burden’ of asking for help, but at what cost to our selves?
University was a breeding ground for my skewed sense of worth: every assignment was a chance to feel good about myself for 30 seconds when I got top marks, until the glow faded and I persuaded myself that I’d simply played the system. My dissertation project won a prize that I didn’t feel was justified. When I undertook my research Masters course I essentially did it all alone. I was working under my own steam in an area where I had no expertise. I woke up, read papers with breakfast, integrated them into my work directly after, spent the morning on creative tasks, the afternoon on analysis tasks, and the evening when I was tired I would work on rote or admin tasks. I got brilliant marks, and an award for best student. But I didn’t think I deserved it, and I felt like a fraud. And for all of that I’d burned myself out. But exhausted and bereft of self-confidence as I was, I never lost my faith in my work: all of this suffering was worth something irrespective of my feelings, if I contributed something to science.
I thought when I published my first paper I’d finally feel like I made it, that I belonged where I was. But looking at the published copy, I felt empty, and guilty that I couldn’t take the congratulations of my colleagues. And that’s the problem with goal orientation. No achievement will ever be good enough to fill that hole in you. It’s like an addict chasing the dragon—expect we never have that first high!
Day to day I’m trying to break out of this. Inch by inch I’m becoming more process orientated. I am understanding that every day can be valued, even a bad one. Work isn’t a means to an end anymore, this is the end: this moment counts.
A New Approach
You’ve followed me this far, so if you want to try a different way of thinking, here are a few key tips:
Rest time is essential. That includes play. Doing things that you enjoy is so important to resting and refreshing your mind. I found that sometimes, like turning a computer off and on again, taking that complete mental change of track is necessary to creativity and problem solving. This has worked for me so many times, and yet I still have to make the effort to force myself to get away! One thing that does help with getting away from hard work tasks is to switch to a hard home task, such as finally getting around to cleaning the bathroom—less guilt, and menial tasks tend to occupy the body and mind towards an eureka moment just as well as fun things. Go figure.
Talk. I’ve tried to avoid the usual recommendations, but as an introvert I’ve so often failed with this. It’s so valuable to externalise your feelings, to know you’re not alone in feeling unhappy and stressed, and to let others know so that (personally or collectively) a problem is dealt with. That said, when I’m feeling low, often the last thing I feel like doing is talking to anyone. A couple of points to consider though. 1) talk doesn’t have to be long – I said earlier I told my partner how I was feeling, and it took literally one sentence. 2) talk doesn’t have to be verbal – messages or even pictures count. 3) talk doesn’t have to be directed to one person, a human, a living organism, or even anything at all.
Forcing yourself seldom produces good work. Yes, it’s hard. Sometimes I still feel guilty taking time off. But this might help you as it does me: when I was a gardener I worked with my hands; when I hurt my hands, I couldn’t work. As an academic I work with my mind: therefore, if my head’s not in it, it becomes very difficult to focus on a task. Also, my mind sometimes worries about the work piling up in my absence – but I’m sure we all know that quality trumps quantity, especially in data analysis and writeup.
If what you’re doing now isn’t valuable to you then don’t do it. The crucial part of this is that negative things are often a necessary part of life. What you do right now might not be very enjoyable, but it may serve you in the long run and you can always turn those negative things around around. So you might think that living in the now means you can eat chocolate ice-cream for every meal, since you’re not dealing with the health consequences of the future. But those consequences are a part of the ever shifting ‘now’: eating a healthy meal may be what is most beneficial for your body right now, or it may be that, in balance with other factors, it’s more beneficial for your mind to have a chocolate treat. Balance the factors working on you right now. If you can’t network today, do the garden. Talk to a friend. Paint a picture. Aren’t these valuable tasks too? Aren’t you valuable?
Overall, please know that you are more than your work, so much more, and you have value. When you stop worrying about the future and the past, you can make the most of what you have now. Today may be a bad day for academic achievement, but it doesn’t have to be a bad day for me – or for you.
Kelly Jowett is a PhD Researcher in Sustainable Agriculture Sciences. Kelly’s PhD project involves modelling landscape quality and configuration effects on ground beetle communities, with a view to designing effective farm management for the provision of pest regulation services. She completed a BSc in Environmental conservation, and MRes in Global Food Security and Development. She has expertise in entomology, farmer decision making, and science communication. Kelly has a keen predilection for the applicability of her work and participates in outreach and public engagement with sustainable agriculture. Kelly is a certified mental health first-aider, and is passionate about removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues in academia.