How do you define success? By Tricia Carmichael

If you don’t know me, it’s easy to read my academic biography and see a career of highlights. You’ll see a long list of awards starting from my undergraduate career, fully funded scholarships for graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship positions at MIT and Harvard. I began my independent research career at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, then moved to the University of Windsor to take up a faculty position and am now a full professor with a thriving research group in wearable electronics. On paper, it seems like I had everything figured out, but the real story is far more complex. In academia, we idealize success and hide challenges – particularly mental health challenges. These “hidden” stories are closely intertwined with professional biographies but rarely told together. In the full story, the biography of an academic becomes more relatable and, well, more human.

The human side of my journey

I experienced trauma growing up in a dysfunctional family. This dysfunction spanned several generations, and although the adults in my life were high functioning, they were unable to cope in healthy ways with the daily stresses of life. I experienced anxiety and depression at a very early age, but my family was not emotionally equipped to help, or even hear me as I tried to express these feelings. The constant invalidation worsened how I felt. To cope, I learned from the adults in my life and developed a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms. My anxious brain handled the terrifying complexities of life by simplifying everything into black and white. Seeing the world in black and white is remarkably effective, in a way, and many people use this coping skill from time to time. This kind of extreme thinking categorizes people and situations into extreme categories: good or bad, all or nothing, always or never. The confusing and anxiety-provoking shades of grey – the ambiguities of life – disappear. Reducing the world to black and white as a coping mechanism, however, leads to similarly extreme emotional reactions and responses to people and situations. Shifting between the two extremes of idealizing and devaluing the people in my life was exhausting, both for me and for them. 

Black and white thinking also does not stop at the outside world. I viewed my own self in black and white, applying the same idealization/devaluation dichotomy. I viewed myself as either perfect or a complete failure, leading to unrelenting perfectionism. The smallest error gutted me. I began to believe that the one truth in the world was that I would never be good enough. For years growing up, I was ruled by extreme thinking and extreme emotions. In the emotional chaos of my family, I strove to communicate the intensity of what I was feeling and how unhappy I was. I was already recognizing, on some level, that I needed help. My family was not emotionally equipped to hear this. Their ability to cope was limited to choosing to believe everything was fine and trying to persuade me that I had no reason to feel the way I did. My response was to try to be heard in a different way: I began to self-harm. At the time, little was understood about self-harm, and there was (and continues to be) significant stigma although it is more common than one may think. Self-harm is understood now as a coping mechanism, a desperate attempt to manage intolerable feelings. For me, using my body was only way I could communicate the pain that had been silenced. I felt I had exhausted all other options to be heard. 

As I emerged from the chaos of adolescence, my interest in science grew and as part of this process, the analytical part of me tried to make sense of the world in a different way. I tried to disconnect from my intense and polarized feelings – the emotional mind – and live completely in the rational mind. The rational mind is all about facts. It analyzes data, considers evidence, weighs pros and cons. Although I could not completely live in my rational mind (note the polarization even with that wish!), I began to navigate the world in a different way. It’s no wonder I was attracted to the so-called “hard” sciences, enrolling in chemistry for my undergraduate program. My rational mind was right at home, and I found comfort and relief in learning what I considered to be fundamental truths – the nature of the atom, chemical bonding and reactions, mathematical equations, spectroscopic methods. 

However, it’s not possible to live fully in the rational mind. Humans are emotional beings and feelings are an important part of life. I put a lot of energy into suppressing and even invalidating my own feelings to try to keep everything under control, but it was like pushing the lid down on an increasingly full garbage can. Although I was academically successful as an undergraduate, PhD student, and then postdoctoral fellow, I could not apply my rational mind to evaluate my own success. To my all-or-nothing way of thinking, my grades and scientific publications were never good enough, and I still felt like a complete failure. I was deeply unhappy, and something had to give. My body began to express my feelings through physiological symptoms. Chronic insomnia was a longstanding problem, but it became clear that when I suffered recurring attacks of painful, itchy hives during my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard that I had to find help. I also felt urges to self-harm during intense periods of emotion, despite no longer experiencing the invalidation on a daily basis that comprised my life growing up. I was in a supportive relationship with my husband who did his best to hear me, but I knew no other way to express myself when things got really difficult. I truly believed, like it was a fundamental truth of the universe, that there was no other way to live. 

Seeking help 

At the time, there were not many affordable options for mental health for a postdoc barely making ends meet. Instead, I applied my research training – something I was good at – and used it to educate myself. The internet was a different place then, and information about what I was experiencing was quite meagre. The resources I found were lists of books, so I spent my money on psychology books and read constantly. I felt driven to use my scientific mind to understand myself and my family, so I read books on anxiety, self-harm, narcissism, borderline personality disorder. Although I found I wasn’t as alone as I thought, it turned out that I could not use my rational, scientific mind to fix myself. I was not a problem to be solved, like a malfunctioning instrument in the lab. What I needed was a therapist.

The moment in my life that changed everything came during my first job. I had been hired as a Research Staff Member at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre in New York, an exciting new scientific direction for me in the burgeoning field of organic electronics. Suddenly, though, I also had health insurance. I looked up psychotherapists in the general area and chose one based on keywords (anxiety, self-harm). What I didn’t know at the time was that the psychotherapist I somewhat randomly chose was an academic, a PhD social scientist studying the linkages between self-harm and eating disorders and writing her first book on the topic. I also did not know that Sharon was an expert in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), an evidence-based model of therapy created in the 1980s to help people manage intense emotions. Dialectical means “the existence of opposites”. DBT is based on the concept that everything is composed of opposites and works toward the synthesis or integration of these opposites. DBT was ideal for me, a person with a polarized, black-and-white worldview and a fundamental difficulty integrating extremes so that I could experience and appreciate the ambiguities of life. Developing mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation are all key components of DBT. Validation is also a big part of DBT, something I severely lacked growing up and was hungry for when I entered therapy. DBT, and my relationships with two DBT therapists, would change my life, continually, over the next 20+ years.

I’ll never forget how magical the first therapy session with Sharon felt. For the first time in my life, I felt that someone heard me, accepted the intensity of my feelings, and validated them. I began to feel better immediately, which is why I describe the process as magical. All I can say is that I was so ready, after years of searching and reading books, to work. Right away, I experienced dramatic and profound shifts in how I felt, and the urge to self-harm receded. Sharon challenged me to use my scientific training to study the faulty thinking I had integrated about myself. Like any good scientist, I collected data as objectively as I could and analyzed it in a journal. With a scientific eye, I observed how people interacted with me, holding back my assumptions and reactions and instead simply observing and noting facts. In DBT, this is the mindfulness skill, although I always think of it as “experimental work”. From this work in the context of my therapeutic relationship with Sharon, and through many years of intense twice-a-week therapy appointments, I began to build a different worldview. I was astonished to find wide gaps between my former beliefs (I was a failure, and no good to anyone), and this “new-to-me” reality that was much less extreme. I was ok – not perfect, but not a total failure. I began to have the ability to appreciate ambiguity. I learned the meaning of the word “bittersweet”, a feeling of two opposites that I literally could not understand before therapy. Through this work, I built a foundation for my life that was better than anything I had before. I appreciate that I benefited from some luck in finding a therapist that was such a good fit for me. Sharon and I shared an intellectual, academic perspective that for me was an especially strong connection. I broadened my perspectives through our work and developed a deep admiration for the social sciences, something I had previously dismissed as not being “real science”.

Throughout this time of intense emotional work and profound shifts, I also managed my career at IBM. My previously narrow definition of success began to broaden, and I allowed myself to explore new interests, even taking a break from laboratory research for a couple of years to go on assignment in a different part of the company. To my surprise, however, I found I missed research. Through therapy, I became more in touch with my feelings about a research career. I loved the science, writing about science, and working with students. I disliked the unhealthy work-life balance, the unreasonable expectations, and the exclusion and underrepresentation of diverse groups. For the first time, I appreciated the complexity of these feelings and found that by tolerating the ambiguity, I could figure out what I wanted and harmonize that with what was best for my husband, our firstborn child, and me. I applied for faculty jobs in Canada. The exciting part was that I was offered a faculty job in my hometown; the scary part was that we were going to move back to my hometown, to start a new life in an old place filled with memories of a more troubled time. I talked through my fears and anxieties in therapy, and with a plan to continue therapy with Sharon by phone, we moved back to Canada. 

Managing the mental load of being a Professor

Becoming a professor was daunting, but I had built a good foundation in therapy and applied the skills I learned toward running a research group and teaching. I worked hard to view my research program not as a success or failure, but as a process that incorporated successes, learning experiences, and yes, failures. It was challenging to maintain this healthy perspective in the academic science environment, which is often harshly judgmental especially to members of historically excluded groups. I experienced many of the downsides of the job: I struggled at times to appreciate my own accomplishments, experienced bouts of imposter syndrome, and got caught up in the endless cycle of milestones that, once achieved, are only replaced by a new set of goals. These challenges triggered the familiar all-or-nothing thinking, and I worked through it in therapy to find the middle path. Through this work, I developed an understanding that what I valued and liked about my job often did not fit the mold of what was portrayed as “success” in science. When I fretted about not meeting conventional standards of success (publishing many papers or acquiring extensive research funding), I learned to remind myself that my definition of success was much broader than that. I liked taking the time to write papers and design presentations that could end up being enjoyable to an audience. I was also a spouse and mother and not willing miss out on home life by habitually working late hours and weekends. There were many, many times when it was difficult to hang on to these values, particularly pre-tenure. My incredibly supportive husband was the person to give me reality checks at those times when I felt it was so difficult to stay on my own path.

Like learning, maintaining good mental health is an ongoing and lifelong process. I had continued to work with Sharon through phone therapy sessions for the first few years into my faculty job, and then we both agreed that I was ready to end therapy. For the next 10 years, the foundation for my mental health that I had built through therapy remained solid. Over time, however, the stresses of work and parenthood took their toll. People who experience relational trauma growing up have additional challenges when they become parents. We have to find our way as parents without healthy attachments and experiences to draw on. Intergenerational trauma stays with us, bringing back memories and emotions from our own experiences as our children grow. My natural response to these emotional stresses was again to turn to my rational mind and away from my emotional mind. Not surprisingly, I again expressed my emotions through physiological symptoms, the most serious of which was an inflammatory eye condition that recurred for several years, worsening my vision until I had cataract surgery in my mid-forties. 

It became clear that it was time to start therapy again. I found another expert in DBT, Angela, who I have been working with over the past few years. Working with Angela was initially a huge relief. I found that all the gains I had made previously in therapy were not gone. It was a bit like having a tune-up. It was hard work – therapy is always hard work – but I wasn’t in the desperate situation like I was years before. I’ve continued therapy with Angela for a few years now, working on acknowledging and expressing my emotions in a healthy way. I returned to the observational “experimental work” approach that I had used so long ago, this time using my rational mind to check in with myself about my emotional state regularly. I use my scientific mindset to observe my reactions and emotions with curiosity rather than judgement. This non-judgmental approach has helped me understand my own feelings and even appreciate that it is possible to feel many conflicting emotions at once, and become confident that emotional states that feel so intense and permanent are, in fact, temporary. I’ve also learned that you don’t get to pick and choose emotions as a way to protect yourself from distress. You have to feel them all, taking the good with the bad. The amazing thing to me is that feeling unpleasant emotions instead of avoiding them has given me not only the ability to tolerate distress but also the ability to feel and acknowledge a range of emotions that have enriched my life. 

In DBT, the place where the rational mind overlaps with the emotional mind is called “wise mind”. Whereas I had previously viewed the world through an either/or lens and flipped back and forth between emotional and rational mind, wise mind is a place of “both/and”. It’s a place where you acknowledge and honour both emotions and reasonability. It’s hard to fully articulate the changes I’ve experienced through the hard work of DBT, and how profound it is to view myself and the people around me in an entirely different way. I can appreciate the complexity and dialectics within not only myself, but also within the people in my life. I’m a better partner and mother, and also a better advisor and mentor to my students. Because I can recognize my students as multifaceted, complex people, I can better understand that each has a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, and hidden stories unknown to me that influence them. When they struggle, I am more likely to ask, “what is holding this student back?” instead of “why can’t they just…” Supporting their personal growth is as important to me as our scientific progress. 

Why did I write this? It was emotionally difficult to revisit the past and try to put my experiences into words. I’ve felt fear and trepidation about sharing these details about my life. Throughout the writing process I have worked to bear the discomfort and perceived risk. I remind myself that I write this from a place of privilege as a tenured Professor. Not everyone has this privilege and job security, which makes it all the more important to me that I speak up. If I can’t take this risk, who can?

In science, we don’t talk about our real personal histories. Instead, we see highly idealized biographies featuring superhuman people working 100-hour weeks, having big Eureka moments, and placing the sanctity of their scientific work above all else. People who are extraordinarily dedicated and appear to have always had it all figured out. Students are presented with these unrealistic depictions and they either leave science, thinking they cannot live up to the impossible, or spend their careers trying to. I wrote this to contribute another data point to the truth that is emerging on this blog and elsewhere: Science is done by regular people with real stories and real challenges. Everyone should be allowed to participate and decide on their own definition of “success”.  And we’ve got to create a culture of acceptance to enable that to happen.

Tricia Carmichael

Tricia Breen Carmichael is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Windsor. She received her Ph.D. in 1996 from the University of Windsor, and then held a postdoctoral position at Harvard University. She then joined the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York as a Research Staff Member in organic electronics. She currently leads an interdisciplinary research program on stretchable and wearable electronic devices and e-textiles. She lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada with a family of one husband, two kids, and four cats.