It didn’t begin here, but here is an environment that provokes my deep-seated feeling of never being good enough. There was a particularly tough day early on when I was considering the direction of my PhD and reviewing the literature where I wanted to crawl under my desk, wrap my arms around my knees and sob. I remember being the last to leave and running home, turning a four-mile journey into ten, part wanting to get something from the day, part punishment. I just left myself exhausted. I remember feeling isolated, alone. I can feel the tears prickle as I write. And all this wasn’t because I didn’t get what I was doing (and that is tough to own, as a voice sneaks in ‘big headed’), but because that voice, in the midst of others, was snarling ‘you are getting it wrong, you are behind, failing’, leaving a sense of just not being good enough and not belonging.
Let’s take a breath. I am towards the end of my second year of my PhD. A PhD I am completing as a first-generation student, as a mature student, and as part of my plan B, because my wife and I can’t have children. All these factors layer and play a part in feeling I am not enough and I don’t belong. My sense of shame has accompanied me every step of the way throughout my education and it appears that I am not alone in how being part of the academy brings that shame to the fore and the associated feelings and behaviours. In part this may be due to a culture of shame, where competitive environments have become normalised, which can lead to harsh judgements of others work and people’s identity becoming welded to their academic achievements. These judgements impact on the process of academic writing, in questioning decisions to leave academia and on student performance. These experiences are read as a personal failure and to cope means keeping it secret and working harder, keeping the vicious and isolating circle of a hostile environment going.
But mostly I am currently a PhD researcher. From the moment I first saw the advert I felt a tinge of excitement, an excitement that drove me through the application process and to being offered the funding. I ascribed a lot of it down to luck, I relegated all the reading, thinking, and writing I did to achieve the offer. Here was a glimpse of what was to come, of how I treat myself by not focusing on taking in the positive experience and my role in it, but instead finding an excuse to why I find myself with this opportunity. That excitement faded and the (self-)pressure rose; yes there was a lot of geography which was new to me and I had to return to academic writing, but I was capable. Yet I didn’t believe that and that is why I faded alongside my writing during my first year.
Questioning Myself: Was I Enough?
It was at a postgraduate geography conference, six months into my PhD, that I realised I had lost that excitement. It was a friendly, warm and an encouraging space, my presentation was well received and people wanted to chat to me and I enjoyed those chats. I came away encouraged, but I also recognised the shadows I had enveloped myself in. These were shadows of invisible grief, which formed a wall between me and meeting others and expressing my ideas.
Over the next nine months, two months were spent on my PhD and seven on intercalation, processing not being able to have children – for here was the rawest of my layers, the one I attributed my struggles to not being able to engage with my work. Not being able to be a dad is a desire that will always remain unfulfilled. As I write this the punch to my stomach from those words have lessened, but they still carry a weight of sadness. Accepting there won’t be children in our family is an ongoing grief and has certainly affected my sense of self, led me to questioning my purpose and what is meaningful to me, as well as feeling l have failed not only myself, but my wife, and our unborn children. That sense of failure has also lessened a lot, in part due to connecting with other people, who are childless not by choice, sharing my experiences and receiving and offering support through the support groups I am part of.
During this focused processing of my grief, a nagging voice was present, telling me I needed to stay in touch with my PhD, and I ended up writing a book review and two reflective pieces on my relationship with nature, one focused on the impact of being childless. All three were published. In a way this helped with my return to academic writing, but here was another sign I felt I had to do extra to belong. On my return I become more active at making connections, less fearful of being hurt and found it a little easier to express myself in academic environments. One month later and the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the UK and time passed in the infinite ways it can during a pandemic. On the whole, I was able to make progress with my PhD, adapting my research to remote methods. The year finished after three months of fieldwork from my kitchen, ably assisted by one of our cats. I felt good, pleased with how it had gone, but I also recognised that I was existing on fumes, that it had taken all I had to get through the year. Two weeks of rest before starting again in the new year was a good plan, though I hadn’t reckoned on meeting a frightened young boy, ragged, a soft toy dangling from his hand.
My Experiences of Shame
At the core of me is that hurt young boy. The failure I felt at not being able to be a dad stems from the shame I have felt all my life for being me. My understanding that shame was behind my sense I had to be perfect, that my writing had to be bullet proof, and I couldn’t make mistakes or else I would be laughed at, had been building. It is exhausting living like that and through the years I had worked on the effects of this shame and that has certainty helped, but here I was in a pandemic, my nervous system revved up. In essence I felt unsafe and tested on a daily basis to function as well as I wanted to. The critical voices, which have been in and out of my life, returned with a vengeance. Whilst trying to write recently the following tumbled out:
“Suffocated by shame and the effects of shame, I am left shattered, drawing breath, wanting to keep going, to keep trying. There were tears, needed tears, but I don’t want to keep being in that space, fuck it hurts, such a deep visceral pain, an anguish howl I’ve buried. It does stop me breathing, it overwhelms and I panic, as if I am a little boy again, neglected, un met, I retreat and withdraw. The anger is bubbling, what has become a background simmer, is coming to a boil.”
Shame is relational, and in this context, it occurs when a person is unmet and they attribute this to a sense that there must be something wrong, bad, with them and so to stay in relation, they adapt, hiding aspects of themselves and acting in approved ways to fit in, to remain in the group. Their essence becomes buried, but not lost. (See Patricia A DeYoung’s Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational Neurobiological Approach for an in-depth exploration of shame). In my case it has felt like a to-ing and fro-ing between two parts I named as a ‘should’ self and a ‘creative’ self – “battered and bruised, they make their moves” and much more so when I feel under threat. The should self developed to protect the hurt boy, full of shame, as did the critical voices, to stop him, me, putting myself in positions where I might not be met and therefore receive further hurt. However, such protection is very limiting as it stops my expression, my engagement with people, with ideas, with the world, and when I do risk myself, because my creative self has taken charge, it often becomes a battle ground. I am surrounded by half-completed projects because I faltered, as my shame couldn’t take the risk anymore and the critical voices rose and I retreated.
As a PhD student I have felt awkward among my peers, belittling myself over my lack of knowledge and lack of achievements compared to how easy it appears for them to speak fluently about their research and to make progress. In my first year I placed myself on the outside, which meant I didn’t make the most of opportunities to get to know them and take part in activities outside my PhD with them. I hid my voice and didn’t discuss my understandings and approach in academic discussions, especially in seminars and supervision meetings. My shame left me lonely and full of self-doubt.
20% writing, 80% fighting
Writing is where I find it most difficult to be creative and authentic, not only have I been discouraged in this area, but it is as if the words are a permanent record and so I can’t get them wrong. Yet writing is also something I enjoy, it has helped me process the effects of shame throughout my life, the childlessness and now the shame itself. It is also where I have enjoyed success; you wouldn’t know it, but I have had a book published, which I am very proud of. There are no harsh words attacking me, as it was a critical rather than a commercial success, as if that balances each other out. Back to the PhD and I had been invited to contribute an article to a website; it felt great and I said yes. I sketched out an idea early on. The idea is the safe part, however I am feeling, but when I am feeling unsettled, I find committing to the idea and expressing it in my voice so difficult. Writing becomes a battleground, where I spend 80% of the time telling myself this is rubbish and I am getting it wrong and 20% doing the actual writing. It is not an enjoyable process. From my reflections:
“I want to write it, I do feel some passion and excitement about it and I would really like to complete it, but I am also scared, as I shout at myself I am a shit, it will be crap, just give up – I feel a burning heat as I write this, ashamed that I speak to myself like this. I am sabotaging myself, it is my shame that fears the hurt and slows the sharing, but it is the saboteurs that speak to me like a piece of shit, relentless in their attacks, it is a battle to complete each word and it is no way to write a blog, let alone a PhD or to live a life. It is exhausting that I do this to myself, that I have learnt to shrink myself, hide myself, not trust in myself. It was all about fitting in.”
I am pleased to say that the blog article I mentioned above has been published. In the end I enjoyed writing it, because I developed a mantra of ‘so what’, which I would say to the fears that come from my past whenever they intruded on the present. I also took hold of the young boy and held him, alongside the saboteurs and their critical voices. I recognised their hurt and my own hurt and desire to protect myself and I offered us another way. It may seem strange to talk of myself in this way, but shame fragments and all my parts need to heal, so there is a coherent ‘me’ underneath it all.
There are a number of factors to why that blog article and the last couple of months felt like a rock bottom and spurred me onto recognise, hold and heal my shame. Most of all, I realised that shame is formed in relations, but it is also healed in relation. There are relationships and areas where on the whole I thrive, where my shame isn’t triggered and I feel able, good at what I do and met, but the hurt boy is still there and to pretend otherwise won’t heal him or me. I didn’t want these relationships to be the expectation, nor erode them through the hurt bubbling up from my past and the other areas in my life. I wanted to stop living at war with myself.
I found Patricia A DeYoung’s Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational Neurobiological Approach incredibly helpful and highly recommend it to anyone who recognises the shame I am talking about. From it I learnt to meet myself and not avoid the hurt that was causing so many bumps in my PhD. I have learnt that I need to be content with myself in order to be authentic and enjoy when I am met, and understand it is not me when I am not. To meet myself involves the removing of the masks I have worn on and off to protect myself; this is why I am sharing my experiences in this blog, expressing my emotions and myself. For me, to be able to do this involves developing my self-compassion and offering myself the same care and warmth I offer others, as well as being present with curiosity and not closed to this moment through fear. For this, I have started, for the umpteenth time, a mindfulness practice, but this time I am sticking to it, because I am starting to believe I deserve that and I am not inherently bad. Finally, I am also spending time taking in good experiences, borrowing from Rick Hanson’s Take in the Good practice, to counter how I negatively view myself and my contributions. Reflecting on that blog article:
“I have just received a fab tweet about it, which was really great and unexpected and so nice it has hit a chord with someone. Really great. And I am trying to take it in and add light to it, so I can feel it and believe in myself, that I can write and what I have to say matters. I want my shame and saboteur parts to feel that too as it is important we are together, with each other and all benefit from being creative, enjoying life and the joys and security of contentment.”
Moving Forward to Authenticity and Acceptance
It is important to recognise that constantly feeling ashamed of who we are means living in a state of pain and inadequacy, but I am sure that many people experience what I have. Shame through being unmet belongs in no one and nowhere, but sadly it does. As with not being able to have children, I have found my relationship with my shame shifting by being with it, not avoiding the painful process of meeting it and by accepting it as a part of me, but not defining me. It feels liberating to be writing about my shame and not ashamed by these words. By sharing I feel I am nourishing and nurturing myself, saying I am ok – my shame doesn’t feel so raw, and I may have even seen my young self smile. I am also sharing as I want to normalise these conversations, for myself and others not to feel alone for being human.
We need to talk about shame as academia is an environment where shame can be prevalent and the quality of the relationships within that environment appear to have an important bearing on PhD students’ mental health. A meta-analysis of the mental health of doctoral students report isolation as a major risk factor, arising from a range of factors, including low quality relationships between peers stopping intimacy and the sharing of experiences, supervisor’s engagement and interest not matching students’ expectations and departments not providing enough opportunities for social interaction and to develop belonging to an academic community. In my experience being isolated meant I had no place to go with my shame. To talk about shame alongside other aspects of our emotional wellbeing and how we are impacted is a step towards reducing that isolation and shifting the narrative from one of personal failings to a universal experience. An experience that occurs due to a culture of shame that is silencing, where speaking out is an act of resistance, as well as an offer of kindness.
It is an ongoing process; while I believe that my shame will always be a part of me, right now I am not feeling overwhelmed by shame. I think this is in part due to reframing how I value myself and hence my PhD, shifting from productivity, from kudos, from output, to creativity and authenticity, which feels very important and much more life affirming, as well as aligning with my values. This blog post has been 95% writing and 5% fighting, a much more pleasant balance and the only tears have been those of recognition and not despair. Writing as a creative act feels like I am allowing myself to play, to make mistakes and through that my voice is coming through. Producing words for output and seeking validation through them robs me of joy and limits my expression. This blog post wouldn’t have occurred without my reframing, as I would never have dared risk the assumed rejection, not only of the words, but of myself. But creatively, these words move beyond me and are an offering – I would love this blog to have an influence, to perhaps be of help to someone, but, right now, I am also ok if I never know that, as I have enjoyed creating it and that is enough. I am actually smiling.
Andy Harrod is a PhD researcher in Health and Wellbeing Geography at Lancaster University. His research explores participants and facilitators experience of green care and how these influence participants long-term wellbeing. Andy’s interest in the affect of relationships is an important aspect of his work as a person-centred psychotherapist and in his writings, including the collection, tearing at thoughts.