Moving Forward?

Things are starting to improve: I can feel it. I’ve been feeling more motivated. The professional conference I went to was the sign I need to move forward; however, that was not enough! This is something that has been confusing/baffling to me in the month after I came home from the conference. I thought I would immediately dive into my work with high energy and ethusiasm…but that’s not the case. Instead, I would open the Word document that contained my drafts, proceed to start at it, and then refocusing on other activities and tasks not related to the dissertation. This sounds like a classic case of avoidence, but the question is why?? I’ve been inspried and made a conscious decision to follow through with my academic efforts, so why weren’t my thoughts translating into action??

Today, while actually working on some chapter revisions, it suddenly dawned on me why it has been so difficult for me to get going on my dissertation despite the solidfying of my intentions — I have a lot of guilt and shame associated with working on my dissertation. I feel embarrassed and guilty that I’ve not made too much progress since last summer. I feel awful that I had squandered away this past year — a tuition break that I was supposed to use to finish writing my dissertation. Whenever I tried to work on my dissertation in the last month, these thoughts would circle me:

Should have written more…Should have been more rigorous in my methodology…should have been more confident in my abilities…shouldn’t have mentally “checked out” when things got tough…shouldn’t have allowed my problem to keep going for so long…regretful that it will take me probably an additional 6-9 months to finish…regretful that it will cost me more finacially to finish…

Yeah, that’s a lot of should haves and shouldn’t haves. It’s small wonder that I wanted to avoid working on my dissertatiion…it triggers such terrible feelings of guilt and shame (aka I’m a terrible student/academic!!). However, I now know what is holding me back, so I can attempt to fix it. One of the reasons why I was able to see/feel small progress in my work in the recent is because I’ve slowly learned to control and push aside these awful thoughts that I’ve been associating with my dissertation.

Looking through The Woman’s Book of Confidence by Sue Patton Thoele, I was able to find these wonderful excerpts about letting go of guilt and shame and how to do it:

The person we most often stain with feelings of shame and guilt is ourself, and much of our guilt and shame comes from believing we have failed in some way or other.

Make a list of your seeming failures — the “shoulds” you think you think you need to feel shameful and guilty about. Ask yourself if you did the best you knew how at the time; if so, think of a symbolic way to release those feelings.

Yesterday is irretrievable and tomorrow is unknown. We have done the best we could, and now it’s time for us to forgive ourselves for our seeming failures, congratulate ourselves for getting up after falling down, and then leave remorse behind us. 

I wrote down my feelings as a way of acknowledging them. And now I’ve recognized that this is the way I feel, I can start to work on releasing those feelings and disassociating the guilt I feel with the tasks I have to accomplish.

I know I’m already getting better and getting stronger.

Redemption

A while ago I wrote this post about what I’m passionate about in the midst of some heavy self-doubt about my professional identity. I have always been pretty clear about my preferences and interests…my real problem was being scared of uncertainly, risks, and failure…all very real prospects for any academic who’s trying to “make it.”  For months, I’ve been looking not only for jobs (albeit half-heartedly because I was unsure about what’s going on) but also a sign. In my own way, I’ve been praying for higher powers to reveal to me the meaning of my life outside of my wonderful family and married life.

Back in September I made the commitment to go a regional professional meeting this past week. For a while, I was dreading the whole ordeal and briefly considered abandoning the trip. My logic was if I wasn’t going to stay in the field/profession, what is the point of “professional development”? Fortunately, I did have a travel grant to spend on this trip…so I thought why not go for the good weather, good food, and good company? It’s hard to say exactly why, but this trip turned out to be the sign I had been seeking. Here are some thoughts about this conference and how I felt while I was there:

1. I love research and all other academic nerdy stuff! On the first day there, I spent 5 hours in a room listening to people speak about their research and I was absolutely enthralled by the whole experience. Yes, by the end of the 5 hours, my back was hurting from sitting too long and I had developed a slight headache from waking up really early that day to catch my flight…but I held off going to the bathroom so I wouldn’t miss any minute of the presentation. In that moment, I felt alive, happy, and comfortable. 

2. I have the best mentors. In this academic life, it’s very easy feel alone or that you’ve been left behind in some way by your peers, life, and happiness. I know that sounds desolate, but this is a very lonely life. Being at the conference reminded me that I’m a part of a community of scholars and there are people out there rooting for me and willing to mentor me. All my life, I’ve always been blessed with the mentorship of great teachers. In Chinese, we call those who bless us with guidance and mentorship 貴人 (rough translation: good-person)…and I have them in my life. I am not alone. No one expect me to “make it” all by myself.

3. My very good friend and colleague MAG made a really good point…he said “academic is a part of your identity.” Identity is a funny thing and it’s actually a concept I occasionally use in my work. But MAG is right: being an academic is a part of me, which explains why I felt so wretched when I tried to “sever” ties with my academic identity. I once thought maybe I had been brainwashed and only clung to academia because it’s the only thing I know. After this past week’s experience, I don’t think that’s really the case. Although it is still the area I know the most about, trying to turn away from it just made me miss it more.

There are also several other events that made me realize other parts of my struggle with this academic quandary. For one, I thought perhaps my husband and I can allow his military career to be the dominant one and I’ll just do all that I can to support him. But sometime over the last week, our good friend J and his wife B said goodbye to us and moved on from military life. This made me realize one day, my husband will also leave the military: it might be in a year, in 5 years, or in 15 years…but regardless, he will leave it one day and be proud of all that he did. Where does that leave me? Maybe I’ll have children and be proud that I spent all my life supporting my family…but I don’t think that will be enough for me. I have to live out my potential beyond my home life.

Lastly, I don’t think I ever really gave myself the chance to make this academic and military dual career work. Yes, objectively, the conditions and the terms of these two types of professions are incompatible…but there are also ways in which it might work out. For example, aside from only working PT or being a stay-at-home mom, it is very hard to negotiate time off to coordinate with the big chunks of leave time that our military personnels enjoy. As a professor, it is actually very standard to have summer and winter vacations, which often coincide with summer/winter leave. It’s definitely not going to be perfect: if I do pursue an academic career, there will have to be serious compromises (e.g., living arrangements, children)…but I am hopeful (for the first time) that we will be able to coordinate so we can both become illustrious in our careers and become well-established in our respective chosen careers. I need to work hard and give it a chance.

Strangely, I feel that this conference was my redemption and it pulled me out of the depths of my despair. Even though the period of uncertainty and self-doubt really hurt my progress, I also believe it was necessary for me to fully appreciate what I have and who I am. Fall and winter is at an end; spring has sprung. And it’s wonderful I came to my revelation the day before Easter. I am so thankful for this gift.