Sunday, 19 April 2009

Thesis-Related Neuroses

photo by: Jef Safi

I was talking to a friend on Friday night and we both agreed that no matter what personality you have - whether you're the retiring type or the sassiest person around - the last six months of PhD studies in a concentrated, iterative environment like the one we are in invariably beats you down. It magnifies all sorts of worries and insecurities and even though you have another narrative going about how silly and temporary it all is, you still fall in all sorts of psychic traps, rookie traps you thought you'd left at high school. My friend suggested it's because we're all so narissistic. It’s hard to know how much is you, and how much is the space. I guess the fact that I wrote that last line suggests an inordinate self-fascination that is closer to narcissism than not!

One thing I have been thinking about way too much recently is how I have always been pretty hopeless with having unresolved issues with people. I am hard-wired to seek understanding and consensus. This probably means some sort of addiction to approval and acceptance, but, more charitably, I am sure it also means that I am a kind, community-minded and fairly responsible person. Whatever the reasons, these tendencies can be really unhelpful when you're dealing with certain people or situations in this (last six months of thesis in Oxford) context, a context where pretty much everyone's thinking lacks perspective and their behaviour lacks consequences.

I emphasise ‘certain’ because I have met many bright, energetic, conscientious people here, I have a terrific bunch of friends and I still feel very open to meeting new people. But there are dangers. One is that I am not good at dealing with tension or conflict with people who haven't known me for very long. Fortunately, it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it really throws me and I can find myself enmeshed in these heavy analyses of the situation and crazy polarities about myself, the other person, and others generally. In these conditions, where the lightness vanishes quickly, I keep trying to make whatever's at issue (whether it's a simple action, a series of points or an entire relationship) workable, even rosy, for the other. I have never been particularly stellar at cutting my losses, but here it seems, if it means good will might be restored, I am willing to keep putting my hand back in the blender until all my fingers are mangled and I have expressed regret for things that happened well before I even met the person. This has come to the forefront recently and it sucks.

I must say, around these parts, this sort of obsessive behaviour is rife. Students here seem more likely to discuss the minutiae of their daily interactions than any urgent political event or current intellectual debate. Loads of people I know here take anti-anxiety medication. Of course, I come into contact with a skewed sample of highly-strung people, but, still, I think there is something particular about this environment that dramatises these dispositions. As another friend recently said, students here become so fretful about whether or not to accept social invitations that they end up not committing to anything, worrying about it for days, and then falling apart on the night and staying in with a curry.

To manage my own thesis-related worries, I write a blog post, belly dance, see friends, read or go for a walk or to the gym. Plus, I always feel essentially optimistic, unrestrained, and loved so the balance is never out for very long, usually just for a few hours. But it can be a tough gig: our powers of analysis and senses of control and grandeur which are so useful for our theses and other acts of awesomeness conspire to turn against us sometimes. A while back, I tried a guided meditation podcast to help counter-balance this absurdness. It was all about going into your brain's mainframe and rewiring it. The Windows shutdown sound followed by "all files have been erased" was rather disconcerting for me so I haven't been back to it. Nonetheless, it did have some judicious words for my brain, including turning frustration into gratitude.

So, instead of continuing to celebrate frustration, until the next post, I present here some things I am grateful for:

  1. Being taught a belly dance-club fusion class yesterday by a teacher who was probably the original choreographer for the Fame dance sequences. Our dance started with a Michael Jackson sideways hop and ended with a street pose. Sick!
  2. Having a midnight chocolate milkshake and chat with a top pal last night.
  3. That I am soon to receive this glorious book of poetry in the post.
  4. That my twin is happy.
  5. My boyfriend's gentle but twisted sense of humour.
  6. A holiday booked for Italy in early June with two gorgeous ladyfriends.
  7. Any evening bike ride that includes Queen’s Lane to the Bodleian.

Please feel free to share things for which you’re grateful and/or send me some wise words about thesis-related neuroses and/or letting things go.


Ink said...

Something for which I am grateful is that I never have to write another dissertation, and I hope that will bring joy to you as well, the knowledge that you will never have to write another thesis again. Anything you write from here on out will allow you to trust yourself as a writer, to say what you want to say in your own manner, and to send it out into the world and see how it does. That may seem evident, but I know that one of the more difficult aspects of the thesis-writing process can be the unending requirement to please a group of readers who have the power to prevent completion. It's hoop-jumping, pure and simple ("We don't just HAND OUT PhDs, you know" said one of my directors, when I had the apparent audacity to ask if this was her final set of revision suggestions on my draft). Over and over again, I have seen the process intensify self-doubt and hinder decision-making abilities temporarily. But here is some very good news...when you are done, which will happen soon, you will feel as though you can unfold like a blossom in the sun again. It's just you and the sun and no taller trees to block the light. ;) Hang in there, my friend!

Academic, Hopeful said...

Email response from friend:

Things I am grateful for:

- That I can read stuff online that hits the spot and makes me smile.
- That I am just another Oxford white person.
- That I don't have to create an identity or type in jumbled words to get to you.
- A bit of sun on the cheeks and ache in the legs.
- Emails, noticeboards and opportunities.
- The next friend I haven't yet met, who sits next to me on the bus, stands next to me in the shopping line, or is introduced over a beer.

Good Enough Woman said...

Love this post, AH. And all of the things you are grateful for sound wonderful. I also have many things to be grateful for, which is very good, since I'm since about four or so years away from submission. Ack. But really, your post is fantastic.

Kate said...

Something I'm grateful for is the time to reflect on my submission to see all the mistakes I won't make again. I won't sequester myself away, hermit-like, for weeks on end. I won't work seven days a week, eating only carrot sticks and drinking tea. I won't un-engage with my friends and family to "work harder". And I refuse to feel that 24/7 aching adrenaline surge ever again!

I came out of submission (such a negative word, n'est-ce pas?) truly feeling like I had submitted to the beast. I was unhealthy, pale, sad, exhausted and completely overwhelmed by little things. I remember trying to plan an overseas trip - something I had looked forward to for months, and bursting into anxious tears.

So I'm deeply grateful to have had that ordeal - and to now I will never repeat it.

Now I enjoy my friends and family, eat well, exercise (a bit!) and focus on my head in a much healthier way. Much like going through any big event, (the HSC, for example) you only have perspective in the aftermath.

Keep in there, my fierce warrior - it's so hard. Miss you xxxx

Kate said...

to "know" I will never repeat it - not "now"!! Eeep, still bad at editing...

Academic, Hopeful said...

Thank you so much everyone! I truly appreciate your wisdom and reassurance. Sometimes reassurance can feed anxieties, but your comments gave me a hugely relieving sense of perspective and support. I feel much clearer today. Thank you.