On Emotions and Overthinking in Academia

@angry_prof | 25/10/16


I distinctly remember having one particularly confusing week in grad school in 2001. I was funded, published, and on track to complete my dissertation by age 27. But for some reason, that was the week I chose to lie extensively to my university, advisor, and family about having meningitis and spent the entire week on my sofa bed watching Maury Povich. No, this wasn’t the gut-punch anxiety of intentionally emailing the wrong attachment because my comprehensive exam was not finished on time, or the total emotional collapse after my significant other moved away. This didn’t make sense.

As a professor and professional overthinker, I’ve grown accustomed to confused looks when I explain a train of thought or how I make decisions; disquieting looks of incredulity mixed with sadness and a regrettable inability to empathize. Faces both impressed by the sheer volume of overlaid cognition and clearly appreciative of not having to live inside of it. And I’m fully aware that I produce similarly conflicted microexpressions when I hear “I love what I do” reflecting both a distain for flowery emotional language and a deep-seated envy of being able to suspend disbelief about the academic system long enough to develop feelings for it.

So I suppose it’s really not that surprising that there exist remarkably few people with the intestinal fortitude to tolerate my apparent inability to bask in the projected Hunger Games glory of tenure, persistent use of exile as a metaphor for sabbatical, and rehearsed disillusionment of academia as a dystopian, publisher-owned, ego-fuelled Matrix. I get that I’m not the most optimistic person, and that I should presumably have already gotten used to the interpersonal disconnect and ambivalent isolation afforded by an academia-trained propensity for overthought.

But maybe it’s FOMOOE – fear of missing out on overthinking everything – that kills the idea of optimism before it infects. Or maybe it’s my life-long membership to the cult of the next, that ever-lengthening pursuit of the perfect title, institution, journal, award, or mention by one’s academic hero – that pinhole of guiding light that will one day transform into a glorious beacon announcing one’s prophetic insight, intellectual ferocity, or near-death pursuit of knowledge to the world. That imagined validating end point making all the nights, compromises, and forgone personal life experiences worthwhile.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s that academics like me tend to self-select into this heady ego system, tolerating a culture of intellectual prize-fighting at the expense of overworking the eager in order for those occasional strokes of ego to feel that much more self-soothing. That heart flutter of excitement when opening a conference notification email. That profound swelling of pride when seeing your name and affiliation formatted in columns in your publication PDF. That feeling of royalty when stepping off a plane in a foreign land to address to an adoringly naive, intellectually starved audience satisfied only by the acute physical apperception of soul-quenching speculation leaving your lips one syllable at a time.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think my experience in academia would be easier if I could better ignore how the intellectual stimulation of discovery or pride of publication doesn’t quite mask the loneliness of being the only one who understands what you do at your institution, or drinking alone at a hotel bar because everyone else at the conference was meeting up with old colleagues. I sometimes wonder if imposter syndrome is specific enough a label to cover feeling out of place not because of skills or reputation, but by having too many feelings or thinking too much about them. I also often wonder if my colleagues are really my friends, or if we’re just the only ones consistently left behind as students continually move on to more interesting developmental milestones and career challenges.

But what tends to bug me the most is that I can’t decide whether I think too much, feel too much, or both; whether I’m overthinking my feelings, or getting too emotional about the way I think. And then there’s trying to figure out if all this thinking and feeling is typical, if I am alone in wondering why all of this seems so confusing. Whether spending a week in bed means I’ve developed a remarkably sophisticated premature disillusionment with the publishing oligarchy dominating academic politics, or if I might just be depressed because I’m alone as would a normal person. It’s a confusing process trying to decide if being a good academic means harnessing all emotions toward the good of science, or alternatively, if having feelings that get in the way of writing means I’ve chosen the wrong profession.

The hypothesis that this extent of deliberation over my emotions makes me special is not supported by immediate responses to sarcastic attention flares on Twitter. However, it is readily debunked by body language from colleagues that very clearly tells me to stop talking because you’re making everyone uncomfortable. It’s not easy bringing up feeling confused, disillusioned, sad, lonely, or depressed in academic circles without worrying about how it will impact departmental politics or your professional reputation. And I’m not saying I’m particularly adept at expressing these sentiments or admitting when I need help, but I have learned a few things since grad school.

First, I am not alone. I have learned to recognize a familiar pain in the eyes of students, post-docs, and fellow faculty when I talk about the struggle to maintain self-care or personal relationships in the face of teaching demands or the pressure to always be writing. I now notice the quiet nods from colleagues when intimating through a change in tone or well-timed silence how truly lonely it can be to live inside your head for a living. And just as I’ve tried to create a safe space for students to yell or cry over illness, disability, loss, discrimination, finances, family, or even a manuscript rejection, I’ve also seen full professors completely break down when things were too much.

Second, saying these things out loud takes practice. Yes it does feel exceptionally weird and like an explicit admission of weakness or collective betrayal to admit doubting yourself, regretting academic career decisions, or acknowledging that your love for what you do may not be strong enough to compensate for its emotional toll. But there are few things like hearing yourself say the words “I don’t enjoy this any more” or “I think I’m just really lonely” out loud to kickstart your academic propensity to problem solve or to stumble across someone you actually believe when they say “I hear you” or “it will be ok”.

Finally, I’ve learned that although I may as an academic be able to convince myself that my emotions are too complicated or specialized for colleagues, friends, family, or the general public to appreciate, this is complete bullshit. Arguably the most reliable consequence of assuming that my feelings were not understandable by others because they concerned impact factors, letters to editors, intradisciplinary norms, training doctoral students, or teaching/evaluating higher-order cognition was that I was left feeling even more alone than before.

In my experience, academics are not a special breed immune to basic emotions, but instead uniquely equipped to paint ourselves into a corner of isolation by convincing ourselves that our experiences are qualitatively unique as evidenced by others not understanding what we say or do. Feeling embarrassed of not being able to keep a promise to yourself is not unique. Feeling shame when facing unmistakable consequences of choosing your career over your family does not make you special. Wondering if you’ll ever achieve a level of success where you won’t feel like an imposter is so common they’ve had a label for it since like the 70’s.

If admitting you have these feelings is the first step to feeling less alone, the next step is probably swallowing your pride and putting it as simply as possible. Although perhaps not as metacognitively satisfying as “mitigating affective disengagement by way of linguistic transduction and affiliation”, being honest about how you feel might require the humbling realization that although your work might set you apart, your feelings don’t. Whether starting with sarcastic quips on Twitter or a trip to your friendly neighborhood psychologist, there are people who listen if you try to say something.

In an academic world where cognition is currency and publication is king, I understand the academic disinterest toward emotions not involving passion, inspiration, or perseverance that can distract from writing and contributing to science. I’m just saying that pursuing your academic dreams can lead to treating your emotions like an afterthought, and that as overthinkers, we can probably do better.

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