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.





The Valley of Shit

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: Thesis Whisperer

I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university won’t let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.


On Critical Abyss-Gazing: Depression & Academic Philosophy

Author: Jake Jackson
Original: PhDisabled

Content note: This post involves frank discussion of the experience of depression and includes reference to the recent suicide by Robin Williams.

A few months ago, the night before a conference in which I was participating, I let slip to the Chair of a philosophy department that I often have trouble sleeping. He asked why.

Realizing I may have revealed more than is perhaps savory for having just met, I stammered: “Why, I’m an existentialist!”

The catchphrase fit. After all, the next day I was presenting a paper that dealt with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on (un)certainty and faith. He then laughed, made a joke of it himself, but gave a knowing-yet-compassionate look.

I was safe. Even in the form of a joke, this was perhaps one of only two instances where I have openly implied the presence of my lifelong depression to a tenured faculty member in my field without regretting it or worrying about how it might affect their perception of me.

This post seeks to question the way that academic philosophy perceives depression. I am not writing this with statistics or numbers, but instead from the subjective phenomenological perspective of someone who has depression and who works in – and aspires to build a career in – academic philosophy.

I seek not to grind an axe against any particular persons or institutions, but instead want to focus on the sort of social context confronted by those with depression, based on my lived experiences.

Depression is an alienating illness, especially when coupled with anxiety, as happens frequently. In my experience in academic philosophy circles, that alienation is amplified since mental health is not spoken of as a real entity. It is instead catalogued and discriminated by logic and reason as something other, an outside factor. The depressed are outsiders.

Depression is treated with a deafening silence, both inside of the academy and outside in society at large.

There is a social unseemliness to discussions of depression. Mental illness is a two-fold problem, private and yet public: private in that it is often suffered alone, public in that its effects reach out further than just the atomized individual.

Social behavior is socially determined, or at least, prescribed. This naturally turns the personal experiences and troubles of every private individual into a public concern. When someone admits to experiencing depression, whether chronic or a phase, this fact becomes a public concern. We look to role models, finding only a public-shaming of role models who suffer mental illness. Public figures who admit to mental illness are asked rushed questions on the intimate details of their struggle. Everyone has an opinion on mental illness, and most of them are not only wrong but directly harmful to both individuals who suffer silently and society at large.

We are not beyond a society that sees mental illness as a stain within one’s soul, some present-age demons who continue to torment mortals. Mental illness still stands as something to be ashamed of because we want to believe in karma or something similar. We want to believe that the ills that we suffer are somehow dependent upon something we deserve.

Those of us who are more scientifically inclined want to believe that we can redeem and fix mental illness, as if it were machinery. If we could only figure out the brain, then we believe that we could “normalize” it, or better, “cure” it.

We wish for so much that it blots out the actual condition. All this wishing and hoping is a flight from the actual day-to-day concerns of depression. As Nietzsche states “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the suffering of people.”

Anything that disturbs a social norm makes everyone uncomfortable or at the very least brings up strong opinions. The recent suicide of Robin Williams has shown us yet again that the public doesn’t like talking about depression, certainly not in honest terms. Any suicide, but especially one of a public figure, becomes hyper-moralized. Now is the time for people to condemn Williams with words such as “cowardly” or “selfish” for taking his own life, but then also “brave” for struggling with his depression for so long. Other foolish moralists will say that depression is a divine gift as it comes along with comedic ability, hand in hand.

These moral arguments come out again each time in vain. They are in vain since they try to rationalize the brutally irrational. The overbearing social stigma of depression makes a lot of sense at times. It is very uncomfortable to think that one can be one’s own worst enemy, that the mind can so pessimistically stand against reason or external pleasures. It is, indeed, unseemly.

However, it is this very unseemliness that is the reason that depression should be more openly discussed. It is constantly suppressed socially into restrictive norms that only exponentially increase depression’s own horrid effects of alienation and resentment.

Having high hopes for a radical social change regarding mental health is perhaps going to be nothing but a disappointment. This, however, does not mean that one should give up hope for change and radical action.

I think it should be the job for philosophy to demand that society’s discourse regarding mental health gets less awful. Good philosophy should offer alternatives for social problems, or at the very least scold the often careless ideologies that cause social problems.

But first, academic philosophy itself needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks. We treat it with silence. No one finds it polite to speak on it, unless talking about the personal lives of the dead or as a dry systematic theory. We philosophers prefer to hold depression at arm’s length, even though it often lives so close within our chests as a tightening knot limiting our actions.

Depression is brutally irrational. It does not care for one’s successes, relationships, or anything else that is valued for a so-called good life. No matter how much one moves towards eudaemonia in one’s life, depression is there, lurking. As Winston Churchill described it, depression follows one around like a big black dog ever obedient to its master.

Depression drives me to gaze into abysses.

My philosophical interests rest at the intersection of ethics, phenomenology, and existentialism. I work heavily in Nietzsche and late Husserl, but have recently expanded into working on Kierkegaard and Sartre. None of these historical figures are light reading in any sense of the term. Nietzsche was clearly the king of the abyss and suffered a horrifying debilitating illness which destroyed his mind and his body. Towards the end of his life, Husserl lost a son to the First World War and witnessed his rights dissolve as a Jewish intellectual in Germany. Kierkegaard struggled with his faith and anxiety throughout his life’s work. Sartre fought in the Second World War in the French Resistance and was notoriously bitter in his personal relationships. None of these figures are happy role models. A certain sadness produces good work, it would seem. That same certain sadness reflects on the page. I could, perhaps, “lighten up” and go towards lighter fare, work on thinkers who don’t reach such sad depths, but I don’t find much interest in such things. I instead stay the course in developing an ethics that looks right into horrible things that people do.

My depression drives me towards a weighted sense of responsibility and is the reason I work in philosophy and ethics.

But we do not want to talk about it in the Academy. Despair and anxiety are seen as more suitable on a dissection table in a sterile setting. Even if depression is what drives us towards prolific writing, we stay quiet on its daily presence. We speak instead of depression as the motive for past generations, holding off from any honesty about ourselves and our motivations today.

In my MA program, I had several interactions with other graduate students in philosophy with different approaches towards depression, but universally, it is treated as a shameful subject. Many act horribly insecure about their mental health, either secretive or, worse, bullying others who show any sign of depression, perceiving it like a weakness and those who evince it as prey.

I did speak with colleagues about my depression and anxiety. It hardly went well. One especially insecure classmate spoke with a nostalgia for the days when depression was called melancholia. In other words, he pined for the ‘good old days’ of misdiagnosis and mistreatment at the hands of deliberately ableist pseudoscience. Another former classmate who studies the intersections of psychoanalysis and philosophy quite hypocritically mocks anyone who is honest about their feelings. So moving forward, I buried mine.

Consequently, I let my depression take too much hold over me during this program. Things got particularly low when I faced a major setback in my studies at the very same time that I had a dramatic falling-out with some family members. My worsening depression alienated me from friends and colleagues. It fed itself. At the insistence of my spouse, I finally sought professional help which allowed me to put my depression and anxiety into a much more manageable condition. Even so, I stayed ashamed of my condition throughout my MA program. I avoided talking to anyone in my department about anything at all, let alone my depression.

At the point where I began antidepressants and laid off of drinking for a couple weeks to regulate, one of my classmates noticed. I mentioned that I was on a new medication; I did not mention what. He too gave that knowing and understanding look.

Both of us looked at each other knowing that we were struggling with the same condition, but saying nothing. Never did we say a thing about it.

There’s a certain intersubjective co-understanding here: the depressed recognize the depressed easily. But ashamed, we say nothing in fear of outing ourselves, admitting anything in honesty. Perhaps it was the program I was in, but insecurities ratcheted up and became more secret, more insecure and ready to explode.

Instead, I spoke to others outside of my department through internet communities that understand and employ an important sense of honesty regarding disability. It just wasn’t ‘proper’ to talk to those who I knew in my program.

All of this shaming stigma needs to stop. Academia, academic philosophy particularly, can get bad enough as a stressful environment. All of our insecurities already rest within the Ivory Tower itself, let alone even trying to stay within it. Impostor syndrome is rife, yet shame in mental illness is pervasive. At the very least, all this mental illness-shaming seems like a waste of time and energy. At the very worst, it creates a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another, or their own attempts to see the strength inherent in the hard work they invest in living – surviving – with depression.

Soon after the First World War and losing his son, Husserl wrote to Arnold Metzger that:

“You must have sensed that this ethos is genuine, because my writings, just as yours, are born out of need, out of an immense psychological need, out of a complete collapse in which the only hope is an entirely new life, a desperate, unyielding resolution to begin from the beginning and to go forth in radical honesty, come what may.”

Mental illness must be treated with a collective commitment to radical honesty that comes from recognizing our shared responsibility to ourselves and each other.

We academic philosophers must pick up this radical honesty when it comes to mental illness before collapse.

We need to look into our motivations more critically in order to live more ethically together. If we are to claim ourselves as a higher critical institution of people, we must open the discourse on mental health. This is not a call for sympathy, but for honesty among all parties involved in academia. Now, as I start a new PhD program, I am hoping to overcome oppressive silence with radical honesty, staying open before others and combating shaming stigma whenever I find it.