Day 20: Shame of Fools

I always used to think that the lyrics to the Aretha Franklin Song, "Chain of Fools" said: "Shame, shame, shame...Shame of fools." In that funny way that we often misunderstand lyrics, I think I tapped into something bigger. I met with my therapist today, and we talked a lot about shame -- about feeling ashamed of yourself, of your work, of your words. {Yeah, I've got a therapist. Duh. Pretty much every grad student I know either has one or desperately needs one. It just goes with the territory. Like coffee,carpal tunnel syndrome, progressively failing vision, and excessive numbers of books.} Anyway, our conversation today was pretty powerful. I hadn't realized how shame was my default reaction to things, especially in response to what she described as "ambushes." Ambushes are moments where you're just going along, minding your own business when suddenly somebody says something or does something that tells you that you are wrong -- not just in error, but so wrong that you are somehow completely out of synch with the situation that surrounds you -- so wrong that someone has to notice and attempt to correct the problem. Usually those doing the correcting are trying to be kind, or useful, to help you know that you have made a social blunder. But they really are in some ways mean-spirited, wanting you to know how exactly correct they are and that correctness gives them power --power that they can use over you. In that moment of ambush, your own innocence is lost and the world suddenly isn't what you thought it was. My response to these ambushes is to feel ashamed, rather than pissed off or annoyed. Probably typical, but nonetheless, it's helpful to realize that there could be other responses.

My old advisor had a bad habit of ambushing me. Letting me think that my work was ok and that I was ok in the world of my work. He would let me think this for quite a while, but then suddenly out of nowhere ambush me and tell me how truly awful my work actually was. Usually the critique he was offering was pretty legitimate and ultimately justified. It was just the manner in which he offered it that was so wrong. (For example, telling me a MONTH after my qualifying exam to come in and talk about beginning my dissertation, but then using the meeting not to talk about how to begin a dissertation but to tell me he was disappointed in my sub-par performance in the oral exam). I think he honestly thought he was helping me, but in that moment, and many others like it, all I felt was shame. And because he had such power over my work and my degree I absorbed the shame -- and built up these walls around my work to protect it (and me) from potential future ambushes.

He is no longer my advisor (although he remains on the committee), but I still bear the deep psychic scars he left behind. And the past couple of nights I dreamed about him. In both dreams he was just walking through the scene of the dream -- just present enough to let me know he was there, watching. (And presumably judging.) One dream was pretty funny -- I dreamed that Spousal Unit and I had a bed in the hallway of this major office building and that we were in bed trying to sleep next to the elevators, and people (including the old advisor) kept walking past and looking, while I tried to hide behind Spousal Unit so he wouldn't see me. I guess it was sort of a variation on the I'm-naked-in-the-Wal-Mart dream. (and pretty much shame being acted out by my clever little subconscious.)

Anyway, I think that I am (have been?) trapped under the weight of those scars, of my fear of another ambush, of my shame about my own work. And, I think I have been writing anxiously awating the next ambush -- in combat mode, really. My response to this feeling today was to make and eat a huge batch of cookie dough and spend the day reading a novel and watching DVD-TV. Good one, huh? That'll fix it. Sure. Now, I feel gross and oily and lazy as well as ashamed of my written work. It is so counterproductive, I think, to keep holding on to this shame and to keep letting it interrupt my progress. But, I think it ultimately was a good thing to come to grips with, so that I can acknowledge it, pat it on its head, and step around it to move on with the work of getting this done -- so that I can let go of of this foolish shame.

4 comments:

At 4:39 AM The PhD Explosion said...

Hello. My name is The PhD Explosion and I have a therapist.

Therapists are a necessary part of the PhD process, I actually wish more PhD students used them. It's good to be able to have someone to help you identify blocks and, most importantly, help you figure out how to overcome them.

And shame! You hit on one of my finest nerves. I don't think have ambushes from advisors, but I have this deeply imbedded sense of shame that infects not just the PhD. I hope you can let go of the shame as well, and when you do can you let me know how you did it?

Cookie dough is yummy, but not quite as helpful as a therapist.

 
At 10:43 AM HistGrad said...

As a fellow PhD student, I've often racked my brain trying to figure out how I've gotten past blocks of this nature... and who doesn't feel some sort of shame? (especially with such a horrendous advisor who seems to pile it on! gads.) After all, grad school is all about learning to tear apart other people's work...how can you not apply that to yourself when the moment arrives?

But, alas, to make progress we have to unlearn those instincts to critique. But even after all the brain-racking, I can't put my finger on what gets me to move forward. I guess it would be a combination of things... small goals that can be met in less than an hour, then rewards for meeting those goals. And truly beliving that the "only good dissertation is a done dissertation," so I have to Just. Get. It. Done. Black words on white paper, black words on white paper....

And as a true couch potato, I must confess that exercise works. Sad but true. :)

All of this, I know, is more apt for the composing process than the revising process... and I freely admit that I am constitutionally incapable of revising and become truly miserable when attempting it... so my thoughts are with you.

 
At 7:01 PM New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh, I so completely know how you feel. Have often been there, on the sofa, with the cookie dough. (Didn't get the therapist till this year, but I'm a little slow...)

 
At 8:26 PM Overread said...

I'm also pro cookie dough. Sometimes it has to be cookie dough ice-cream, but the idea is still there.

 

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