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Natascha Chtena is a doctoral candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha
In academia, we're not good at taking care of ourselves, most of us. We’re control freaks, perfectionists, type As. We recognize our needs but feel guilty that we have them. So we ignore them. We go and go and give and give until we crash or burn out or become bitter.
Stop and really think about how you treat yourself: Are you kind and loving? Do you forgive yourself for mistakes? Do you encourage yourself? Do you get enough sleep?
Academia doesn’t encourage these sorts of questions. It, by and large, refuses to acknowledge that we simply can't be in it for the long haul if we're constantly on the verge of physical and emotional burnout. And a PhD (and academic career) certainly is for the long haul.
In such a fast-paced culture, how can we become better at taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually? We often hear things like “eat real food,” “exercise regularly” and “get enough sleep,” but I think there’s more to it than that.
Self-compassion is distinctly different from self-esteem, self-pity, or self-indulgence. According to Kristin Neff, it is extending compassion towards yourself when you’re feeling inadequate, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. As grad students, I think, we know these feelings all too well.
Academia is a culture that does not encourage self-compassion, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of negative self-talk and criticism. We tend to over-identify with our work and consequently take criticism of our work as criticism of who we are. We beat ourselves up about that thing we did or said in front of our colleagues or students that made us feel bad, embarrassed, or ashamed. We refuse to let go.
Become mindful of how you talk to yourself. Become aware of statements such as “I shouldn’t have said/done that,” “I’ll never be as good as her,” “I’ll never get a decent job,” and “I should just drop out.” Every time you catch yourself making a negative comment about yourself, stop the thought and replace it with a positive one, such as “I am as good as everyone else here” or “I’ve already achieved so much, I can do this.” Look into self-compassion mantras and daily affirmations. Write yourself love notes and hide them around the house.
And perhaps most importantly, learn to forgive, forget, and let go. If we can’t overcome shame and forgive ourselves for the things we have done in the past, the things that we are and those that we’ll never be, we’ll never lead a full life. And, I’m guessing that not even a MacArthur Genius Grant can make up for that.
Keep a list of your successes.
How often have you looked around, comparing yourself with friends or coworkers, all of whom seem smarter, or better at grad school than you? Wondering if you're just wasting your time or no matter how hard you try? Grad school is so filled with rejection (think failed grants, unpublished papers etc.) that it’s easy to forget or lose sight of your achievements; and it’s not until you step back and work out how much you’ve done or someone else says “wow, this is amazing!” that you can really think about your big moments.
Make a list of your achievements, professional and personal, and add to it regularly. Keep it on your desktop, your fridge, you nightstand, you choose. On dark days, when you feel hopeless or stuck, refer to it. Pat yourself on the back and be proud of what you have achieved as a person and as a scholar. And when your work is going poorly – or you think that it is! – use it to remind yourself that you have more to give as a person than a dissertation.
Calm your mind.
As scholars, our brain is our most precious possession; we rely on it to bring food on the table, moreso perhaps than other professions. But its health and well-being is not something we actively care for until that brain starts screaming at us.
Depression, memory and concentration problems, insomnia, profound fatigue, irritability, severe anxiety, and a feeling of being emotionally drained are common among grad students and they’re all symptoms of an overactive mind and the inability to switch off from work. Once these symptoms develop into chronic conditions, they can have a profound impact on productivity, not to mention that they can make life just really unpleasant to live.
To avoid mental burnout, take time out to calm your mind every day. Practice conscious breathing, yoga, stretching, meditation (the app Calm is a great place to start), or walking. Take 15 minutes to sit in silence on the couch or your favorite armchair with a glass of wine or tea and just connect with your body and mind (no TV allowed). Do whatever it takes to protect your mind.
Learn to say ‘NO.’
‘No’ isn't a dirty word. No matter what your advisor says (or implies), saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a bad scholar, or person. There are only so many hours in each day. What’s the point in doing a project that isn’t related to your goals, or doesn’t make a positive difference in the world or someone's life? Learn to decide what is worth your time. It’s not about being selfish, it’s about it's about putting yourself first, and valuing your own time, health and well-being. What could be more self-loving than that?
That can be easier said than done, especially if you’re the chronic people-pleasing type. But there are tons of great articles online to warm you up - for example this and this and this - not to mention that it gets easier the more you do it!
Clearly, what we can do in the name of self-love and self-care is a privilege of our socioeconomic status and geography. Being able to have a conversation about it in the first place, is a privilege too. And it’s important to recognize that, and be humbled by it. But it shouldn’t stop us from having that conversation or bringing our attention to being as good to ourselves as we are to others.
How do you practice self love? Let us know in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user Xavier Vergés and used under the Creative Commons license.]