Yesterday I Zoomed (yes, that’s a new verb) with my PhD advisor, who gave me much awaited feedback on the final chapter of my dissertation,
As many of you know, I had been struggling for months to write it, and handed in about a week ago. Whereas she loved chapter 3, she asked me to rework chapter 4 and send it to her in a couple of weeks. Gulp. My initial reaction was a great big internal “NoooooOOOOoooooOOOooooOOOOoooOOOOoo”!
The last thing I want is to have to face that giant blob again.
Of course, now that the overwhelming disappointment has faded, I can see that her feedback was constructive. Actually, the parallel with the other areas of my life are not merely striking, they’re almost ironic.
Her main point is that she wants me to be braver and state my ideas loudly and clearly instead of drowning them in an ocean of references and quotes. She wants be to be more argumentative, or as she put it, “polemical”. LOL
In other terms, she wants me to get over my self-consciousness and insecurities, and stand up for my ideas. This has been my struggle all throughout academia, and the main reason for which I want to get out. For almost 10 years now I’ve dragged around a severe case of impostor’s syndrome which makes me cower and hide behind the thoughts of others instead of stating my own opinion. This, we are actually taught to do in the French system. In the USA I had to unlearn all that and slowly, timidly venture my own opinion, doing my best to ignore the counter-arguments that come to mind even before the initial idea is fully formulated. We laughed together on Zoom yesterday when I told my advisor she had identified my main Academic Neurosis and was giving me Academia-Therapy.
I am always amazed at how the mind works. My advisor’s feedback contained a lot of positive elements too (my favorite being “Your ideas are revolutionary, Anne”). But of course, all I could think about were the negative points, which haunted me all day. Believe me, I tried my best to accept. I meditated, read, engaged in positive self-talk, remembering that nobody and nothing is perfect. I reminded myself that giving constructive feedback is the job of the advisor, which takes away neither the value of my work nor my self-worth. As you all know, there can often be a huge gap between what we know (intellectually) and what we feel.
Still, I proudly acknowledged that this time last year, receiving this kind of feedback would have been (disproportionally) devastating for me, but that now, with 4 chapters under my belt, I am more solid and capable of taking it into consideration without completely crumbling to pieces.
Still, I was upset.
When my friend came over and saw the state I was in (which I would describe as “trying to keep it together in an elegant dignified manner, yet with tears streaming down my face”), he said that the intensity of my reaction showed that I was still suffering from PTSD from my childhood [and there I was, thinking I was doing well, reacting in a more composed manner than in my past]. By PTSD, he meant from growing up with a constantly dissatisfied, bitter, alcoholic mother.
Several therapists have said I could be suffering from “complex PTSD”, but I often forget this and catch myself thinking there something wrong with me. First for not being perfect, then for my inability to let go of the perfectionism. Even at age 33 I can still hear my mother’s voice, telling me to stop being like this: “Oh Anne, get a grip, you’re such a drama queen and a hyperperfectionist, just like your mother. You’re too emotional, you make such a big deal of things, you have such low self esteem. Just stop”.
I can still remember how, having been the star pupil and top of the class for most of my life, when I was about 6 or 7, I was crying in the kitchen one evening because I couldn’t find my school notebook and couldn’t do my homework. Everything was the wrong way round: the child was freaking out about work and the PARENTS were telling the child to chill out and relax about it.
I know the perfectionism is (and was) a coping mechanism to survive in an alcoholic household.
Before my friend came over, I thought I was doing well by accepting the “imperfection” of my work, not fighting the tears, and sitting with the “humiliation”. By just letting it happen and observing it like a wave, or clouds, or a cloudy wave, or a wavy cloud.
But my friend’s reaction showed me that my emotional difficulty/inability to take criticism is still not “normal”. And this is why despite all my efforts, I am really really dreading the PhD defense which is scheduled for September-October. A PhD defense is basically a 2 hour long extra-harsh-criticism-session. To which you must respond on the spot. And be calm and say smart things. The mere thought of it gives me anxiety. A year ago I couldn’t see myself surviving it without medication, a miracle, or drinking beforehand to loosen the inhibition. Today I am hoping to do it 100% sober, without supernatural intervention, with my own humble skills and resilience.
if) I survive that challenge, I will have proven to myself how far I have come.
I guess the whole point of this ramble was that the more solid your foundations and your self-esteem, the easier it is to simply listen to criticism without getting defensive, falling apart, or becoming overwhelmed.
Then it struck me.
The same goes for compliments! Just listen, accept, take it in, neither cling nor push it away. And of course, when you are ready, let it go 🙂
I’ve learnt how to do it with compliments, I can learn with criticism.
Strength to all!!!!