Novel to Me: Two Epiphanies for the Price of One

I had a couple epiphanies recently. I was in a bookstore in a sketchy section of Philly, near Temple University, taking a break from a wonderful day of conference speakers at the Society for Disability Studies conference. My mind was swirling with new ideas; it was invigorating to be immersed in an academic setting again — a place where people shared fresh concepts and tried to come up with solutions to difficult issues. A place of theory and practical applications. Such a diversity of bodies and minds!

But back to my epiphany.

I was sitting there in the bookstore, staring out the window, letting myself be. That doesn’t happen very often, simply allowing my mind to go still. I had just finished reading Ann Patchett’s published speech to the graduating class of Sarah Lawrence college called “What Now?” I love Patchett’s writing, and I must say, this book was inspiring.

She reminded us that there are a myriad of paths one might take after graduation — a notion especially relevant to me, since I just graduated with my PhD a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I knew all this, right? As a reflective person, a self-aware person, a person who devours self-help books, I had heard everything she was saying. The idea that we can trust ourselves to find the right path, we can be whoever we want to be, and so on.

Listen.

There was something about the way she shared her own experiences with writing and observing the world, though, that caught my breath. Patchett describes graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a graduate degree and then immediately getting a job waitressing. It wasn’t until she stopped and listened, really listened to the stories all around her, of people, of places, that she began to be a writer.

Ping.

Something opened up inside me. Wide.

I realized that now was my time to write. I am in such a contemplative, vulnerable place that I must write. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. In fact, it’s what I did before graduate school, and it’s what I did all throughout school, and it’s something I plan on doing until the day I die.

I must write.

So there was that epiphany. And on the heels of that, another.

Epiphany #2

Immediately after epiphany #1, it occurred to me that nothing was stopping me from writing what I wanted. Right now. I can’t even explain how novel this idea still feels to me. Perhaps I made the assumption that I had to write certain things before grad school to prove I was worthy of graduate education. And during grad school, I often felt the same way. The dissertation is such a peculiar project, and I suspect it is the practice of writing the dissertation that will be a more useful tool in any future writing — more so, perhaps, than the contents of the dissertation itself. I have more to say on this, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Permission granted.

What I’m getting at is that I have now given myself permission to devote time to write. I have legitimized it for myself. I have something to say, and I am going to say it. I am going to write articles and submit them for publication. I am going to simultaneously work on a book manuscript for publication. This is what I am going to be doing.

Further, I have decided that I am going to follow a writing schedule — three days a week, 2 hours a day. This is similar to what I did for the dissertation, and it’s very effective. What’s more, it makes me feel productive, something I find I must feel in order to be satisfied with my life. Probably more on that in a later post, too.

I already completed the first week of this commitment. And I feel fantastic. Accomplished. My mind feels active. I am doing something for me. Ahhhhh.

Want to know a little secret? It’s surreptitious writing, at work. I know. Scandalous. I am writing on the government’s dime. More about that later, too, once I’ve thought it through more. I think Michel de Certeau might have something to say about it, though.

Tactics and subversion, yeah baby!

Success and Shame: Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act II

Not long ago, I talked about shame, specifically around socially expected knowledge. I have long felt a sense of shame or embarassment at the possibility (or reality) of not knowing certain information, especially knowledge linked to cultural expectations. For example, the type of knowledge that leads to appreciating classical music or knowing which fork to use if you’re a member of a certain social class.

Ah, the classic dichotomy: upper versus lower class.

The Pretty Woman syndrome.

These social class issues are often connected to formal education. Someone educated at a university is often* viewed as part of a certain social class, versus someone who never obtained a college education. If that education occurred at an elite institution or the person went on to graduate school, the expectations re: knowledge and social class are even more rigid and specific.

*One of my limitations here is a tendency to overgeneralize; while I acknowledge there are nuances to these rigid views, I want also to point out that there exist social expectations that influence behavior. Nota bene: I have already pointed out that I am acutely sensitive to this issue, which may throw into question my ability to objectively study this issue. Luckily for me, there’s no such thing as objective.  But I know not all audiences espouse this belief, which is why I feel such unease with factual knowledge – I know it’s expected, but another part of me believes it’s bunk.

Stereotypes.

Many people would agree that a person with a Ph.D. conjures up a certain set of images. A Ph.D. is often equated with Professor, academic, scholar. Somewhat elite, old, stodgy, stuffy. Expert. Absent-minded. Nerdy. Elbow patches.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these adjectives are my own, rather than belong to this elusive “many people.”

Imposter syndrome. Again.

I have a Ph.D. It was a long road, and I worked very hard. A part of me is tremendously proud to be part of this elite group.

Yet I am also ashamed at my degree.

I am overwhelmed by the attention I sometimes get. And scared sh*tless that I’ll be found out to not have the knowledge I’m expected to have. Feeling pre-emptive shame at the possibility of being exposed as not knowing things. Especially because now people think I should possess certain knowledge because I have a Ph.D. I have ratcheted up my social capital such that I am more visible, respected, and better regarded because I have this degree. Expectations are now higher for me, the person with a doctorate. I am the doctor, after all.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?”

In social groups, I wither at the thought that I’ll be asked to dissertate on some topic simply because I have a higher degree. That I’ll be encouraged to tell everyone about my dissertation.

This terrifies me.

I accomplished the Ph.D. for myself, for my own edification, not so that I could be legitimized to go on a diatribe about an obscure topic. The last thing I want to do is share my knowledge, particularly concrete or factual knowledge (personal or emotional knowledge, such as what I learned while completing my degree, is another story altogether. I’d willingly “lecture” about the emotional aspects of graduate education – clearly a topic of a future post). I am really uncomfortable sharing specific, factual knowledge.

Maybe because I’m afraid I don’t have any.

I’d rather keep to myself, share my ideas (especially academic ideas) with my close friends. Sure, I write and research, and I have been published. I want to continue to be published, in fact. So I’m not interested in completely hiding. Yet, especially when asked to recount factual information,

I have this paralyzing fear I’ll be found out to be completely incompetent, uncultured, and not terribly smart.

It all comes down to money. And social class.

It occurred to me while discussing financial matters recently that there is a correllary between the embarassment I feel around my “lower class,” poor  upbringing and the shame I experience related to knowledge expectations, my current social class, and higher education.

I feel an Act III coming on.

 

Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act I

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Something I already know just occurred to me again. I love it when that happens (although technically this should be in my Notes to Self since I keep forgetting about it).

It’s the calmest, most comforting thought I could ever have.

I can let myself off the hook.

Sweet. I can relax. I don’t have to be everything. I don’t have to know everything. It’s okay. I’m good just as I am.

Remember this.

Most of the time, I forget all this. I often feel insecure and embarassed because I’m not up on certain things. This could be anything: politics, local news, academic theorists, musicians, pop culture references, math, gardening, dog breeds. Really any topic that someone else covers that I don’t already know.  I have no idea why I demand of myself unilateral knowledge of all possible topics.

I guess it’s because I don’t want to appear stupid. Stoopid. I don’t want people to think I don’t know things, because dammit, I do.

It could be that this all goes back to that pesky Imposter Syndrome – meaning I’ll be found out that I’m really a fraud, that I don’t really know what I’m doing, that I’m not actually smart, but just lucked out with a Ph.D. It just happened, and had nothing to do with me, since I’m clearly not as bright as people think.

Or fear of being embarassed since I should know certain things if I am as “cultured” as someone with a Ph.D. so typically is. What does it mean if I do not know certain information? Certain socially accepted information?

Feminist Sandra Harding calls this information “socially legitimated knowledge.” Knowledge I am expected to possess based on my social class, cultural standing, educational purchase, sexuality, and gender. Women are supposed to be well versed and comfortable in the domestic sphere. Men are great with cars and home repair. A straight woman who lives in a townhouse in Northern Virginia is likely to have a certain type of job and drive a certain car.

Gah, I can see how the more elaborate I make these scenarios, the more likely they are to break down. They can’t sustain the stereotype. Which should be evidence enough to me that much of my expectations around what types of knowledges I should possess are constructed.

Self-constructed.

Sure, these expectations have been reinforced throughout my life by various people who are surprised that I didn’t possess certain types of knowledges. For example, a smart high school friend who is shocked I didn’t know about a recent global political event. A college friend who said he couldn’t believe I didn’t know about that literary theory, since I should already have learned it. These observations are often followed by head-shaking and the admonishment, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that!” The implication is that only a dumb person would miss that. Since you’re educated, you should know this stuff!

Should, should, should. Why are there social expectations around knowledge?

Perhaps more important, why do I have such a rigid sense of what I should know? Sure, there have been external influences, such as those mentioned above, but I really must admit that most of my embarassment around knowing stuff (or not knowing, to be more precise) is internal.

Freedom from shame.

I believe that at the core of my insecurity over alleged lack of knowledge is a deep shame.

Tara Brach explores shame in her Buddhist-inspired book (which I have on CD) Radical Self-Acceptance. She suggests that many of us are walking around every day holding a painful feeling of shame, shame of not being enough. That we’re not rich enough, don’t know enough, aren’t charitable enough. You name it, we’re just not cutting it.

This is such a touchy topic that I believe is at the core of much of my anxiety. I suspect this will have to play out in several acts.

Trying Too Hard

I don’t yet fully believe there is such a thing — for me — as trying too hard.

Yet I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that my tendency to try too hard, to overachieve, to worry every problem to the bone, is probably not doing me any favors.

Don’t tell me how to be.

For whatever reason, I just remember my childhood’s being riddled with:

“Just chill out, would you, Dawnrey?”

When I was younger, my ostensibly relaxed friends often told me to “chill out.” They’d be all like, “just chill, Dawnrey. Relax, would you?” It would drive me crazy because it felt dismissive. That my opinion, my worries, my ideas didn’t matter. That I was blowing things out of proportion yet again. Even that maybe I was freaking everyone out because I was proposing things they hadn’t thought of or didn’t think mattered (but maybe worried did). I would be all, “don’t tell me how to be.”

How to be.

I really hate to admit that even if the delivery wasn’t always sensitive, the message was something I’d do well to heed.

The message, really, was:

“Relax. It’s okay. We got this. It’s going to be fine.  No need to fret or be so serious.”

I would like to remember this message, especially now, when I’m in the throes of trying to establish a career. Whatever that means. And live a happy, satisfied life.

I’ve come through a number of significant life transitions in the past 6 months, transitions that have altered my life’s direction. That have reminded me that my path is not what I imagined a few years ago.

Trying too hard.

What I’m realizing is that these life shifts have caused me to feel more anxious, which for me often results in overachieving. I work harder to excel at whatever I’m doing, whether it’s cleaning the house, doing academic work, excelling at work, or being the best dog mom. Whatever I do, I often feel I have to do perfectly.

I often feel I have to give 100% of myself. I have been attempting this recently, and I’m drained. I’m working too hard, trying too hard to achieve. What I’m really trying to do is overcompensate just in case I can’t manage everything in my life.

I’m overachieving out of fear of underachieving.

And of course because I cannot keep up stellar performance in every area of my life, I often feel overwhelmed and fearful. I’ve been embarassed by these feelings because I feel like I should be able to handle this.

What I’m realizing is I can handle this, my lovely life with my partner, my pets, my job, my home, my creative pursuits. I can totally handle that kind of responsibility and joy.

What I cannot handle – and what I shouldn’t have to handle – is my unending rigor in every pursuit. It’s unsustainable. That pressure. It’s just too much.

“Relax, Dawnrey.”

Where to cut back, or shift the effort.

So now the question is, how much effort do I choose expend in what areas of my life? Will this happen organically?

Guess what? I don’t plan on trying too hard to find out. In fact, I am going to aim for doing a half-assed job.

The Briefing: It’s(me)!

My ongoing self-work of being good to myself and staying in the present (I think they’re related, since future catastrophizing often results in self-disparaging thoughts for some reason) became an important self-care tool recently at work.

I have been assigned the task of Subject Matter Expert (a phrase that is so important around here, it’s got its own acronym: SME). So I’m the SME for a new product that is being launched.

My job was to brief my team in front of the head boss about the product, focusing specifically on action items for which we’re responsible. I created a nice handout for the group and proceeded to summarize the launch meeting I had previously attended. I was frequently interrupted by other people’s needs/demands/random questions. I have in the past witnessed the head bosses’ tendency to obsess over small details that aren’t as relevant when addressing the broader picture, which is what the goal of my briefing was.

When I got the nitpicky questions, a couple of times, I didn’t have the answer. There isn’t a ton of material on this new product, and I’m still learning it.

Not knowing. This is when I start freaking out.

Excellent Fodder for Ego Stroking.

I noticed that when I didn’t know the answer, I started to beat myself up over not knowing things. Over not conducting the briefing with more command and poise. I feared everyone was looking at me thinking, ‘how did this girl get *this* gig?’ ‘How can she not even know the product? – *she’s* supposed to be our SME? Boy are we in trouble!’

Screeeeeeaaaach!

Halt.

Stop. Stop.

Let’s Look at the Facts.

Okay, so what is true here (that is, what would outside observers agree is factual)? That I distributed a well-written, concise handout to the team. That I introduced the product and made several excellent points and observations. I covered all the relevant bases for this meeting. I answered a couple of questions about specific details. I stayed present, focused, and articulate.

Other facts include that I was interrupted frequently with questions better addressed with a smaller group. That I didn’t have all the answers. No one did. It’s too new.

So what’s coming up for me here is feeling like I should have done this perfectly and known all the answers.

Dah Dah Dah! Dawnrey’s  Ego Stroking Team to the Rescue!

This is where ego stroking needs to swoop in and be of service. It will serve me well to focus on what I did right, on how competent I am, on how much I have learned since starting this job, on my eagerness to take initiative and understand the product.  I am choosing to believe that I am viewed as competent, articulate.

That is because I am electing to believe I see myself this way. Fake it until you make it.

And I know, I know that I am competent and a strong communicator. Sure, I’m not a big fan of briefing people about something I’m just learning. That’s always been the case. I’m sensitive about that. And I’m working through it. Part of the challenge for me is that I need time to absorb information, need time to assimilate it before I’m ready to share it. Some people can learning something and are inexplicably and instantly conversant in it. That’s not how my learning process works.

What I am fantastic at is researching, being thorough, and writing. I’ll be bold and brazen in my writing. Not so much verbally. Quite simply, I express myself very well through writing. Which is why my job is a Curriculum Writer, not a public speaker.

That said, I realize that verbal presentations are important in the workplace. And I know from experience, from evidence, that I can be a persuasive and articulate public speaker when I need to be.  At this quiet, small briefing, the job got done. Sure, I didn’t meet my unreasonable standards of perfection. But I completed the task competently and with care. And I learned more about the types of information/questions that this group needs during briefings. That is important information as well.

So I choose to let go of any feelings of incompetency and fears of what my coworkers think of me.* I know I did the job acceptably well and that I will continue to be called on to take the lead on projects because of who I am, not of who I fear I am.

*Although I must admit later I was happy to know people were impressed by the handouts, the fancy paper I used, and that this was viewed as going above and beyond what was expected.

On Being an Independent Scholar

If pressed, this is what I would say I am.  By design, because I am not employed by a university and so don’t have the resources I need at the ready. But also by choice, since I have decided to pursue scholarship independent of a formal academic environment. There’s actually a National Coalition of Independent Scholars: http://www.ncis.org/

I am still finding my way around this role, which doesn’t quite feel official, since I am still technically a graduate student (I graduate in May of this year). Once those ties are severed, I will be out on my own. No advisor to “nudge” me. No program to complete. No external demands.

Only internal ones.

Which is fine since I work best when I push myself. I simply make the decision to do something, and then I set about doing it.

So, on to my goals.

Writing a Conference Paper

My first goal after having completed the dissertation is to submit an abstract for a health activism conference at Yale University. If it’s accepted, I will go about the business of writing a conference paper – something I’ve done many times before.

Writing a Journal Article

The conference paper draft may or may not serve as the foundation for writing an article for publication. I have at the ready Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, which should help guide me through the process of selecting a topic, determining which academic journals to pitch, and figuring out how to draft a letter/abstract for consideration.

Writing…a Book!

One of my final goals is to write a book. That sounds so daunting, but when you think about how much I’ve already written, and how I’m going to work my way up to this step, it’s totally doable. I have already learned a lot from this book.

I’ll just keep plugging away on my Independent Scholar path, and see what interesting stuff I encounter along the way.