Hi, I’m Alice. It’s been 11 days since I last blogged.
Things have been busy over the last couple of weeks – even more than usual. I started listing out the stuff I’ve been doing, but rather than making me feel like I had gotten a lot done, it was just making me tired, so I deleted it.
Instead, I’m going to share a thought with you that I had yesterday. Well, maybe more than one.
Some of you may know (or remember) that I’ve been seeing a therapist off and on over the last 3 years. I started going for reasons other than why I kept going – when I moved to West Lafayette from Illinois, my visits went on hiatus because I couldn’t rationalize the long drive to Normal IL (yes, ironic that my therapist was there, right?) and back, let alone find the time during the week. And I felt guilty that I wasn’t going to therapy anymore because I felt like I must be avoiding it, and all that made me feel worse.
This semester, I actually made a commitment to myself to start going again, if only because I knew I was in some unhealthy work patterns and I knew I needed some help. So I started seeing this therapist my doctor recommended. I go Mondays at 1.
Yesterday was Monday at 1, so I had my appointment. And I don’t remember how we started talking about this, but we were talking about how I get into these patterns at night where I say I’m just going to do some small work-related thing, and then all of a sudden it’s 2 hours later and I still haven’t done that one small thing, but a whole bunch of other work instead.
The therapist started off asking me why I thought I did this. I was thinking about a particular case on Sunday night where I said I would write this student’s letter of recommendation and then call it a night. 10:15 pm rolls around and I still haven’t done that letter. Instead, I had sent off a lot of emails and uploaded a lot of files associated with our graduate recruitment efforts — we have delegated various tasks across the committee members and I needed to send out the information I had from the last chair so they could get their work done. I felt I was being a bottleneck. And maybe I was procrastinating a little on the letter of recommendation because I wasn’t too sure what I should write.
The therapist immediately started trying to “solve” my problem for me – that I should get this student to write his own letter for me and I would review it and edit it and send it back to him for his review, because I shouldn’t be spending more time thinking about his career than he does. (Or something similar.) I felt like this was not actually helpful to me – I have my graduate students write the letters they wish I could write for them when we’re done working together as a device to have a conversation about priorities and goals. I in fact already have a pattern of letters I write for undergrad students who I meet in my large 120-person course. I said I wasn’t finding this direction of questioning helpful, as this was only just one instance of the “I’m just going to do one thing and then do a whole bunch of other stuff but not that one thing” problem. I felt the problem was in this pattern, rather than in the letter of recommendation per se.
Then she hooked onto the “procrastination” word I had used, and asked me why I was procrastinating. I corrected myself, and said what I had a hard time doing was ordering work in a useful way — both of these tasks needed to get done, but was the order in which I did them the most efficient or productive way? I wasn’t sure, and I feel I need help in organizing these tasks.
That led her into telling me about the difference between “important” and “urgent” and she wanted to draw that square where some things are important but not urgent, and some things are urgent but not important. You know the one – like this.
I also objected to this “simple” distinction – I don’t think it’s always that easy to determine which things are “important.” Important to whom? If this student is a first-generation college student and this scholarship is critical to his being able to stay in school and become a role model engineer, maybe my letter of recommendation is the most “important.” If I’m holding my colleagues back from doing their work to recruit students to the department, and the result is that key colleagues don’t have any students to work with next year, maybe *that* is the most important.
I feel like I don’t have any problems knowing in my life what is “important.” Important to me is spending time with my husband and now Maggie, is gardening and cooking food for others made from what we have grown, is video chatting with my mom, is reading books that will help me think differently about my research.
What I have a hard time doing is keeping those things in mind over the day, when there are a million fires to put out for other people, or I’ve gotten so behind in my 700+ items in my inbox that people are now coming to my office door to ask for things (no wonder I prefer to work at home). I need some skillz to separate out the wheat from the chaff, and then some help from senior colleagues who can run interference for me.
Then the conversation took a weird turn, and started in on my problems with guilt. I confess excessive guilt is something I wrestle with, and I have a very catch-22 cycle where I don’t let myself escape my guilt. The therapist kept pointing out how much guilt I was laying on myself, which just made me feel more and more guilty. As in, “this shitty situation you find yourself in? It’s your fault, and you’re keeping yourself in it.” Then she started saying things like, “When you’re on your deathbed, you want to look at your life and see the things that really matter to you, your values” which I heard as “when you’re on your deathbed, no one ever wishes they had spent more time at work, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to be one of those people.” Also another gem: “It hurts your husband to see you beating up on yourself like this.” Great — guilt to get me to recognize my guilt. Thanks for helping me beat up on myself.
So pause this story for a moment, while I tell the second thread of the tale.
Mondays are also yoga nights. An hour and a quarter of ass-kicking yoga is really good for me, and I wish I could go more often. I missed last week because I had a 4-day migraine, and the week before that I can’t remember why I missed. Anyway, yesterday I went. The term is broken up into 2 courses, and the yoga instructor tends to apply themes to the courses, probably so it is not so dull for her to teach. Last spring we “did” chakras; this course we’re doing various “rules of yoga” that she’s reading from a book. Yesterday was the fifth rule, about intentionality and desire, and linked to the solar plexus chakra. I confess I hold little faith in all this spirituality stuff but I find it interesting to think about, especially in contrast with my usual techno-rational days.
So yesterday was about intentionality and desire. And in the middle of the session, it suddenly hit me how useful this idea was in my current predicament. What I was allowing myself to do was be directed by others’ intentions, rather than by my own intentionality. Maybe I could think about changes I need to make in how I do my job not as “change your patterns or you will hurt others as well as yourself” but “be more intentional in how you do your job” with no consequences. It may seem like a small switch, and yes, I suspect I could connect guilt with failure of intentionality (I’m gifted like that) but so far, I’m actually finding the distinction helpful.
So. Bringing the two stories together…. Rather than beating myself up over how I do things wrong, I can praise myself for successfully being more intentional in how I spend my time. So my mantra for the week will be, “I am grateful for doing my work in intentional ways.” We’ll see how that goes, but already I don’t feel the heavy weight of guilt sitting in my chest the way I usually do.
Maybe I should tell my therapist to go visit with my yoga instructor.