Guilt versus intentionality

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgHi, 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.

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Just wondering, before you go too far down the road with this therapist, if you've taken the opportunity to shop around? I benefitted a lot by having an initial session with three different therapists before choosing the one I felt understood me best and was most helpful to me. This gave me a sense of having made an informed choice that alleviated some of the tension in the early part of the therapy relationship. I think it also gave us a jump start based in real compatibility because we didn't have to negotiate some of the basics.

Hmm, yeah it also sounds to me like this therapist might not be very useful for what you need... She definitely seems to want to simplify things into soundbites and cliches without recognizing that you're actually pretty smart and good at analyzing, and can appreciate much more elegant analogies and dissections of your situation.

Yoga v. therapist? Yoga wins this round for sure!!

2 things to ponder:

1) I rarely feel "guilt", because I recognize that we, as humans, make the best choice at the time given the data we have, even if it is an unconscious choice. We rarely intentionally choose the wrong path. And you can't change the past, so why feel guilty about it. Yes, your intention was to sit down and write the letter, but based on all the data you had, you unconsciously chose to take care of the recruitment items because at some level, you considered them to be a higher priority.

2) I agree that the 4 box organizational model is somewhat limited. They are binary representations of continuous variables. For me, I actually tend to represent my tasks along 2-axis, one for how long I expect a task to take and the other on what I call the Monkey-Shakespeare scale. The M-S scale is essentially how much do I consider the task to be "monkey work". I classify this way because I can usally gauge what level of mental function I'm able to exert in a given time frame. Some days, I can to monkey-tasks, and some days I'm capable of writing Romeo & Juliet. This lets me pick tasks that are impending and that I'll be productive at. I don't know if it would work for you or not, but at least an option to consider.

Hi yoga and mindfulness exercises will definitely improve things.
But noone is perfect and I just thought this might help - it's humorous for sure but it really is a real phenomenon for many people:

I agree, at least from this one story, your therapist doesn't sound like a great match for you. Of course you may have found other sessions more useful but if this is an indication of your general sessions, I'd advise shopping around.

As for the guilt, I think this is a profession where there is always someone you are disappointing. Since you know your priorities (your husband, your dog, your time to yourself, your family, your research) perhaps knowing you are intentionally fulfilling those needs but perhaps not always meeting less-essential (to you) needs will help?

Hi. I know the feeling, believe me. Actually, I know both feelings - yours of procrastination and your therapists' of wanting to "solve" your problems. I am a psych grad student (so...therapist in training) and I have definitely felt the need to solve my clients' problems before, even with the full knowledge that the particular issue at hand isn't really the thing that needs's just the thing that seems simplest to solve first. But hearing your story makes me cognizant of this, and I will try harder not to fall into that trap again - so thanks for sharing! Btw, I really enjoy your blog.

Goodness, after that description my intention would be to see the therapist zero times per week, and do yoga two times per week!

By Grad Girl (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Thank you! It helps a lot to know that other people are going through this too--especially the meta-guilt. Your closing comments on intentionality are especially helpful.

Minor suggestion:

You're trying to change your behavior. Apply behavior modification techniques to yourself.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

when people say stuff like this:"when you're on your deathbed, no one ever wishes they had spent more time at work" (what you heard her say if not her actual words) - it sort of irks me. If your job is actually making the world a better place or solving some big problem for society or something, and you are on the cusp but don't quite do it, then hell yeah you might wish you spent more time at work.
If you're an assembly line worker or cubicle dweller(has its own pleasures), sure, this makes sense, but some jobs are more important than some leisure time activities. Some jobs are even more fun than some leisure time activities. Sometimes "work" is rewarding and it's ok to both love it and spend a lot of time doing it!
(btw - I agree that this particular therapist doesn't seem to be the right one based on how you paint her)

Kudos to you for putting the effort into making life better through therapy and yoga. Since your epiphany centered on the idea of intentionality, I'd love to hear some more about that and how you'd apply it to your daily schedule. Also, I wonder if what you're feeling should really be characterized as 'guilt' - which implies a moral judgment, and often injury to someone else - but instead it's really anxiety that results from what you maybe perceive to be poor choices or indecision. Our culture (especially Judeo-Christian culture) emphasizes guilt issues that might be inappropriate to a situation where you're doing the best you can with the best of intentions. I suppose I comment on that because I tend to feel lots of anxiety but very little guilt (even though as a working mama I'm supposed to feel guilty all the time, but, meh, I don't really). Just a thought.

By neurowoman (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

What a great revelation! It sounds like what you're wanting in more coaching than therapy- someone to support you as you solve your own problems. Or at least a new therapist! Good for you for calling her on the unhelpful line of questioning. Here's to an intentional day!

I have to say I often have the same problem. I procrastinate doing something I intend to do by doing other small tasks that need to get done, but are not "important" at that moment. They need to be done, but they are not the "big stones" that I need to accomplish, or even the little ones. I find I have to schedule time to do X and close my email (outlook). It does get into a cycle. I do agree about a different therapist too. I just don't like the way she is saying things and I think a coach might be better. Have you tried the academic writing club? That helped me for a while last fall when writing a grant. Daily accountability to set aside even 30 minutes of focused time on my important task (grant writing) led to progress and for me starting is the big barrier.

Hey Alice .... sounds like you're getting lots of good advice and support here, and your focus on intentionality makes a lot of sense. There's a difference, I think, between legitimate guilt when we act in ways that hurt people close to us (sometimes intentionally, sometimes ignorantly, but still directly hurtful), and that vague, illegitimate sense of guilt/burden that climbs on our backs when we feel like we're "disappointing someone" or "letting people down" or "not meeting our obligations" in some loose, undefined way. And I do think your desire to focus on using your time intentionally, making good conscious choices about what you do when, is an important step forward. There's something in there about our own ability to control and manage our time - something incredibly elusive (almost typed "illusive" and maybe that's true too).... A good counselor will help think through these issues in ways that help you address them productively.

Aloha Alice,

I also fall into the same trap - doing everything but the short task I set out to do. My solution for that (and the mythical balance) is to CHOOSE what I am going to do. If I make the choice to go to the SWE mtg away from my family, I feel very little guilt about that. If I choose one competing priority over another, that's different than struggling over what's right. Good luck on your path!

kick-ass yoga? :o)

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink

Thanks for blogging about this, Alice. I finally got around to reading it. Have you tried a different therapist yet? Also, how is the new mantra working for you? It's really helpful for me to read this because I think I tend to feel a lot of guilt about work, too.