Exploring Self-Care

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ID: A hand extends from an open book, reaching out to symbols of taking back their time (a ringing stopwatch), breathing deeply (air flows), self-caring (lit candles), and sharing thoughts (brainwaves). Several hands extend from the other side of the image toward the hand reaching out of the book in support.

Shivani and Brantly reflect on self-care conversations in the research family. 

“Does anyone else feel as out of place as me?” she wonders, fidgeting nervously with her books as she watches everyone file into the classroom. Girls laughing together, sharing hugs. “Is my work good enough? Do I deserve to be here, to have these opportunities? I keep feeling as though I am going to mess up. Like I shouldn’t be here. I must be an aberration, a glitch in the matrix. Everyone else is so smart and they have good lives, people who love them and I feel very alone in this, maybe this was a mistake. I can’t do it, they will see I am just a pretender.” 

Naomi feels very alone. She was at first very excited by the novelty of traveling to the US to study. After a few months of seeing things through rose-colored lenses, the reality sets in that for the first time, she has to live with herself, and figure out who she is, without the distractions and demands of family and friends back at home. She was prepared for independence, but not loneliness. The jarring separation takes toll on her mind. “Who am I?” she wonders. Will I ever make friends? Does anyone care about me? Being alone in a new place, with a new culture is hard. And recent circumstances make it even harder with all the social distancing. Gosh, when was the last time she hugged someone? she wonders. Shared a meal? How am I ever supposed to do this by myself? 

Suresh feels like there is a lot he should be thankful for. He has perfect grades, a good job. He has recently published a paper and presented at the top conference in his field. He has a loving wife and kids who bring so much of joy to his life.. But, he is so tired of being strong all the time. He has been working so hard for so long. People expect him to be strong, and they look to him for advice. This sadness and these anxious feelings are something that he rarely has the opportunity to voice. How is he supposed to continue doing everything if he is unable to even explain how overwhelmed he feels? How does he explain to someone else that the picture everyone seems to of his seemingly perfect life and the big smile he is known for does not match the inner stress he faces? Does anyone else feel this way? Can things look perfect, calm, tranquil on the surface while storms of sadness rage internally, decimating self-confidence and tranquility? 

Do any of these stories sound familiar to you? Such feelings and thoughts can be challenging, right? And when we face them, we can feel as though we are alone and nobody can possibly understand. But we want to let you know: 

You are never alone. Your feelings matter. Things will get better. We recognize how hard this is. We are in this together. 

—Shivani Ramoutar 

Our educational research group came upon a pattern in our weekly meeting check-ins: detect each other’s stress, share comforting words, and receive comforting words back. As our individual stresses mounted during pandemic conditions, our member-checking tendencies were not enough to prevent the same problems from rearing week after week: adding work to the stack, comparing our output to others’, and discounting our own efforts. 

Eventually, this breaks into the topic of support resources, and how they go underutilized; in a meeting we dedicated to discussing this topic, the consideration of resources explodes into its own full-fledged conversation among six members (plus me, transcribing through paraphrasing), asking each other, “What holds us back from reaching out for help?” What followed was an honest and deeply vulnerable conversation regarding self-care, and our lack thereof. 

Therapy was the first point discussed and dismissed. When time is the common metric for what a teaching, course-taking, family-caring academic writer can accomplish, talking about emotions or socializing feels wholly unproductive, as the interdependent context will yield uncertain results. Deadlines apply plenty of time pressure in the short-term, while comparison to other academics chains those stressors into a career-long uphill battle. Not producing means falling behind in a relative scheme, and the effect is felt in the immediate moment. 

“There are no weekends in academia.” Guilt and anxiety undergird proactivity. Life becomes an arithmetic procedure of spending time now to reduce time later. What should be voluntary feels forced, and every failed trial of self-care or support drives a quantified nail into admittedly destructive behavior: the euphoria of success is gambled on time efficiency and relentlessness. Gradually, the group concedes that good work invites more work, and ironically, little time is left for compensation. 

However, with each expression of defeat, conversation transitioned toward sharing methods of self-care. Each is tinted with rebellion. Productivity improves when taking proper breaks, even though the math will say otherwise. Laying down or listening to music feels so good that the tears flow effortlessly. For every person who must be ahead of you, there must be a person behind you as well, and those people will support you in slowing down. If it’s hard to care for yourself, hearing self-care demands from others becomes easier to heed. 

The heart of the academic career emerges in the form of narratives. Who are we if we can’t choose our health over our own research? The work means little when it removes you from your own family. What is that research worth when the purpose is lost? 

“Do as I say, not as I do,” rarely needs to be said in academia. Layers of evaluation, supervision, and review form a structure of mutually assured success. We academics must love what we do and love our peers to persist in such a rigorous system, but such vigilance leaves no room left to love ourselves. We’re finally ready to hear ourselves out, even if it disrupts the system. 

As we step away from the dialogue and prepare for the winter season, I feel a boldness in our discussion, as if dormant seeds within us are prepared to sprout in the new year. Though, unlike most of our academic new beginnings, these are not seeds of resilience; they are seeds of resistance. 

To our Purdue University readers, we recommend the following resources:
Mental Health Online Resources – Disability Resource Center – Purdue University
Mental Health Resources – Human Resources – Purdue University
CAPS Homepage – Purdue University

—Brantly McCord 

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