Riding the wave

My silence here lately isn’t for a lack of things to say, but because I’ve been so busy doing something really different.

When last semester ended, I realized how long it had been since I had taken a real break from work. Although tenure-track professors with children may be perpetually busier than those like me without children, they typically feel justified in devoting time to their kids in their daily lives. In contrast, I had felt unable to justify taking time for anything but work, and couldn’t stop feeling bad about it long enough to enjoy doing other things anyway. Even my vacations have been working vacations, full of anxiety/guilt about the time I didn’t spend working. Facing my first between-semester break after receiving tenure, the pressure was lifted. It was suddenly clear to me that I need and deserve time for things besides work, just like everyone else.

I started doing very low-stakes craft projects:  things that serve no alternative purpose and that are inexpensive to make, so that if something is not working out I can stop and discard it without hesitation. These projects have involved a lot of experimenting, and problem solving as I go along; nothing has been from a kit, or with predetermined rules. Working on these projects, I get totally absorbed in what I’m doing, and my mind is clear of everything else. Psychologists call this a state of “flow,” a term that reminds me of lots of surfing metaphors for being open to the present moment. I don’t surf and can’t even swim well enough to try, but I can readily imagine that it would feel similar to the new and completely exhilarating sense of freedom I’ve been getting from bending wires or spreading paint.

When I was a child I was making things all the time, but as I got older my enjoyment of these activities was ruined by feelings of shame and fear.  My visual arts projects were an embarrassment to my father for as long as I could remember. (Ever give your parent a handmade gift and have them say “What the hell is this?” or “Why would anyone want this?”) He’d yell at me and criticize/insult me when he saw me working on crafts, and I remember my mother saying things like “Daddy will be very unhappy if he sees you playing like this.”

In part, I think my father hated my craft projects because he is so competitive and saw my record of accomplishments as a reflection on his. In other words, if my creative endeavors could have gotten me recognized as a child prodigy or something else I could use on my college applications, I’m sure he would have been all for it. In fact, when I was 12 my father encouraged me to submit my short stories/poetry and musical compositions for review for publication. But these weren’t adult-quality, publishable things — just private, personally meaningful endeavors, and therefore a shameful waste of time in my father’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong, though, my father doesn’t see all leisure activities as shameful. For example, he has always spent plenty of time watching sports events on TV (an activity that isn’t going to create anything prize-worthy), and he really wanted me to enjoy watching sports with him. But he saw watching sports as the kind of activity that normal, healthy, popular kids do, whereas he saw my craft projects as something only a “backwards” child would do. He punished me for my non-competitive creative hobbies because he cared enough about me to try to stop me from being so “backwards”.

I didn’t join the literary magazine club as most of my friends did in high school, because I felt so much shame about my writing. When friends said that although I wrote a lot, I wasn’t a “real” writer like they were, I assumed they were right to exclude me, and it didn’t even occur to me to question letting a bunch of self-appointed teenage writers decide whether or not my writing was “real”.  In college I continued to do creative writing, piano, and various crafts – but for no one but myself, and by this point largely in secret.

After I got married and went to graduate school I no longer had the private space/time I’d needed for my creative work, and moments taken away from pursuing my academic/career goals became harder for me to feel good about.  I sometimes found disguised ways to be creative – such as making window shades and other things for the household that I could tell myself had a practical purpose that made them worth doing.  But eventually these practical crafts felt more like pressure than fun, and I largely stopped doing them when I became able to afford store-bought or professionally made items instead.  It has really been decades since I have done craft projects for their own sake, as I have been in the last couple of months.

I’m needing to learn to budget my time better to fit creative projects into my schedule, and I’m also needing to find ways to keep my work space better organized to accommodate things like paint, wire, and glue along with the piles of paper I use as a professor.  But starting this seems to have opened up a floodgate of interests so long suppressed that I didn’t know I still had them, and I’ll ride this wave where it takes me.

I’m sorry

A week from tomorrow my materials are due for my tenure evaluation. What this means is that after next week the college I work for is going to decide: either I get a promotion, or I get fired. There is no in-between.  I’ve been working to obtain the desired position for most of 2-3 decades, and preparing for this evaluation practically non-stop for the last year. If I don’t get it and instead lose my job, my husband and I will have to move to who knows where to do who knows what, and I don’t even want to contemplate what this means for my treatment or my mental health.

I have plenty more unsaid stuff to say but I have been finding it hard to really invest in writing about it, because I keep thinking about the upcoming deadline and evaluation. I hope you understand and I’m sorry.

 

 

“Positivity”

If I sold you a shiny, sugar-coated pill that I called “positivity,” would you swallow it without considering the risks? Would you ignore the fine print about side effects and dangers — just because the name “positivity” makes it sound like it must be a good thing?  Or would you check what is actually in this pill and make sure there is solid evidence that these ingredients are both effective and safe?

Much of what is being  labeled “positivity” —  such as trying to make yourself think positive thoughts and look happy when you’re not —  is widely accepted by the public as an indisputably good thing when it isn’t.  These things may help some people some of the time, but for many other people they are quite harmful. And in fact, the people most likely to be harmed by forced “positivity” are the ones who are most at risk to suffer from feeling bad about themselves and their lives.

Yes, it makes sense to try to act with more compassion and respect for both yourself and others.  And to remind yourself to notice the good parts of things along with the bad parts. But the package known as “positivity” contains only a little of this, and a lot of other added ingredients, including forced smiling, feeling as if there is something wrong with you if you don’t always have optimistic/confident thoughts, and pressure to compete with others over who looks more positive.

When you say that a goal of yours is to “be positive,”  or when you use “positivity” as a hashtag, ask yourself what the heck you really mean to say. If what you mean by “being positive” is really more a matter of something like “being kind,” (or less judgmental, or less of a perfectionist, or less rigid in your thinking, etc.) why not just say that?  Or are you actually wanting to provide free advertising for quackery being sold to help people compete in a potentially deadly race to nowhere?

Why you shouldn’t distinguish so-called “high functioning mental disorders” from “mental disorders”

I’m seeing a lot of stuff from mental health awareness groups about “High functioning depression,” “High functioning anxiety,” “High functioning ADHD” and you name it. Obviously, just because a person’s work/school performance or social media profile looks alright doesn’t mean they can’t also have a psychiatric diagnosis. But there are far better ways to get this idea across to to the public than by dividing people using made-up labels like “high functioning” that ultimately only worsen confusion and stigma.

There are no separate diagnoses specifying high-functioning vs. low-functioning depression, just like there aren’t separate types of depression for right- vs. left-handed or short vs. tall people. There are just infinitely many different variations of major depressive disorder for the infinitely many people who have it.  There will never be a diagnostic label that captures how your specific combination of symptoms and identity and life all intersect — nor should there be, because that is not what these labels are for.

But adding the words “high-functioning” to a person’s diagnosis is not just unnecessary, it is harmful, because it increases stigma for everyone else. For example, by saying you have “high functioning depression” you’re making sure to specify that you’re not a loser like a stereotypical depressed person, thereby removing any positive effect (on stigma) that publicly proclaiming your diagnosis might have had. It is essentially an attempt to boost your own social appeal by distinguishing yourself from others who are less fortunate. It also functions to buy into and support negative stereotypes. (I wouldn’t refer to myself as having “high functioning depression” any sooner than I’d call myself a “female scientist.”)

I’m afraid that this seems to be part of a trend among young stigma fighters to embrace diagnostic labels while still being unable to accept that mental illness necessarily entails struggling/suffering, and while still holding very negative attitudes towards people with mental illness who don’t meet their standards for being sufficiently successful (attractive, happy-looking, and so on).  But it doesn’t do much good to de-stigmatize diagnostic labels while stigmatizing the real experience of people who live with those diagnoses, many of whom do not have picture-perfect lives.

***

For more on this topic, see this recent writing by Sam Dylan Finch and M. Slade.

Sincerely,

Sincerity might be both my greatest strength and deepest flaw. My concern with what lies beneath the surface is an aspiration, a compulsion, a phobia, a paranoia. I envy people who don’t care about being sincere, because they’ve got a lot more options. But I’m trapped in being me and can’t do anything about it.

How not to promote diversity on campus

The college that I work for is starting to describe its mission in terms of something like preparing future leaders for a diverse and fast-changing world. I understand that this statement is primarily designed to appeal to tuition-paying parents who might like to imagine their kid as a future leader, and that it won’t necessarily change what it is actually like to be a professor or a student at the college. Nevertheless, this advertising campaign troubles me in ways that I wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing with anyone at work.

My students are human beings with a wide range of strengths, which may or may not include the desire or potential to be a leader. Do we no longer think it is valuable, as an institution or as a society, for those without traditional leadership qualities to also obtain a college education consistent with the paths they wish to take in their lives? While it is great that my institution is highlighting diversity in its talking points, the message I hear is that all kinds of people will be welcomed on campus as long as they all have the same dominant, top-of-the-corporate-ladder personality. We don’t all have to be privileged, but we all have to successfully act the part.

I am not a “leader,” and I don’t apologize for that.  The world wouldn’t work if everyone needed to be a leader. (Please don’t tell me that maybe I’m a “quiet leader,” or any similarly patronizing title for non-leaders that the more powerful folks let us use when it is convenient for them to let us pass.) Traditional leadership qualities were never a requirement of the job I was hired to do, and they shouldn’t become a requirement just to make classes more appealing to students who value power and charisma over all else. Leadership qualities also shouldn’t become a requirement for students in most classes. Many people are quiet, modest, and/or anxious for one reason or another, and we have plenty to contribute to a diverse and fast-changing world, if that world will include us.

It is really sad that many young people feel they have to live like stars or politicians, in the heat of a social media spotlight and striving to be so bubbly that they’re about to pop. But let’s not pretend that this phenomenon is anything other than a larger-scale, higher-tech, expression of old-fashioned adolescent peer pressure, that strengthens the people on top of the social hierarchy at the expense of those who look or think or behave differently from the mainstream ideal. That some educators and parents are buying into and encouraging this cruel youth popularity contest — because they want to appeal to young people and are desperate not to have the kids think they look ‘uncool’ —  is both pathetic and disgraceful. College should help students envision meaningful lives that suit their own personalities, not provide more buzzwords to justify senseless competition and conformity.

Focus on doing things, not on whether you feel or look confident doing them.

I was recently asked what advice I would give new college students, and it is this: Focus on doing things, not on whether you feel or look confident doing them.

Contrary to popular belief, confidence is NOT the essential first step to being successful or happy. (Confidence may be correlated with success and happiness but that doesn’t mean it causes them.) Moreover, feeling a need to make everything look easy is probably the biggest thing holding today’s college students back!  Struggle IS real. Anyone pretending to have accomplished everything without struggling is not real.

Instead of trying to project confidence, keep challenging yourself to learn to do difficult things, ask for assistance when needed, and persevere with struggling until it gets better. The experiences and skills you’ll get in the process will make you feel more confident eventually — and they’ll be worth so much more than a fake smile.