What would convince me?

The Skeptic’s Guide to The Universe podcast This week (ep #531) just asked the titular question to this post. In the context of the show, they were talking about how to challenge your ideas about things, if you’re a conspiracy theorist (or anyone, really), a question to ask is “What would convince me that I am wrong about topic XYZ?”. In science, we’re trained to do this as well, though we’re not perfect at this by any means.

And it resonated with me.

Hilda Bastian (@Hildabast) shared this cartoon earlier today with the caption:

“Experience can just mean making the same mistake with increasing confidence”

In some ways, I’m experienced, but lately I feel like I keep doing things, not so much with increasing confidence, but feel like I’m trapped doing the same things, repeating patterns and not able to get out of them.

I am feeling burned out. Overwhelmed. Depressed. Low energy. Lacking in joy (laughter doesn’t come easily to me anymore…). Unsure what will help me turn a corner anymore, any action seems arbitrary as I try to figure out how to find my next career step and at least accept/not flagellate myself over struggling with depression & being subpar as a human and scientist for the past several years. Even writing here, being vulnerable and open on the internet seems risky. But it’s also a form of productivity for me right now. Something I can point to say at least I have done something, shared my story (if only, as I say often, it’s a good example of what not to do in life, generally speaking).

As you can tell, my brain is a master of being hard to myself, being cruel, and rationally, if someone were doing something like this to a friend of mine (or anyone), I would intervene and tell them to stop.

I am trying some new things. I am trying to enforce my one day a week truly off from work and not feel guilty about it. (I am allowed to write in a day off).

The question that I need to find a way to convince myself of is “What will convince me that I am worthy of anything?”. My answer all too often in my head is “nothing, you’re obviously not worthy and are a defective human and no matter what, nothing will change that”.

Just being human & part of humanity? That does not seem super-convincing to me, though it is something I feel I would say to someone else.

Being hyper-organized with everything? This may be unrealistic (there will always be something), but would help me feel better about a lot of things, I think. Make me feel like I can also do other things in a community.

Finding my next career path? I think this would help too, though it’s a circular argument in a way. And seems to be a narrow definition of worthiness, defining myself by my work (which is something I am no longer interested in doing, I’d like work to be one aspect of my life).

Having a regular group of friends (maybe even significant other) I see in real life often? Again, this would help me feel less disconnected. Finding this though is not easy as an adult. And at least this is something beyond work that would give me a sense of belonging.

Publishing in “real” places, not just my own blogs/platforms? Probably. I’m not one to hold extreme views on most things, and I don’t insist my view is right usually (& will cite the science when that exists) which seems anathema to much of the internet/publication mediums. I have done this in small ways, at least, & my big goal is to educate, or point people to things I know about that may be of use to them.

Learning all the skills? Probably. Part of feeling worthy is feeling like what I know I can do is useful to the world. If I don’t see where my skills (in beating myself up, a common thing for me to think is that I don’t have any skills & as the cartoon caption suggests, I’m just making the same mistake over and over again). Then this leads to what skills to learn? what am I good at/have aptitude for learning? How to approach it without a fixed mindset and finding the time to learn…these are all currently overwhelming questions.

Just taking it easy on myself? Am I worthy of that? Is everyone? I tend to feel better when I can cut myself some slack, but again, it’s hard to convince myself that I don’t deserve to be dragged through the square and put in the stockades for some reason. But would that help me do better or just cause me to shut down more (that’s what I tend to do now…it does take quite a bit of energy to beat myself up or distracting myself from beating myself up & I could otherwise use that time productively)?

A lot of these have the theme of connection, and being connected- and depression is at least in part a loss of connection. Feeling like a person, not just connecting through screens (as is the majority of my connection now), as good as it is for me (better than nothing), is no substitute for real life.

The one friend that has permission to call me without scheduling ahead of time called me the other day (otherwise, I often just let things go to voicemail). I went car shopping with a friend last night & then we went out to a good restaurant/bar. I am calendarizing my life more– including downtime– trying to schedule reasonable amounts of productivity each day as well as things I’ll enjoy, that will let me de-compress a bit. And I am earnestly and slowly trying to learn statistics, R, and computer language/logging into remote servers and making use of “big data” (still early on in this process though, which is frustrating– I could use a learning community, but hard to do that remotely too). really, I need a way to make learning a bit more fun, even if it’s by definition a hard process.

I’m not sure whether or not this leaves a lot of time for job searching, networking, being an educator, communicator etc. but I hope so. I’m also trying some new things to manage depressive symptoms. And I hope that that it will all lead me to feeling more like a person, with a feeling that I’m contributing to something in a meaningful way.

All I know is the pattern I’ve been following isn’t working, and it’s really not clear what to do to address it (though I laid out some ideas here; getting up the energy to follow them is another thing). I could use a vacation, but unsure if it’s possible for me to take one any time soon (even though I know the evidence says vacations really do help us be healthier). And I suppose I need to let go of pride, ask for things from others more often including help. It may help get me out of this sense of disconnection that is all too present. The frustration is I’ve been working on these things for years and yet I’m still treading water, not swimming.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

3 thoughts on “What would convince me?”

  1. I hear you, Ian. But you are worth it and you first and foremost have to take care of yourself. These feelings of being inadequate may never go away. It really hit me one day I was meeting with a bigwig department director who sheepishly started quizzing me about my boss, another bigwig department director and I was shocked “Really?! You are rich and famous and are still wondering who’s richer and more famous?” This game will never end, unless you end it in your head. There will always be someone with better papers, a better job, a better grant. Yet, you have a PhD, so you’re ahead of >90% of the US population. You science communication and mentoring helps people and you have had the courage to share your fight.
    When you’re depressed this game becomes vicious, your inadequacy becomes a scab you pick at over and over again. I must be better than I am. I’m lonely, marginalized, ineffective. I’ve been there as recently as a few months ago. My grad school therapist used to say that my problem was grandiosity, I expected more than was humanly possible from myself. I replied that without grandiosity I couldn’t do my job. Yet, I hit the same problem over and over again and in fact a few months ago during a really bad low I went back to see my grad school therapist after 10 years and we kind of laughed about it. So to tell you the truth, you’re not subhuman, you’re actually superhuman.
    My answer to this has been to run. If I don’t run, I have a really hard time keeping the bad thoughts at bay. And running has taught me to find my limits (physical and mental) and to forgive myself. It is okay to take time off. I would recommend 2 days a week for a bit ;) You have one life and a few months or a year in the economy of a lifetime don’t have much impact. Looking for jobs while depressed is stressful and harmful. I have seen friends do it and not only it didn’t work out because the interviewers sensed something was off, but it just generated a lot more stress. If you are kind to yourself and find your center, things have a way of working out :)
    Big hug!!

  2. Hi Ian,

    I second what The New PI says above. The things you are struggling with are completely normal, and especially for someone who is feeling trapped and depressed. Self-criticism is such a terrible, self-perpetuating cycle. I know exactly where you are coming from. I’ve been in it, and recently, and it never goes away completely. But being kind to yourself is an important life skill, and most importantly, it you CAN learn how to be better at it.

    May I make a few suggestions?

    1. If you don’t already have a good therapist, find one! A good therapist will not just let you talk but give you ways to work on what is going on in your head and in your heart after you leave the office. I’ve relied on therapy since I was in grad school, always for work-related issues, and I just wrapped up a year with a new therapist who is amazing. I even tried hypnosis; it was *fascinating*.

    2. There are a ton of books out there about self-care and self-love–which sounds dirty but is really just about treating yourself the way you would treat a good friend, with compassion and perspective and understanding. Flip through Kristin Neff’s website or book and see if it suits (http://self-compassion.org).

    3. Like The New PI said, take time off. There is NO other way to rejuvenate and un-burn out. You don’t need a vacation–one day a week can be completely refreshing if you spend it TRULY disconnected from work! After I’ve been pushing hard and feel uninspired, just a few days operating at 75% can do the trick. Try to trust your instincts; if you feel like you are forcing yourself to do what you “should” be doing, ask yourself what you’d rather be forcing yourself to do that you “shouldn’t” do (a hike, a run, a new class at the gym).

    4. Lean on us. Sure, friends and significant others IRL are the best, but meantime know that the connections you are forging in the digital world are real, too, and we are all here for you!

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