Let’s talk about scarcity. In particular, scarcity that is fed by shame and and comparison and results in disengagement — specifically not submitting work.
Today’s post draws from the work of Brené Brown. Quick aside: If you have not read Dr. Brown because her popularity evokes a sense pop culture over substance, take a second look. She holds an endowed chair at the University of Houston, where she has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
In her work on vulnerability, Brown has documented a cultural shift in the United States over the past decade: an increasing belief and stress around NOT HAVING ENOUGH.
Even a cursory look at the language of most of our days supports her findings. We start off, first thing in the morning, before we even get out of bed, building a narrative of scarcity. I did not get enough sleep. The barrage continues with each passing hour. I’m not getting enough exercise. I am not eating enough healthy food. I don’t have enough time. I am not spending enough time with my <insert significant relationship>.
And Brown’s research indicates that this steady drumbeat creates a deficit identity: I didn’t have enough; I don’t have enough; I won’t have enough. I am not enough.
She makes a compelling argument that this scarcity — or, to be precise, our own personal sense of feeling that everything good is just out of our reach — is not based on reality. It is created by interacting with systems that are built around three key things:
Turns out, these three things are also the core values of academia. How about that?
If you regularly interact with a system built on negative feedback, putdowns, corrections, and pushing people into categories of not being <insert manufactured standard>, you are part of a shame culture. While we can certainly see the impact of shame in broader culture in any number of areas, for the purpose of reclaiming your writing life, it is important to notice where a demeaning and diminishing culture exists in your intellectual spaces.
The Academy, in its cult-like insistence on acceptance of “this is how it’s done,” trains you to accept all “feedback” (no matter how toxic) as evidence of your shortcomings. There is little or no attention given to the culture surrounding the feedback. I consistently see clients accept the shaming culture of their program, department, field (I’m looking at you political science) and take it on as their own personal failure.
The second contributor to a culture of scarcity is comparison, and if you have attended even a couple of Karen and my FB live sessions, you know I am all about Teddy Roosevelt on this one: Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t get me wrong, healthy comparison is not a bad thing. We can use comparison as a way to motivate ourselves, as a way to strive to improve: Wow, that person I admire exercises every day. I really want to do that, or I have so much respect for the way she approaches her writing life. I’d like to model that. That kind of comparison can be very healthy, because it is seeing a goal and owning your own responsibility in achieving it.
But far too many of us use negative comparison— belittling and shaming — as a motivator. There you are in your program or in your department or in whatever space is serving as your intellectual water cooler. First you’ve got that put-down thing going on, and then you start to add that toxic comparison. So, now it’s not I really respect that way of writing, and I’d like to emulate that. It’s She’s so good. I’ll never be able to do that. I am never going to belong. That’s toxic comparison and it reinforces the shame system in an endless feedback loop. And also, it doesn’t work.
To top it all off (and I think this is probably the most compelling part of what Brown has to say) in that toxic soup of shame and comparison, ee put up shields around our small, beaten-up, overwhelmed, feeling disrespected, not enough selves, and we hunker down and disengage, afraid to act.
Everything in the soup gets internalized.
Welcome to scarcity:
I don’t work fast enough, I don’t write fast enough. I don’t produce enough. I’m not smart enough.
So what’s the path out of scarcity?
Brown challenges us to begin notice the toxic places and find a circle of people who will walk away from them with us.
Start by noticing where you’re are feeding not enough. Simply noticing is one of the most empowering things that you can do. Notice it — I don’t write fast enough! — and start to pay attention to the shame that feeds it. My advisor keeps telling me it’s taking too long. The wonderful thing is that the most powerful inoculation against shame is daylight. You don’t have to change the shame culture. You just have to name shame for yourself. And when you say it out loud to someone else, you draw a line between you and the event and diminish its ability to devastate you.
To be very clear, Brown’s research shows that the path from awareness to resiliency goes through vulnerability, i.e. finding a place to speak your shame out loud.
I can almost hear the roars of protest from across the TPII readership: The way I’m going to be more resilient, the way I’m going to keep writing, the way I’m going to keep doing all this stuff, is to be more vulnerable? You have no idea what you are asking! I’m not going to tell anybody out there that I’m struggling!
I respect that. Keeping your struggles out of your work life is a very good instinct. If you are among in any group that is considered marginal to your field, and you start to say you’re struggling, you could be setting yourself up for even more shaming and toxic comparison.
The key to effective vulnerability is finding a SAFE place to express it!
Find those people who can hear you say, “This thing happened today and I feel really ashamed” and not feed a victim stance about it, but instead remind you, “That’s a *them* problem, not a *you* problem. You’re good. Keep going.”
Or if you actually fucked up, who can listen and say, Wow. I can see why you feel bad about that. What is your plan for cleaning it up? Look for the people who are brave enough to sit with pain and point you toward your better self.
Just keep walking and repeating: I am enough.
If you are looking for a safe place to identify your roadblocks and learn from other people’s struggles, consider joining Unstuck. Our private social network is a safe, supportive place to say “I’m struggling,” without it affecting your tenure case, or how anybody responds to your dissertation.