by Dr. Tyia Grange Isaacson
Dr. Grange Isaacson is a training and supervising analyst with a private practice in Berkeley, California and via telehealth. She has a subspecialty providing both psychotherapy and coaching services to graduate students and in particular students who are first generation graduate students. Dr. Grange Isaacson is particularly interested in helping individuals understand themselves within the context of their family or origin and their current environmental surround that can sometimes mirror their family structure. Understanding this aids students in making sense of their reactions which in turn can lead to positive growth.
Tyia holds a Ph.D in contemporary psychoanalysis from the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, a masters degree in Social Work from Columbia University, and a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison. Tyia is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the States of New York and California and has been in practice since 1998. She is published in Psychanalytic Perspectives, Psychoanalytic, Self and Context (forthcoming) and her writing has been anthologized by Karnac Books. Dr. Grange Isaacson is an internationally invited speaker and trainer on culture bound syndromes and mental health. Tyia can be reached at www.tyiagrange.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (510) 343.9832.
My patients are being told, “We are all in the same boat.” We may be trying to survive the same storm, but we are decidedly not all in the same boat. The same boat trope furthers a distinctly American myth of meritocracy. This recycled Horatio Algers myth of rags to riches seems to be immune to COVID19. It’s pandemic proof. Yet, when not well understood the messages underlying how we are all in this together can erode our mental health and academics, coming from pre-pandemic prolonged scarcity and high risk.
Meritocracy is the notion that our society, our status, and our success is based upon our hard work, and ability. What you have is what you deserve. Therefore, if you have less something must be wrong with you. Meritocracy is born out of colonialism, the ugly legacy of slavery, the child of structural racism. In the myth of meritocracy there is no place for the cultural surround. Instead, it breeds imposter syndrome. In my clinical experience, my patients of color, women and other under represented minorities are afflicted with some degree of imposter syndrome. A defining feature of imposter syndrome includes persistent worry that others will find out that you don’t belong. My patients frequently blame themselves for such feelings and feel ashamed and less than others. However, the intersection of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement is now more than ever exposing the cultural surround and along with it the lethal inequalities of people of color. This exposure unmasks the malignancy of the meritocracy.
At devastating cost and lost of human life perhaps we are reaching a tipping point the people with privledge are noticing and even trying to do something about the fact that some have luxury liners to ride out the storm and others only a leaky dingy and the exhausting effort of trying to bail yourself out when the water keeps pouring back inside. While these concepts are not news for many academics because they have lived with inequity personally or they have made an effort to study, intellectual knowledge does not equate to emotional knowledge.
If you feel bad about your circumstances you have only yourself to blame. This story is so pervasive it is challenging to tell yourself a new story. In other words, it is very difficult to slow down our patterned responses and change them in the best of circumstances. Busy academic almost always operate with time scarcity, scarcity of connection (especially during a pandemic) and usually suffer from financial scarcity. Scarcity makes change harder. A scarcity of safety and certainty and connection brought by the pandemic and police brutality makes changing our patterned responses harder yet.
As a result, many graduate students suffer from feeling ashamed of not having enough. For example, instead of considering if the tasks you must do can reasonably done within the amount of time you have to do them, many academics default to thinking that if you don’t have enough time you must not be managing your time well. This message is modeled and amplified within most departments. If you don’t have enough funding to pay your bills, you must not have worked hard enough on your fellowship applications.
Piled on top of this emotional burden is the challenge of how to understand your situation and not conflate current feelings with family of origin issues. An advisor or other needed authority, becomes, to your subconscious, the hard to please parent figure who favors your sibling, who is stingy, withholding or only intermittently interested in you. You may only be as valuable as your last performance. Moreover, it can be confusing to receive the message from your University that you should be grateful for your stipend and opportunity. After all, you get paid to learn. But, to rise up your experience mirrors indentured servitude. Mirroring the legacy of Jim crow, graduate students are faced with endless work for very little pay and the promise of future freedom far off in the future. In the Bay Area, the graduate students with whom I work are “fully funded” but living significantly below the poverty level.
It’s not easy to think, learn, write an original contribution to the literature when you have scarcity. Our brain conserves resources when there is not enough. During emergencies we can’t think clearly, we can’t concentrate. The blood leaves our brain to protect our core organs. Enduring scarcity prunes our thinking. To be efficient our thoughts move from expansive to tunnel vision. The life of a graduate student means a life of pervasive scarcity. Scarcity against the backdrop of a myth of meritocracy does not feel good because the myth we are raised within tells us what we are enduring and feeling is our fault.
Here are three remedies to scarcity:
- Putting the ineffable into words. Name feelings.
- The power of narrative theory. Find a new story
- Controlling what is controllable.
#1 Naming feelings: An important step to feeling better is to understand what has been happening behind the curtain. When you can name the forces at work that instantly turn a painful situation into painful self blame, you can start to change perspective and your thinking. Instead of feeling ashamed at not having enough time/money/connection you can widen the lens and take in all the surround that sets up scarcity. The shameful secret of self-blame/ imposter syndrome gets exposed and that exposure dissipates the shame. The ability to put your thoughts and feelings into words can offer an opportunity for another perspective, which leads us to #2.
#2 Finding a new story: You may find yourself in an old familiar pattern when you have a scarcity. For example, you are behind a deadline stewing in thoughts of how awful you are because you have papers to grade and are behind for article submission and have nothing to submit to your writing group. Instead of spinning in negative thoughts, try hard to do something different. Breaking an old pattern involves simply trying anything different. The entrenched patterned thought is an actual shortcut in your nero-network. That groove in your brain, gets broken with doing something different. You may consider reaching out to a friend and telling them what is happening. Ask if they can help you find another perspective. Is there another narrative? If you can’t yet reach out, imagine a friend in your position. Might you be able to see that there was nothing wrong with your friend and the wrong was in the super human expectation to do more than is possible in the time allotted? Finding a way to a new story is finding a way to a new ending.
#3 Controlling what is controllable: A great deal is out of our control at the moment. Controlling what is within your control is a remedy for both scarcity and anxiety. Knowing what will happen next reduces anxiety. Being able to give yourself the stability of a schedule is regulating, soothing and helps you feel competent. Make a daily schedule for yourself outlining not only the responsibilities you have academically but also self-care responsibilities. Part of your work is self-care. It is not a distraction eating away at the scarcity of your time to work, it is the work. You will be more efficient in your work when you schedule time for self-care work. Try any of these things and see what works for you:
- Use a pomodoro timer (free ap that helps you hyper focus for short segments).
- Set a reminder to take a break after every hour to do a burst of 10 seconds of exercise. New research shows that high intensity exercise can counter the effects of sedentary work. This is an important remedy to anxiety and increases the efficiency of our thinking.
- Schedule a set time each week to come up with or revise your calendar. You will need to revise it regularly. Calendaring helps every one of my patients reduce their anxiety and get more work done under pressure.
- If you have a big deadline work, backwards imagining how long the task will take and breaking down the task into small parts from the current date.
- Make your calendar tasks bite sized and specific. You are more likely to get to work when the task is bite sized. If it is large and unspecific you may procrastinate and feel overwhelmed about how to start.
- Make time to cross off or otherwise mark your specific completed tasks no matter how small. This feeds your human need to feel competent. When you are no longer receiving regular feedback in the form of grades, there is usually a scarcity of this feedback and this is one remedy.
- When you receive edits on your work build in time to delay incorporating them. Fresh edits are almost always overwhelming. It can feel like you are a new parent showing your baby to the world and the world is telling you there are problems with the baby. When you give yourself some time off from the edits your perspective will shift and frequently you can see it as helpful rather than overwhelming, wounding criticism.
- Commit to a gratitude practice. Marking your gratitude is a powerful remedy to scarcity. Journal your gratitude or find an accountability buddy to text one specific thing you are grateful for each day. This practice gives you something. It marks what you have.
- And finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to student health services if you feel overwhelmed by the collective trauma occurring all around you right now. Getting out of the echo chamber of your own mind and your own patterns of thinking and into a support system of professionals, as well as friends and family, is more important than ever. When the waves of this storm feel overwhelming and it seems impossible to imagine it will ever recede, find something in nature to sooth you. Imagine the storm of overwhelm as a wave. The feelings you are experiencing are like an ocean wave. When you are in the full force of it the current pulls you and fighting that can exhaust you. When you can remember to “go with the flow” and know that the wave will recede eventually, your overwhelm will lessen.
- Cultivating Self Compassion – Mental Health Guest Post
- Mental Health Guidance for Graduate Students during COVID-19 – Therapist Guest Post
- Productivity: Find Your Joy. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
- The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: “Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make you a Fraud.” (A Guest Post)
- What Happens After You’ve Gotten All the A’s – Guest Post