By Dr. Tyia Grange Isaacson
Dr. Grange Isaacson has written a series of mental health posts for The Professor Is In. See them here, here, and here. [This post was submitted a few months back; apologies for the delay in publishing~ Karen.]
Dr. Grange Isaacson is a training and supervising analyst and founder of a group practice specializing in work with graduate students and early career professors in Berkeley, California and via telehealth. Tyia provides both psychotherapy and coaching services. 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. This understanding aids academics 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. In addition to contributing as a guest blogger for The Professor Is In she is published in Psychanalytic Perspectives, Psychoanalytic, Self and Context 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, email@example.com or via phone at (510) 343.9832.
In the beginning you think this whole thing will last a few weeks and you are feeling ok. You take a deep breath and imagine you can use this time to get things done. Stat. You tell yourself in a calm indoor voice that all these new edicts to shelter in place and to practice social distancing are fine really because you just need to write anyway. Butt in Chair. Pandemic or no pandemic what is the difference.
In the beginning you plan to learn to play the ukelele and babysit your sourdough starter. You organize the heck out of your closet. You try all the Zoom bonding. The Zoom game nights and Netflix parties and happy hours and coworking. All Zoom all the time until you become a Zoom zombie and quit.
You grow tired of everything and cycle through all the stages of grief without even knowing it. The denial (this will end any minute and life will be normal again.) Bargaining (if I can just get this article submitted and all these papers graded I will be pandemic productive and it won’t even matter.) Anger (I am so over this!) Confusion (How do all those people on social media still have a life?) Self pity (I have no life – this sucks!) Sadness (I am just sad. Every day is groundhog day).
You feel all the feelings. You feel no feelings. You feel numb. You wonder what is wrong with you. What is wrong is not you. It’s your culture.
Support and self-care are not often commensurate with a culture of success in the academy. Scarcity reigns supreme. All too often a driver of this success is a certain amount of anxiety. This is the gas in your tank that gets you up out of bed, that gets you going, and in so many ways you are rewarded by the system for achieving through this anxiety. But the anxiety that drives you also comes at a tremendous cost.
In his book “Nobody is Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness” Roy Richard Grinker outlines how the construct of mental illness is the child of capitalism. Starting with the industrial revolution, members of society who were not productive good worker bees doing their tireless part to grow the economy were shunned. They were shuttered into asylums stigmatized dehumanized and eventually labeled mentally ill. The academy swallows whole the notion that one should work hard, be productive, not fall behind, and keep up with the Jones-es Grinker, a cultural anthropologist, offers us a critique of this be productive at all costs mantra. He shares examples of other cultures where the stigma and self-blame for suffering are not present.
I too have argued that many common afflictions in our culture are blamed solely upon that individual as a personal deficit when a broader frame is more helpful. I use the term ‘unsoothability’ (Grange Isaacson 2020) to describe suffering that goes beyond the individual. Bear with me while I share some psychoanalytic terms because I think the words we use matter and impact how we feel. Unsoothability can be distinguished from inconsolability which is a personal subjective experience. Unsoothability is an intersubjective experience. Inconsolable is a term applied to an individual, and its use can have the effect of pathologizing the individual. My use of this term unsoothability implies that within a system, and not an individual alone, is a prevalent inability to provide soothing and to feel soothed. Unsoothability is co-created; a multi-causational, intersubjective systems phenomenon. In other words ailments are not located within an individual alone but also within the culture.
Many “mental illnesses” are not universal. They are culture bound syndromes or afflictions found only in certain cultures. Anxiety, eating disorders, PMS, post-partum depression (PPD) are ailments that occur in cultures that are hyper-independent. In more communal cultures these afflictions do not exist. You read that right. In communities that have better social supports, less isolation and less emphasis on individuality people suffer with less stigma over what we call mental illness.
You might be wondering right about now – so what? Who cares when I’m still stuck in this pandemic, this information is slightly interesting, but how does it help me?
Here is how this may help you. When we think differently, we can feel differently. So much is out of our control right now. You cannot know when the global pandemic will truly end. You cannot know if opportunities within the academy will stop imploding or when oppression of “isms” will end. Yet, the notion of serenity, of letting go of that which we can’t control and focusing on that which we can control, can be a helpful foothold in the throes of so much uncertainty.
Hyper-independent cultures of course privilege the individual. The other side of the coin to individuality is self-blame. Within your control is how you think and what you believe. How much the message of self-blame can you stop internalizing?
As I mentioned in my last post, the mythos of meritocracy leads you to automatically believe that if you feel bad it is your fault. So much in this hyper-independent culture conspires for you to believe this myth. Blame is everywhere. What might it be like to consider that if you feel bad the narrative is not a forgone conclusion that it is your fault? Instead, can you consider that if you feel bad there are a multitude of complex reasons many of which are co-created with your environmental surround that make you suffer?
You too easily forget that with all your education you are still a mammal. You can’t be separated from your eco-system. Humans need secure attachment connections to thrive. Such connections are hard to come by in the best of times with the structure of this isolated society, and way harder during the pandemic.
Would you blame a flamingo for feeling cold in the arctic? Imagine you should be sleeping but instead are in bed doom scrolling and you see a video of the arctic tundra where somehow a flamingo made a wrong turn. You see this shivering tropical bird freezing her little pink tushy off. Do you blame her for feeling cold? Do you question why that shivering flamingo can’t seem to thrive? Or, do you say aw, poor bird how did she get there? She can’t survive out there. Of course she can’t. Access to her essential flamingo needs can’t be sourced in that ecosystem. So, when you look in the mirror and you’re not feeling very well but the voice in your head tells you just keep going picture that shivering flamingo and give her a hug.
We are living in an out of balance culture full of hyper-independence, myths of meritocracy and a scarcity of connection. Because of this you likely did not grow up as a native speaker of self-compassion, self-regulation and shared responsibility. Your first language was probably the language of blame. You absorbed your mother tongue well before you became a critical thinker. Now, your language and your thinking are pretty intertwined.
If you have ever learned or attempted to learn an actual second language, you know that it is really hard work. It takes so much tedious repetition. Before you can become fluent you will feel clunky. You will make many mistakes. You will need to translate the words, and in this case, the thoughts and feelings from your native language of self-blame into your emerging language of self-compassion.
I invite you to take up this study. When you feel terrible because of scarcity or any of the too many oppressive “isms” impacting you or those you love, catch yourself. Stop that pattern of thinking when you revert back to your native self-blame. You may not be able to change nearly enough about your circumstances, but instead of equating feeling bad with being bad, see yourself as the freezing flamingo. Find your flock and huddle together for warmth.
Grange Isaacson, T. (2020). Metaphors of Agony: Culture-bound Syndromes of Hyper-Independence. Psychoanalysis, Self and Context, 15(4), 375-383.
Grinker, R. (2021). Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness W. W. Norton & Company
- We Are All in This Together: Exposing the myth of the meritocracy – Guest Post
- Mental Health Guidance for Graduate Students during COVID-19 – Therapist Guest Post
- What Happens After You’ve Gotten All the A’s – Guest Post
- What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic – WOC Guest Post
- Emotions in Academia: Anger