The PhD and the ego


When I was 19, I took an English class on southern literature and memory. Growing up, I heard a lot about the south and memory from my mother and grandmother, so the course material spoke to me on some kind of molecular level. I was a pretty good reader, I liked the idea of teaching (although I’m only realizing why pretty recently), and research felt kind of like a fun scavenger hunt to me, so I considered grad school. My depressed brain ended up deciding that I wasn’t smart enough or energetic enough to make it through a doctoral program, so I made the illogical decision to follow an on-again-off-again boyfriend to Maryland and to begin my teaching certification for high school English.

Teaching high school was deeply rewarding on many levels, but it also sucked all the life out of me. I was not built for that level and duration of emotional engagement. As introverted, depressed, and ill-equipped for classroom management as I was, I do not think it would be melodramatic to say teaching almost killed me. The winter of 2010-2011 was the darkest of my depressive bouts. I would be at school by 6:30 most mornings, before sunrise, and while I was usually home by 3 in the afternoon, I spent my afternoons sleeping on the couch. I would wake up, hazily procure fast food, and go to bed by 9, no problem. Up at 5 and repeat. I was in so much pain that I can honestly say the only reason I did not just end it was because I worried that my sweet rescue dog would wonder where her momma went. That is all.

I will say that I developed the most wonderful friendships at that high school. There were some really supportive, caring, and hilarious colleagues who took me into their circle. But even at happy hours on really bad Fridays, I’d simply put my head down on the table at the bar. In hindsight, this picture is hard for me to imagine. But at the time, it was all I could do.

I managed to find a therapist (I think this must have been summer 2011) who introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy and made me buy The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns. It functioned as a workbook and took me through exercises to identify and change my negative thought patterns. This may be shocking to some, but this was the first time in my life I became conscious that the narrative in my head wasn’t fact. Wasn’t true. Was a construct. Could be separated from my feelings and circumstances. This was revolutionary to me. I was almost 26 years old. And I didn’t have to be what my brain was telling me I was on autopilot.

With the help of that and Zoloft (for the third time), I got my energy back and could function in day-to-day life. This was when I decided to apply to grad school. I felt like I could do it. And I did. I did an MA and now I am in my third year of a PhD program. I only briefly stopped to consider back in 2011 when I started applications if grad school was still what I wanted. And I decided yes. My brain was trying to uncouple from self-loathing but not yet the full gamut of ego-based fears.

But here I am on the other side of a profound interrogation of the narratives I tell myself, even more profound than previous interrogations, and I am realizing more and more that I I chose grad school out of fear–the fear of losing external approval. When I was growing up, I was the child who got good grades in school. My parents and teachers praised me endlessly for my grades and achievements. Somewhere along the way, that became my identity. The girl who gets good grades. The girl who achieves. (When I first became depressed in 10th grade, I could almost trace it to my chemistry class, which was the first time I really struggled academically. Because my self-worth was tied to my achievements, I considered myself a loser and a failure.)

Some part of me thinks that when I decided on this career path, my ego simply wanted more praise for good grades and academic achievements. Because who was I aside from grades and school? How could I continue to get friends and family to “like” me? How could I stay safe and certain? I also liked literature. Grad school was obviously the perfect vehicle to maintain this identity. It’s only now, at the age of 31, that I have come to realize that I have a self and worth that exists beyond my “social role, possessions, external appearance, success and failures, belief systems” (see p. 151 of The Power of Nowmore on that in another post).

As an adolescent, I feared that my peers did not think I was smart. I cared a lot about my appearance and dating, and feedback from boys had a lot to do with my self-worth. (I know. Trust me, I know.) So announcing to the world that I was accepted to a program that would eventually grant me a doctorate, the highest degree possible in my field, meant that the whole world would know that I was smart, despite everything about me that made me worry that people would question my intelligence. I thought that getting in to grad school would finally bring me the fulfillment I sought. I was hoping another achievement would bring me the self-worth that I hadn’t found within.

So, I am here essentially because my entire identity was based on external approval and because I deeply feared external criticism and judgment. And the hilarious part is that the steps you must pass to advance through a PhD are entirely based on approval and judgment by others. And so much of it is entirely subjective. Guys, I am living in crazy town.

I am working on coming to terms with where I am. Research is okay. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I think it’s the worst. It depends what conversation I am joining. I like teaching, but honestly, my favorite conversations with students are the ones about their lives. I love discussing their hopes, fears, and options for personal growth. Conversations about literature and the structure of argument don’t fire me up quite as much.

Jess Lively introduced me to the idea of intuition vs. ego. I’d of course considered this dichotomy before in a number of iterations, but her conception of it was the first that punched me in the gut. Maybe because I was ready for it. I think a lot of this is only happening because I am finally ready for it. But I realized that grad school was a choice I made from my deeply fearful ego. My intuition would have never sent me on this path. My intuition, however, was silenced by my ego during my depressed years, and so I never considered what my capital-V Values actually are. This is what I am doing now.

That’s all for today. Of course, I’m not leaving my program. But I am beginning to consider the possibility of multiple futures, which is something Charles Duhigg recommends in Smarter Better Faster.


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