I’ve been trying to pay attention to the meta aspects of my thesis writing process and I have discovered a thing that is making it extra difficult.
I do not like sitting with uncomfortable emotions.
I would rather avoid, avoid, AVOID! than pay attention to them and work through them in order to carry on with what I am supposed to be doing. It is a big contributor to the procrastination habits that mar my writing habits, the other big contributor being boredom.
Situation: Sitting at my desk, intending to edit a chapter’s discussion section.
Immediate Thought: Ugh, this discussion is bullshit, I am talking out of my arse and have no clue what I’m saying. I don’t know how to fix it, or what I want to say.
Self-talk: I’m useless. I’m crap at this. I can’t do it. I might as well give up.
Feelings: Pathetic (I should be better than this). Discouraged. Anxious. Insecure (my self-worth is at stake). Inadequate (I’m not-good-enough).
Meta-feelings: Deeply uncomfortable. Dislike.
Response: Avoid by distraction.
Out-come: “This is too hard, I’m going to check this thing on the internet”. Half an hour later – “I should do some work”.
Next feeling: Guilt/Shame
End Result: Even less work done, hours wasted reading blogs.
As you can see, this is less than ideal. Even thinking about it so I can articulate it in words has me feeling awkward and uncomfortable, to the point of not wanting to post this, and feeling a tightness in my throat, my mouth feeling dry and my body tense. So, fear, in other words.
Why is this important?
Because if I’m not aware in the moment that I’m doing it, what hope do I have of interupting the procrastination cycle that is killing my productivity? If I’m serious about wanting to finish this PhD Thesis in a reasonable time-frame, I need to find a better way to work that doesn’t involve beating myself over the head with the stick of “Should Try Harder”. Currently I’ve been telling myself I “Should work 8 hour days on the regular, at regular hours”. This has mostly resulted in me working in fits and spurts during the day, interspersed with hours of blog-reading, followed by a late-night panic of “I haven’t done enough/any work today” between the hours of 11pm and 2am, by which point I am actually too tired to do decent work. Thus making myself feel even more guilty and pathetic, and feeding the downward spiral of demotivation and procrastination.
Is there any hope?!
Today at least I did notice the brief flicker of negative self-talk, and the urge to internet, and even asked myself the questions “Are you sure you want to check Facebook? Are you sure you’re not trying to distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings?”
The answer was “yes, I am aware I’m hiding from difficult things, and yes I know it’s not ideal, but I do want to check Facebook, even though I closed the tab five minutes ago because there was nothing interesting in my feed.”
Not ideal, but better.
Theoretical background: Emotion Dismissing versus Emotion Coaching
The reason I am even aware of this as a thing is thanks to Emily Nagoski, over at The Dirty Normal. She introduced me to the concept of Emotion Coaching/Emotion Dismissing, which boils down to how you feel about your feelings. You can feel positive, negative or anywhere in between. I am on the emotion dismissing side of things. Strong feelings like anger scare me and sadness/tears make me feel weak. Feeling scared and vulnerable feel bad and uncomfortable so I try to avoid them any way I can. I prefer to do this by distracting myself and losing myself in mindless things, like the internet, or TV shows where the characters are having lots of intense feelings (Grey’s Anatomy, I’m looking at you) and drowning the noise of my own emotions in theirs. Attempting to avoid the difficult emotions leads to procrastination in other words.
Fortunately, meta-emotions are mostly learned, as far as I can tell. I know for sure I learned the “crying is weak” primarily from Mum, and also from my culture (British stiff upper lip for the win! Or not.) Anger is scary because I have too many vivid memories of Dad flipping out at something I’d done e.g. reading under the covers or being so upset I literally couldn’t get the words out of my mouth to explain why. You know, fun stuff like that.
Still, if they can be learned, they can be unlearned and new mental habits formed to replace them.
I believe this is the point of the many and various mindfulness techniques. Spot the behaviour or feeling, be accepting of it (your feels are legit, you are allowed to have them), and start replacing the wonky brain thoughts with better ones.
For example, replacing “I’m crap at this” with “this is legitimately difficult work – school didn’t exactly teach you how to edit and improve long, complex documents”. That kind of thing.
Being kind to yourself as you attempt this? That’s the trick.