Dealing with Emotions and Thesis Writing

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.

Ein biespiel

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.

Baby steps.

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.


4 thoughts on “Dealing with Emotions and Thesis Writing

  1. I am so with you. I am less than eight weeks from submission and feel exactly how you do a lot of the time. I still have the final chapter to write but I have no idea how to. I have spent two weeks doing other, smaller, in my mind, easier tasks to distract me from this massive difficult hard thing (which it has become in my mind as I have put it off and off).
    I have issues dealing with endings. I find that I fall apart when things come to an end (relationships, projects, conferences, presentations, moving house etc etc) and having read your blog this morning I’ve suddenly realised this is why I’m putting off writing the final chapter because then it will feel like I’m almost finished and I don’t deal well with that. Even though (!!) I do so WANT to be finished with this ****** thesis.
    Mindfulness all the way. Thank you for sharing. Maybe if we just did an hour on these hard, tear us apart from the inside, tasks, that will be enough at first and we will feel proud if we have done at little, deleting those awful feelings of guilt later on in the day. Thinking of you.

    • Oh gosh, you are so close to the end!
      Why, oh why, is it so much easier to put off the difficult things? Endings are difficult, and so are beginnings. I mean, where do you even start?

      I find doing 25 minutes is enough to get me going. I was so sceptical about the pomodoro technique (basically a fancy way with apps to set a work time i.e. 25 min, and a break time of 5 min) but I’ve found it helps quite a bit. And sometimes it’s easier to do a 25 min free-writing session on your feelings about the difficult task that you don’t know how to start? Then, you can segue into writing the thing that actually needs to be written. And once you get in your stride, you can hit snooze on the timer and keep going.

      The other thing to combat the guilty feelings is to write a list at the end of the day with the three or four things you did. I even gave myself gold stars on my lists! You kinda have to make a pact with yourself about the one or two things you MUST do that day. If you get more crossed off your list then that’s a bonus, but if all you’ve done is that one thing? That’s still a win and you still get to allow yourself to feel proud about it. it’s cheesy as all get out but my inner 5 year old likes it. 🙂

      Good luck, and thinking of you too. Oh, and I am so glad this post helped. Sometimes realising what the emotion is is enough to nudge you out of the rut.

  2. I feel you! I think anxiety and boredom are my two biggest barriers. As soon as I feel either one of them (say, every 5 minutes or so), I immediately click onto a social media site and start browsing. The worst thing is, I know why I do this and at times, I even consciously recognize it as it’s happening, and yet do nothing to stop it! The only thing I’ve found so far that works is turning it into a game of sorts. I’m somewhat competitive, so putting a time limit on a task and then seeing if I can beat it helps. Although, I’m still not that great at accurately estimating how long a task will take–especially when it comes to writing–so this is a work in progress.

    • It’s so difficult, isn’t it? You know what you’re doing and why but stopping yourself. Well, that’s another matter entirely. I believe there are apps/game-type things where you can turn your real-life tasks into quests which you get points for, and your avatar will level up as you do more of the quests you’ve set yourself. Might be worth investigating? In addition to the boring/difficult mindfulness techniques, obviously.

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