Having come to this place where I am finally ready to admit that I am not going to finish my PhD has involved some pretty severe navel-gazing. How could it not? Part of what has stood in the way of my admitting that I want to leave academia is Denial. I denied my feelings in favour of what I thought were better, prettier feelings, and I hoped these new feelings would lead me right into a completed dissertation. If I had actually gazed at my navel (which wouldn't have been too hard to do since I was pregnant twice in the last three years) I could never have tricked myself with those so-called feelings.
What I really felt was shame. At first I thought it was run-of-the-mill guilt for not completing something I had started. For the tuition money borrowed in my undergraduate and Master's degree. For stressing out my mum those times I crumbled under the pressure of my abusive Sanskrit professor. Mostly for the money (sorry, Matt). But I've recently realized that my guilt over student loans didn't cause that dark, panicky, sweaty feeling I got everything I considered leaving school. Sure, I wonder how loans will get paid, but deep down I know that it really doesn't matter. Somehow, even if it takes decades, I will repay those loans. After all, it's only money.
No, I was ashamed. I had spent years defending my decision to pursue advanced degrees in the humanities, and now it turns out that I was wrong. All those times that I justified staying in school yet another year was for nothing. If I could hold a PhD in my hand, and point to a list of publications and job offers, then I could show everyone (mostly my family) that I had been right all along. But since I'm being honest here, it was much more than proving people wrong. I was much more invested in proving people right. I had such supporters in all my corners who wanted me to succeed, even if they didn't always understand my reasons for still being in school while they were working actual jobs. They put aside their doubts to help me through years of struggling with another late paper or conference presentation or listen to me complain about not having enough money, all while having no real idea what I was researching. They even asked questions as though it was interesting! I have such great friends.
And let's not forget pride. All the hard work was going to be worth it because I would be Dr. Professor. I would have my fancy degree that would get me a job at a beautiful university (where it would always be fall and I'd wear an adorable, yet professional wool jacket), and I would teach fantastic students and publish books. And now I'm not going to do that. My plan didn't work. And I'm ashamed that I was wrong.
I've been reading Brene Brown's new book, The Gifts of Imperfection, where she writes about the relationship between shame, vulnerability, joy, and most importantly, feeling worthy of being loved and supported for exactly who you are. She could have called the book "It's Really OK to Quit your PhD." Of course she doesn't care about my (lack of) PhD, but she's so spot on about the trouble that comes from trying to be perfect. I've tended to run in the other direction when I see squishy self-improvement books, but when I finished it I finally took a second to realize that I was feeling ashamed just because I was wrong. That's right, ashamed because I wasn't perfect. I had messed up by thinking that academia was what I wanted, when it turns out it isn't.
Yes, Matt, the trouble these last few years was all because I don't like being wrong. Surprised? I didn't think so.
Watch Brown here to get some idea of what she means by shame, imperfection and courage. Until now I've never given a second thought to courage, but now I'm convinced that needs changing.
p.s. Sometimes I can be such a cheesehead (and I don't mean the good kind of cheese, like goat's milk or pecorino). I was just reading the end of my last post, and while it's true, I am excited to explore this new start, less cheese is probably the better way to go. But here I am, less than perfect. See, I'm learning!