“No is a complete sentence”: How do we make it okay to quit?*

Quitting is a dirty word in academia. You’re not really allowed to quit: a paper you are writing, a project you have signed on for, a job, a doctorate. Quitting can be seen as implying weakness, giving up, dropping out, slacking off, flaking out – all things no one wants to be accused of. However, over the last two years especially, I have been reading more and more social media posts by people who have quit, who have said: ‘No, thanks, this is no longer for me’. Many of these posts express sadness and shame, but many also express liberation, relief, joy even. These posters have grappled with the seemingly inevitable shame of saying ‘I can’t/don’t want to do this anymore’ and have pushed through it to actually say ‘No’. I wonder what the process was to get there – how did they make it okay for themselves to quit?

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I have been thinking a lot about quitting: less about actually doing it per se and more about why and how we might need to quit something and how to make it okay to do that and move on. For myself, I have been reflecting, firstly, on whether and in which situations I allow myself to say ‘no’ or ‘not anymore’, and secondly, what happens before I get to that point. Historically, a ‘No’ or an ‘I can’t do this anymore’ email or conversation has come directly on the heels of crisis. I have taken on so much – for a range of reasons; things I am interested in, things I feel guilted into, things I am scared to say no to, things I have to do because they are part of my role – that I literally cannot do it all and some things have to be stopped, let go of, quitted.

But because I wait until crisis point, I inevitably feel I have failed. I have not been able to do All The Things and I should have been able. I should have been Wonder Woman and not Ordinary Human Woman. On the converse, I tell myself I should have known better than to sign up for all those things in the first place. Because now look what you have done: all those people and projects counting on you and you have let them down. For a lifelong people-pleaser, that baggage gets heavy and creates all kinds of internalised expectations and pressures that are hard to see, let alone let go of. That word ‘should’ can be pernicious: it has been behind many of my less wise ‘Yes’ answers to requests to get involved in work things (you should do this, it will be good for your CV; you shouldn’t back out of this, it’s bad form). It has also been behind too much of the pressure I have put on myself to do and be too many things. Crisis is then created where perhaps there didn’t need to be one.

Hindsight, though, is 20/20 and it is easier to look back on a different part of your career from where you are now and see what you should have done but probably didn’t do. However, I do believe in learning from crises and mistakes (or at least missteps). I have, therefore, been thinking about how to take more accurate stock of my energies, interests, must-dos versus can-dos and would-like-to-dos, all the other things I need to do (like mothering, partnering, self-caring). I’m trying to pay better attention to the shoulds: is that word pushing me into energising territory or the opposite? In taking more accurate stock, I am hoping I can become better at saying ‘No’ earlier in the process so that crises and negative self-talk and feelings can be mitigated or even avoided altogether. Or, if I cannot say ‘No’, working out how to do the Thing without it leading to everything becoming too much and then collapse.

The other thing, alongside working out what to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to, and how to manage my own time and energy and others’ expectations and demands of me, is wondering how to actually make ‘No’ a complete sentence. This means, for me (the people-pleaser and overachiever), not apologising for not being interested in, or ready and able to take on a project, paper or task that I just cannot do right now. This means not over-explaining myself. It means not obsessing about what I should have done instead and rewriting the script of the conversation or email over and over to change the outcome. It also means allowing other people to feel their own feelings without making those something else I have to take on and worry about to the point where I undermine the energy-savings of saying No in the first place. I don’t have to be disappointed in myself because others may be. I can be proud of myself, let this go and move on to the next thing.

This sounds very healthy and wise as I write it, and the truth is, I am sometimes these things in how I make decisions about what to give my time and focus to and what I bow out of. I’ve been doing this career for a while now and I am a bit better at working out what I can do, what I have to do, and what I can get on without doing. Having signed up for the wrong things, missed out on some great things – if you’re keeping track and reflecting periodically on where you are, what drives you, and where you want to go, you can get better at managing your own and others’ expectations and your choices. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get pulled into things you may not actually want to do or have time to do: when you work in academia you always have to manage the ‘game’ – papers to publish, grants to write, funders, line managers and VCs to appease, students to consider and care for, and on and on. If you have chosen this career, chances are good that at least some or much of that will be what you actually care about. I have learned, though, that to get the time I want for the things that really matter to me, I have to give some to the things that matter to others. Compromise, negotiation.

Sometimes you can’t say ‘No’, and maybe the trick to being okay with that is to work out how to make the things you have to say ‘Yes’ to matter to you enough to not mind them. But when you can say ‘No’ and that is the best choice for you, try making it a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone lengthy explanations and hours of worrying about whether you’ve done the wrong thing or burned a bridge. Chances are they have already moved on. So should you.

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* Jane Fonda said this in the documentary, ‘Feminists, what were they thinking?‘ on Netflix (UK).

Being part of a research mosaic: finding purpose at the end of the world*

I have not written a full blog post in ages. I had to take a sabbatical from the blog at the start of this year: 2021 was Hard and starting this year, I needed to trim down the number of things to focus on in a sort-of work-life triage. Having taken some time away, though, I have started writing bits of new posts in my head and find that I would quite like to finish them, and share them. So, here I am.

I have 5 blog posts in various stages of being written and completed, and 2 research papers in similar states of disrepair. They’re not finished partly because I feel like I need more time to think (more on this in the next post), and partly because there’s a voice in my head that tells me there’s no point right now because the world is on fire. School and other mass shootings, natural disasters, warming oceans and species extinctions, asshat politicians that want to turn back the clock on reproductive, sexual, and civil rights, a war that doesn’t seem to have an end, alarming rises in the costs of living and more people struggling to feed their families… I mean, seriously? If you watch the news at all, it’s just an endless stream of stress and misery, and it really does feel sometimes like we are at the end of the world. So, really, what’s the point of writing anything? Of researching what I research?

I want to pick up on the part about there being a point – particularly feeling like there is no point – to the writing and research work. I know that there are probably (more than) a few of us feeling like this right now: if you are researching something that is not directly contributing to saving the planet, averting war, aiding refugees, curing a serious illness, saving a species or ending poverty you may wonder from time to time – perhaps more lately – what the point of your research even is. I wonder this from time to time, and have found myself thinking more often lately ‘Who cares? What difference is another paper on doctoral education or writing development really going to make?’ And if you are struggling to see a point to your work, it is that much harder to carve out time for it, feel excited about it, and want to share it. The more time you spend away from it because you doubt that it even matters, the harder it is to ever get it finished. And that would be a real shame because, underneath all this present pessimism and worry, I do believe that my work matters, that the work all of us are doing on our different problems and questions matters. The world needs all of it, and all of us.

I saw a post recently on Instagram by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that made me stop and think about the work I am doing, the research I am doing, and my role less pessimistically. In the post, she uses the analogy of a mosaic to counter the idea that, by ourselves, we are too small or powerless to really make anything different, so why should we bother – isn’t it all futile in the face of so much awfulness and when others (like those politicians) have so much power? She says:

“When you have your eye pressed all the way up to the single tile of a mosaic, it can look quite meaningless. A single piece of shattered glass could look worthless. Or perhaps a piece of small painted porcelain could seem beautiful, but too small to “be” anything. Or maybe a stunning rare slab of stone may think itself as the biggest piece when it is really a corner tile. The secret is, it’s all significant.

The two secrets of mosaics are: 1. Each piece (us + our small actions) is far more powerful and meaningful than we know, and 2. Each piece (we) need each other far more than we realize”.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

What I take from this is that I am, in my more pessimistic moments, too focused on my small tile, my small contribution to the bigger picture, so much so that I lose sight of the fact that there is a bigger picture and I am not called upon to draw the whole thing. I am only called upon to add my small tile. While it may feel pretty small and not that important, if I take it away there will be a gap in the mosaic that will mar the overall effect. If more and more researchers start removing their tiles too, how many more gaps will there be? And what effect will that have on our knowledge of ourselves, our present, past, and future; on our ability to create a different future for ourselves, our societies, the environment, and the planet?

It is sometimes easier, for me certainly, to see what I can’t do rather than what I can do, especially when I have talked myself into believing that my work is too small to make a real difference. But, what counts as a ‘difference’, and to whom does that need to be significant? Does all research need to be world-leading or internationally recognised to count as meaningful, as making a difference? Surely not. That is neither possible nor desirable, and thinking on such grand levels probably makes it harder for some researchers, especially those starting out or starting something new to see what their piece of the mosaic is and why it matters – that it *does* matter regardless of how far the reach of its influence or impact. Creating something that is locally impactful, or that makes a difference to or adds to our knowledge about ourselves and the world we live in is meaningful; it is a piece of the mosaic that helps to create the bigger picture, and that picture needs to be – must be – diverse, vibrant, multicoloured. Some pieces are bigger and some are smaller, perhaps, but they all add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This may sound a bit overly optimistic in the face of academia that is less and less supportive, overall, to researchers, where funding is increasingly competitive and scarce, where the ‘high impact’ journal and journal article (or book) is the pinnacle of achievement in scholarship in many disciplines. This environment – especially as regards precarity and time/funding for research being squeezed or even eliminated from workload/paid time – can make research feel even less possible, especially research that wants to make a difference or have an impact in ‘non-conventional’ ways, ways that are outside of narrower definitions of ‘impact’ and ‘success’ in most universities. But, and I do truly believe this, there are ways to work within this system to use the research/practice you are engaged in to say something, and mean something to you and to your audiences. My current work is not ‘mainstream’, and I’m exploring new and very different ways of both doing and sharing this research. I know I am going to get push-back and ‘encouragement’ to ‘tick the boxes’. But I am going to try really hard to stay the course; to show the naysayers and discouragers that what I am doing might actually mean more and have greater impact if I do take a few risks, if I don’t just ‘tick the boxes’.

I’m not arguing that we all have to do this; you need to work out who you are speaking to with your research, where those audiences are, and how best to reach them. Each field has different ways of doing this – some more overtly creative than others. But I am arguing – and I acknowledge as I say this that I am no longer an early career researcher and have a bit of a track record, which does help my case – that systems are built by humans, and that humans can rebuild, remake and reimagine them. But to do this, we need to keep working on our own small tiles, but with an eye on the bigger picture we are adding to via our different, valuable contributions, looking for ways to encourage, celebrate, support, and boost one another. While we are doing this, we can also look for chinks in the system’s armour where we can argue for different understandings and realisations of impact, of ‘outputs’, of worthy questions to ask and answer. All the questions, all the research, all the collaboration, all the writing (and drawing, making, speaking, doing) adds up. And if we focus on what we are contributing to the bigger picture and remember we are not alone in either our struggles or the work we are doing, maybe we can find a way to keep going.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

*I was inspired by the title of Denise Cuthbert and Robyn Barnacle’s edited book: The PhD at the End of the World: Provocations for the Doctorate and a Future Contested (Springer, 2021).

Rebooting… The annual new year’s post

It’s 2022. In many ways, I am massively relieved that 2021 is over. It was a hard, hard year. Some amazing things happened – dream job meaning big career boost and much-appreciated validation for years of hard work; moving abroad for said dream job. But, these amazing things have also meant hard changes, like leaving one of my children behind because he is now too old for a family visa, leaving my dream house near the beach in the best city in the world, having to adjust to a whole new country, people, job, house, everything, really. And I lost my mum, which I haven’t even really begun to process. And Covid, which I don’t think I need to really say too much more about this stage of the pandemic. But, because it was such a Year, I am Tired. Like on a Never-been-this-tired-before-ever-that-I-can-recall scale. I know I am not alone here. Many of us are burned out. Done. Tired to the bones. Over it all. And it feels like no amount of holiday or rest or time off can really take that level of tired away. It’s not just physical or even mental; it’s a deep emotional and psychic weariness, I think.

This pandemic is a big thing, a huge thing, really, because we have no idea when it will actually end (still assuming it will). But, climate change, political strife, war and unrest in many parts of the world, the ongoing awfulness of Internet trolls and mean, narrow-minded people who just don’t seem to care at all about anyone except themselves – all of these things may also feel like they are draining us. They’re there in the background all the time and sometimes in the foreground, and if we actually think about it all it just adds to the tiredness. You could say ‘well don’t think about it then’ and that can work for periods, but then you probably also have to take a very long break from newspapers, Twitter, and/or anything that feeds you information about the world around you, which would also disconnect you further from the world. Probably not the best idea at a time when disconnection is a significant concern, and when we actually do need to be informed and knowledgeable about what is happening around us.

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So, we’re Tired, we’re still disconnected, we’re not exactly rested and raring to go just yet, and the year is beginning. We need to get back to work, back to the doctorate, back to research and writing: we need to get back to Being Productive, whatever that means for us. My question for myself now is ‘How?’ I could really do with more time for country walks, knitting, and Netflix, to be honest. There’s a small part of me that’s starting to get a bit excited about my research, but feels pretty tired at the idea of all the reading and writing; I am starting to look forward to going back to my teaching, but feel pretty meh about all the admin. This is all normal, of course. I refuse to feel any kind of bad for not being super-excited about 2022, about my work, about all the writing I have committed to, about anything. I am grieving, I am tired, I am weighed down by sadness and stress, really. I am allowed to feel my feelings at my own pace. I am also saying this out loud in case any of you need to hear this and say something similar to yourselves.

But, I am also a Doer and part of a team. I am no longer just me, working all by myself at home online with no office or immediate colleagues or projects and workshops kicking off a week into the new year. This is a big change from previous years where, partly because of my contract role and partly because of the university calendar, work only got going in late January/early February. I had more time to ease myself into the year and into Being Productive. Here, the university year has started and my active teaching starts next week. I am part of a team. I’m still working at home thanks to Omicron, but not alone. So, I’m getting going but I’m giving myself permission to ease myself in this week. Start with email: clearing the inbox, replying where needed, turning off the auto-replies. Then the calendar: look at what’s coming up, make some small-and-achievable goals to get going with the writing and research, make some to-do lists for things that need to start happening. Then work: meetings that need to happen, workflows that need to kick off, tasks that need to be completed now, people that need to be connected with. That seems like a manageable plan to reboot my work-self and get things going in a non-overwhelming way.

I can’t end on one of those gung-ho, ‘we can do this!’ notes for this New Year’s post. I don’t really feel that so it would not ring true. What I do feel is an increasingly urgent need to take care of myself, to put acts of self-care higher on my list, to not push-push-push until I cannot actually move forward another step. I want to reach the end of the year, for starters, and when I do I want to look back on a year that has been full of enriching interactions with students and colleagues, a year that is more settled at work and at home, a year that has been full of really exciting and interesting reading, writing, conversations, and research. But I also want to look back on a year of time spent walking outdoors with my husband, drinking wine, dancing, and laughing with friends, hanging out with my boys, gardening and knitting, going on holidays with my family, exploring our new country (and hopefully one or two others as well). I want to feel I have grown both personally and professionally, that I have done meaningful work, that I have given back to and really been part of my different social and professional communities. I have to make that the balance between work and life and work and me happen and I hope I am finally learning how: to take it a task, a day, an interaction at a time; to slow myself down when I get ahead of myself; to surround myself with people who support and encourage me; to be that person for my students and colleagues – my students especially, who definitely need to see more examples of this in academia.

I hope you all are able to create your own intentional and meaningful paths through the year ahead, in whatever ways and spaces you can. I hope you will take care of yourselves and others this year, and that you will feel purposeful, useful, supported, challenged, and also stimulated and joyful in your writing, your research, your teaching and supervision, and in the things you choose to give yourself to outside of work and studies. Happy new year to you all, truly.

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Overcoming or rather managing my imposter syndrome

This semester I taught a research methodology module for Master’s students and one of their assignments was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of their experience of the course, their writing or their learning. Over the next couple of months, I have the honour of sharing their writing with you. This first post is by Amina Hamidou, who is researching the politicization of black hair in South African schools.

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In the process of preparing for my written October exam, I started to second guess myself and feel a certain way. This feeling is a mix of excitement and longing for the year to end and crippling panic and self-doubt. I experienced this same self-doubt before when I was accepting my undergraduate degree. I did not feel like I had earned my degree, especially in regards to my grade, and my accomplishments felt like nothing in comparison to those of my peers. I felt like a fraud.

I came into my undergraduate already somewhat knowledgeable of what was to come and expected of me, as my mother is a senior lecturer; she gave my sister and I helpful ‘insider’ information and guidance to thrive at university. The first few months I felt lonely in the area of friends, as my twin sister and I were in different courses and only saw each other at the end of our days, but I felt confident in my work. However, this confidence came crashing down when the first test and assignment results came out. I felt like I should have done better than others because I have a parent who is an academic. So, I deduced that it was clearly me: I had all the advantages but still did not get the results I thought I would or should get. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough and this feeling has come rushing back since I started my master’s program this year.

Is this feeling familiar? This demobilising fear of being unmasked as a fraud, filled with self-doubt, I have come to know is imposter syndrome and its quite common in postgraduate students and academics, especially women. So much so that there are counsellors that you can talk to at the University and information on this topic targeted specifically at postgraduate students. So why do I feel like a fraud? From my research and own experience, imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but high achievers and perfectionist are more likely to suffer.

From how I have experienced it, imposter syndrome feelings include:

  1. Feeling like a ‘fake’: fearing that you will be confirmed to be a fraud or falling short of your own or others’ expectations;
  2. Downplaying your success: feeling that your achievements are not a big deal and pushing away praise;
  3. Attributing your success to luck: giving credit to everything else but your own abilities and hard work.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout, anxiety and possibly depression. However, I seem to do the opposite. Instead of overcompensating by working twice as hard, I decide that since my writing is not good enough anyway, I don’t have to try my best. This way, when I get my results or feedback I can tell myself, “Well, I know this wasn’t my best anyway”, which allows me to feel less hurt and inferior than I would do if put my all into my writing. This thought process leads me to become complacent, underachieving and adds to my procrastination.

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Can you ‘overcome’ imposter syndrome?

  1. The first step is to recognise it as a problem or feeling that has a name. To recognise and name this feeling is a major step. This can help you to realise that your expectations might be too high and adjust them.
  2. Talk to someone – your supervisor, mentors or friends and family about your self-doubt and ask them to help in you in setting and managing more realistic goals.
  3. Realise that there is no such thing as perfect. You have to come to terms with realising that no one is perfect and in postgrad studies, as my lecture keeps saying, “Done is better than perfect”. No one expects perfection from you or expects you to know everything. As academics, we are always learning and we never stop being students, which has helped me take the pressure off myself.
  4. Admit and own the role you play in your success. For me, this has been vital. This ties in with your academic goals. You need to look to where you want to be and realize that you need to play an active role in achieving those goals, by taking it a task a day and not overestimating yourself (or the opposite!).
  5. Take credit for your achievements and do not downplay yourself and your accomplishments. It means that someone has recognised your work and capacity. You deserve to feel proud of that.
  6. Manage your stress. For me, creating a flexible timetable and schedule has helped me keep my stress down and feelings of impending pressure; this has helped minimize my imposter syndrome feelings as well.

Honestly, I am managing imposter syndrome and not overcoming it because I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome in us. As much as I try to overcome it, I have come to realise that, for me, it is triggered by stress. So managing imposter for me also comes hand in hand with stress management. When I have reduced the stress in my life I feel less fraudulent and more secure in myself and my work. Nonetheless, as is life, stress comes and goes and so does this feeling of being an imposter. During times of high stress, such as the end of the year, my feelings of inadequacy come creeping back. So each day I write down two to three tasks to accomplish which help me reach my weekly and then monthly goals for assignments and writing. These flexible daily tasks have helped make my writing more manageable. When I receive my writing back from my supervisor I take two to three days to go through the comments slowly so as not to overwhelm myself with negative feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that my thoughts and comments about my writing are far harsher and more cynical than my supervisor’s. We tend to be harder on ourselves than others do.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I made it through undergrad and honours with a degree. As my mother keeps telling me, “Not everyone is privileged to go to university and much less persevere and finish with a degree. Having a Bachelor and Honors degree shows that you have done what many cannot and could not, you should be proud and I am proud of you”. Those words are what I remind myself of when feelings of inferiority and inadequacy want to rob me of my success and accomplishments.

Remember you have ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY, you are PROUD of YOURSELF and I am PROUD OF YOU.

Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.