Musings on self-care

I’m up relatively early this morning and I am kind of feeling like I could write something for the first time in a long while. So, here I am. I have been quiet on the blog for a while. Lots of Big Things happening in the work and life departments, which mean lots of hours between 1am and 4am trying to get my brain to be quiet enough to let me go back to sleep and lots of mornings which see me stumbling into the work day tired, sluggish and just over it all. I’ve been reading quite a bit recently, in light of all of this, about self-care and all the different meanings ascribed to this notion. I don’t feel, most days, like I am doing a very good job taking care of anyone, never mind myself, but I am aware that if I don’t start trying to look after myself a bit more consciously, things are unlikely to get much better any time soon in this regard. I have been musing about what self-care is, what it could be, and what I can do about that for myself. I think, pandemic notwithstanding, that most of us could probably benefit from more time and energy spent on ourselves, that we could all learn to take better care of us.

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Self-care is understood in a range of literatures to encompass physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and in in this article, the author addresses each of these areas, arguing that taking care of ourselves in all five areas is key to developing resilience and the ability to cope with both everyday life stressors and more acute stress (like a harsh set of comments from a supervisor, or a meeting that goes badly). If we’re not sleeping, we’re not coping. But, to be able to sleep, we need to find ways to calm our minds, we need to exercise (even just a little bit), we need to eat decent food and take in the calories our bodies need. I am not good at any of these things right now. I am drinking too much coffee and eating sporadic and not always very nutritious meals (apart from dinner, mostly because I don’t only have to feed myself). My brain is always going and because I am tired, meditation is super-hard, and because I am tired, I can’t be bothered to cook oats if there’s a cereal bar and a banana that require no cooking, and because I am tired, I don’t want to go to Pilates or walk my doglet. For me, right now, part of my self-care is making myself take a walk even if it’s a short one; it’s boiling two eggs instead of a bowl of cornflakes or a cereal bar; it’s taking my thyroid and iron tablets before I drink my coffee so that my body actually absorbs them (and not skipping them altogether); it’s going to bed before 10.30pm, so that I can get some proper sleep in before the inevitable brain circus at 3am. And it is hard. I have to consciously make myself take care of myself.

This is something else I have been reading about in regard to self-care: it’s not always pleasurable or easy, and it’s not necessarily about beauty products, mani-pedis and spa day (although, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a massage and a facial right now, and so would my tired skin). In this article, the author argues that when we persistently link self-care to massages, spa days, shopping for a new outfit or taking time away from our daily lives we frame self-care as indulgence and as a luxury. Not only do we have to spend a lot of money we may not have on this version of self-care, we also locate this care externally, in things. Rather, as several more critical pieces on self-care argue, we need to start internally, with ourselves, and we need to understand that self-care is necessary, not indulgent, and everyday more often than involving any form of luxury. Self-care often takes discipline and it is not always glamorous or pretty. Over the years, for me, self-care has looked like going to Pilates even when I want to stay in bed, going to therapy even when I do not feel like talking to my therapist, taking my pills when I don’t want to, going to the doctor to get the pills in the first place, closing the laptop and saying ‘no’ to work because I actually know I need to rest (even though the work never does). And this takes work – some days not so much, some days a great deal. Self-care is about working out what “you need to do to thrive” and not just survive, and then doing that as consistently and consciously as you can.

This reading led me to a more radical understanding of self-care, one written about by Audre Lorde when she was being treated for breast cancer. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote about being a black woman, a poet and a lesbian, having a single mastectomy and refusing a prosthetic breast. She wrote about the kinds of advocacy she engaged in to defend her decisions against well-meaning others, against the medical establishment, against society – a society that did not care for her in the ways that she chose to care for herself. In this article, the author makes a thoughtful link between us and society: if society does not care for us, then we need to choose to care for ourselves, and these acts can be radical, like choosing to work a 40 hour week and taking the weekend off; choosing not to answer email or be available for work in the evenings; choosing to take your vacation time and leave your phone and email and work at home; choosing not to take on extra projects because it’s expected of you or its what everyone else is doing; choosing to say ‘no’ when no is the best choice for *you*. In an academic – and more general – work culture that has made a virtue out of being available to everyone all the time, that equates success with loads of research papers and grants and memberships and being ‘on’ all the time, that valorises living to work instead of working to live, many of us struggle to keep up. Research has already shown that working mothers’ research “productivity” declined significantly during the first year of the covid pandemic (if productivity is understood as papers published and grants applied for and not as home-schooling their kids and keeping their families safe and alive). In this culture of over-work, then, choosing not to overwork can be recast as a form of self-care against accusations of laziness or not being ‘committed’ enough to be successful. We need to redefine success and we need to redefine work-life balance, especially for those who are already starting from further back and need to run harder, faster and further just to keep up.

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Most days these days, being any kind of successful at my work and my life does require disciplined self-care – taking my pills before my coffee, sitting at my desk to work instead of on the couch so my back doesn’t hurt, walking the dog and being outside, tidying up so my house is not an unmanageable tip, eating Proper Food. But, even though I am grumpy about it, I know I’m coping because I am trying to do it most days. I would not be coping at all if I was not trying to look after myself and care about myself as much as I care about my kids, my partner and my cats. And I also realise that I am able to buy heathy food to make for myself, that I live in a house that is near a park and the beach, that I work in a role that allows me a measure of flexibility with my time, that my kids are older now and pretty self-reliant, that my partner is supportive and does most of the cooking. I am, in many ways, privileged enough to do this kind of self-care without having to really struggle (to afford the food, the medication, the time). What of those who are not so privileged, who do not have support, enough money, a safe and warm roof over their heads, safe spaces to exercise in, flexibility at work? How do they build resilience, create their best lives, thrive?

I think perhaps each of us, in our own corners and in our own small but visible ways, can start redefining ‘productivity’, ‘success’ and work-life balance. Instead of just not answering emails after 5pm or on weekends and not explaining why, I can explain that I choose not to do that because that time is to unwind, to connect with my family, to do non-academic things. I can valorise that, instead of being always-available. I can help my students to make different choices about their work-life-PhD balance by talking to them about how they work and when they work and not just about what they’re working on; I can offer advice on strategies I have used to maximise my writing and reading time without taking time away from my kids and the rest of my life; I can encourage them to rest and not make that a taboo. Maybe there are other ways you can do this in your work space, to disrupt or at least put a question mark onto practices that have become taken-for-granted in many ways around publishing, teaching, meetings, email, “productivity”. Not only can we find more time and space to care for ourselves in doing this, we can also advocate for those around us who have relatively less power to speak out against work and study practices that diminish rather than build our resilience, that make us feel like failures when maybe, as Lorde argued, we are not the ones who are actually failing.

On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.

Can you quit your PhD?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about her PhD, which is floundering a little at the moment and is a source of great stress and anxiety right now. Rather than something she looks forward to working on, her PhD is a millstone around her neck, and she is seriously wondering if she can or should carry on with it in its present form. Earlier this week I logged in to Facebook to hear that another friend has deregistered from her PhD studies for the time being, taking a break of indefinite length. So, I have been wondering: can you quit your PhD, and if you do, how do you make that decision okay for yourself?

I wrote last year about my own struggles early on in my PhD with finding a balance between it and my life and work, and how I suspended my studies before eventually coming back to them. I think that, as a PhD student who has already invested your self, time, money and also often your family’s/friend’s time (and either their or a funder’s money) in your studies, the decision to stop and walk away is never one you can make impulsively or lightly. There are several things you may have to consider, over and above your own feelings, desires and struggles. This post is a tough one to write, because I would never want to discourage a PhD scholar who is already feeling discouraged. But I think that we don’t really talk about this issue very much; rather the dominant discourses focus on saying some version of ‘Just get it done, it’s just a PhD. Just finish it, and everything will be fine. Hang in there, come on, you can do this!’ It’s great to give and get this kind of encouragement, but sometimes, it’s not helpful when a PhD student can’t ‘just do it’ and really needs to at least consider, for a range of reasons, deregistering and moving on to other things.

So what do you do if you, or a friend/colleague/PhD supervisee, is sitting on this fence, and wondering: ‘Can I quit my PhD? Should I quit? Will I be okay if I do?’ Perhaps a useful place to start is with all of the things you/your person needs to consider. For example, are you paying for your PhD yourself, or do you have funding? If you have funding, are there stipulations in the fine print about reimbursing the funder if you do not complete your PhD? These are big considerations if you are paying a lot of money for your PhD, and if you have funding that comes with expectations of completion in a certain period of time. If you or a family member are paying for your studies, this is perhaps an easier call because the financial obligations can be more flexible. However, if you do need to take time off, or even walk away from your PhD completely, consider approaching your funder and negotiating as far as possible with them. Perhaps there is a plan to be made.

Another big consideration (one that really troubled me when I considered quitting my PhD) was the investment I had already made in the PhD – my identity, my self, my time. But I had not done this alone. I had asked my husband, children and family to invest with me: in encouraging me, supporting me, making compromises and sacrifices on my behalf to enable me to have time to work on my PhD. They believed in me. How could I walk away and let them all down? How could I let myself down? My feelings of shame and failure were also compounded by my own perfectionism, and the sometimes stupidly high standards to which I hold myself. I needed, in making my decision to suspend and walk away temporarily, to separate my own needs and investments from theirs, and tell myself that, while they were undoubtedly in this with me, they were not actually doing the PhD. That was all on me, so I needed to make this decision for me, and not for them. I reasoned that if I was okay with my decision, they would eventually be okay too. If I was miserable, they would certainly have suffered with me.

A third consideration is the reasons for which you are doing the PhD. Is it for primarily professional reasons: you need a PhD in order to be recognised formally, awarded research funding, promotions and status? Is for primarily personal reasons: having one or not will not make an enormous difference in your working life, but you are personally driven by a desire to complete a PhD, and gain from the experience in terms of your own development as a scholar and a thinker? In my experience thus far, working with colleagues who are doing PhDs as well as with postgraduate student-writers, it’s always a bit of both, although one set of reasons is usually a bit more prominent than the other. I do think, as someone who did the PhD to get ahead professionally, but also because I really wanted to do it for myself, that focusing on my personal, intrinsic motivations and reasons helped me to find my way back to my PhD, and helped me to sustain my motivation to complete it through the ups and downs that followed my re-registration. Focusing on the extrinsic pressures made me feel resentful, pressured and sulky. I felt I was being forced into something that did not completely fit into my life as a working mother. I felt cross that I should even need a PhD to be taken seriously, when I had other valuable experience and input to offer. I am not sure I would have had the PhD journey I did if the external reasons for the PhD were my sole focus. I think coming back would have been harder, and I would have taken longer to complete my thesis.

The point of this post is not to tell any students that they should, or should not, quit their PhD. A PhD is a big, all-consuming, intense thing to take on, and the amount of yourself that a thoroughly researched and well-written PhD demands is huge. But, if you are on this fence, feeling stuck and wondering if quitting will free you or make things harder in the long run, perhaps working through these considerations will be a helpful starting place in making your own decision about how to carry on from here. I would like to say, though, that if you do quit your PhD, you will be okay. A PhD is, in the end, a qualification (as someone on Twitter said recently); it’s not an identity itself, it’s not you, and it’s not what makes you worthy of recognition.