Grad School Self-Care: A Reality-Check, Some Gratitude, and 6 Resolutions

Dear loved ones,

I am being a miserable pain in your ass. A moody, anxious, hyper-sensitive hermit. I’m sorry. It’s been a rough semester. I’m at a really important turning point–studying for my exams and working on my dissertation prospectus. And a lot of things are going on in my personal life. Really good things in the lives of those I love–marriages, jobs, moves, and the like. I’m a smidge overwhelmed.

Who I feel like I am

The hardest thing about grad school is not what I thought it would be. The school work is rigorous and personally challenging, for sure, but I was unprepared for the way graduate school would change my life. It’s really isolating. It delays gratification for years and years. For me, it’s made it hard to talk to people outside of grad school because I don’t know how to talk about the path my life has taken. A lot is happening, but it doesn’t fit a narrative that makes much sense outside of academia. I end up talking a lot about the dog. A little about my work. And then I feel like I’m not really connecting, not really sharing. (Although the dog is pretty great and the work is too.)

Who pop culture says I am

They say comparison is the thief of joy, right? On one hand, I have to measure up  in a lot of ways at school and those are important. But there’s also the narratives I get from TV shows, movies, my culture, etc. about the things I’m expected to have in life. When I measure by that stick, I end up comparing myself too much to my peers and I worry that my life looks pathetic. Based on that (sexist, classist, heteronormative–sorry, can’t help it) measuring stick, I would be a woman in the first act of a romantic comedy–the one who is too invested in her career, unmarried, no children, difficult to get along with, and obsessed with micromanaging her day planner, waiting for someone to change her into a carefree lovebird, though she might not know it yet. That’s not the person I am. If I feel that my life is lacking, it’s because of expectations, not reality.

When I stop worrying so much.

But sometimes I do feel like a misfit. To me, grad school is a painful transformation. I am asked constantly to think better, harder, and more deeply. Some days, I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t invested years of my youth into analyzing narrative culture and critiquing sexism, racism, and other -isms. What would it be like to watch TV without worrying about the sexism in advertisements? Or watch a movie without analyzing it? But before even a full second has lapsed, I realize two things 1) I went into this experience because I tended toward those reactions anyway and 2) my graduate education has deeply enriched my life. It may often be difficult, but I can’t deny that it has been good for me. It has given me the tools to achieve things I dreamed of, forced me to be more aware of the way I benefit from or am oppressed by systems of power, and put me in a community of brilliant and inspiring people. I need to remember that and be grateful. Every day.

Gratitude is one facet, but self-care is another important factor.  Joy is important to me. My apartment is littered with reminders to seek joy and recognize joyful moments as to relish in them. As I’ve written about before, fear is the enemy of joy. Fear flourishes in grad school. It’s a time of competition, pressure, tiny bank accounts, long hours, and uncertainty. Then there’s all the stuff about the future–will I get a job, where will I move, will I get tenure, can I also have a family, will anyone still like me? I feel like this is all we talk about. With the adjunct crisis, the articles we read about the steeper slope for women in the academy, and the recession, I feel scared all the time. For me, the only way to stop the cycle is to take good care of myself. It helps me turn off the scary-go-round of anxiety and instead pay attention to what I can do now and what is good now. So, based on experience and reflection, here is my guide to grad school self-care on top of the whole sleeping, eating, and exercising thing.

Resolutions for Getting Through Grad School with a Joyful Heart

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1. I will embrace the person I am. Not the person I feel like I should be at this point in my life.

2. I will think much less about the person I am. I think one of my strengths as an academic is one of  my weaknesses as a person. In my line of work, being self-reflective and self-critical is really important. It’s also important for living an ethical life generally. BUT, I think my already self-reflective nature paired with my graduate training is making me a bit narcissistic.

3. I will take care of the person I am. For the last year–seriously a year. I wish I was exaggerating–when I get stressed, Julio tells me to pray and do yoga. Because I said that to deal with the stress I really needed to pray and do yoga. I think that I said that because I thought that’s what I should needIt’s a Braverman dance party! to do as an adult trying to live like an adult. But what actually helps me when I’m stressed is to turn on Motown or 90s pop and dance for about 10 minutes. It’s like hitting the reset button on my emotions. I also spend a lot of time procrastinating by watching TV or reading smart articles that my friends post on Facebook when what I should be doing is making something or cooking something because that recharges my batteries, not reruns of 30 Rock.

4. I will unabashedly love my work. Because, you know what? I do. I would not be doing this if I did not. That would be insane. A lot of grad students I know feel like we have to closet our work around our friends and family because it’s not interesting. It is interesting. Why would I do it if it were boring? I listen to people talk about their lives. This is mine. I have a dissertation to write and I think it’s going to be awesome. I will talk more about that and less about what I think people want to hear. I will nurture this love.

5. I will throw out the narrative of sacrifice. The stories we tell ourselves are important. Thanks to articles like “The Baby Penalty,” that asshole Facebook, pressure to “have it all,” and my own preconceived ideas about what my life would be like, I dwell a lot on what I have given up. I feel like I have spent my youth on a stressful career, postponing the other things I want in life, like a better income, clearer skin, to live in the same place as my significant other, and so on. Fuck that. My life is pretty fabulous. I may not be where I thought I would be at 27, but I am healthy, mostly independent, well-educated, loved, and allegedly pretty intelligent. I am privileged enough to be getting a Ph.D. Wake up, Kasey. My life is stressful, but there’s a lot of manufactured stress because I perceive that nothing in my life is changing. I am changing. It’s the hardest thing for me to see. There aren’t fancy parties or socially accepted milestones, but every year I’m learning important lessons and producing more work, and I think if I keep ignoring that I’m just going to change for the worse and become bitter and jaded. So, the next resolution may be the most important:

6. I will use a different measuring stick.  I don’t have everything I want in life, but who does? When I take a calm look at things, my life is an embarrassment of riches. So I have got to learn how not to compare my journey to others and how to fairly assess my flaws, my achievements, and my life milestones. I’m coming up on some big ones and I want to enjoy them.

Do you have self care resolutions? What are they?

*This post has been updated because I misnumbered the first time. There were two items numbered as 3. What can I say?

10 thoughts on “Grad School Self-Care: A Reality-Check, Some Gratitude, and 6 Resolutions

  1. Thank you for posting this. Earlier this semester, I encountered a study arguing that gratitude is one of the best ways to combat stress and sadness. I tend to agree. Still, thank you for posting this and, most importantly, for encouraging us graduate students to evaluate our lives by different measuring sticks.

    Although I’m not in a PhD program, law school is still rough. Finals are days away and some of my best friends are at dance competitions, competing and dancing late into the night–everything I want to be doing. It’s horrible. It makes me sick that I can’t be there. But more than anything, what you point out is right: no one has everything they want in life, but that doesn’t stop our lives from being fabulous anyway. I have a beautiful place to live, an excellent education, lovely friends, my health, my family–the blessings go on! I’ve got to keep things in perspective.

    Thanks for the reminder. Happy holidays. Keep your chin up, and have fun dancing when you’re stressed!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection, Kasey. I am so grateful for this blog and facebook to be able to follow your work and life, now that we’re no longer roommates or even in the same state. Self care is preached constantly in seminary and though I’m not awesome at it all the time I still cling to the phrase like a balloon lifting me out of the muck of my own brain and the world’s expectations. Praying for you, friend!

  3. Thanks so much for your honesty here, Kasey. I am in looking at the end of my 1st semester as a ph.d student (finished my MA in 2009 & just now back in the game), and trying to assess where I am amidst the madness of deadlines and course conclusions; this reflection has been a much needed boost as I continue the work that I started around 3 am in preparation for a workshop today. Best wishes as you continue prepping for exams & working on your prospectus; I’m not to that point yet, but I can only imagine how stressful it will be. And just as a side note – I found your blog last spring, I believe, and I have so enjoyed reading about your work and following your scholarly trajectory. You really seem to be doing fascinating work with important real world implications.

  4. I love love love you. Please remember to breathe and if you need a dancing partner, I’m here. We’ll Skype dance and people will be jealous. And then we’ll high-five a thousand angels.

  5. Pingback: Time Isn’t On Our Side | Kinani Blue

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