How to assess what you want vs. what you are capable of enjoying
July 20, 2017 9:45 PM   Subscribe

How do you differentiate normal fears about the future from debilitating anxiety? How do you weigh intellectual capability against an emotional handicap? How do you determine what the ideal next step should be, when you're not sure if aiming high will actually give you the lifestyle you want or need?

At 31, I'm less than a year away from finally getting my BA.

I suffer from debilitating major depression, generalized anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don't primarily identify myself by these labels, but I am also aware that they have not stopped being constant companions -- I have spent the past two weeks feeling physically ill because of my anxiety over producing good research. I have been physically ill this summer because of my anxiety about the future.

I'm doing very well in school, and I'm proud of that. This may be the first time in my entire life that I have felt sort of satisfied with my life and with who I am. Six months ago, grad school seemed like the obvious next step, because I didn't want this ride to end. At the same time, I have to accept that school is an enormous emotional drain. Every semester (and over the course of my research this summer), I get worn down. I stop being able to eat. I fall into deep depressions.

I worry that I'm imagining myself in grad school because I'm imagining a self who does not exist, one who doesn't literally get sick from anxiety at the slightest hint of pressure. I have improved enormously over the past five years, but it still takes shockingly little to break me down. At what point do I determine that I'm intellectually capable of something grand, but that it would be harmful for me in every other way? I'm in college because I was unhappy and understimulated without it. Now I find myself wishing I could go back to working for a video store until the end of time (although sadly, no longer a viable option). Grass-is-greener, or what?

I guess I'm asking this: how do I think about my future? I spent two decades expecting that I was at the end of my life (if you catch my meaning). I no longer feel that way, but I have spent my entire life with essentially no vision of myself in the future, and that includes today. I know I don't need to make every decision this minute, but I do need to make some crucial ones very soon. I need to think about whether to apply for grad school now, or wait until later. If I choose to wait until later, I need to worry about getting a job to pay off my loans. What kind of job do you get if you break under pressure as easily as I do? Etc, etc.

More to the point, I'd like to imagine myself somewhere. I am in therapy, and I have a wonderful, supportive partner (my cat helps, too -- we watch TV together when I'm depressed). I have the immediate support I need. I just need to figure out an image of myself that feels realistic, when I only have extremely vague fantasies about Harvard on the one hand, or about living in a tiny shack in the woods on the other. Don't get me wrong, both are great fantasies, but I'd like something that feels a little more real.

I'm sorry if this isn't as focused as it could be. I'm not sure if I can articulate it better -- ha, maybe that's part of the problem.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Six months ago, grad school seemed like the obvious next step, because I didn't want this ride to end.

I'm not sure about this, as a reason to go to grad school. I don't think grad school is worth the real risks to your mental and emotional health, plus the financial costs, unless there is some concrete thing or job you want that you need a graduate degree for. You should not do things just because you are intellectually capable of them, if they would harm you in every other way. I'm not saying 'don't go to Harvard'; I'm saying only go if 1) there is a course there you love, that you feel is specifically what you need to flourish intellectually and 2) if you have a plan for how to use that course to take the next step towards the life you want.

This reflects a broader point, I think, about making decisions about the future. 'Am I capable of doing this?' is only one question. The important one is whether whatever it is will be good for you, the actual you that exists right now. I would maybe talk with your partner and your therapist to figure out what the core elements of happiness and health look like for you now, and then go see a careers office person at your university to explore what jobs would match your priorities. Some relevant questions: what level of income is necessary to maintain the lifestyle that makes you happiest? Does dealing with people exhaust or invigorate you? Do you like solving intellectual puzzles more or less or as much as fixing things for people? How much time do you need to protect for your hobbies, travel, exercise and social time, and what does this suggest about the kind of hours you should be working? I think 'what do I enjoy?' and 'what do I need?' are the key questions, and you can answer them without trying to create some image of a future you that enjoys or needs something else.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:36 PM on July 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

I only have a sliver of advice for what is a broad question, as someone who spent a long time telling myself and having other, well-meaning, loving people tell me that I had a certain cap on my capabilities and dreams...don't do that. It's one thing to acknowledge your limits within practicality, but when you wonder if you're capable of something grand. Yes, you are. Let yourself believe that. Esme Weijun Wang writes a lot about this, as a woman with multiple chronic illnesses navigating also having great ambition, in a very compassionate way, and she says it better than me.
posted by colorblock sock at 11:12 PM on July 20, 2017

How do you weigh intellectual capability against an emotional handicap?

You don't, because it isn't all about intellectual ability.

Speaking as someone who has severe anxiety, who got talked into a grueling professional path because I had fears and uncertainties similar to what you describe - don't do it unless your heart says, YES!

You may struggle with your emotional handicap for a long time, but there is no need to compound it with a step you are uncertain about. Take your time in figuring things out, let things flower in their own time. Sometimes (not always, unfortunately) answers become clear when the questions are let alone for a while. I don't have much time right now, so I hope that doesn't come off as patronizing. I'm just trying to say - be gentle with yourself as you consider your options and above all don't pressure yourself or let anyone else pressure you either.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:28 AM on July 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

"how do I think about my future?" One day at a time.™ Imagining one's ideal future is paralyzing. Don't do it. Simply go to bed each day thinking about what you'll do tomorrow that will, in some small way, make you more of the person you want to be.,

Have you read any Vonnegut? 15-things-kurt-vonnegut-said-better-than-anyone-else ever has or will

"1 didn't want this ride to end." What about this ride do you find enjoyable? The intellectual stimulation? The partying? The sylvan glades? Grad school is often very different than undergrad. Also, the fact that you haven't specified whether you're envisioning MA, MFA, PhD, etc. makes me question how realistic you're being about grad school.

What's your financial sitch?

One approach might be to get a job that pays the bills, and pursue your academic and/or intellectual dreams part-time, either in a grad program or as a autodidact via the internet, meetups, workshops, etc. Then you could get credentialed with confidence, once you have under your belt a manuscript, a published paper, a couple of exhibitions, shows, performances, etc.
posted by at at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2017

Briefest advice: Don't go to grad school.

Suppose there was no such thing as grad school. Suppose it was not an option at all. Think about what your next steps would be in that world. Where do you want to be in five or ten years, and what are some first steps toward that goal? These are tough questions that you should really force yourself to work through, without the easy out of saying "well I'll just go to grad school."
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:02 PM on July 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Longer advice:

Grad school has a lot of features (see below) that will probably be a bad fit for you personally, and there are subtle pressures that make it seem like a better idea than it is.

Notice this isn't about you being unworthy or bad or un-deserving of nice things. This isn't a negative judgment on you at all. Let me encourage you: You're worthy, you're smart, you're capable, you deserve to have enjoyable pursuits. That's a different question entirely from whether actual grad school as-it-is, and academic enculturation, are a good path for you that will yield good things.

I can't imagine doing anything else -
The standard advice is "only go if you can't imagine doing anything else" - but seriously, see my first comment. Force yourself to imagine a positive path forward if there were no such thing as grad school - so that you have a clear actual alternative in mind. Continuing on to grad school just because you're a bright student who likes intellectual stimulation, and that's what bright students do, or because it seems like at least a concrete plan for the next few years and otherwise you're facing uncertainty, is a common mistake.

Mistaken ideas about grad school -
It isn't like undergrad -- it's not about a wide-ranging exploration and broadening yourself as a person, it's about narrow drilling-down into absolute minutiae to become an expert on the antenna shape of this one species of moth. It's really sad to have to leave undergrad -- it's wonderful to explore and be challenged and learn new things! But don't let that sadness trick you into thinking grad school will be more of the same. It's a different thing.

The emotional/psychic side -
Many fields/programs encourage students to conflate their progress in the field with their sense of self -- it's very easy to fall into this and it's dangerous! (For example, if your ideas are badly received, it's not just an intellectual error or disagreement, it's also you as a person being badly thought of, and if you leave the field, it's ipso facto a personal or intellectual failing, it's because you "can't hack it" -- there's no such thing as just choosing to leave.) You're already prone to that kind of overly harsh self-assessment and you don't need any encouragement in that direction.

The practical project-management side -
Grad school is a lot of pressure, and a lot of uncertainty about how well you're doing, and heightened emotional stakes for doing well (see above)..... combined with a lot of freedom to get yourself into trouble scheduling-wise. Projects with no real limits or deadlines, where you can set as arbitrarily un-meetably high a standard as you want for whether it's "good enough". Are you a good project manager when left to your own devices, or do your projects tend to sprawl and expand and get extensions and so on? Are you good at saying "ok, this is good enough, I can submit it and then move on", or do you need to be wrestled into it every time?

The prestige trap -
Grad school is prestigious, and that really distorts people's thinking about it. It sounds like a definite plan (when it often isn't really), it sounds like a way of certifying that one has really been successful, it sounds cool! Be really honest with yourself about how much of a role this stuff plays for you. Resist being sucked into the prestige trap. The first few years out of undergrad can be tough, because low-level jobs can be unglamorous and unstimulating, and your classmates may have more prestigious plans, etc. But the people I know who worked a range of lower-level jobs in their first years out of undergrad, have the work experience now to really choose their course and have found niches that are really interesting and rewarding in the work world. For most jobs outside academia, what gets you hired is... work experience. So you need to start building work experience, even if it starts with jobs that seem less interesting and even if it involves some failures at first.

The job market -
Be realistic about the job market for the degree you're considering. You probably already know this: There are few academic jobs, they come with a lot of limitations (e.g. maybe there are three jobs in your specialty in a given year, if you're lucky you will be moving to one of those three places, whether that's East Nowheresville or whatever), many pay badly (maybe not enough to support a family, when your spouse has had to move with you to East Nowheresville), etc. This is the flip side of the prestige trap - there are a lot of desirable things you give up to be an academic, and they're things that seem less important when you're younger. So, when you're young it feels sensible to give up geographic control and reasonable pay in exchange for prestige and a job that gives you a sense of self/mission... but that balance will shift as you get into your 40s, maybe have kids, your parents age, you think about retirement savings, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:12 PM on July 21, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I've been there too. I got into a competitive humanities MA a few years ago and was tempted to do it because some of my professors said I should because I had the ability. But I've had similar problems to you and struggled a lot emotionally in university, even though my grades were good.

I would have been doing it part time while working full time. In the end, I decided not to do it. And it's been practically a year since then , and since I made the decision, the idea of an MA barely crossed my mind once. I practically forgot about it completely until now. But there's not one part of my heart that longs to be in grad school right now. When it comes down to it, what's the point of enjoying all that intellectual stimulation when the vast majority of time you feel depressed and anxious? You're improving your quality of life in one way, but then diminishing it in an another huge and insurmountable one. When I was younger I wanted so badly to prove I could make it through things that cause me anxiety. Then I realized that sometimes if something causes that much anxiety, it means its not good for you. It's ok to listen to your body in that instance.

As for career fulfillment, I still haven't figured that one out. But I know that adding 2 years of depression and anxiety to your life will not get you any closer to fulfillment.
posted by winterportage at 12:12 PM on July 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "1 didn't want this ride to end." What about this ride do you find enjoyable? The intellectual stimulation? The partying? The sylvan glades? Grad school is often very different than undergrad. Also, the fact that you haven't specified whether you're envisioning MA, MFA, PhD, etc. makes me question how realistic you're being about grad school.

Grad school has come up a couple times, so I want to clarify a little what I'm thinking of. I wasn't specific only because I didn't want to ramble on longer than I thought I needed to. When I say grad school, what I mean specifically is a fully-funded PhD program that would allow me to continue the work I'm currently doing, or at least something similar to it. I might also apply for MA programs (for reasons I'm being vague about only so that I don't tell my whole life story), but funding is usually harder to come by for those.

For the past couple years I've been doing archival research for a professor. For the next year, I will be working almost exclusively (I may take a related class on the side) on a large, self-directed research project as part of a prestigious undergraduate fellowship that has generously covered my research expenses, including multiple trips to archives and conferences. The research I am doing now has grown out of my prior experience with archival research, and the end product will probably be a ~75 page honors thesis based on roughly 2,000 pages of 19th century archival material and an enormous amount of secondary literature.

When I say I don't want the ride to end, I mean I enjoy this process of deep research very much. I like to tell people that I would be set for life if I could find a career that allowed me to spend every day reading primary documents and then writing about them at length. Grad school is, in a sense, an opportunity to do that with, ideally, the guidance and resources of an institution that matches what I think I'm capable of. I've been stuck with anxiety only because I've been worried about getting into grad schools and so on -- in other words, it's only overwhelming when it's associated with fears about the future (do well on this or you won't get into grad school, etc.). When I can forget all that and focus only on the research, the process itself is bliss.

On preview: if grad schools didn't exist, I'd be using my university library access (while I still have it) to download as many scans of Victorian-era cookbooks as I could, because I'd like to write a book about how Victorians fed "invalids," and how their dietary choices reflected prevailing attitudes about health and wellness. I could come up with the answer so quickly because I've been thinking about that for a while now. I hope this doesn't sound flip -- I'm serious, I really like researching and writing about these things. I can do it on my own as a hobby, and maybe I should, or I can do it with institutional backing, but either way I'm pretty certain it should be a part of my life in at least some capacity.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2017

Best answer: in other words, it's only overwhelming when it's associated with fears about the future (do well on this or you won't get into grad school, etc.). When I can forget all that and focus only on the research, the process itself is bliss.

Yes. The thing is that the association between your research and the fear of failure often only deepens and becomes worse when you are doing a PhD. It can go from being one very important dimension of your work and future to becoming literally the be-all and end-all of your professional and personal life. You get this one thing right, or everything is lost. There is a reason for the high prevalence of mental health problems among grad students. Most of them, I imagine, deeply enjoy their research itself; they wouldn't have signed up for the doctorate if they didn't. But that deep enjoyment is not, in itself, protective against being made miserable by what's at stake in the research.

This doesn't mean don't go. It just means making sure you are really, really prepared before you go. Do make sure that you first get a good handle on the anxiety and depression that links to academic success for you. That won't go away by itself and can be exacerbated by the aspects of life as a grad student that LobsterMitten has mentioned. You will want to go in with a solid plan A and plan B for postdoc life, and a hard commitment to doing whatever it takes to protect your mental health during the PhD. (Eg avoiding the overwork, isolation, and unstructured time that can take over your life if you aren't actively working to minimise it.)

This is really the same advice I gave before, modified to take account of your deep enjoyment of research. Definitely do what you enjoy! But prioritise your enjoyment and health and happiness, and be really mindful of the ways in which the surrounding culture of academia can invite you to ignore all that and sacrifice the lot for getting the perfect publication in the perfect journal at the perfect time--because you're capable of it, and you should be achieving at 100% capacity 100% of the time. I am sure you are capable of doing the work and doing it well, from what you've written. But it's important to preserve your human capacities for a good life too and academia will cheerfully swallow those whole if you don't work to prevent it.
posted by Aravis76 at 12:41 PM on July 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When you say "I don't want this ride to end," I wonder if you are attributing to academia what you should really be attributing to your own growth, strength, and hard work: the fact that you are currently, "for the first time," satisfied with your life. That doesn't have to end just because school does - is it possible that you are underestimating your ability to continue on this upward trajectory outside of academia? In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence in your Ask that the academic environment is actually something you've been working to overcome, rather than something contributing to your success:

school is an enormous emotional drain. Every semester (and over the course of my research this summer), I get worn down. I stop being able to eat. I fall into deep depressions.
I worry that I'm imagining myself in grad school because I'm imagining a self who does not exist, one who doesn't literally get sick from anxiety at the slightest hint of pressure.

It is so, so wise of you to recognize this, and I encourage you to listen to yourself here. Grad school might sound appealing because it is familiar, and thus a safe bet compared to Mystery Other Job. But there are a lot of potentially fulfilling options outside the two poles of "video store" and "academia." Please listen to yourself above where you are saying that, despite your love of research, school itself (even research itself!) is, at best, not preventing you from being depressed - and, at worst, contributing to your depression. Many of us here are speaking up to warn that the living and work conditions of academia are likely to have a detrimental effect on your mental health, not because we think you're uniquely incapable of handling it, but because we know that this is true for many people. Even if you do end up in grad school, I promise you that your experience will be 1,000,000x better if you first gain a sense of competence and self-sufficiency in employment outside academia.

I don't know what other specific futures might make sense for you, but I think the question isn't exactly "How to think about the future?" but "How to have confidence that many futures are possible?" I know that the Mystery Other Jobs exist, and I know that you can explore this with your partner and therapist (and cat) and school career counselor. [Typical AskMeFi recs like What Color is Your Parachute, Wishcraft, etc. might help with this too.] I know you can do this, because it is clear to me that you are a skilled and passionate researcher, and I am completely certain that these traits can be applied to the question of "How do I find a job that I'll be able to tolerate, even enjoy?" just as well as "How did Victorians feed invalids?" I don't mean that dismissively [that question sounds really interesting!], and I don't mean to downplay the difficulty and stress that that the job-hunting process might entail. But trust me, these exact same existential questions will be waiting for you in 5-10 years at the end of your degree, if you go down the track of getting a PhD in the humanities. You are being so wise in asking this question now.
posted by Owl of Athena at 3:43 PM on July 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

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