How do I overcome my grad school PTSD and self esteem issues?
May 2, 2020 5:02 AM   Subscribe

I got rid of all my grad school papers after graduation but I still can't get over my failed academic dream.

I left academia forever after finishing my degree and never fulfilled my dream of becoming a scholar. Background in this old ask. As the update to that ask says, I managed to get rid of all my grad school physical detritus in the end. Many of you gave me wise advice then on my situation.

I thought I had gotten over this issue once and for all but yesterday I was reading a novel in which a respected character was described as being an esteemed scholar in his field at X university and I actually felt a stab of painful envy. I realized that firstly, it was screwed up to be envious of a fictional character and secondly, that contrary to my self-deluded belief, I am not over it.

I have talked it over with people in my life but no one can understand the enormity of my loss and give me usable advice. Perhaps because some of them have professionally-oriented graduate degrees but none of them are failed wannabe academics. As a grad student TA, I shared an office with adjuncts and was acutely aware of the precarity of their positions. I've met post-docs who drifted from institution to institution. I am aware of all these possibilities and suffering, yet in my mind, I can't shake off the feeling that I've been banished from the Garden of Eden (the Life of the Mind) and am condemned to wander forever and eke out a living in the barren world outside the ivory tower. I miss sitting and reading in the university library (I lost electronic journal database access forever upon graduation). I miss being a grad student and being able to spend my time studying and thinking about certain subjects instead of fretting about profits.

After graduation, I deliberately pursued an anti-intellectual life. I avoided anything that reminded me of my specialization. I refrained from looking up my grad school peers. I thought it might make my loss easier to bear. I stopped reading serious books altogether. I read practical non-fiction books on topics such as cooking and DIY manuals. I was tired of language and of words. I concentrated on making things with my hands. It turned out that I am fairly good at making all kinds of things from perfume to handspun yarn and I even sold some of my creations for money as a sideline. Yet my ego was not satisfied that people spent their hard-earned money on my creations. Deep down, I felt that being a crafter "was not serious" like being an artist or a professor and that I was just a lowly tradesperson. In short, I am a sort of snobby modern-day Jude the Obscure minus the religion and the failed love relationships. I am middle-aged and still do not know what I should do for a living. I've never been able to find a job I've liked and been able to stay long in.

I read this "How do you develop a sense of inherent self-worth?" Ask with interest because I suffer from the same problem. Since I value fame, money and social status, but have not been able to obtain any of the above, it follows that I am a worthless human being and a failure. I live in a materialistic city obsessed with money and status where people are constantly flaunting their money and properties and I feel that others judge me with the same harsh standards I use to judge myself. A road-sweeper is simply not treated the same way as a professor.

How do I have self-esteem if I am not well-off, famous or a professional success? I have always felt that there is something really magnetic and attractive about someone who is very good at what he does but I feel I am not very good at anything esteemed by society. Sure, I am good at some things but I am not the best at anything or famous for any achievement. For example, I can speak a few languages (my graduate school classmates were all multilingual too) but one of my professors was fluent in more than ten languages from different families, including obscure ones such as Icelandic!

All in all, I am just an ordinary, mediocre and untalented person. There is nothing special about me and I have trouble accepting this. Some of the people I knew from my younger days have become very successful professionally and well-known over the years and I hope they never find out what became of me. I am tired of beating myself up and feeling pain over this though I know some of my peers had a leg up over me because they came from well-off backgrounds. I want to be able to see other people's success and not feel burning envy every time this topic comes up but I don't know how to get there. I know others have asked similar questions before but I would like the wisdom of the Mefi hivemind for my particular situation.
posted by whitelotus to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
There is so much going on here, and I really feel for your emotional distress.

First things first, the exaggerated sense of failure, inability to find value in yourself and your life, inability to believe rational truths such as "actual academics have a hard slog and it is not a Garden of Eden", fixation on what others think of you and how you measure up to them; these all sound like symptoms of untreated mental illness to me. A healthy mind has the ability to see life with more pragmatism, compassion and acceptance. It's an AskMe cliche, but therapy and/or medication might be an extremely worthwhile thing to pursue if you want to escape your current bubble of despair and live the rest of your life fully.

You cite many beliefs and environmental factors that are also contributing to you feeling this way. There are many people in the world living happy and fulfilled lives which in no way look like middle class materialistic professional success in the big city. It would be worthwhile leaving your bubble and seeking different lifestyles and perspectives via travel or volunteering (or both!), with the aim of opening your eyes to different value systems and ways of living.

At heart I think your approach to the world- yourself and others- of coming from a place of judgement, is what is poisoning you. Cultivating acceptance and compassion will be so important for you. I would recommend investigating Buddhism as this is the path that has opened my eyes to real acceptance and allowed me to let go of a lot of painful and unnecessary beliefs about the world. For example, a professor and a road-sweeper are not treated the same by society, you're right. But a professor and a road-sweeper are each equally alive and conscious, and a professor and a road-sweeper are each only alive for such a short amount of time, and each of them will both equally die. The distinctions between them are not really real.
If you'd like any recommendations on places to start learning about Buddhism, feel free to memail me.
posted by Balthamos at 5:33 AM on May 2, 2020 [14 favorites]

Best answer: The traits you describe about yourself and your current life actually sound a lot like the kinds of traits I fantasize about having (You can speak another language! You can easily learn practical things easily from books! You can MAKE crafts that other people want to BUY). It would never have occurred to me to set my sights several steps further at being able to speak TEN languages, or to be FAMOUS for my knowledge, but that's because my current frame of reference for "wanting more" is in a different place. There's people who would covet the life achievements I've made myself blind to, too. I think that a lot of us put the Gate to Happiness and True Worth arbitrarily exactly one step beyond where we think we can reach but convince ourselves that it represents a real, measurable, objectively true distinction between a life that is admirable versus mediocre.
posted by space snail at 5:37 AM on May 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

Have you explored this in therapy? Sounds like the place for it.

You might find it useful to process what you're going through as a kind of grief - you've lost the future you hoped you might have, and it's painful. The process of accepting an irreversible loss in your life is always going to be painful, but that doesn't mean that, with the right support from a therapist or some really good self-help materials, you can't learn to make it manageable and move onto a new era in your life where it doesn't overwhelm you every day.

In the meantime, I find CBT at home kind of helpful for things where I can't help feeling stuff that I know is nonsense but my brain tells me it anyway. The standard MeFi recommendation for this is David Burns' Feeling Good. It's about challenging the things that you absolutely assume to be true, and asking whether they really are. For example, I personally can think of nothing worse than a life in academia, in my mind's eye it would be stifling and tedious, and I don't see it as prestigious any more than any other profession. But that's not The Truth any more than your view of it as The One True Path is true. Opening up a little crack of light and seeing that what you believe to be an unshakeable truth is only a story you've told yourself, is the first step towards finding a new story for yourself, one that makes you happier and more fulfilled.

In the long term, consider whether it's possible for you one day to move somewhere that people's values and goals and lifestyles are different. I've lived in some very different places and the difference the right fit makes in my levels of self-acceptance is huge. If you're surrounded by an entire world of people showing off money and status that you don't have, no wonder you're miserable. There are places not like that where you would probably find it much easier to be content. This kind of stuff doesn't happen overnight, but maybe you could use the current downtime to start researching possible new locations, and once travel is possible again, taking occasional trips to visit one, and gradually hone your idea of where you might move some day. Even if you're not in a position to relocate for years, you'll be moving in the right direction, and knowing that there are places out there that you would feel good might be a source of hope. Sometimes these things can happen surprisingly quickly when we eventually find the round hole for our round peg.

All in all, I am just an ordinary, mediocre and untalented person.

Welcome to 99.999% of the world's population! There's nothing special about most of us, except to the people who love us. And I'm sure you know that at some level. You need to find a therapist or a mental health practice to help you feel it, though.
posted by penguin pie at 5:42 AM on May 2, 2020 [11 favorites]

Just wanted to add... I've found even moving to different districts within the same city has made a difference for me at times - it doesn't have to be the massive upheaval of moving cross country. I discovered if I live somewhere right near shops and cafes, I feel constantly like I should be out Doing Stuff because right outside the window there are people Doing Stuff constantly, and I'm failing at life by not spending my entire leisure time buying overpriced clothes and drinking flat whites. I feel much more at peace in a slightly more residential neighbourhood where nobody's doing anything much, and if that means slightly more travel to get to facilities, that's fine.
posted by penguin pie at 6:05 AM on May 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

In some ways I struggled with this. I had severe PTSD during my educational period, and college (and subsequently grad school) were a bit of a mess for me. But while grappling with my life (unsupportive family, history of child abuse, an active eating disorder, PTSD) I really really struggled with... Being human. Like that I had to also had to eat and sleep and I didn't have perfect concentration and perfect pitch and couldn't be the best at everything. There was alot of anger about what had happened and my life circumstance and how different I could have been... And if I was just stronger or something I could magically be the perfect thing I wanted to be.

That's a lie. It was all a lie. Ultimately now I'm perfectly content with who I am in my social work job and my little family and what we have.

But to get there I really had to figure out what I actually wanted. And it wasn't perfection. I wanted... To be wanted by others. I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to be recognized. But the more I stopped and worked within my limits and expressed my preferences and focused on the stuff I enjoyed, the more people found me intresting. The more I could create an identity of who I actually was, and the less how things turned out seemed to matter. Also the more people knew the real me . It was life changing.

I haven't won awards. I haven't been recognized for anything special or noteworthy. My career is they is really nice social worker. It is what it is. But my coworkers can laugh at my sarcasm. I know some Japanese but not particularly well. The people who know about my life are proud of what I've overcome. Some people really like some of the stuff I create. Some people think my hobbies are cool. One lady married me for all that stuff. And that's... enough. But it didn't always feel that way.

It was a long road , and lots of therapy . I don't know how else to describe working within the limitations of being in a human body. But... Everybody does. Even geniuses even the smartest people sleep, have to stop and eat, have to devote time to one thing and ignore another. No one can read every book or listen to every song. But... You can chose what you focus on to an extent. And when I take the time to focus on what I'm working on, I enjoy the process and the moment of who I am today.

Good luck
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:37 AM on May 2, 2020 [18 favorites]

I just skimmed your first question about leaving academia, so I may be totally off-base here. I apologize in advance if that is the case. So you weren't great at a tradition master's program. So what? Your view of academia and the life of the intellectual mind is very narrow. You miss the library, you miss reading and discussing. There are so many other ways to be part of academia than the "ivory tower" - you could work at a community college that supports students pathways to four year degrees, or a highschool, or a community center, or a prison education program. I had what i considered to be a "failed" MA in the humanities but it was a steeping stone to a PhD in Education, were I study learning and the life of the mind in every conceivable setting. It doesn't change the precarity, snobbery, and elitism of "academia" but you have to pick your battles. Academia is full of mediocre, non-talented "experts" - they really aren't special - you just need to figure our what you enjoy doing and find the people that value it.
posted by turtlefu at 6:41 AM on May 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: All in all, I am just an ordinary, mediocre and untalented person. So you think. You are a college graduate with a graduate degree. That's a really major achievement. I am fairly good at making all kinds of things from perfume to handspun yarn and I even sold some of my creations. You're very talented and skilled in many areas.

I deliberately pursued an anti-intellectual life. I avoided anything that reminded me of my specialization. I refrained from looking up my grad school peers. What a loss for you. You've given up friendships, contacts, interests that you'd enjoy. I miss sitting and reading in the university library. ... being a grad student and being able to spend my time studying and thinking about certain subjects I deliberately pursued an anti-intellectual life. I avoided anything that reminded me of my specialization. I stopped reading serious books altogether. being a crafter "was not serious" like being an artist or a professor Wow. You just keep beating yourself up and denying yourself pleasure and growth.

First, list any and every accomplishment, no matter how little *you* value it. I guarantee you that you are an accomplished person with so, so much to offer. I'm going to veer into Wizard of Oz territory and tell you that you already have the things you desire. In your case, you must recognize and embrace them.

Second, stop berating yourself. Read some books by Martin Seligman, esp. Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. He changed my brother's life from obsessing on his supposed failures and being sometimes suicidal to reasonably happy. also Dan Gilbert. Watch their Ted talks, but mostly pay attention to their techniques for managing your negative thinking. You may find it silly to wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you realize you're having negative thoughts, but it is effective. You have years of building the habit of negative thinking, reversing it to a more realistic view can be done. Do the Yale Happiness course.

Third, you have a Life Goal: the Life of the Mind. Pursue the fuck out of it. I knew a great scholar who was a dentist. I know PhDs who have almost no intellectual curiosity and used to know a taxi driver who was astonishingly well-read. You may live near a college or uni that will give you a library card. Or take a class and gain library access. My state library has tons of resources; your may, too. Read great books, find or start a book group with people who read challenging books and have lively discussion. Contact the local Adult Ed. and develop courses you can offer. I became an adult ed. teacher by accident; I learned that the title of teacher gives you instant credibility. You *are* an expert, in several things. You just need the label.

I'd also work on developing some Life Goals. You gave yours up, and you miss the sense of purpose. Your goals can be lofty or not. I wanted to someplace with a beautiful view and today the lake is sparkling in the sun, the trees have that greenish cast from new buds, and after 10+ years, it still sparks joy. Some of my other goals have crashed and burned, but a few are on track. Give yourself permission to be a pretty good scholar instead of the fantasy scholar in your head that may not even exist.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 AM on May 2, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Therapy.

I'm an academic. You logically know that your envy for academia is based on unrealistic premises ("As a grad student TA, I shared an office with adjuncts and was acutely aware of the precarity of their positions."), but that logic does not diminish your grief -- nor should it; grief is not a reasonable or rational process.

However, your specific mode and flavor of grief is very...academic; it reminds me of how a couple of my friends in graduate school dealt (badly) with anxiety and depression. In particular, I had one friend who cheated on his girlfriend with a member of his cohort, and then his girlfriend broke up with him (bad), and the cohort-member stopped talking to him (the end of the world), and we all then endured 18 months of the Saddest Human Being Who Ever Walked This Wind-Swept Earth.

We eventually pressured him into going to therapy, and he humored us, but it didn't have the kind of effect that we were hoping for: he would go to his therapy sessions, and then he would return to us and mockingly recount his therapist's "inept" questions and his ironic/deconstructing/deflecting responses, and we realized -- with a real sense of defeat -- two things: that he was just marshaling all the rhetorical skills we were learning in our grad seminars and employing them as a barrier to Doing The Work in therapy, and that his sense of self -- as a baby academic -- was too wrapped up in being A Supreme and Unconquerable Expert to ever be truly open and vulnerable with this therapist. Instead, his therapist was an opponent to dismantle and humiliate, and he continued to be so sad and despairing that we thought he might be a suicide risk. (He's fine now, but it took about five years before he found his balance.)

I have noticed this tendency with other academic friends. They are often lonely (so lonely!) and so anxious about the quality of their work (the inescapable torment of academia!) but they are simultaneously arrogant egomaniacs (which is a useful trait for successful academics), and they are secretly convinced that their grief and suffering is unique and noble and valuable. They subscribe to a "tortured genius" model of intelligence; they believe that their agony confers a kind of dignity onto their person. (It doesn't.)

Which is to say, again: Therapy, but I suspect you will not get a lot out of the therapy experience as long as you're Striding This Wind-Swept Earth, sprawling dramatically over couches and flinging your arm across your eyes and whispering, Sure, I am good at some things but I am not the best at anything or famous for any achievement. (Which is the kind of universal sentiment that, even now, tenured academics with multiple monographs are currently scrawling into their journal.) I think you know this. But I also think that -- like my friend -- part of you is proud of how intensely you feel bad. What deep sensibilities you have!

I think you are very, very afraid of failure. Your statement about non-academic pursuits -- It turned out that I am fairly good at making all kinds of things from perfume to handspun yarn and I even sold some of my creations for money as a sideline. Yet my ego was not satisfied that people spent their hard-earned money on my creations. Deep down, I felt that being a crafter "was not serious" like being an artist or a professor and that I was just a lowly tradesperson. -- seems like the textbook statement of someone terrified of Trying Too Hard and Fucking It Up, so you're just going to preemptively shut it down before you can really test your skills in a new arena.

I get it. It's not fun to fail. It's not fun to pour all of your energies and life into a singular pursuit and then do it badly. You've been burned once, and it makes sense that you do not want to get burned again. And yet: I fail all the time, and it gets easier every time. I invite you to embrace more failure in your life. It will feel very, very bad at first, and it will shake your essential self-image that You Are A Tortured Genius Feeling Deeply Noble Despair.

But it will get easier, too, every time -- and eventually you'll find new ways of seeing yourself in relation to the wider world.

But also: therapy.
posted by toast the knowing at 7:08 AM on May 2, 2020 [45 favorites]

I get a lot of mileage out of Van Morrison's "Cleaning Windows." For a long time I wanted to be a writer, a successful published author, a literary genius. Or so I thought. The older I got, the more I realized I dislike shutting myself up and writing, away from everyone else in my life. And I could never get the hang of the hustle of selling writing. And I realized that writing felt necessary to me because my brain is built to spin out ideas and plots and characters and it sucks to have nothing to do with them.

But a few years ago I re-discovered Dungeons & Dragons and it turns out what my brain is perfect for is being a DM, organizing a game for a small group and connecting with a personalized audience. Turns out one of my players is a successful published author, and it just reconfirms that I could not and would not want to do what he does (especially in the selling/publicity department). Jobwise, I help run a yarn shop, and that's mostly fun and interesting but not something integral to my identity.

Parenthood, on the other hand, was integral to my identity, and when my son went off to college it really threw me. Therapy helped a lot, and what helped most was starting to understand the habits of the brain and how to change them. It's so easy for my negative thinking to become a pattern that spirals out of control. So I have to consciously counter it, be on guard against my own brain, form new habits, and then it starts to get easier.

But for me the first step was taking myself out of being the hero of some epic narrative and just being some shmoe who's happy cleaning windows.
posted by rikschell at 7:19 AM on May 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

As a non academic person who is proud of my ability to write fiction , embroider, train dogs, and multiple other non academic skills, I found my hackles rising reading this question. The amount of judgement and dismissal stung me. How much worse it must feel to be the source of that self judgement and self dismissal? I would think that you won't find self acceptance without cultivating compassion and love for the worlds you're dismissing. The world of the mind is not seperate from the world of craft, skill and imagination.
posted by Zumbador at 7:59 AM on May 2, 2020 [11 favorites]

I felt that being a crafter "was not serious" like being an artist or a professor and that I was just a lowly tradesperson. This is an image you have created for yourself. "Serious" is a mental construct. An invention or label of the mind.

All in all, I am just an ordinary, mediocre and untalented person. There is nothing special about me. This is an image you have created for yourself.

You have also created an image of people who are wealthy, prestigious, or "accomplished". You could take your exact life situation and create a more positive image for yourself. It's all illusion.

If one person puts jigsaw puzzles together and the other paints portraits that sell for millions, who is the more "worthy" person?

It's trap to identify your worth on money, prestige, or knowledge. When you you identify, you're depending on others who don't have money, prestige, or knowledge to feel better about yourself. It's wonderful to strive, seek knowledge, and have money, yet it isn't who you are.

All things end and change. If you derive your sense of worthiness from fame, money, and social status, what happens when the unpredictability of life takes your money and status away? What happens when you get dementia and your knowledge is erased? What happens if you lose your fortune? Are you less worthy? Will you crumble because your ego is injured? Or, will you know that your worthiness never came from those things.

When I feel mediocre or unworthy I know it's always comparison.

You're aware that it's your ego that compares and is making you miserable. Once you have that awareness you can never go back to living in complete blindness. You know when you are slipping into ego and you know how to get out. Practice getting into the flow of living in the now. Transcend the image you have created for yourself. Go beyond. Enjoy creating without thoughts, comparisons, or labels. Practice by breathing and noticing where you are now in your body and space. When you notice the present, you're not in comparison.

A true sense of worthiness is not comparative and happens when you realize the presence in yourself -- a deeper place beyond "who you are" or who you think you are. It's not derived from thought. It is a knowing. It is beyond "self". It also happens when you recognize the same worthiness in others.
posted by loveandhappiness at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been banished from the Garden of Eden

To paraphrase Voltaire, the first man and woman were put here to be gardeners. Our expulsion means we have our own plots now.

Tend to your garden.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:08 AM on May 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have so much sympathy for you!

Here is where I think I saw a root of your error: "I thought I had gotten over this issue once and for all..."
This loss is one you had to grieve, and the path of grief is famously hilly. I left my PhD discipline [checks watch] twelve years ago today, and I still feel sort of strange about it sometimes, like, tempted to write a taxonomy of the personal failings that prevented me from continuing on that path. What stops me, in addition to the general effect of so many years of mouldering memories, is that in the interim I found ways to modulate my pride. I found other things to be proud of -- hard goals that I managed to achieve -- and ways to practice humility daily, in a job that requires me to work closely with people with skills and knowledge I manifestly do not have. I think both pieces are important for happiness.

I also agree with those who've suggested upthread that moving to a less status-obsessed town might offer some relief. It's a strange time to plan a move, of course. It's also a bad time to take anything you're telling yourself too seriously, in my opinion. We're all hearing our own voices way too much these days.

When you were planning your exit, did you encounter the book So What Are You Going To Do With That by Basalla and Debelius? I recommend it often to people in your situation. It's structured as a practical book on how to turn a CV into a resume, e.g., but I found it really helpful not just for that, but for understanding that my grief and confusion didn't make me special, that I was not alone in feeling them, and crucially, that I was very likely to find happiness and purpose elsewhere. The book contains some neat first person stories of people who left academia for other types of work, and some of these stories may help you recontextualize your experience in a more positive way.
posted by eirias at 8:46 AM on May 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Ok, I am not sure this is exactly analogous, but it is a good story that may help you appreciate your role in life. When Bill Bradley, former NY Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Scholar was a junior Senator from New Jersey, he was on the rubber chicken circuit giving speeches to the Rotary Club and other local organizations.

One night he was on the dais being served his dinner before he gave a speech to a few hundred people. The server brought bread to the table and was going bread plate to bread plate putting a tab of butter on each. When he got to Senator Bradley's plate, he put one tab on. Bradley asked for two please. The server said, "no". Bradley said, "Do you know who I am? I am a US Senator and the guest of honor tonight." The waiter replied, "Do you know who I am?" Bradley took the bait and asked who. The server replied, "I am the guy in charge of the butter" and moved on to the next place setting.

The story is more about power and who has it, but it is also about being the best at what you do and appreciating that for its own sake. Bradley said that it was one of the most important things he learned in his life. He was a Senator and Rhodes Scholar and that interaction taught him one of the most important things he learned in his life.

Instead of comparing yourself to who you wanted to be, ask yourself are you the best at what you do. Ted Williams, hall of fame baseball player, said his goal was to walk down the street and have people point at him and say, There goes Ted Williams, the best hitter that ever lived."

Whatever it is you (the generic 'you', but also the specific you) do, be that tradesperson, athlete, scholar, professional, artist, etc,be the best you can at that. That is where the glory is. Maybe not the money, but the satisfaction of a job well done, of attaining skilled status is worth "millions" in self esteem.
posted by AugustWest at 8:50 AM on May 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Funny, I grew up with two fairly successful professor parents (at a well known R1) and never considered their profession to be particularly prestigious in the lay sense, or glamorous. I remember a lot of complaining through mandatory service work, difficult students and oddball colleagues, more than any sense of accomplishment from either about their various scholarly achievements.

We weren’t wealthy by any stretch, either. Your do seem to be romanticizing academic life to an extreme degree, respectfully
posted by shaademaan at 8:54 AM on May 2, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: How do I have self-esteem if I am not well-off, famous or a professional success?

So...I have kind of been where you are, tragically did not grow up exceptional despite being a Gifted Child(tm). I have two pieces of advice for you, both shared warmly. One is my personal mantra which is "an extraordinary, ordinary life." I just want to live my life as fully as possible, which means being present to what's actually happening.

Yes, in a different reality you were a vaunted professor (I grew up with one and I echo shaademaan greatly here.) In a separate different reality you were born in 1349 and died at the age 6, starving, in a ditch. But you're focused on the first and not the second. It is truly okay to have these thoughts and feelings, life is not a pain Olympics. But be careful of the rent you are giving this story in your head.

My second piece of advice relates to this question and it is kind of a harsher one. But you don't HAVE self-esteem. You EARN self-esteem. There are a billion ways to do that. You could learn Icelandic. You could commit to daily yoga for a year. You could volunteer at a food bank.

I know a lot of people, and often am one, where they think if only I had This Thing, I would have arrived and be happy. But it turns out that for a lot of us, it's not the arriving that makes us's all the steps in between.

To go to the ninth wall here...look, I have held my infant daughter as she died. I do not mourn that she did not get a PhD. I mourn that she did not get to sit in the cool grass on a warm day and watch the butterflies. You have access to life, it might help to go seize it.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:34 AM on May 2, 2020 [21 favorites]

Try reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Terrible title (in my opinion) but good book. It might speak to where you are.
posted by bluebird at 10:01 AM on May 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Hey, it gets better. I had a pretty traumatic grad school experience, and dropped out ABD about ten years ago. All I can say is, it does get better.

I guess I'm lucky because I managed to learn things in grad school that were orthogonal to my program of study, but set me up to have a pretty good career as a software developer in a specialized niche. I'm never going to be famous or prestigious -- partially because I've tasted bits of that life and it's really draining for me. I've also had an opportunity to turn a hobby into a big part of my career, and, really, it sucked to have to do the thing on demand for money. I now can't do that hobby without thinking of all that baggage. I maybe could have ridden that career trajectory, but the personal cost was too high (on the bright side, I've managed to reconcile with the girlfriend I split with while I was losing my mind due to that career path -- she's asleep in the bedroom since we're sheltering-in-place together! So, it is possible to rebound from this too!)

To some extent I feel like I'm saying "the grass is always greener" and maybe to some extent I am, but the other thing I'm trying to say is "It's okay to not have reached the particular goals you had way back when." The people I know who believed they had a perfect plan and knew what their life was going to look like, at 20, mostly are unhappy for not reaching those goals. The people I know who're better at adapting to unplanned things.. seem to be mostly doing better? The success I have had looks nothing like the success I thought I'd have at any point in the past.

It's okay to not be perfect, it's okay to not be famous. Most of us aren't famous. I guess I'm famous if you ask a very small professional community about a very specific type of work at a very specific time, but.. eh? I'm also "that guy who basically vanished from [field]." I bet a lot of us who aren't famous are similarly niche-notable. You might be too, if you think about it!

It's okay to do things because you want to, not because you're famous for them, though! I absolutely suck at music. Still have a guitar next to me and practice a few times a week because I like to practice and get a bit better and sometimes I can play things I like for myself and my girlfriend (who is far better than me at music, but, I'm coping with that)!

I guess what I'm trying to say is forgive yourself and don't worry too much about what might have been. You're here in what is and you seem like a pretty cool person.
posted by Alterscape at 10:09 AM on May 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

I went back after posting above and read your previous question, where I see you mention you've already read Feeling Good and it made no difference. One gentle, well meant, non-snarky question - as well as reading it, did you also do the exercises, regularly, over a sustained period of time? Otherwise it's a little like complaining you read a book about marathon running but still can't run a marathon. You can only train your brain to think and feel differently through actual practice. In the moment, it can seem uncomfortable and dumb and tedious doing those exercises - kinda like marathon training in fact - but it does change you for the better over time (If you did do the exercises, and it still didn't help, ignore that!).

That aside, it seems like you feel much the same about your life now as you did then, two and a half years ago. And my word, it sounds like textbook depression. Have you ever tried medication for that (as well as/instead of the therapy I suggested before)? It does sound like you've had some very real misfortune in your life, particularly on the financial side, and I don't want to diminish the effect of that.

But you also have some stuff going on that is absolutely textbook 'symptoms of depression' - ruminating endlessly on perceived past failures to a degree that overshadows everything else in your life; being unable to get pleasure or pride from current activities that would normally bring you pleasure (eg. your crafts); overemphasising the negative in your thinking to an unrealistic degree (I read this question assuming that you crashed and burned and flunked out of your degree in a terrible way, but it sounds like you actually have a graduate degree? That's very much not academic failure).

As you have said yourself, the issues underlying your last question are the same or similar to those underlying this question, but I don't think they're necessarily that you didn't become an academic, I think they're maybe that you've been depressed for a long time, and the depressed ways of thinking have become so ingrained that you believe they're true. Fortunately, while there may be no way to make you become a professional academic, there is treatment for depression, which means you don't have to be stuck feeling like this forever. Best of luck.
posted by penguin pie at 10:13 AM on May 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is grief, and it is real. I still feel twinges, and I left school well over a decade ago and have a successful career in another field. There's a reason academia was your first choice. Being honest with myself, I think my current career will never quite fulfill me in the way that a successful academic career would have. That's a loss, and it's not helpful that the world frames it as a failure. But we all have losses to bear.

I understand the urge to cut ties and move on definitively. When I left my Ph.D. program, I was quite determined not to do anything that led to me hanging around the university in some sort of quasi-status, and I also didn't read anything in my field for some time. I think that was probably the right decision, but I didn't turn away from the life of the mind altogether, because the life of the mind is pleasure to me. That's why I was in grad school! Why cut yourself off from pleasure? I also didn't decide I was merely mediocre (whatever that means; sounds like depression talking to me, and I agree with those who suggest you seek treatment), and I'm glad I didn't, because the more distance I have from that experience, the more I see how I was trying to do something much harder than most of my cohort was (entirely on my own economically, big class jump from childhood, first-gen in grad school with no one to give me "outside advice," functioning over unaddressed trauma) and how unforgiving the system is. I haven't read your previous post, but I bet some of those factors apply to you, too.

There are so many things in the world a person can take pride in. Being a brilliant scholar is definitely one of them. But you can be a person who contributes to the health of their community, through charity or politics or just being a good neighbor; a reliable friend; a skilled craftsperson (why put down crafts? Making something beautiful is no easy task!); a good parent or a cool aunt; a writer whose work is enjoyed by your chosen audience; a cultivated intellect outside the formal structures; honestly, the list is endless. And right now, the world needs people out there making their best possible contribution. Turn to something that can give you an alternative source of self-respect.
posted by praemunire at 10:46 AM on May 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

Here's my credentials for my answer: I earned a doctorate with distinction at an Ivy and then never used it professionally; my kid earned a doctorate as well and does not use it professionally. My mother earned a doctorate and became an academic, but gave it up to become an Episcopal priest. In 2016, to my surprise, after decades of work I retired and took a job as an adjunct, and am amused by how impressed people are that I am a "professor." You know all the things about adjuncts, so I won't go into that.

But what I did for a living for the decades between earning the doctorate and becoming a so-called professor was much harder, much more challenging, and far more intellectual. And my hobbies were too. Because I care about the life of the mind, and it is my primary interest; academia not so much.

That is to say that you are conflating "the life of the mind" with "academia." They are not the same thing. They are not even close to the same thing. When you are done your grieving, you should go back to reading interesting things, because if you have left academia reading the literature is no longer a political calculation, a competitive undertaking, or drudge work. You are free.

And as others have said, you are grieving. Many of us experience grief as a result of graduate school, no matter what we decide to do with ourselves. I was very fragile for a long time after I finished, and some years later when my partner accidentally deleted my fieldwork files I wept for days, even though I never consulted them any more (I remember your earlier ask, which resonated). All I have left are a couple of bound copies of the dissertation.

Finishing graduate school was not what I thought it would be; it warped and changed me, and in some ways it was the death of an image I had held for most of my life. It is meant to be that. Many, many people leave academia, some gladly, some sadly, and some intending to return.
posted by Peach at 3:30 PM on May 2, 2020 [14 favorites]

Academic here. Here's the thing about academia: it's deeply and openly hierarchical as a system in a way many other fields aren't. You go to school. If you do well you get As. You go to undergrad. You go to grad. If you're astoundingly privileged and lucky you get to be an Assistant Professor, then Associate, then Full. The "grading" never stops and there is a clear "next step" in the hierarchy at every point. So if you stop at any time before the end of the road it feels like you failed because you didn't hit the next step, which is clearly labeled. You've been trained to think this from the time you entered elementary school, because it's still school, but until you die.

Here's the other thing about academia, though. It's just a job. You go to work and like or dislike the people you're stuck with. Your chair/dean/provost has expectations that may be reasonable or not. A lot of the time you feel like you're in a customer service job, dependent on student evaluations (the Yelp review of academia) in order to keep your job. Chances are more than 50/50 that you're not actually tenure track, owing to the extreme adjunctification of the professoriate. You eventually hit a glass ceiling called administration. You have far less time to work on your research than you thought, and it's frequently the last thing you do because teaching and service are much more immediate and pressing. That dream of spending your time in quiet rooms being the best expert you can be? It's a fantasy.

I'm mid-career and lucky/privileged enough to have tenure at an R1 and work with smart, kind colleagues. I feel adequately but not spectacularly compensated. I spend some of my secret time scrolling through my peers' Facebook feeds envying their latest publication/grant/other public recognition of status, even though I recognize how silly this is. Like most academics, I often feel mediocre or like a fraud, even though I'm doing an objectively adequate job. I am not famous. Basically everyone I know feels the same; imposter syndrome is endemic. None of them are famous either. The few "superstars" in my field are either more extreme versions of this (always feeling like they're not doing enough), or they're assholes who prioritize their own status above everything else, including their students' wellbeing.

All this is to say: while the narrative may suggest otherwise, academia is not uniquely something to strive for and it isn't something to regret losing, any more than any other career path. There are a few compensations (autonomy being the biggest one) but they exist in other fields too. Figure out what it is you value (is it kindness? creativity?) and work on that. Respect will follow.
posted by media_itoku at 3:41 PM on May 2, 2020 [9 favorites]

I don't have any answers for you, but I just wanted to let you know that I feel this exact same way. Since having kids, I now get by telling myself that I took one of the highest paying career options for my given degree in order to provide the best life for them (and I do get to provide them with a really great life, which is definitely satisfying). But I really don't want this career option; what I want is to be back in the lab, free to explore the unknown world around me, free to tinker with my hands to perfect experiments, and free to think up (and then test) new ideas. The current pandemic situation only makes it worse, as I was a virologist before. Solidarity friend.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:33 PM on May 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Balthamos:
But a professor and a road-sweeper are each equally alive and conscious, and a professor and a road-sweeper are each only alive for such a short amount of time, and each of them will both equally die.
I'm an atheist but you do make a good point.

theora55: I have borrowed the books you recommended and will read them. I'm actually enrolled in 5(!) Coursera courses at the moment (business-related, in keeping with my anti-intellectual focus) but will add the happiness course. Actually, I can pay for an alumni university library card but I am only allowed to borrow physical books and am barred from major electronic resources for copyright reasons. I do not think it is worth it, especially since I live far from campus.

toast the knowing: Wow, I was amazed when I read your answer. You've described me very well. Yes, having had my wings singed by a great singular passion and plummeted down to earth, I'm really reluctant to go for another round. What if I had another great fall?

warriorqueen: I am really sorry to hear about your daughter. "But be careful of the rent you are giving this story in your head." Thank you for sharing your wisdom, you are very right.

penguin pie: I said "academic failure" because I did not get an academic job in the end. I did get my degree. If I didn't, I'll probably be torturing myself now for being a grad school dropout.

praemunire: Being honest with myself, I think my current career will never quite fulfill me in the way that a successful academic career would have. That's a loss, and it's not helpful that the world frames it as a failure.
Yes, that is why it is so difficult though others have been trying to convince me of the value and worthiness of alternate paths. I do believe that other paths have their virtues and rewards but they are not quite the same thing. I'm fine with vanilla ice cream if nothing else is available but it doesn't give me as much pleasure as eating chocolate ice cream.

peach: Yes, I know exactly how you felt when you described the loss of your fieldwork files. It's ridiculous that I'm still an emotional hostage to "mouldering memories" of graduate school as eirias says. It's been so many years since I stepped off campus. I haven't been back since. I'm not sure I can bring myself to set foot there.

media_itoku: My dissertation advisor also happened to be department chair so I'm not as unaware of the realities as some suggest since I got to watch her deal with administrative tasks and an endless number of meetings. As a TA, I was also subject to student evaluations and I agree that it's nerve-wrecking to have your career depend on it. You made a good point about the hierarchical system and failure.

However, I really do not know any other profession that offers paid sabbaticals! If I ran my own business, I could take a sabbatical but it would be unpaid and I would have to live off my savings. I know someone whose unusually accommodating boss allowed her to take three months off just to travel but she certainly did not get paid during the period and was lucky to have her job upon return.
posted by whitelotus at 10:31 PM on May 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm fine with vanilla ice cream if nothing else is available but it doesn't give me as much pleasure as eating chocolate ice cream.

As you go along in life, you will no doubt find yourself in more and more situations where vanilla is all that's on offer. You will lose people you love, who can't be replaced; you may find that mental or physical illness or aging restrict your choices in other ways. Do you plan to starve? You've got a whole lot of life still to live, and sitting around hugging your sense of your unique frustrated passion to yourself is a sad way to spend it.
posted by praemunire at 12:02 AM on May 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

I left academia and lost a relationship at the same time and was questioning pretty much everything. The following year, I was taking a writing course along with a lot of people who were changing careers, retired or in some other kind of transitional phase. There was one guy who had recently lost a huge business account-- the kind of thing you read about in the papers-- and he said that when he discovered fiction writing it gave him a new sense of power, maybe more than ever before. It was interesting to me at the time how he admitted that power was important to him, and also that he could feel he got it from the practice of writing. And maybe that sort of practice wouldn't do it for you. But I think it's OK to admit that power is important to you, if that's what this turns out to be about. I think it may. The power that comes from having a PhD and being the world's biggest expert on something is pretty undeniable, but it's not the only kind of power. What other kinds would motivate you?
posted by BibiRose at 5:41 AM on May 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: BibiRose: You bring up an interesting point. I don't really think it's power as such. I think, deep down, I wish to be admired and respected for what I do but I don't know what will do it. Obviously being an academic is out. I've been a paid crafter and have a reasonable number of blog followers but I don't think those things really does it either.

I know, I know, I'm looking for external validation. But I truly believe deep down that I will not be loved (not in a romantic sense, more of a social recognition thing) or worthy unless I'm really good in some skill or profession or have done something remarkable. And I know I'm probably considered worth lesser than average as a human being by society (at least in terms of my bank account).
posted by whitelotus at 9:36 PM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

You are on such a good track being able to identify that this is the root of your pain. This is why I think you need therapy and/or medical treatment and/or a spiritual practice, because all the wisdom in the world (and you've got a substantial chunk of it in this thread!) is not going to be able to unroot that seed of inadequacy unless you really really put the work in with a professional who can help guide you through that process. And you can ask for all the advice but if you don't deep down want to to change or believe you can change, you will always be able to come back with "yes, but...". Try and begin with even believing you are capable of changing your mind about these fundamental beliefs.
posted by Balthamos at 10:12 AM on May 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Read this.
posted by rikschell at 11:16 AM on May 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

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