Shame and trauma in academia
April 30, 2021 2:01 AM   Subscribe

Looking for insights and help finding resources for dealing with shame-related trauma from experiences as an adult that don't fit into categories like childhood or sexual abuse, wartime PTSD, etc. Bonus complexity: academic-related. Apologies for text wall.

I think I am coming to realize that I have a lot of latent traumas from, probably, the last decade in academia, which I have not dealt with at all but which I am realizing have been really hindering my progression and general levels of self-esteem. From the outside this probably looks absurd, since I'm tenured at an enviably excellent research university, my tenure book won a major prize, etc. etc. But inside, I struggle -- I am realizing almost constantly -- with deep shame over a range of things that I perceive to have marked my entry into academia. These include:

- several very traumatic "coming out seminars", i.e. my early seminars given as a newly minted PhD, in which I was literally like a deer in headlights for all of it and I know for certain made a fool of myself. I do know that partly this is because I felt completely at sea in super-prestigious/competitive Anglo-American academic culture -- I am already an ethnic minority, female, and also foreign to the places where I have built most of my academic career, and also very, very green when I finished my PhD. In a few of these early seminars (having had very little experience of doing them prior to that) I was showing work that I was unconvinced about, and saying what in retrospect was just not very good -- I know now that I was trying too hard to be impressive and say things I thought they would like, but it was not really based on sober industrious research. For example, my first seminar at the university I now work at was also a disaster and triggers a profound sense of humiliation every time I think about it, even years later -- in blind panic I pulled out a stupid topic that I thought fit their expectations, rather than something I was working on seriously, and have never published anything from that topic since. Also, ever since then, watching excellent seminar presentations also triggers my trauma, because I'm so impressed with them, especially if they're early career scholars, that it makes me hate and self-flagellate my own rotten performance (yeeears ago) even more.

- Of course I also still have to work around people who were there at my first trainwreck seminar and watched me make a total ass of myself. I have noticed through my own self-work that the voice of my inner critic and trauma trigger is very much one of the people (yes alas, old, white, male) who was at that disaster talk, and who I know for a fact did not want me to be hired for this post.

- my interview for this post was also a trainwreck, I said an incredibly stupid thing that was just wrong, because I just didn't know what I was talking about because I wasn't trained in the field I am now hired into, and abovementioned old white man on the committee knew it.

- on that note, to make all this worse, I was therefore hired for a position that 1) required teaching things I had no background in (as well as, in fact, doing so without really having any teaching experience) and 2) requires research languages from the ethnic minority group that I am from, which I do kind of have, but I feel are not good enough and certainly not for the prestigiousness of the university and position, though I do use them to some extent in my work. So there is deep shame associated with that of course, because not only do I feel like I ought to be better at them, given my ancestry, but I also feel entirely fraudulent in the position I am in. I constantly perceive that the people I work with don't think I can teach what the label on my post tin says I can teach, so I worked up a big teaching module on a topic that tried to prove that I could. Parts of it have been fun, but it's also been an enormous anxiety beast, years scrabbling around desperately to learn on the job and cover my ass. I've reworked it every year always at the last minute, and it's so much worse in comparison to other modules offered by colleagues in my department, that I teach it in almost constant shame.

- I have always had trouble with nerves in public speaking anyway though I have learned to fight it down over the years. But it still triggers such a huge physiological response -- literally hot trembly shakes through my torso and arms, even when doing something as simple as asking questions in seminars, which I often feel I have to do, to "represent" my position. I just don't think I'm very good public speaker, generally, and am sure that contributes to my various public humiliations presenting at workshops etc.

I'm sure all of this contributes to the constant withdrawal and hiding strategies I have enacted over the years. I continue to be really scared to speak up about my work, and am actually not even able to figure out one strand of research, so I have been pretty rudderless since my first book was published. I notice that I have tried to write on topics that justify my being hired for the position I'm in -- again, trying to write about what people think I should write, but which I can no longer really distinguish from what I myself want to write about. So I've published some things but they are sort of scattergun, and often in the context of other people's projects or agendas, workshops to which I've been invited. I think I have been far too afraid to take a leadership role -- I have never organized a conference or even a workshop. Now I have a book contract for a second book but am deeply unconvinced of my ability to deliver it. At my worst, in anxiety I miss deadlines for things I say I'll do and then end up ghosting. I feel terrified that colleagues who I know do actually support me are going to start edging slowly away from the crazy unreliable scattergun woman who doesn't know anything and can't keep her shit together.

Part of my feels so sad about all of this because I can see how it's stopping me from fulfilling my potential, but also because I just didn't use to be like this -- in fact I attribute my stellar career into academia and getting prestigious jobs immediately out of the PhD to the fact that I had a quiet confidence in myself, I used to write all the time, whatever I liked on my very long-running and well-read blog, I wrote all sorts of experimental things and it was fine. Now that I am in the limelight so much (this is after all a super prestigious job and institution) I feel like I've been absolutely squeezed into silence. And also even if I do get stuff done now, I am working through a haze of bad feelings -- not all the time of course, there are days when I love and am motivated by reading and learning, and I do think things have gotten a bit better over time -- but it's still a huge energy and mind-suck. As you can see from this post.

So anyway to come back to the original question, now that I have worked through putting a name on these feelings, which I have struggled to give voice to or identify for so long -- "shame" and "trauma" -- I am having trouble figuring out a way forward to work my way out of them. I do want to, because I can see how they're holding me back. (Male) colleagues hired at the same time have been promoted over me, written tons more stuff than me, given tons more public lectures etc, and I'm absolutely trapped in my own prison of self-doubt and really can't see a way out. So over the years I have slowly become a big female imposter stereotype: trying to read everything, take the Most Diligent Notes, Keep Up With Scholarship so I can become Intellectually Bulletproof, avoid talking to anyone who might expose me for the fraud I am, and just don't get anywhere careerwise. I know that I need help but don't know how to get it. I have worked with a couple of counsellors and career coaches in the past, but they have not been helpful: career coaches are too job-focused, and I have not found counsellors who have a working understanding of academia, so it was really hard to find mutual understanding. I have been trying to look for resources about shame and trauma, but it does seem weighted towards things like child abuse etc., as I say above, so I haven't found it tremendously helpful.

In short, I would be grateful for any pointers, insights, comments, links in this area, or recommendations for good therapists (based virtually!) who might help me find my way out of my decade-long tangle. I have found reading Brené Brown and Tara Mohr useful, and would like to find more, as well as therapists or resources which can help me action some of these insights. Grateful in advance if you have gotten this far.
posted by starcrust to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. So much of what you explained resonates (woman until recently in engineering academia) it sends chills down my spine. The trauma is unique and nearly impossible to explain to outsiders I agree

Any chance of finding a therapist with a PhD? My current therapist is a professor who has a PhD in psych, who intuitively understands so much of that you’ve written about upthread, the uniquely traumatizing nature of the academy, the rampant narcissism, etc. The PhD-less social workers, MDs, etc were useless in this regard, but working with her has been immensely helpful.

Also feel free to direct message me anytime on metafilter if you want a friendly listening ear who feels everything you’re saying at a molecular levels
posted by shaademaan at 2:49 AM on April 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'd recommend reading some of the work of Brene Brown (PhD) on shame. She is a shame researcher and her work has changed my relationship with intellectual and personal shame. Her 2012 Ted Talk is one of the most popular of all Ted talks and her books and podcasts are very accessible.
posted by Thella at 4:06 AM on April 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

A friend recently posted this essay by a Black, tenured professor meditating on similar themes, which might be helpful. A key passage:

I’ve spent my career watching white people use job-performance standards to judge everyone but themselves and each other. Nevertheless, I have met those standards. I therefore don’t put stock in their opinion of my contributions. I don’t waste time and energy believing that if I had done something differently, I would have had a better outcome. My refusal to ignore the injustices that shape my profession has been sanity-saving, my truest form of self-care.
posted by damayanti at 4:16 AM on April 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a woman who has a PhD who has struggled with many things you describe. I've bombed massive presentations. I've choked in public. But I've never had the prizes and credentials that you've achieved.

Please: you've earned everything you have worked for. You EARNED IT. Even ENDURING it is earning it. Graduate school feels like a demented social experiment.

I've been out of academia for 10 years now and here's what I can say:

Stop looking at yourself as the imposter and start seeing academia as a totally bogus institution that sells itself as a meritocracy. It is not a meritocracy. These are fake gatekeepers.

It doesn't feel like it when you have to respect everyone and their power relations... but it's true. If you were to spend even one year out of academia, you'd see it for what it is: a bogeyman that has SOLD itself to you in that way to keep you from challenging them and their "fake" meritocracy.

In academia, particularly in the Humanities, the Emperor is wearing no clothes. You are NOT a fraud. They are. USE the system, don't feel subject to it.

Honestly now that I'm 10 years out, I wish I could talk to my Masters' and PhD student-self... the people whose gazes felt so penetrating will mean NOTHING to you when all is said and done. And YES it's traumatic. It IS traumatic. It took me years to shake it off. But it comes off! (whew)

Oh the other thing is specifically gendered: while I know there are men with imposter-syndrome, anecdotally, the women I Know that defended their theses ended up crying once they finished their defense. Men? They shook hands and accepted their credentials like they were owed it.

So this is all to say that this is very situational. I have SO MUCH MORE to say so memail me if you want to talk more.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:09 AM on April 30, 2021 [17 favorites]

Luvvie Ajayi Jones's Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual might be helpful.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:19 AM on April 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a tenured female (white) professor and your message resonates so much with a lot of what I know both first-hand and with friends. I don't know if this will help, but what strikes me as missing from your internal narrative is any sense of accomplishment specifically for improving your game over time. I know you don't think you've *really* improved it, but of course you have: you're where you are, and that's a hard place to get to. So. Can you try to have love, empathy, and care (and a bit of humor) for your younger self, who tried so hard to impress, and cared so much? And can you -- rather than either cringe, OR tell yourself it wasn't really a big deal -- acknowledge without judgment that her performances were rookie-level... and so can you try to find some humor in them, even, from where you stand now? Imagine a young, female, grad student of color crying in your office because she was so embarrassed by trying so hard to please the Old White Dude Establishment. Now imagine she's not your actual grad student but maybe your daughter. Treat your younger self the same way you'd treat her, with empathy and a secret bit of a twinkle inside knowing she'll be ok, and a sense of having traveled from the place she is, and then pat yourself on the back not just for surviving but for your growth into an award winning, tenure-having academic. Imagine if that young academic could see herself with tenure at a prestigious place and a prize-winning book... she'd have been soooo relieved.
posted by nantucket at 6:22 AM on April 30, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I am also a (former) female academic and I’m mostly just chiming in to say that your experience resonates deeply with me. The way shame is activated and used in a professional context is such a signal feature of the profession. I genuinely can’t even imagine what my experience in my PhD program would’ve been like in the absence of a constant low-level buzz and occasional incredibly intense flare up of shame.

For what it’s worth, I started therapy this year with a trauma informed therapist almost by accident (she just happened to have an opening when I needed it). Unlike you, I didn’t have the insight to label the issues that were happening in my work life as trauma-based: I was just like, lalala, I seem to be having some writer’s block—maybe you could help me get unstuck? And without pressuring me AT ALL, she helped me see, very quickly, that what I thought was a bounded problem around work was actually something with very deep and messy roots going back years. I now have a diagnosis of Complex PTSD and a much deeper understanding of where that shame came from, what it means, and how to deal with it. It was a much more intense process than I expected, but—sort of perversely—an incredibly positive one, as I feel more in control of my life than I ever have before. And, funnily enough, my writer’s block has cleared right up.

My suggestion, therefore, would be to focus less on finding someone with in depth expertise in academia than someone with expertise in trauma that you trust. You don’t have to show up with a full explanation of how academia has traumatized or retraumatized you—that’s their job! You can just say, I feel like I’m having symptoms of PTSD surrounding my academic experiences and go from there. I promise that nobody worth their salt is going to give you a hard time about not having been in a war zone or whatnot. Trauma is multifaceted and comes in many forms.

I hope you get the help you’re looking for! I think your insight into what’s Ben going on already bodes really well for you.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

Oh and I’d be happy to put you in touch with my therapist except that my experience is that even virtual therapy is limited by the state in which you’re credentialed, so unless you’re in Texas I’m not sure it would help. But I’m sure there are local resources available to you, and I could ask my therapist for a referral if you wanted to message me and tell me what state you’re in.
posted by Merricat Blackwood at 7:14 AM on April 30, 2021

Best answer: Academia is uniquely traumatizing and everything you said resonated so deeply with me. I have only found some relief through trauma therapy, which has really helped me just disengage when my colleagues are being jerks because they are intimidated by the fact that a younger woman-presenting scholar is both smarter and more successful than them. These old white men in the academy especially recognize, even though they would never say it, that they could not hold a candle to us. If they were trying to get a job right now we would beat them out every time because quite frankly we are better scholars than they are. The old boys club in the academy is slowly changing and they have a big mad about it, as do many of the other full professors and distinguished professors, regardless of gender. It must be frustrating to be around such awesome people and know that you can't keep up, so of course you have to cut them down. Meanwhile, they're teaching material from twenty years ago, harassing their PhD students, and doing nothing of value. We're giving 120% and may have nothing in our lives beyond our jobs. Trauma therapy has helped me disengage from my colleagues when they are being jerks and to stop trying to please them because they'll never be pleased by what I do. They are really just displeased by the fact that I exist in their space, and that's their problem.

Part of what keeps us hooked into continuing to give it 120% is the fact that the academic system is designed to allow rampant abuse and exploitation. The modern academy, especially prestigious research institutions, simply would fall apart if it didn't exploit the majority of the marginalized people in it. We are trying to please it, and the people in it, because that is precisely how the cycle of abuse works. Recognizing that I was being constantly traumatized and working with a trauma therapist helped me to disengage from the trauma and to try to stop pleasing these people who will literally never be pleased by what I do. Since you have tenure, you actually have a lot of freedom in terms of trying to find another institution that might treat you a bit better, because (I hope) not all institutions are as toxic as ours. You also have the freedom to drop some balls and stop juggling so many things. It's much easier said than done, and trauma therapy has given me the tools to unhook myself from this sick system a bit. It is a sick system; it is designed to abuse you and to make you feel like it's your fault and you should just "do better" to be treated well. That's how the academy works: when you're a PhD student, you're told maybe you will get a tenure track job and actually make a living wage. When you're a tenure track professor, you're told that you just have to keep your head down and not make trouble and do what you are told and then maybe you'll be able to have some job security someday. Etc.

One final thing that helped me? The university is supposed to be a place where knowledge is produced. And knowledge is always incomplete, contestable, and in active development. Of course we're going to say things that are wrong. If we were right all the time, we would actually just be fooling ourselves. Of course we are going to go down weird paths that are incorrect, or say things in a q&a that we look back on and feel bad about several years later. Reminding myself that knowledge changes over time and that the whole point of this is to look back at my previous work and ask myself "why did I think that? We know so much more now! I wish I had done that differently!" If you're looking back on your work and you think it's perfect and you shouldn't have done anything differently, you're just not paying attention. It's ok and good to be wrong sometimes. But abuse demands perfection and that creates a huge tension; plus, the goal posts for measuring perfection are always moving. Reminding myself that the goal posts are moving in part because I'm in an abusive system, and in part because the goal posts have to move in order for knowledge to advance, has been a useful thing for me.

In terms of finding a good trauma therapist, I actually found that the therapists that I worked with who understood the academy were absolutely the worst because they just wanted me to fit myself into the abusive system. They often echoed things that I heard from my colleagues, and it was really damaging for me. Find someone who is a real expert in trauma. They don't have to understand the specificities of the academy to understand that it is a sick and abusive system that functions like all abusive systems do.

Best of luck and solidarity.
posted by twelve cent archie at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2021 [13 favorites]

Twelve cent archie; I wish I had read this 10 years ago. Beautifully put.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 11:49 AM on April 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I am a tenured (white) female professor at an R1, and what you say resonates with me. I want to think further about what you said, but I'd like to second the suggestion above that you look for a therapist who is trained in trauma. Academia is deeply abusive, top to bottom, and a trauma specialist can help you the most. Whether you should look to someone who is or has been part of the system (that is, has a Ph.D.) is another question. In the past, I have found it much more helpful to talk to a therapist who has at least some notion of how the system works and how it feels to be a cog in this terrible, terrible machine. But YMMV.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 12:22 PM on April 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

book: "combatting cult mind control" by steve hassan.

As an ex-academic, I firmly believe academia is a cult, if you an academic told me you were mentally healthy I would be pretty surprised, and I encourage you to research the fuck out of this.

Working in industry for many years now, when i do interact with academics they seem well meaning but totally buried, detached, like ghosts. None of my grad school colleagues were mentally healthy; all were severely depressed and under insane pressure. Yes i said "all". Women and minorities got it worse, the culture of academia seemed to encourage bullying along standard oppressive lines. So your feelings make complete sense to me.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:30 PM on April 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I so want you to enjoy the accomplishments you so clearly earned. I don't think the shame you now experience is inevitable given the experiences you have had and you can feel better, and I really want you to. Even in your description of them, while I can read clearly and believe your feelings of shame, I don't read anything you actually should be ashamed of.

The advice or suggestion I have is second-hand from a friend who is a counsellor. She suggested to me that if someone is 'clever' then it can be sometimes easy for them to run intellectual rings round a therapist and that can get in the way of actually trying to do the work they suggest and seeing if it, in fact, does help. They suggested that it's not so much that you need a therapist who is intellectual in the same way and to the same extent as you are, but that you need one who is not intimidated by your intellectual abilities and can explain things in a way that you don't think is pseudo-science or nonsense. This may or may not apply to you, I offer it as something that might be helpful in thinking about whether a particular therapist is likely to be a good match.

I hope that this question and the answers are of some help you, you clearly deserve so much better and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by plonkee at 7:48 AM on May 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts, which I have been digesting this weekend as I consider ways forward. Really grateful, and I hope to reach out to some of you in time.
posted by starcrust at 2:09 PM on May 2, 2021

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