Ask yourself: What are you afraid of?

I started writing this one almost two years ago, but put it in the digital drawer because I thought it was kind of obvious. But as more people in my life have come up against the same problems with paralyzing anxiety or decision fatigue, I’m realizing this is actually worth saying.

Throughout my year of research, back in 2019, it was often hard for me to find motivation, and as a result I would end up in an anxiety/procrastination cycle. Especially because I was working on a massive project that only I had the roadmap for (and it was a very sketchy one indeed), it was hard to justify any one task. It’s like climbing a mountain – you want to conserve your energy, but sometimes you also need to push a little harder to make it up a particularly steep spot, and part of the skill of doing it is knowing when it’s worth expending the energy and when it’s not. Unless you want to get really philosophical, the mountain and the trail still exist whether you can see them or not, but your dissertation only fully exists once it’s complete – the mountain is coming into existence as you climb it, so you can’t really anticipate what is a worthwhile path and what isn’t. In the height of my research year, that uncertainty led me into a new variation on boredom/anxiety, a more intense version where I nihilistically felt that that no path was worthwhile. When the big task and all the little tasks that make it up started to feel especially difficult, I had a hard time justifying to myself why any of it was worthwhile.

It struck me that this inclination to just throw everything out comes from a place of fear. Am I afraid of failing? Am I afraid of wasting my time? Am I afraid of succeeding? It’s honestly pretty hard to say, either in the moment or after the fact. My strategy used to be to just power through these kinds of fears and anxieties, because my secondary school teachers liked to tell me I was lazy and now my impulse is to believe that I can overcome any difficulty by working harder. And while it’s true that just ignoring the fear and anxiety is a viable strategy for completing a task, in this kind of prolonged stressful situation it very quickly leads to burnout. So it is necessary once in a while to give myself an extended break and think about what’s really going on.

And I want to take a second to talk about what I mean by “an extended break”. There is a mentality among workaholics (which encompasses most academics) that a break is 15 minutes at the most and an extended break is 2 hours of zoning out in front of a computer. This leads to working in a zombie state in which information passes through your mind but never settles because your brain is rotting away and you are drooling uncontrollably. It’s hard not to do this when you have the impossible task of reading 2 books a day for a year or writing 15 polished pages of original work in a week. I’ve always believed in long, restorative breaks, but early in grad school something happened that convinced me not to feel guilty about them. I was trying to pass my Latin and German exams, and it was getting to the point that I was going to have to delay my orals if I didn’t pass them in the next 2 tries (it took about 10 tries total for each language). I asked my advisor if we could talk, and instead of telling me to suck it up and keep studying, he said “when was the last time you went outside?” He told me to take the day off, go take a walk in the park, and stop thinking about the exams. He knew that the problem was that I was completely in my own head about the whole thing.

So, in the midst of my research year, I tried to step back from my paralyzed non-activity for a bit to figure out what was really bothering me. There were layers to wade through.

There was a lot of depression and anxiety that were not directly related to my research: I missed my family, I was suffering from untreated postpartum depression, I was living a life of solitude in a foreign country where I didn’t know anyone or speak the language very well, and my finances were strained because I had a limited budget for my trip which didn’t cover childcare, by far my biggest and most necessary expense. Although those anxieties were not part of my work issues, they still impacted my mood and my ability to motivate myself, and so I needed to recognize them. Some people don’t find any reassurance in making a plan to deal with a problem, but I do. I started seeing a therapist virtually while I was living in Sicily, which helped me to initiate a relationship with a psychiatrist when I got home and finally get medication. Recognizing these anxieties also helped me notice when things happened that alleviated them. I never felt that secure about my Italian skills in Sicily, but part of the fear attached to that was that I was all alone and wouldn’t be able to ask for help when I needed it. But one day, when I found myself locked out of my apartment, I was able to ask for help from my neighbor in full sentences in Italian, and he helped me solve the problem. Fear overcome. I still wasn’t fluent in Italian, but I could manage.

There was also a lot of anxiety that was based in fear directly about my work. I was lucky enough that none of the fear at that point was that I wouldn’t find enough material to write a dissertation. I had built into my dissertation plan the contingency of negative results – in fact, I was planning on it. My hypothesis was that there were no extant manuscripts on scientific topics from 12th century Sicily, and I was basically right. I was always trying to find this period in other kinds of manuscripts. I also always planned for a pretty disparate source base – I didn’t expect my research to come together in an obvious way while I was doing it, and only just now that I’m in the very final stage of editing am I making the last few connections that bring everything together into a cohesive whole. But I did have a lot of anxiety about my ability to read my sources. Languages are really hard for me. That’s not modesty. I’ve learned a lot of languages because I had to for the work I wanted to do, but at no point have my skills in any one language matched most of my peers in the same class. There are parts of languages that I’m particularly good at – I have pretty easy comprehension, and an openness to structure, so I don’t tend to get tripped up on foreign syntax. The example I always use is that liking something in Japanese is an adjective, not a verb, and this makes total sense to me. Because I have always felt insecure about my language skills, I am always afraid that I don’t know a language well enough to do the work I need to do. That’s my imposter syndrome. I’m afraid someone is going to find out that I don’t really know Latin or Arabic and invalidate all the work I’ve done with those languages. Recognizing that fear has helped me shape my work differently. A lot of scholars in my field do really important literary research on medieval medical texts – comparing language between two versions, for instance. I’m not suited to that. I could try to force myself to do it, but I’m not that interested in it and I wouldn’t do as good a job as someone else with better language skills. So, I’ve learned to use my languages as the tools they are – they’re not the main part of my research, they’re just things I’ve picked up to get the work done. What I am good at is visual analysis and finding patterns or connections. Sometimes those connections are in words, and sometimes they’re not. But I focus on those other skills to make the arguments I want to make.

Articulating the fear behind each anxiety is a painful process, like popping a painful pimple. But doing it has always helped me find a way through the anxiety. Strategies like focusing on my strengths aren’t just short term solutions – they’re lasting efforts that help prevent the anxiety in the future. Identifying your fears helps you recognize when an anxiety is momentary, and when it’s based on a structure you’ve built around yourself. Try it out.