Self-criticism: Can mindfulness help?

Do you find yourself often being too hard on yourself? Maybe you gave into your craving and ate that decadent slice of chocolate cake or perhaps you left a small work task for the next day so you could go home and be with your loved ones an hour early. A key training component in graduate school is to develop our critical thinking skills. Personally, I think my self-criticism has a positive correlation relationship with the development of my critical thinking skills during grad school thus far. These thoughts come to mind after having taken a much needed vacation to travel home and visit family and friends.

The week before my travels, I felt so guilty about taking time off lab and my research. Furthermore, my guilt had led me to ask for only one week off (with even fewer days being spent in my hometown). The short time I spent at home was spent with some internal conflict. I remained feeling guilty about taking time off work, and I also felt guilty about not spending enough time with my family. Overall, you can say I felt a little crummy. Although I have come to learn how important self-care is, I still find myself struggling to ask for all of the self-care I need. By this, I mean that I’ve been improving my daily work-life balance and growing in my mindfulness meditation experience to improve my coping mechanisms in the high stress environment of PhD training. However, a large part of me still strives to work, work, work, even in the face of burnout!  I haven’t yet gained acceptance for the necessity of taking a dedicated vacation and unplugging from work. This act of self-care definitely triggers my self-criticism!

While I haven’t completely shed my acts of self-criticism, my mindfulness meditation did help me face the struggles I experienced this past week with the vacation. While my usual routine was disturbed by the travels, I incorporated time to meditate each day. The meditations were short, only ~5 minutes at a time, but they reminded me to be present and to be accepting. Acceptance included the negative feelings: the feelings of guilt about time away from work and not enough time with family. With acceptance, I can acknowledge all of my emotions and thoughts and allow myself to enjoy being in the moment. I lovingly told my family and myself, “I know my time here is limited, but a short visit is better than no visit. Let’s enjoy the short visit.” Until the time our culture and mindset in the academic workplace (at least within the US) can be adjusted to better value a healthy work-life balance, we need to each take the necessary measures of proper self-care that work for us. May mindfulness meditation be a solid foundation that you stand on to view yourself and the world around you.

Gratitude

This week on “Mindful Path to PhD,” let’s talk about gratitude. Graduate school is full of challenges and obstacles, but it’s also a time full of growth and opportunities. Eduction is a privilege, but when we find ourselves facing difficulties we have a tendency to take things for granted. Mindfulness meditation, in my experience, has been like a beacon of light in the darkness, one that reminded me of the balance in life. Without darkness, we cannot appreciate light; without running, we cannot appreciate walking; without obstacles, we cannot appreciate a clear path ahead.

My practice of mindfulness has reminded me to appreciate the challenges that I have faced in graduate school. Each year of graduate school, so far, has presented its own obstacles. The first year was all about settling in and trying not to feel like a newbie (new school, new people, new lab or projects). During the second year, stress often begins to build around the occurrence of qualifying exams and the steep learning curve that may come with new thesis projects. Then the “3rd year slump,” as it’s most often endearingly referred to as, hits. In the 3rd year of a PhD, you feel far enough along in your projects that experiments should be yielding usable results, but this is still often the time when things aren’t working. The 3rd year of my PhD was a time full of difficulties and consequently, growth. I was often doubtful and lacked confidence, especially when facing “failed” experiment after “failed” experiment. However, I persevered during my 3rd year of graduate school. I learned to take time for myself, and I began to develop a work-life balance to stave off burnout and maintain healthy relationships with my family and friends.

I’m beginning my 4th year of graduate school, and I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue higher education. In science, troubleshooting and optimizing experiments is the nature of the beast. However, how you react to situations is a matter of perspective. Mindfulness has allowed me to adjust my perspective to one that brings curiosity and acceptance to the challenges of completing a doctoral thesis. I hope you may all find your own sense of gratitude and appreciation for something that has brought balance into your life.

“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.” – Rumi

 

Finding clarity

Last week, I had an enlightening conversation with one of my colleagues (who happens to also be a dear friend) and she mentioned that she finally felt she discovered her passion in life. Her inspirational words rang deep within me. In that moment I remembered that I, too, have a passion and sense of belonging in this world only I had allowed my fear and worries to diminish my spirit. From a very young age, I was always fascinated with science and I had a certain naiveté in life that allowed me to be incredibly optimistic. I appreciated the challenges and difficulties I faced when I was learning natural sciences. Furthermore, I was given an experience with cancer that ignited my passion and bolstered my motivation to choose a path in science despite being faced with the challenges of being a first-generation college student.

Education is certainly a privilege. My passion in life has always involved science and my wish from a very young age was to be involved in somehow making cancer therapeutics better. Without my education, I would not be able to pursue my passion in life. Upon entering college, I was fortunate enough to continue having brilliant and supportive science teachers and discover what’s really going on in the life of a scientist (or researcher). During college I learned what a PhD was and how one could be paid (at least in STEM fields) a livable wage to obtain this high degree. I remember thinking, “wow, if I study hard and work hard enough, this is definitely possible!” I was flabbergasted by the idea that I could be paid to obtain a degree and specialized training to do what I was most passionate about in life.

I think I was prepared, at least in some ways, for the difficulties of graduate school. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the realization that these difficulties that I face during graduate school would make me doubt my passion in life. During grad school, particularly in my third year, I internalized the challenges I faced in research and began to question if I really had what it took to “succeed” in doing what I thought my greatest passion was. Mindfulness meditation has woken up my inner spirit from its slumber where it had been resting after being burdened by increasing self-doubt. In my experience, mindfulness meditation has not only lifted the veil from my eyes, but has also begun to strengthen my mind. Altogether, my practice of mindfulness has provided me with clarity once more and self-confidence to believe in myself and continue doing what I love.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” – Rumi

Reflection

One of the key tenants of mindfulness is to be present in the moment. While it’s been a struggle, slowly adopting this perspective has been transformative to my lifestyle, as I’m one of those people who always likes to have a plan- especially for the future. Although presently I’m in graduate school and actively doing research towards my PhD, I’m often struggling with feelings and anxiety related to “imposter syndrome”. Many of you may be familiar with (and have even experienced) imposter syndrome, but for those who aren’t familiar, imposter syndrome, simply put, is a strong feeling of not being good enough or qualified enough to be in your current position.

For me, I think imposter syndrome is largely connected to my background as a first-gen college student, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist- so I’m always critical and hard on myself. When I get caught up in these low moments of being especially hard on myself and worrying that I’m not good enough, I try to take a moment to remember where I currently am. Then, I do like to take a small amount of time to reflect on how I’ve gotten to this position.

If you have a moment, I want to share a trip down memory lane with you. That being a part of my journey to graduate school. I grew up in southwest Michigan, and I stayed in Michigan to obtain my undergraduate degree. During undergrad, I was exposed to many “critical factors” as I’ll call them. The first “critical factor” was a whole department of faculty who care about their students, and in particular, my first research mentor. Dr. Lee accepted me into her lab as a bright-eyed, excited, and oblivious (I had never stepped foot into a research lab before) college freshman. I began going to “the lab” in between and after classes where I would wash the lab dishes and learn from the graduate students and Dr. Lee about the research that was being conducted. The second “critical factor” was the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program at CMU which I was accepted into during my 2nd year of college. Through the McNair Scholars Program, I was funded to do my first summer research project with Dr. Lee. More importantly, I learned that there is funding to do research in graduate school to obtain a PhD. My mind was blown! I remember thinking, “What?! They will pay me to go to school to do research and get a graduate degree?!”

I’d like to pause here to emphasize that for me, as a first-generation college student, higher education/ graduate school was a black box. I didn’t know anything about it- from what the different degrees were, to how you apply, and any of the funding situations. Thanks to my “critical factors” (especially the McNair Scholars Program), I quickly learned all of these things and was provided the resources needed to facilitate applying to grad school, which would have likely been out of reach otherwise with my background. I continued nurturing my passion for research during undergrad and somehow managed to get accepted into a graduate program to begin the fall after I completed my Bachelor’s degree.

Fast forward to the present, and I’m completing my 3rd year of graduate studies. Grad school has been a learning experience unlike any other, in my opinion. Remember that it’s important to reflect on your own journey and how it’s shaped you into the person you are. Importantly, take time to be present in the moment. Grad school is filled with highs and lows, try to embrace both for what they teach you, and make the most out of each moment.