Guilt-free Balance

photo 2This whole week I’ve been in a great mood and really productive. The reason? I just got back from vacation on Sunday night. There is plenty of advice on what you should make time for to find work-life balance, but I don’t find much that deals with the root of why academics work too much: guilt.

Now it’s no secret that academia has traditionally had a toxic culture that encourages overwork and that early career researchers (ECRs) are pushing back to change that. But what can we do right now as products of this culture? For me the answer to this and most of my mental health struggles is be kinder to myself. Which okay sounds simple, but being a high strung type-A means it has taken me lots of practice to implement.

I can’t find the cartoon right now, but Ill add it in here when I have time to dig it up. It’s an exchange between a therapist and a client that goes roughly as follows:

Therapist: Do people deserve love and kindness?

Client: Yes.

Therapist: Even when they make a mistake?

Client: Of course.

Therapist: Then, why don’t you?

This cartoon helps me snap out of being overly critical of myself such as when I tell myself that I should feel guilty over what should be a reasonable action such as a vacation.

To move past harsh feelings, I recognize where those feelings are coming from and use script along the lines of, “It’s reasonable I had that feeling because of X, but I can choose to not fixate on it.” So for my guilt over taking a vacation it might look like:

“It’s reasonable that I feel guilty because the toxic culture of academia people to think that they should always be working. Academia doesn’t have structures in place for students to log and request vacation days like most salaried jobs do, so I don’t have as clear permission from the system to take those days off. But healthy work environments allow for those days so I can come back to work refreshed and recharged instead of burning out. It’s reasonable I had some guilt creep up, but I know that taking time off isn’t something bad, so I am going to let this feeling pass.”

To be clear though, those kinds of internal monologues don’t make the guilt disappear forever, but each time I repeat that conversation it goes a little faster every time. I’ve had days where the thought pop back up only moments after I finish telling myself to let it pass. And then I have to be kind to myself that the thought came back so soon! It’s a skill so it takes time and practice to incrementally get better at it, and that’s just fine.

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