In this guest post, Manos Apostolidis discusses how to navigate the waters of a PhD and personal development when we have to face our own barriers. It presents a guide of his own techniques for how to navigate this and be kind to yourself. It also features some lovely images of Greece, somewhere I spent a summer and feel will always hold a special place for me.
This is a story about what would have been. It starts with me being torn: move to Scotland for my PhD studies (i.e. blow up my personal life), or stay in Greece to study long-distance (i.e. compromise my studies)? It starts with me not getting the Wellcome Trust Fund scholarship. And it starts with a pharmacist (also me) doubting if a PhD in Creative Writing is where he should invest his savings. This is a post about unlived lives and missed opportunities. But, in truth, it is about being kind to yourself.
The idea for the post came after attending the SGSAH 2020 Welcome. I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t enter welcome events with high expectations—especially online ones. However, this one lasted three progressively more helpful hours, peaking with keynote speaker Lucy Weir. Paraphrasing Dr. Weir, postgraduate students shouldn’t compare themselves to others because it only drains their energy. I found myself mumbling: “Well, that it does!” Dr. Weir, unwittingly, went on to address issues that have troubled me greatly. This inspired me in turn to share my own story, hoping that it will resonate with you, dear postgraduate reader.
I recently discovered that I—and it feels weird saying this—I have OCD. That’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I recently went through a meltdown, triggered by all the things mentioned in the first paragraph. All the could-have-happeneds, the what-to-do-nows… It felt like my desk was sitting in the center of a dark maze, and I had to get up and pick a direction. Decisions felt like life and death.
OCD is often stereotyped as washing your hands hundreds of times until they’re raw. In some cases (me, for example) it’s less dramatic. It can simply be about mental habits stuck in your head. Some examples: going back-and-forth between decisions; being good at constantly spotting faults in your plans; drawing synopses of how you’ll be miserable in the future, etc. Most of these habits can feel quite normal. However, as they grow in intensity, they can become as hellish as chafed bloodied hands.
At first, I figured that my experience wouldn’t resonate with people. Most of you don’t have OCD, after all. But then I thought to myself, wait a minute! What’s my research focus again? Mental illnesses are exaggerations of human nature and thus can offer invaluable insights to all of us? Right! One could argue, for example, that OCD is an exaggerated form of indecision. An allergy to losing control. An inability to own your decisions… Who doesn’t suffer from these? Especially in the postgraduate community.
So, after some grueling soul-searching, a long history of therapy sessions, and recent anti-OCD medicating, I’m here to share some thoughts from the dark side.
Life finds a way. No more “if I don’t Get That Thing, my life is ruined.” How many people do I really know with ruined lives? And were their lives ruined because they didn’t Get That Thing?
Success is personal. If my goal was to see my name published in my lifetime, then a small-time press publication would feel like an amazing victory. If I planned on becoming a best-selling author next year, it would feel like a horrible defeat. Manage your expectations.
Life can surprise us. Am I sure Getting That Thing would’ve made me happier? Could anybody know for sure what would’ve happened if I’d Gotten That Thing? Is there any point trying to guess?
Decisions are not limitations. Wishing I was brave enough to relocate doesn’t really make sense. I probably could relocate—I just ultimately choose not to. If I relocated, I would be miserable for various reasons. Nothing is worth being miserable over.
Am I sure I’m not happy? Once in a while, I remind myself to contrast my goals with my experience. When I stop obsessing over That Thing I didn’t Get (e.g. studies in Scotland), I discover that I actually like what I already have, here in Greece.
Now. The abovementioned points are not just oversimplifications—they’re also clichés. You probably know them already from some inspirational Tweet. However, in those clichés, I’ve found a common thread. If you’ll allow the cheesiness: my own personal Ariadne’s Thread. It was what I held onto entering the dark maze, and what helped me find my way out.
The thread was myself.
What I mean is this: In my experience, people who get paralyzed when facing big decisions don’t pay enough attention to their own wishes. Those who have trouble coming to terms with their life situation, usually disregard their own experience. The dark maze around them is other people, other possibilities, other opportunities—other lives—and they lose sight of themselves. This becomes especially intense in diverse, competitive, and outcome-oriented environments. For example, in academia.
Unfortunately, as I’d be the first to tell you, you won’t find wisdom in clichés. First of all, as a writer, I’ve been taught that cliches are transparent to the reader; because of their familiarity, they don’t stimulate the mind. Second, our brains are very adept at persuading us to disregard our own best advice, to doubt decisions we’ve painfully made—again. (And again. (And again)). Clichéd advice doesn’t stand a chance against the brain.
Fortunately, I’d also be the first to tell you to never let your own best advice turn cliché. Surrendering to doubt and indecision never helps. (If I learnt one thing, it’s that.) Always try to do something about it—even simple things, like having faith in your own “clichés”.
And it helps. It really does. Especially in panicky nights.
Once in a while, remember to forget about the maze, since it’s not really there at all. And hold on to the thread that is yourself. Threads come in handy because you can follow them in the dark.
Manos Apostolidis is a Greek pharmacist with an MA in Creative Writing (interdisciplinary, right?), now doing a PhD in Dundee. His research interests, basically, lie in authorship and how it helps us make sense of the world