PhD paralysis

My mother developed breast cancer at an early age, so I have been warned I must be vigilant and get regular check ups. Of course, time marches by, I get busy and don’t always go when I am meant to. You know where this kind of procrastination leads right? Yes indeed. Last week the doctor found something and I had my first cancer scare, which meant a couple of days of tests, worry and kicking myself for not facing the music like a grown woman.

As it turns out I’m totally ok (apparently ‘my girls’ are just getting on a bit – like the rest of me!) but during this time in medical limbo I slipped into some kind of… I can only describe it as walking paralysis. I kept going to work and being with my family, but the whole time I felt detached – like I was watching myself just going through the motions. As soon as I let myself start to feel anything I would be overwhelmed by the ‘what if?’ questions and end up in tears. So I suppressed feeling altogether and existed in a horrible state of numbness and inaction. I watched a lot of TV, but wasn’t good for much else.

One of the terrible side effects of this numbness was I completely lost my writing mojo; it was even difficult to reply to routine email. The sense of loss I felt was profound. Writing is central to my life, so much a part of my identity that without it I felt bereft. Reflecting on the feeling, now that the comfortable illusion of immortality has been restored, I realise that the same, strange lassitude around writing would happen occasionally during my PhD. I would sit at my desk, unable to focus on the screen,  every key stroke an effort, for days at a time. Eventually the feeling would lift and I could get on with it.

Now I know what was causing this PhD paralysis: Fear.

For all that this terrible numbness I was experiencing this week didn’t feel like fear, that’s indeed what it was. As Yoda once said: “fear is the path to the dark side”. What the wise old green dude was pointing out is that it’s the effects of fear – what it does – that we must pay attention to, not the feeling itself. In this case Fear put me into emotional retreat and cut off the vital part of me that I needed to get into the flow of work.

Once you recognise a fear it becomes easier to conquer it, but when I was doing my PhD I don’t think I was very good at this. Even when I was able to write without obvious distress I often indulged in bad writing habits which stemmed, at least in part, from fear.

One of these habits, which you might be familiar with, is the ‘one step forward two steps backward’ syndrome. In the morning I would open an existing file and, by lunchtime, would still be editing. Although I was ‘working’ the word count was not progressing. The only way I got through this block was to give myself permission to write really badly for awhile – sometimes in a new file so I wouldn’t ‘mess up’ what I already had. What I couldn’t admit to myself at the time was that I was afraid my new ideas wouldn’t be any good, so I avoided engaging seriously with them.

Fears can be plentiful in PhD study – fear of failure, fear of leaving out vital information, fear of missing key references, fear of examination, fear of a lack of ability… So how do we deal with fear without becoming paralysed?

Last week @julierudner send me an excellent article by Virginia Valian called “learning to work” which provides a helpful analysis of exactly this kind of  PhD paralysis. Only in 1970’s feminism could someone look to sex therapy techniques for a cure for the inability to write, but this is essentially what Valian does. She starts with an insightful diagnoses of the problem; pointing out that inability to work because of ‘internal problems’ is a kind of luxury only available to the well educated who are engaged in ‘self development’. After this quick smack in the face, she goes on to tell her own story of work paralysis, which sounds hauntingly familiar to the problems I have described above.

Valian claims that problems with mental work, such as writing, are similar to sexual problems in that a lack of enjoyment in the activity itself leads to an inability to perform. In sex therapy couples are encouraged to overcome their sexual dysfunction by just touching each other, without expectations. Removing expectations, along with rewards and punishments, allows couples to experience the act of touching as a pleasure in its own right.

Valian applied this principle to her work problem by setting a short period of time – 15 minutes – in which she would just work, without expecting anything to come out of it. Just writing for the pleasure in the act of writing, without any thought of punishment or reward. The sense of accomplishment, she explains, should come from doing the work – not how good it is.

The most important insight in the paper, for me at least, is that I am responsible for the paralysis – I am not a victim of it. I can choose to recognise fear for what it is and learn ways to deal with it. In that spirit (and because I am a total nerd) I will  leave you with the Bene Gesserit litany against fear featured in the Frank Herbert Dune novels to recite if you happen to experience an attack of PhD Paralysis:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

29 thoughts on “PhD paralysis

  1. Ellie says:

    I’ve always liked “The only thing you have to fear is fear itself” (Eleanor Roosevelt)…

    Great article. And I sympathise with the BC scare – had one myself recently (all ok in the end) but I recognise that feeling of paralysis.

  2. Angie says:

    That must’ve been scary. I’m glad you’re o.k.

    Nice post. Fear is the biggest obstacle, especially if you have to answer to your most critical voice, the voice in your head.

    interesting the connection between sex and writing.

  3. fragmentsofmynewlife says:

    Glad you are okay – as am I when I had the same thing happen a week before turning 40 (and a draft of my thesis due to my co-supervisor that week). Waiting was like watching myself from another space…I wish I’d found this blog during my PhD and not just after I finished!!

  4. Marese kelly says:

    FEAR !!
    I self diagnosed this of myself just this week to explain my behaviour for the last 6 months . I called it boredom, annoying , painful etc but actully I am afraid to progress because someone might say”not good enough” . I am engaged in a systematic review and all I have to do now is read (albeit systematically) but simle right ?

    I just applied for some funding and as I drew out my timeline for the project I thought “will I or can I actually do this”? The answer of course is I can but if my will is left up to me I am fearful I’ll self destruct !!!! There I go again fearing!!

  5. selvaggiah says:

    For me the paralysis comes in the form of distraction, and although I might be responsible for it, the distraction is always more motivated than my research. Or at least I convince myself that this is the case. I am writing my Phd in a very abstract field of the humanities; it is a very “soft” topic. I convince myself that only the hard sciences merit existence and suffer since I lack formal training in this. Although I have one BA in another subject, and one relevant MA degree, I still fantasize about taking _another_ interdisciplinary MA with a scientific flair rather than going on with my research. I continuously convince myself of the uselessness of my field, because I know from this platform I cannot concretely combat climate change or save lives :'(

  6. Sergey says:

    Being a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and a PhD candidate who got stuck in a write in fear of presenting work which is not sufficiently polished – this article is gold!

    And like a good dress, long enough to cover the subject, yet short enough to keep the reader interested:)

  7. Hannah Brunsdon says:

    Seven years after this was written and it just helped me crawl out of a deep pit of writing paralysis. Thank you!

  8. Tanya says:

    This is the most incredibly insightful blog/collection of rants that I have ever encountered. I am doing a PhD – in a foreign country, no less – and The Valley of Shit made me laugh and feel a lot better! Thank you for writing this!!!

  9. Marty says:

    This is only one of many great posts. Thank you for helping me and others put things into some perspective!

  10. Iliana Guadalupe Villegas says:

    Fear, such a horrible feeling. What will my advisor think? What will the committee think? How many corrections will I have to make, am I making sense? Is my Spanish way of writing all over this dissertation with grammatical errors all over? Let me watch something on Netflix instead. Then, there are all the other emotional and health issues that just happened right during fieldwork. Transcribing took months, writing one chapter between the Spring and the the Summer is unheard of, I am barely starting a second chapter and added to my depression and fear, I will not graduate this Fall. This article helps so much, I may have to read it once a week.

  11. Bets says:

    Still relevant 9 years later.

    “Fear is the little-death”: so is orgasm (la petite mort)! Just to bring it back to sex….

    Also, someone once told me that fear is excitement being suppressed–meaning the ego doesn’t let us get too excited about ourselves, in case we fail or get criticized or ridiculed. The truth is, my research does excite me, and I’d like to remember and write from that space of excitement more often.

  12. Marta says:

    Its interesting that it is such an elite feeling …you must be in the elite of achievers to really get into this terrifying state! For me the problem with fear is that I can’t be sure which factors EXACTLY contribute to the overwhelming feeling of fear and paralysis. I have been achiever all my life even with this horrible fear in the back on my mind. It never bothered me for a longer period of time. But one day during my PhD I just stopped being able to process all those emotions anymore and my progress has been impaired ever since (7-8 months now). So I am asking myself whether other life events play a role here as well (such as for instance fertility problems). Or you just blame other things in yr life because you are not able to manage your fear any longer?

  13. MLEE says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read today, thank you. I’m going through pretty much the exact same thing- had a breast cancer scare late last year, and the knots they found were fine for now but who knows when they’ll develop into cancer, so I have to get checkups and scans more often. With covid-19 rearing its ugly head this year as well, I’ve basically been in a state of paralysis. I’m already halfway through my 3-year PhD program and I feel like I have nothing to show for it, but I’ve just started reading your blog and am starting to get back on track. So thank you again!

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