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Doctorates, Down-Dogs and the Challenge of Self Talk (Guest Post)

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The day I submitted my PhD dissertation was also my 95th day of a self-imposed 100 day yoga challenge. I had never intended to complete both tasks in such quick succession. Indeed, the fact that I actually completed either task at all feels like a happy, but surreal surprise. Despite the five and half years spent researching and writing my dissertation, and the nearly four years of dedicated yoga practice, my accomplishments still surprised me. The reason being, I am a serial under-estimator. A career denial-ist. A seasoned veteran of negative self-talk.

It wasn’t actually until I developed a daily yoga practice (alongside Buddhist meditation classes I had been taking for years) that I became aware of the stories I was telling myself about myself, and began to see how these stories were holding me back. Negative self-talk usually accompanies an activity with which you might feel pride or success. Education and exercise are some of the most fruitful grounds for pride and success. They are measurable; in many cases quantifiable. Because of this, we must weave more elaborate personal stories to discount our work and effort. This was my sweet spot.

All the usual suspects were there: you’re in way over your head, there’s no way you can do this, you’re setting yourself up for failure – and the inevitable knock-out punch – no one will ever love you and they will be right. For anyone who hasn’t engaged in this kind of self-talk, I understand it sounds extreme. Those of us who have will know that these messages come after meticulous, and seemingly well-reasoned inner dialogue that leads to what feels like a logical conclusion: we are not worthy. Of success. Of love. Of letting go.

Beautifully, yoga teaches the opposite. I was encouraged to let go of expectations, to be kind to myself, practice gratitude, and celebrate the present. Each message was received in contrast to my usual pattern of self-talk. My pattern went like this: Your work is never good enough, your waist is never small enough, and every time you cross off something on your to-do list, two more tasks will take its place. This is where the contrast between my dissertation work and my yoga challenge became very apparent.

Academia, like many occupations, thrives on perfectionism and hierarchies. It’s processes encourage competition alongside dwindling resources and employment. For the final years of my PhD I found myself working 4 jobs, alongside writing what became a 250 page manuscript of original research. Even working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, I never felt I was doing enough. I couldn’t commit fully to any one task, and the shear volume of work on my plate meant that I was never finished. Such a reality only fed my already honed skill of negative self talk. Despite my best efforts, it was never good enough. I was never good enough.

Slowly, yoga taught me to appreciate intention. The act of coming to my mat, even if all I did was lie on the floor for an hour, was enough. And I did lie on the floor. A lot. And when I was lying there, I would repeat: you are enough. Slowly, I began to motivate myself, not through shame, but through kindness and gratitude. I began to talk to myself as I would talk to a friend. I began to encourage myself as I would encourage a student. I began to live in my body differently. Suddenly it wasn’t about what I looked like, it was about what I could do. I could touch my toes (for the first time at 30 years old!) I could hold plank, I could flip my dog, and on one glorious occasion, I lifted myself up into wheel. I couldn’t deny it. I couldn’t talk myself out of it. It was happening.

This approach to my physical self began to inspire a shift in my approach to my intellectual self. I began to appreciate my intentions rather than material outcomes. I began to acknowledge my commitment to my students and their learning, in the face of institutional invisibility and economic exploitation, as a strength, rather than a weakness. As something that reflected integrity, not foolishness or incapability. I can say with absolute certainty that this intellectual shift was the only way I was able to make it through the process. I would never have experienced this shift, without the knowledge I gained from a dedicated yoga practice and a community of kind, wise teachers. I could easily have joined the ranks of students who have left graduate programs prior to completion. The system seems designed to work you until you reach a breaking point. Much like hazing, the emphasis is placed on how much you can withstand, not on the unique and beautiful things you bring to the table, just by being who you are.

Academia is not alone in this approach. In fact, the argument could be made that this is a cultural problem. The workoholic, the super mom, and the corporate ladder-climber, are each symptomatic of the same kinds of messaging: you are not doing enough. You are not enough. These messages are reinforced by the myth of meritocracy: success comes from hard work, thus, if you are not successful, you are not working hard enough. These cultural voices are loud and convincing. They speak to and embolden that negative inner voice that resides in each of us (even if yours isn’t as loud as mine, I suspect you can think of an example where you have engaged in negative self talk in relation to your own life, work or relationships). I think shifting our own patterns of self talk can have political, even revolutionary cultural consequences.

Writing a doctoral thesis and completing 100 straight days of hot yoga (did I mention it was hot yoga?) both involve a great deal of dedication, perseverance, and for better or worse, a LOT of alone time. Self talk becomes a life line, the only thing that keeps your fingers typing, and your arms extended in mountain pose. It was only by working on these two goals, simultaneously, that I was able to understand my own patterns of self-talk. Better yet, it actually taught me how to talk to myself differently. Rather than motivate myself through shame or projected judgement, I became kinder, more friendly and encouraging of myself as a human being; as flawed and imperfect, yet still whole and deserving of success. Of love. Of letting go.

Besides Savasana, Dr. Jen enjoys building a supportive community around teaching, learning and celebrating strengths. She aspires to be brave, passionate and helpful. When she isn’t teaching first year university students, or talking about her feelings, she is indulging her love of supporting moms and babies at a young mother’s group in London, Ontario.

100 thoughts on “Doctorates, Down-Dogs and the Challenge of Self Talk (Guest Post)

  1. “… if you are not successful, you are not working hard enough. These cultural voices are loud and convincing.”
    I have worked very hard on impossible things, and was told to try harder, because a cursory look told them that it seemed to make sense and so go flush it out. But it was nonsense, and no amount of research would make it true or ultimately logical. I had no idea I was talking non-sense until much later, when I was much too old to begin again, when I found out I had Asperger’s Syndrome. Now even the name is gone and I think back on everything I ever said, on the humoring of me that was done, and I realize that it was all poppycock nonsense. Intelligent drivel. So now I’m working on a poetry novel which is double-doomed to fail, and so I’m slow to finish it.

    “Rather than motivate myself through shame or projected judgement, I became kinder, more friendly and encouraging of myself as a human being; as flawed and imperfect, yet still whole and deserving of success. Of love. Of letting go.
    For every failed in-person social interaction which is almost all of them, I remember another one similar or worse from the past. It’s getting to be like a life review at the time of death. I can’t find a memory that isn’t tinged with sadness. Even the good ones degenerated into sabotage by the winds of fate that knock over the ignorant or the oblivious, it was like building a house as a tornado approaches: Yes, wonderful house, boom, crash. A moment of joy worth nothing. I am of such cheerfulness.

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  2. This is such an inspiring story! I believe as a woman with the hormones peaking and dipping multiple times a month we all have that inner demon. The one that you constantly question “Why am I thinking this?” Or “this isn’t normal, I should just let this issue go” but majority of the time we succumb to these negative thoughts. Recently experience PPD (I’m 2/2 with my pregnancies) has put this very much into perspective for me. I would like to do a guest post on this subject if your willing. Again thanks so much for the insight and encouragement!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this! I spend a lot of my time in negative self-talk, and I call it ‘reflection’ so that it feels valid. I need to put more emphasis on making myself happy before meeting others’ needs and I definitely need to ensure that I don’t let other people stop me from doing the things that I want to do. Thank you for being inspiring!

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  4. Love this post. I know all about that voice constantly telling you to do more, to be more. But your post is very motivating and I thank you for sharing! Congratulations on your PhD, you must feel so proud!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is pretty much exactly what I just went through. Finishing the Ph.D. and turning to yoga to help me get through it. What is it about the doctorate and grad school that just fills you with this feeling of worthlessness? Of never feeling like anything is good enough? It was a constant struggle for me as well.

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  6. Beautiful post. I can relate to so much here (except for the daily yoga… seriously considering following your lead). I was so shocked when I turned in my dissertation b/c I’d spent everyday leading up to it telling myself I wasn’t doing enough work.

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  7. What a great article! Negative self talk is so toxic. I might give yoga amother shoot. I’ve never thought about it in this way.

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