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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.

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

  1. What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing your story. Getting past the negative self talk (in academia and in life) is something that resonates for so many (me included). Your approach is really inspiring. I love how you used yoga and Buddhism to become aware of and change your patterns. And congratulations on your PhD. That is an amazing accomplishment!

    1. Thank you so much Tracy! Your kind words and encouragement mean a lot! It can be scary to share our feelings, but it can also be motivating and help to foster deeper relationships with those around us. I’m glad that my words resonated with you, and I hope you are practicing more positive self talk as well!

  2. Congratulations.
    I didn’t realize everyone DIDN’T have that mean inner voice that criticized and insulted.
    Understanding I could change mine has transformed my life. Yoga is my “secret weapon” too.
    Making choices that are supportive and kind versus critical and full of fear. Amazing.
    I sounds like you have found a way to do that too!
    Anne

    1. Thank you Anne! And yes you are so right. I wonder where that voice comes from? Though I suppose that knowing how to quiet it is what is most important! Glad to have connected with a fellow yogi – it is such a beautiful form of exercise for the things it can teach us about ourselves.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this, so that I don’t have to 🙂 I can so identify with each and every one of these words. Will be sharing soon!

  4. So encouraging to read your story. I started doing yoga about 3 months ago and didn’t think I would be able to do it. Was I wrong! It has taught me so much – most importantly to appreciate my body for what it is. I have been considering going back to get my doctorate and have been struggling with the negative self talk myself. After reading your story I have a renewed hope. Thank you.

    1. Thank you AJ! I felt the exact same way when I started practicing. One of the things I love about yoga is that the incremental changes are obvious and quick to show. You notice that you can hold a little longer, bend a little farther, reach a little higher each day, and it is infectious! I hope your yoga practice continues to be affirming and inspiring for you (as it is for me!) 🙂

  5. Congrats on finishing your PhD! I’d like to try the yoga thing. I don’t know a lot of poses though, did you use something to learn about it that others could use? Or maybe you’ve just been doing it long enough that you already knew. Can’t hurt to ask! Thank you!

  6. Reblogged this on James Zannetti Photo and commented:
    Images are not just objects we capture with a camera. Images are also something we create in our mind in reference to our opinions of others, and more importantly ourselves. Check out this largely brilliant article on self talk, and let’s all practice the art of talking to ourselves…

  7. Being a super self critic, I must say the words resonate a lot with my self image. Lying flat on yoga mat, is another fun thing relatable 🙂

  8. This piece is both beautiful and inspiring. I struggle with the same doubts of myself but somehow trudge through. I am a critical care nurse and there are many times I have kicked myself when things didn’t go as expected. I also expect alot from myself. I got to explore Buddhism before and I remember how calm I felt after the meditation. The mindfulness bell seems to resonate through to the soul. again beautiful article and congratulations on PhD.

  9. Wow! Incredible work. I am hoping to head off to grad school next year and am assuming I will also work 1293881627 hours a week too.

  10. I applaud you! Well done in all your accomplishments. I too am enjoying yoga. I’m not as dedicated as you as I am still battling some areas of self esteem. However, I’m also learning Buddhism and meditation and this has changed other areas of me and how I think… I hope, like you, I accomplish my goals this year. Yay to you, you are an inspiration!

  11. Yoga is amazing, I think it is the true cure for low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, etc. Now I’m not a doctor, just somebody whose been through the process, and an advocate for how yoga can change your life for the better in so many ways! Great post!

  12. Lovely and inspiring post. I have been practicing yoga for years, but on and off sometimes. I don’t know why I ever go off, because everytime I’m on-it’s good. Maybe I will do a 100 day challenge.

  13. Your story is amazing! Thanks for being so real, I’m similar I’m a perfectionist! This makes me want to do the Yoga challenge too!

  14. Great post! Congrats on your experiences. My inner critic is loud and clear too, and my mantra is “let go.” So much to learn from each other!

  15. I loved reading this. I, too, am a perfectionist and have an inner voice who is a sour old bitch. This not only was uplifting, but inspired me to try yoga as a way of letting go of some of my extreme and negative self-talk. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    P.S. – Lady with a PhD? You f**king rock!

  16. And, opening my tired eyes a little wider, I see this was a guest post, doy. But again, I loved what you had to say. So beautiful, and how great that we can all learn from each other.

  17. Great self-report and at the same time in critical correspondence with our cultural frames. Having taught and teaching at University, I am deeply convinced that this (all in all wonderful) institution is in need of self-techniques like yoga. It would change the way that theory and evidence are perceived and represented. Interestingly many student do not only not expect but are even opposed to addressing their real Development AS human beings (through yoga and other techniques of the self [Foucault]). There ia a cultural expectation that Academia will communicate and produce “objective knowledge” that is mit depending on personality and experience. This is not true.
    Thanks for telling your story.

  18. Reblogged this on tea leaves and dreams and commented:
    I promise not to keep posting reblogs. But she highlights a lot of my reasons for starting and continuing my yoga practice this year. I don’t do it often enough. I’m not great at it; but that’s the best bit – every time I do it, I challenge my body in different ways, and it’s exciting to know this and become more accepting of my body in this way. It’s very much a mind-body practice. Inspired to start my own X-Days yoga challenge.

  19. beautifully written… kudos to you, you are a real woman, a real inspiration and a really good writer! thanks for sharing your time and words. xx

  20. Honestly, it was not the yoga… dont say that yoga did this for you. You engaged in the same thing that many who do CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) do in their sessions with a therapist. Yoga was your touch-stone, your occasioning stimulus to which you responded and saw the positive effects; the outcome, the reward. Stimulus –> Response –> Outcome. I am not trying to say that Yoga is bad for you — quite the opposite; however, don’t underestimate that it was your thoughts and behaviors that made this happen, Yoga afforded the opportunity and mindset for you to do it — it offered the right atmosphere. I am just starting my PhD so I guess I am on the other end haha. Congratz! I am blogging about my experiences from start to finish if you want to check it out: PhDealer

  21. Love this post! I think it’s so amazing you were able to finish your dissertation with so much grace. As a recent graduate (who knows how hard thesis writing and academia can be on the heart) and new mom it was also so cool to read that you’re also passionate about running a Mom group! Congrats to you!

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