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.