What to do when you are sick of complaining but still feel pretty awful: PhD edition.

I have experienced some very tough stretches of time in my PhD. Because I value integrity and believe that sharing our experiences can help others overcome the same, I have talked about those challenges a lot. Here, I call this complaining.

Complaining has negative and annoying connotations but—sometimes—complaining is just someone calling a shitty situation for what it is. At times, complaining can be justified, constructive and cathartic. It’s a way of being heard.

Context… I walked into 2022 after some wonderful time off and was back to feeling awful in about three days flat (oh, you too?). I had a paper rejected for publication, the Omicron outbreak was unhinged, I had a string of health issues and a reaction to the booster vaccine that took me off work for almost two weeks. In short, I had a lot to complain about. But some two months on from my back-to-work downfall (read about it here), I found myself getting really sick of complaining. I still felt pretty awful but talking about the hard stuff wasn’t helping me feel heard or find direction.

Anyone relate? Feeling some shitty stuckness?

Perform below steps in order.

1. Take a day off and sit with your feelings

Take a quiet day away from PhD work. Your quiet might come from books, bushwalking, or pottering around the house (I would recommend against a Netflix binge in this case).

Observe your internal state. There’s no need to talk yourself around to anything, question yourself or beat yourself up for feeling terrible. Just sit with how you feel. Your reflection can focus on what you feel, the validity of those feelings (no doubt they are justified) and how you would like to feel instead.

2. Shake it off

An effective way to shake off the drearies (yes, not a word) is to do something physically exhausting and follow it with rewarding relaxation.

For me, this has become a long trail run followed by a cool shower and a massage. At the moment I do this once a week. I run hard, as fast as I can tolerate, and focus on releasing my feelings of tension, pressure and stress. The aim is to be totally exhausted by the end of whichever activity you choose.

Follow this up with a conscious come down. Your come down might involve relaxing with a bath, an ocean swim, a yoga class. Once it’s all done, relax hard. The ideal is for your only job to be relishing how nice you feel.

3. Make a solid plan

Develop a plan of action. It’s time. Retract your feelings and look at the timeline you have. Consider what parcels of work you need to deliver, how long each one will take, and commit them to your timeline.

Importantly, it can be really affirming and constructive to share your plan with others. Do they think your plan is appropriate and achievable? Are they excited for you to get through it? How will they help hold you accountable?

4. Go gently

Not every day will be a winner. If it’s not one, find smaller parcels of work your can achieve.

Attend to yourself with affirmation and care. Notice things you’ve managed to progress and congratulate yourself for them. Make a good cup of tea.

And remember, your work output does not define your value as a person ❤

5. Seek mentorship and camaraderie

Lean on others. When you are overwhelmed, avoidant or feeling otherwise awful, the best thing you can do is ask for guidance and companionship.

Contact your mentors (or potential mentors) and meet. Mentors are great at reminding us of a bigger picture and anchoring our ambitions or disappointments in a framework of career progression. Sometimes this shift in perspective is all one needs.

Reach out to your peers and spend time together. Talk about your research, your fears, your hopes. PhD’s are a really niche experience. Talking to other PhD candidates can normalise your own challenges, but also serve as a litmus test for where you are progressing normally versus what needs extra attention.

Any advice of your own? I would love to hear it. In lieu of that, I hope you’ve enjoyed the cat memes.

Live (PhD) long (quickly and efficiently) and prosper friends.

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