Working with anxiety

Gillian Rose’s recently posted advice has sat with me for a few days, it’s been in the background of my thinking as I fail to get much proper work done. It’s got me thinking about the level of anxiety I have been working with, which I suspect is (sadly) not uncommon for many folk right now. I don’t know whether writing this is a good idea. It’s not like successful people write these sorts of admissions of weakness but there we go…

This is sort of public taking-stock, with the hope that it may help me along and maybe other folks who feel similar things may feel like they’re not alone, I don’t know…

Gillian Rose’s blogpost happened to come along at the same time I’ve been failing to write my first proper annual appraisal type document after passing through our formal probation system. Until that point I only had to do a much abridged version. Now I’m supposed to a full ‘PDR’, with six sections of a page each that ask you to provide an account of what you’re doing about: “Career Goals and Plans”, “Research and Scholarship”, “Impact”, “Education” (4th! *sigh*), “Internationalisation” and “Other significant contributions to the university” (not to your discipline, to scholarship, to academia, but to the institution – make of that what you will). I have been stuck. I was looking at the pages and while I have written some halfhearted bullet points about the few things I’ve done, it worried me to the extent that I kept putting it off.

The grown-up thing to do is, I think (and I’ve received advice about from someone I trust), to fill out these kinds of benchmarking/monitoring forms positively but realistically – trying to keep in mind an understanding of your own worth. So, not just chasing the targets (goodness knows there are plenty of them), but also politely saying where you could use more support to realise the things that are mutually beneficial – things you want to do and the university thinks are good too. In truth, my department is very supportive. The university has it’s jargon and paperwork but it has always been (for me anyway) mediated by good people. Nevertheless, I wasn’t taking my own advice. In part this is because I am tired (due to illness/ sleeplessness), in part because I’ve felt a bit lost with what to prioritise and what, following Gillian, my ‘brand’ is/ should be.

Drawing upon Gillian’s blogpost, I guess what I am reflecting upon then is how life-changes affect how you see yourself, how you plan and manage time, and how you judge what’s ‘good enough’ as Gillian put it. In the last three years, my time in my current position, with my family I’ve moved city to enable my commute, there’s been a very serious family illness, we became a ‘family’ – I have two children (15 months and nearly four years old[!!]), I have changed my working pattern (to compressed hours one week in four days) to enable childcare, and while I know I am incredibly lucky (I really do and remind myself of that frequently): I am exhausted.

This feeling of exhaustion is mostly due to non-work things, which I’d rather keep private, but there are work elements to that exhaustion. This comes from an accumulation of several factors that seem to play out in my mind regularly: Thinking about ‘keeping up’ – with targets, with debates, with expectations (FOMO, apparently). Trying to come up with ideas that don’t feel like they’re already being done, by those quicker to write. Attempting to be as supportive as possible to others whilst worrying about your own stalling career.

I have been feeling that I cannot seem to come up with a convincing narrative ~ what Gillian discussed as ‘brand’. I’ve tried a few times but I cannot seem to get momentum. This is where my anxiety lies. I do my best not to compare myself to others but what with social media, gossip and so on, it’s hard not to do so. I see others ‘networking’ but I feel less-confident about doing it. So I feel in a contradictory position: by most measures I am no longer ‘early career’, but I still feel like I haven’t really got started.

Where I’ve got to is this: I have a plan for a sort of narrative around automation. I know I am late to the party and this is already other people’s ‘brand’ but it’s what I’m interested in reading and thinking about. I have some ideas about how I can write about this in order for me to remain interested but also to meet expected targets. So, I know it’s not especially ‘ambitious’ or cutting edge or anything but that’s where I am.

I regret none of my choices and I am really thankful I had them. I have received support from colleagues and my institution to enable me to spend as much time as I can afford with my young children. I wouldn’t change that for anything. Nevertheless, I didn’t realise how ‘professionally’ anxious I would become. As things are settling down, in my new-ish work pattern, I feel like I am at a point of being able to prioritise more clearly.

It seems to me that Gillian’s closing remarks are really important – caring for yourself is crucial. I think you have to try and be kind to yourself as well as trying to be all of the other things. You may be thinking “it’s alright for you as: a man/ someone [with a ‘permanent’ contract]/[in the UK]/[in a ‘good’ department]”, and you are right but I can only be honest about how I’ve been feeling. I recognise I’m fortunate and I’ve tried to help others and make the most of that good fortune to the extent that I am able.

I hope that these reflections are in some way useful to someone. It may be unwise to write in this public confessional manner, and maybe I’m simply delivering myself to the ‘attention economy’.

Time to finish that form…

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