On Quitting

Even as I am beginning to type this post, I know I should stop.  I am simply too emotional to say anything rationally or logically at this moment.  But, well, fuck that.  I am emotional and this post will be emotional and it is my endless rollercoaster of emotions that has brought me to today’s topic: quitting.

I am what my therapist has called a “perfectionist.”  I think lots of people who end up in academics have probably been called that or referred to themselves as one at some point in time.  It’s why we are here.  It’s why we strive for many, many years to produce work that someone, somewhere will find interesting, worth reading, worth publishing, worth hiring us over.  It’s why we continue to push on, push through the endless amount of shit that is piled on, why we put up with the arbitrary nature of the evaluation process and the bestowing of rewards, why we re-write single sentences fourteen times before deciding to simply delete it, why we re-write the same proposal/abstract each and every time we submit it, and why we are ready and willing to believe every single time we are told that we are not good enough, we haven’t done enough, and we are, in fact, not worthy of reading, rewards, publishing, or hiring.  And the system of graduate school, of creating PhDs, it feeds off this knowledge of how the perfectionist works and it heightens your insecurities and magnifies your weaknesses.  It fucking sucks.

So, no matter how many times I learn this about academia, I keep getting punched in the gut when something happens that reminds me of all of this.  And I keep holding on.  I keep thinking that if I just do the next step, I just keep at it, it will pay off.  I will get what I want.  I will get recognition.  I will get read, rewarded, published, and hired.

And yet, now, in the process of writing my dissertation, I barely get read (but I do, at least by people in my department), I get no rewards anymore, I am terrified of even trying to get published, and I am certain I will never get hired.

I feel like my department no longer believes in me.  Individuals in it do, but I’m not sure that is enough anymore.

I feel like I am constantly drowning and there are brief moments where my head breaks the water and I catch a breath.  But almost instantly I am back under, flailing, trying to do whatever it takes to make it to the surface again.  The panic of my day-to-day is crippling at times, it makes it so I can’t do anything except focus on it.  This, of course, causes more panic.  More flailing.  Inevitably crying and more crying.

And sometimes, blogging.

So, here I am.  Today, again, I am deep underwater, swallowing gulps of water, the pressure for air making my chest feel like it is going to explode.

But quitting?  Ending this terrible psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical (I am SO psycho-somatic) pain?  I can’t.  And I hate myself for that.  I seem to constantly put myself in situations and relationships where I give so much more than I am given, where I am always feeling slighted and shorted by the other side.  Here, again, I am.  Me and my dissertation.  Me and my department.  Me and academia.  Me giving and giving, nothing being returned.

My ultimate fear?  I do finish and then nothing.  A blink of climax, a moment of being fulfilled, and then nothing else.  Because if it is like that, then for what is all of this?  Maybe being able to quit, to acknowledge my unhappiness to the world, maybe that is the bigger and better decision.  I don’t know.

Today, right now, I want to quit.  I have seriously considered quitting at least once a month since May.  Sometimes I seriously consider it for days on end.  But I always bounce back.  I’m sure I will this time, too.  I just need some catharsis today.  I need a release from these emotions, this doubt.

Update on 11/3: Doing much better today.  The episode that caused this release of emotions turned out to not be what I thought it was.  I was internalizing an issue that was completely external to me.  That realization has helped me to set these feelings aside for now and to plow on.  Also, I had an amazing talk with a prof of mine who has been beaten to a pulp by this system and yet refuses to take anything personally or relinquish her optimism.  That helped, too.

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12 thoughts on “On Quitting

  1. I can’t sympathize with you, from a “been there” perspective, but I’m struck by this post because it is the exact same conversation I’ve had with one of my closest friends almost weekly for the past two years. He dreams about quitting, but doesn’t know if he’ll be any happier, because he will have quit. So he stays. I tell him it’s the ultimate dysfunctional relationship – he’s waiting for that *one thing* that will validate all the effort, and time, and sacrifice, and so far, that *thing* is elusive. It’s almost abusive in nature.

    Hoping for a quick bounce back for you.

  2. depending upon what you need (probably changing on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis):
    peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart.
    or
    fuck it.

  3. p.s. this sounds a lot like archi studio. constant revisions and doubt, with brief glimpses of awesomeness, only to have a jury tell you it was all for nought, and you need to start over. and it’s total shit when it’s happening.

  4. I’m in grad school, too (in lit, not history). I get where you’re coming from. And I’m glad you’re feeling better today.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I know relatively little about your project (really, just what you’ve posted here), and I find it both interesting and accessible to me as a layperson. Thank you for that.

  5. You need to watch this if you haven’t yet:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

    I haven’t read “Eat Pray Love” and I don’t plan on it, but I really like where Gilbert’s going in this talk. It makes SO MUCH SENSE. And it addresses the fear. Everyone’s got it.

    You can’t know what’s going to happen. You could write this dissertation and never do anything again. You could finish the dissertation and become a superstar in your field. But I think the fear of failure will still be there. Being creative (and by that, I mean CREATING things, whether it’s a novel, a dissertation, whatever) requires this leap into the unknown. It takes real courage. And I know you can do it!

  6. Thanks for your comments. And thanks especially for the links.

    I did read “Eat, Pray, Love” and actually loved the middle section (the “Pray” section in India). It is nice to know that everyone, even people who have produced completed and loved projects, has the fear.

  7. Thanks for reading and for your comment. Good luck with your own work and thank you so much for your kind words about my project.

  8. I am going to think about this comment a lot when I get overwhelmed next time. I’m going to try to see if there is calm in my heart in the midst of the crazy. Thanks for this. A lot.

  9. Thanks for reading and commenting. What you say about not being happier because you have to quit – that is so right. It is not a simple answer. Quitting will not necessarily make me happy in the end. That’s the problem.

  10. Jessica, I love and admire how you have the guts to lay bare your deepest fears and secrets.

    As a fellow perfectionist who somehow escaped academia before it got that bad (I took my M.A and ran away), I hope you can stay “up” through your own love for the project and in your own feelings of satisfaction for finishing the PhD. If that isn’t there, I think you are right to consider leaving a situation that is unhealthy for you. That is different than quitting.

    I can’t wait to hit Town Lake with you and listen some more.

  11. You are so strong and amazing! I admire you every day and the courage you have to undertake this tremendous task of researching and writing a dissertation. I see how punishing it is for you. I send you positive energy time and time again from over 1000 miles away. Only you can know what is the best for you. Don’t do it for anyone else but yourself. You are the only person you have to answer for or be responsible for as far as your career. As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, “if it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

    Also working in the humanities I completely sympathize. I have a MA, work in my chosen field and am paid a pathetic salary. So low that, as you know, I have taken a second job to help pay the bills. I ask every day if it is worth it. To be tired all the time, to never see my husband, to postpone starting a family . . . for this job, for this field? I feel like more often than not the answer is coming back “no.” My training is so specific I worry that if I leave the field I will have to start at an even lower salary in new position because of a lack of transferable skills. They tell you in grad school it will be challenging but they never really prepare you. I guess we are all so positive and naive at that point in our lives. We want to believe we are different. We want to think we will be the exception.

    You are not alone and you are very very loved!!!

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