Hiding Behind the Rockstar Glasses: Confessions of an Overwhelmed, Overachieving Academic


Hello everyone. My name is Rowena. I am a junior faculty member. And I am a non-stop workaholic. And an achievement whore. And a people pleaser.

…what happens when you come across a non-stop working, people pleasing, achievement whore, you may ask? Well, let me tell you…

You end up with an overwhelmed, over committed, anxiety-and-depression-driven young academic who is getting BURNT OUT to the max.

No, I am not writing this to evoke sympathy. I am writing this to shed light on an issue that based on many informal conversations with colleagues and friends, seems to be taking hold of so many bright, motivated, capable academics, which to me may lead to folks not reaching their full potential. And that’s just plain sad.

With that said, I can’t speak for those colleagues and friends. You will need to ask them for their stories. Here, I finally found the time (and the courage, to be perfectly honest) to share mine. So here goes:

I have had the basic gist of this blog post in the back of my mind for months now, and it remained there until winter break, when I finally had enough time and energy to write what has been on my mind and heart for a while. The bottom line is this: the fact that I couldn’t carve an hour of my day to write this post is nobody’s fault but my own. Again, I am not here to make a sob story out of my extremely busy life, which in 9 times out of 10, is a very fun, exciting life.

No, the goal of this post is to share how I’ve felt and what I’ve learned/am learning about stress management and balancing it all within the confines of the academy, and to “come out of the closet” by explicitly stating that it has truly been a struggle.

That last point is actually what inspired the title of this post. When you graduate from a top Research 1 institution having folks tell you that you’re a “very strong job candidate,” followed by several years at your new job with everyone telling you that “you’re a rockstar, you’re going to get tenure, how do you do it all, etc. etc.” – can I just be vulnerable and frank for a second and say that there have been times when the pressure can be super overwhelming, and the expectation to be amazing all the time can be exhausting in and of itself? Throw in the fact that you’re generally a very extroverted, happy, fun person with a touch of perfectionism and the anxiety associated with being “on” at all times is even greater.

This all reminds me of when I watched the Chris Farley documentary over the summer. Here is a comedian who is loved by so many people, who made so many folks laugh with his work…however deep inside he was so self-deprecating, so lonely and sad, and was so damn hard on himself. Now I don’t do comedy (though folks have encouraged me to consider it, why I don’t know?), but in many ways what I do at work can be seen as a performance: I have to win over my students every semester, produce kick-ass research, and be a team player (hmm, like The Second City?) through service obligations. And like Farley, there have definitely been moments where I am downright not kind to myself – I get upset that I didn’t say something correctly at a meeting, my teaching didn’t go as well as planned, the part of the manuscript I wrote for my research team reads like shit, the list unfortunately can go on and on.

But here’s the catch: when you’re trying your best to parade around campus like a rockstar, when you are trying to perform like Farley did, how can you tell folks that you are in fact, really struggling, and admit to yourself that you can’t do it all, and that you need to either step away, push back, or get help?

It’s taken me a lot of self-reflection (and a ton of therapy too, I’ll admit) but here is what I’ve gathered and can share:

  1. Be transparent. I don’t know if it was a power dynamic thing, but I came to the realization that I had been more honest with my students than my colleagues when it came to my stress. When I finally “came clean” to some of my co-workers, many of them said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were struggling, you always seemed so put together at work.” Lesson learned folks: you don’t need to look a hot mess at the workplace, but perhaps being transparent to those you trust at work can help you find the support you need to get through the day. Which brings me to #2…
  2. Find the type of social support you need. For me, I have folks at work who serve as mentors, sounding boards, mental health checkers, accountability buddies, listeners…[insert supportive role here]. And then of course, I have folks outside of work who serve the important purpose of listening to me if I need to vent about work (but who aren’t completely in the context), as well as take my mind off of work if I need to relax. I must say that my fiance does a *fantastic* job of doing this, which is one of the many reasons why I am marrying him. So find those folks, and never let them go.
  3. Learn how to say no. Yes, I understand, this is very difficult to do as an untenured, junior faculty member, but as a mentor once told me, you have to set boundaries for yourself because no one else will. Trust me, I had to learn things the hard way (namely in the form of kidney stones the summer after my second year as a faculty member) – it’s #NOTWORTHIT. As my therapist once asked me, “What’s the worst that will happen if X doesn’t get done?” This makes you wonder. Will your whole department/university crumble upon itself if you say no/ask to extend the deadline/graciously give the task to someone else? No? Then don’t feel bad about passing an opportunity to make more space for the things you actually want to do. Thus, in a related vein…
  4. Learn when to say yes. One of my wonderful colleagues Scott Sherman put it this way – when it comes to agreeing to take on tasks, ask yourself: (1) Will this be helpful for tenure purposes? If not, then (2) Is this something I’m personally super passionate about? If not, then (3) Am I going to get paid big bucks to do this? Also folks, remember that saying “Let me think about it” is a perfectly acceptable response. I know that if you are a people pleaser with social anxiety like me this may come off to you as not being a team player (or worse, you may think you’re being an asshole), but #letsbehonest to ourselves with some positive self talk. Remember: saying you’re “thinking about it” means you are being realistic and thoughtful about what you have on your plate, which is much more appreciated in the end than a half-assed product.
  5. Lastly, continue to do things outside of work that make you happy, and STAHP feeling so damn guilty about it. I am scolding myself just as much as I am scolding everyone else. Case in point: I love to dance. I used to go to salsa on the regular, take kizomba classes, and attend dance socials. At the beginning of the academic year I was dancing 2-3 times a week. Then what happened? The mid-semester beast engulfed me yet once again and instead I found myself going home every night, exhausted and feeling depressed (probably because I wasn’t dancing as much but I was too damn tired, perpetuating an awful cycle that was too difficult to break) and I found myself feeling overwhelmed and unhappy. To that I say #nothankyou – let’s break this nasty cycle! Find/embrace your most beloved hobby and run/dance/draw/sing/read/yoga away with it! I’m going to try harder in 2016 for sure, so keep me accountable.

Those of you who know me know that I am a very giving person by nature (much to my detriment at times, but let’s leave that for another blog post haha) – for me, this post not only serves as my outlet/therapy, but it is my commitment to not go down this path of burn out and isolation, but to crawl out of the hole, come out of the closet, and pay it forward to future junior faculty out there by serving as a role model. A model of a faculty member who is definitely human and in no way perfect, but who strives every single day to do what is best for her body, soul, and mind first and foremost, and to do everything in her power to do her job as best as she can in a way that can help as many people as possible.

For me, I’ve decided that I’m choosing people over publications, I’m choosing relationships over results. Maybe it’s stupid. Maybe it’s unwise. Who knows, maybe it will eventually kill my chances of tenure. But for me, it’s the choice that makes sense. For me, it’s the choice that makes me feel happy and fulfilled. And at the end of the day, when I am looking back at my life, I’m the only person I need to please in the long run so that’s what I’ve ultimately decided I’m going with.

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