A personal reflection, drawing on my experiences as a so-called type A character, in dealing with grief and failure and coming out triumphant and thriving. This article is also inspired by my readings (recommended reading at the bottom of the page) and tackling difficulties and stress in my first year as a DPhil student at the University of Oxford.
I recalled a conversation I had with my Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) supervisor.
“Thank you for being understanding. Life has not exactly been a walk in the park during the first few months of my DPhil.”
“No worries. But who wants to walk in the park all the time, what about the stories?”
The stories! I laughed. But there is a resounding truth in what seems like a simple comment. Who wants to walk in the park all the time? I want to go jungle-trekking, climb mountains, swim oceans – but of course, this means I may also fall and hurt myself. I have seen a fair share of success and failure based on the decisions I made. But it does not mean I am reckless in decision making. However, there is only so much someone can plan especially when the goalpost is moved all the time. For countless times, when things do not work out, I would blame myself. I should have foreseen certain things and adjusted my plans accordingly! I became depressed. I struggled with the news of family members being ill and then with the news of their deaths, then with the unexpected issue of my DPhil funding, during which I unexpectedly became single (NB, 30/6/2020: I have since then someone truly amazing and kind), all within the space of three months during the first year of my DPhil. What a rough ride! Despite what had happened, I still need to do very well in my DPhil. I owe it to me.
All too familiar? So, how do you get out of this depressing cycle of self-doubt
- It is not your fault: This is particularly difficult for a perfectionist. Perfectionism is damaging because you tend to put 100% of the blame on yourself when things fail instead of placing the culpability of the failure on various contributing factors objectively. This is followed by excessive nit-picking and self-doubt. Then you become more introverted, while also fighting through your emotions and pushing yourself harder for self-improvement. It is a mammoth task and an extremely unfair one. No one is perfect. But you are driven by the idea of perfection, avoiding mistakes in the future, and since you cannot force anyone to work with you or for things to mold into the way you want, you start focussing on yourself because you can bully yourself into it. You know that deep inside, it takes two to tango, but you are ever so stubborn. Learn to let go of projects that do not benefit you.
- Know your supporters: In adversity, people will come and go. Let go of those who do not want stay. You need people who want to be with you whether it is sunshine or rain. In fact, you should be grateful for the unfortunate turn of events because it allows you to see the different personalities of people when they are confronted with the ugly. Be thankful that you have family and friends who still see the goodness in you and are patient with you when you encounter a difficult day. Real friends will never accuse you of treating them like a “vomit-bucket”. They understand that you have not changed. You are just going through a difficult time and you need help. I never expect anyone to solve my problems, but it helps to be listened to because it allows me re-analyse the situation and my emotions.
- Impermanence of life: Despite how awful you feel inside, keep moving. The last thing you want after the dust settles is to feel regretful looking back at all the wasted time while being incapacitated with grief. It is important to acknowledge how you feel, but it is also important to not pay too much attention to those feelings because it will soon pass. Time heals. There is no magic wand to wish away your problems, and you don’t need additional problems due to your own “unproductivity”. So, chin up! Muster all the strength you have, to fight the greatest battle of your life. Fill your day, week, month with achievements. Be bold and seek out opportunities. By devising these strategies, you are actively creating ways to make you happy by taking care of yourself, advancing your career and meeting others who appreciate you, rather than giving too much power to the negative feelings. Emotions, bad or good, are transient
- Keeping your spirits high: Keep a diary of achievements and a gratitude journal. By keeping a record of your achievements, you are acknowledging the active process you had taken to counter the negativity in your life. This is different from feeling grateful, which is a more passive process. But do not just focus on CV-type achievements. Your life is not about embellishing your CV! Doing nothing the entire day is also a form of achievement because you are taking care of the most important person in your life – YOU!
- Seek professional help: It has been months since “tragedy after tragedy” unfolded in my life. It was extraordinary that I had gone through all of these without any anti-depressants/ counselling! Well, that’s what my friend said. It took a while for me to come around. After a few months of poor sleep and nightmares, I relented. Why did I not do this sooner?!
- You’re not a sinking ship: Lastly, smile. Be proud that you have gone through the most horrible time of your life and made it alive stronger and better.
You’re the captain of your destiny, so let go of those who had abandoned you during the SOS.
- Maintaining Boundaries As Women In Leadership: Oh It Is So Difficult To Be A Career Woman
- What Makes You An Effective Leader? | Leaderonomics.Com
Great books to read to deal with grief and failure:
- “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
- “20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It” by Christine Hassler