Thursday, December 6, 2012

Academic Codependency

I went to my group therapy today. Everyone there was really surprised to see me, because they thought I was going to be at the campus visit that I had announced in group last week. At first they were shocked to hear that I called it off. But then I started to explain, how for so many years I had been doing things that I just simply did not want to do, how I had not wanted to write a dissertation but had made myself do it, had wanted to drop out of the PhD at least several times a year but guilted myself (or was guilted by others) to continue because it was the "right" thing to do, and I should finish what I started. My life had become one giant "should." I should publish an article. I should go to that conference. I should want and get a tenure-track job. I should please my committee. I shouldn't take the weekend off from getting work done. I shouldn't hate critical theory as much as I do. I should be willing to sacrifice my youth and move somewhere I do not want to be. I should like these awful pretentious people. I should feel overwhelmed all the time, cause that means I'm a good worker and going to get a great job. And on and on and on. Oh and then the big SHOULD for me lately: I should get a tenure track job and live happily ever after. Well my response: No thanks! Or at least not right now, not until I start to feel like myself again. I cannot do one more thing that I should do until I also want to do it at the same time. Academia, I think I need some space.

People often talk about the PhD (and then tenure process) as a kind of hazing. If its this shitty to get in, then it must be great, we tell ourselves. But that makes me think of a psychological phenomenon called the "Stockholm Syndrome."
Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy, sympathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness. 
Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes "strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other."
Battered-wife syndrome is an example of activating the capture-bonding psychological mechanism, as are military basic training and fraternity bonding by hazing.
-Wikipedia (<-- is this MLA approved? Hellz no!)

Fraternity hazing... battered wives... coming to love and even empathize with our captors.

I remember when I entered the PhD program, I found all the people a bit absurd and amusing, like caricatures of college professors rather than actual people. "I'll never turn into one of them!" I told myself. But something happened over the six years of jumping through their hoops, working harder and harder to please them, climbing over bars only to find the bar raised yet again, living under a constant sense of guilt and dread and oppression and a feeling that I was not smart enough or good enough. Gradually, I found myself emulating them. I found myself taking on their mannerisms. I pulled a slightly over-large sports coat out of the back of my closet and would wear it at conferences. I found myself wanting to be like them and being so elated and grateful for even the tiniest scrap of attention, affirmation, or positive feedback from them. I felt like I was trying to please Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, but instead of just one Priestly, there was a whole committee of them, a whole discipline even. I lost the ability to tell bullshit from non-bullshit, what I wanted from what other people wanted, what my dreams were from what other peoples' dreams for me were. In short, I became one of them.

I'm also something called a codependent, which means that I try to please or impress everyone around me at my own expense. It also means that I latch onto the most dysfunctional, broken, and unavailable people (institutions?) and hang on for dear life, cause I love to be treated like crap, basically, and don't think I deserve any better. No, I don't deserve to choose where I live, who I work with, or how I spend my "free" time, I tell myself. Its okay to put off my dreams of a family, I tell myself. Codependents have poor boundaries. We let people walk all over us, say "yes" when we mean "no" and then stuff our anger, take a call at odd hours or answer work emails on weekends when we really don't want to. JC has written about the lack of boundaries in academic work in her blog, From Grad School to Happiness. I'd be curious to know how many people in academia qualify as full-blown codependents. My guess is that there's lots of us, right along with many people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But I'll save that for a later post on academia and personality disorders, maybe...

I've been a bit baffled lately by reading about job satisfaction levels among faculty in higher education. They are pretty high, statistically, which does not really match up with my impression of the wretched out-of-touch hollowed-out human beings that stalk the halls of the institutions of higher learning as I have known them. Even adjunct faculty, amazingly, report relatively high job satisfaction considering that they work for a pittance without benefits or job security. Stockholm Syndrome at work, perhaps?

What do you get when you ask a normal couple about their marriage? "Well, we have our ups and downs, but we love each other and we've been through a lot together." And what about the battered wife? "We just love each other so much, he just doesn't always know how to show it. But we're really really in love and I'd never leave him." If you're so in love, why do you have a black eye?

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