Saturday, March 9, 2019

Guilt: The growing gap

Hi friends, hopefully you’ll humor me as I try something new here - I have an idea I’m just beginning to toss around, and would love to open that up to dialogue.

I had never put words to this, but even when things are going well, I can find myself walking around with a gnawing sense of guilt and growing feeling that I’m just kind of failing at life. Anyone else?

Here’s my idea - what if this is caused by the accumulation of all of the gaps we create when we don’t get to do something as well as we wanted?

Let me explain...

We have so many things we’re responsible for, and so even if we work really hard and are getting everything done, we rarely get to spend all of the time we want on any particular thing (including hobbies and family). So, when we submit that manuscript that might have a typo or don’t fully read that committee report before a meeting or cut a workout short because we’re out of time, we create a gap between what we wanted to do and what we actually did. That gap means guilt and failure. That wouldn’t be so bad if it went away once the manuscript is accepted or the committee wraps up for the year or we hit our goal time at a race. But, if you’re like me, you carry these gaps around with you long after the task is complete. They accumulate and create that diffuse, yet palpable sense of dread. Like somehow we’ll pay for it later.

Am I alone in this?

Okay, if that’s the problem, what do we do about it? I wonder if recognizing this growing gap is half the battle. Now that we know we’re carrying all of this around, what if we made it a daily, weekly, or monthly habit to consciously jettison the gap guilt. Or, what if we did that every time we wrap up a task or project?  Manuscript published, time to let go of any worry over whether it could have been better. It’s published, and that’s better than better.

Okay, your turn - tell me what you think! Is this just my crazy way of processing the busyness of academic life? If this is a shared experience, what can we do to overcome it? How can we support each other in banishing the feelings of guilt and failure? What would it look like if we could do that? Comment below or join the conversation on the twitter thread here.

3/10/19 - Addendum
I love word pictures, and this morning I realized a good one to describe the "gap" accumulation - my dry erase board. I frequently use my dry erase board in conversations with lab members and colleagues, and when the conversation is done, I erase what was written to make space for the next conversation. However, using the eraser only gets rid of about 90% of the ink. There is always a faint shadow left. Over time, these accumulate, and it becomes almost impossible to read what is written on the board because there is so much background. I finally give in, pull out the cleaning solution, and...voila! beautiful completely-wiped-clean surface. It's always surprising just how good it feels to look at a perfectly clean dry erase board. An even better example to follow is my friend Troy, who completely cleans the dry erase board in his office after every single meeting so that the next conversation can start with a fresh slate. What if I learned to do this with my guilt?