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?


  1. I have this same problem. There's always somebody that knows more about microbiology, genomics, is better than me at cooking, running, climbing, getting in quality time with their children, etc. I think we tend to lump all other people into a single entity, and compare ourselves to that. That is, we compare ourselves to the best embodiment of all others, which is impossible to live up to. I don't consciously measure myself against others, but I think we do it subconsciously.

    I've found a way to combat this feeling of failure: I keep track of how much time I spend on certain things, and another list of my priorities and goals. Do my activities track to my goals? If my activities map well to my priorities and goals, I can convince myself that I'm doing the best I can towards accomplishing each of the things I think are important. To put it another way, there are only so many hours in a day. With time allotment and goals on the same page, I find it very easy to convince myself that I'm doing the best I can with the time I have, and that it's impossible to do better.

  2. ‘The gap’ is a terrific way to describe the feeling! I agree that recognizing the gap, and realizing most people feel that way, is half the battle. For example, before ‘imposter syndrome’ was part of the academic lexicon, I was struck by how often it came up in lifetime achievement award addresses.

    From the responses to your tweet it seems that people use a very broad variety of tools to overcome these feeling. Perhaps we could look for common threads in these approaches - for example, reflection seems to be important in all the strategies.

    Many, many ideas and practices have helped me and they’re always evolving. Lately, if I’m really struggling with something, I try to isolate what it is and then search out a few articles on Dr. Internet. Just knowing others struggle with the same things instantly makes me feel better and I jot down some tips that resonate (one goal is to organize these random scraps of paper, bookmarks, screen shots into a journal)

    Other advice, perspectives, like this one come more seridipidously. Emotional energy is a recent example for me. If I poor too much energy into today’s media headlines, my nephew’s upcoming driving test, that I forgot my travel mug, my dog didn’t get a long enough walk ... I don’t feel like I was on my game reviewing that manuscript.

    Anyway, was fun adding my 2 cents. Thanks for starting an important conversation!


  3. I don’t know the best translation . But in spanish we say : lo mejor es enemigo de lo bueno. The best is enemy of the better

  4. Hi Jen,
    Terrific post! As you said, acknowledging this 'palpable feeling of dread' and recognizing that werwe not alone may be half the battle won. Kudos !

    The reason underlying my guilt is slightly different. Every paper that I've published has spawned exciting new extensions, applications and spillovers that has opened up opportunities for many more papers in the future. However, I've not been able to close most of them (including some projects from my PhD), and the ones that I did close have spawned more potential future publications. This 'hydra' has left me feeling that I'm underperforming, and therefore I suffer from constant guilt. I can't recall a single weekend in the past five years where I've not thought about unfinished work.

    If you've any coping mechanisms or words of advice, I'd love to hear them.


  5. Before You Tackle Any Big Goals An Exercise in the Difference Between Positive and Negative Self-Talk. I want to take a moment to show you the difference between negative and positive self-talk. This won’t take long. Do not drive or operate any form of machinery while doing this. Do this if you are able to focus and are open to getting really into it. In just a moment, you are going to close your eyes and as I talk, you are going to imagine that you are thinking the words that I’m saying.

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  8. I have been also dealing with the same issue for a long time, thanks for sharing this and explaining it in such a simple way..!!
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