There are lots of things I could be writing about in these current times but they aren’t the issue that is pressing. I wake every morning and my competing thoughts are what’s happened in the world overnight and I need to get on with my essay.
On the one hand writing essays seems trivial during world turmoil and it is indeed hard to focus. On the other hand the rest of life is slipping away in an irrelevance that gives me the space to focus, or at least to try.
As we had our last online college session before we broke up for Easter I came to the sudden realisation that the anguish I feel when approaching assignment writing is something that I only feel when I am writing assignments, not when I am doing any other form of writing. I feel anxiety when approaching lots of tasks in my life and have learned to manage that anxiety, to recognise it, accept it and to work through it so that I can accomplish whatever it is, even if I have to do it with a churning stomach.
So why is academic writing so special? I am doing a Diploma, Level 4 and this started with a Level 3 Certificate. For level 4 assignments are around the 5,000 words and for level 3 they were around 3,000. If you’ve done a full dissertation at degree level or above you will reasonably see these as trivial. And I would not disagree.
I could criticise the assignments themselves: they’re not essays where I can choose to explore ideas in response to a question. They’re 50 questions each which all have to be answered in a very tick-boxy way that must answer the exact question in the right way and no more, allowing very little room for creativity. Each of us on the course finds our own way through, some with greater ease than others.
For me though, my way of getting through these is with agony and lots of avoidance, that serve only to increase the anxiety. I delay getting started and then, once the deadline gets closer I delay getting started on a daily basis by finding lots of other urgent things I need to get out of the way before I can focus. Except that due to general lack of sleep I struggle to focus in the afternoons and even if I try relaxing in the afternoon I cannot come back to it in the evening so delaying getting started tends to ruin it for the day. This all sounds complicated and it is but it is how I justify my avoidance.
The realisation that all this anxiety was purely for academic writing gave me pause for thought. I had previously thought that anxiety over writing was due to comparing myself with my father who was a journalist and made a successful career out of writing. Naturally I compare myself unfavourably to him even though I rarely enjoyed his work and have never managed to get beyond the turgid first chapter of his second book (there wasn’t a third). I also let myself off the hook somewhat for having spent six formative years in a francophone school with no learning in English so the only writing I did was occasional letters to my grandmothers.
These on their own are not sufficient cause for the physical trauma that I relive in my body before approaching and assignment: I tremble, I feel sick to my stomach, my head goes all woolly and my capacity to think vanishes; it’s as if my brain has decided to shut down rather than work. It all hurts and I want to go for a lie down. It is genuinely exhausting and that’s before I’ve written a single word.
Part of writing this blog initially was to let me explore my ability to write without assessment, judgement or any form of external validation. Somehow doing it in a paper diary didn’t work for me. Over the years I’ve had to write boring clear letters on which much depended like funding for 2son’s future, legal and financial matters. They filled me with dread and then I got on and did them. Now the dread is a lot less. When I got my degree many years ago I did one module that required essays and really struggled with them, even though I enjoyed the material. So this is nothing new.
I re-read a post of mine on School Reports and what they brought up. Just reading through it brings up the physical dread detailed above. But made me realise that it’s not just the fear of being judged that is present but it’s the bigger fear of being belittled, of being mocked and laughed at, by both peers and tutors, as happened one way or another throughout my school life right from day one. It’s not just the fear of not getting external validation but that of getting ripped to shreds instead. My father reinforced this with his dismissal of anything less than perfect and telling me to get on with it and ignore emotions. So I learned to make myself small and that remained.
We’ve had a change of tutor this year and I do not trust either him or his colleague to mark my essays fairly or to support me if I raise difficulties. I do not think he is as bad as I feel but I had total trust in previous tutor, who had taught this course for too many years, and her ability to get us through and support us in getting assignments through. It was her and me united against the examining body whereas now I feel on my own. That doesn’t help solve the issue or help me make my way through it but it helps explain why it feels so much worse this year.
I was looking at an interesting piece of research on bullying and PTSD (and the role of the parental bond) and many of the participants’ comments about their experiences and reactions resonated with me. It also features CROPS, a child self reporting system for trauma. Out of the 25 suggestions ranging from “I daydream” to “I do some thing that I am probably too old for” I experienced almost all of them as a child.
I have flirted with the idea of having complex PTSD before, starting to work through a workbook on the subject. I have finished the book, but not the work. I did briefly talk to my counsellor about a short period with a specialist but that is currently problematic. I am honestly not sure how to proceed with this. Trying to dig it all up at a time of stress when I have got assignments to focus on seems counter-intuitive. If I could guarantee working my way through it in a short space of time then it would be worth taking time away from college for it. Is it optional though, can I get through the rest of the college work without it or do I need to work through to succeed? I don’t know.
I am however reading through Kristin Neff’s book on Self Compassion and thinking I could do with a bucketful of this. Whilst the personal pain I experienced taught me to be compassionate about others it did not teach me to be compassionate about myself. Learning to be kinder to myself helps counteract some of this emotional swirl I am experiencing.
Having put self-compassion in the title I haven’t made much reference to it. This time I asked for an extension on my essay that is not an essay rather than forcing myself to finish it on time. That is self-compassion. Even then I had to remind myself that it isn’t a race and it’s not about falling behind those of my peers who have finished. I can be kind and understanding towards them and their limitations but not to my own.
I am trying to fill some of my head’s empty space with consideration and understanding towards myself as well as acceptance and understanding but I have a nagging list of things to be done that shouts louder.