Multiple people have mistreated me within my several years within academia. This mistreatment has taken the form of gaslighting, lashing out at me over innocuous statements, and borderline emotional abuse. One of the reasons I try to keep this blog somewhat low key (e.g., I changed my Twitter handle so it no longer contains my full name) is so that I have a safe space to share about my experiences without too much fear of repercussion.
While I like research, the culture of academia often annoys and disheartens me. I know so many folks who have mistreated me and other students who have tenure or will get tenure just because they publish a lot of peer-reviewed articles. I have met people who conduct research about social justice topics and then directly perpetuate harm and white supremacy culture. I have seen people who have made multiple students cry and then take no accountability for their actions. While I know many others experience similar forms of harm in other environments (e.g., nonprofits, the arts) due to the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism and white supremacy, I still sometimes feel sickened by my own participation in a system that allows people, including people of color, to treat vulnerable students with such malice and lack of care.
I felt down in the dumps about academia and my participation in it after experiencing another painful incident earlier this week. In my worst moments of distress, I remembered a research mentor I had in undergrad who I still keep in touch with. For the sake of anonymity, I will just refer to this person as “Mentor.” Around 2016, I took a graduate level clinical psychology course with Mentor and proceeded to work with her on what would become my first accepted peer-reviewed publication. Throughout my time in undergrad and even beyond, I loved talking to Mentor about her perspective on research, academia, and life in general. When I felt hurt earlier this week, I wrote down a list of the many things I cherish about Mentor, which included:
1) Kindness and nonreactivity. She specialized in DBT during her psychology residency and it shows. While she communicates in a straightforward way, she always does so with a vibe of warmth and nurturance. She reminds me of my grandmother in how I never saw her lash out at anyone or get visibly angry, aside from getting angry about social injustices.
2) Self-awareness. I remember in a lab meeting several years she mentioned how she would recall something one of her old research advisors used to do that stressed her out, and she talked about how she intentionally does not replicate that behavior with her trainees. I believe that compassion almost always requires intention and Mentor’s intentionality always comes through, such that she observes her own emotions and then acts in a way to not replicate harm. Though we do not believe in hierarchies/monarchies, a queen!
3) Low ego. Mentor has such a healthy perspective about research. I have never seen her stress about being the best researcher or to have a big name in her field. She always seems to do research to help people and does not invest her sense of self-worth in her work. When I got rejected from a fellowship in undergrad and sought her perspective on achievement in academia, she told me that she practices radical acceptance that someone will always be better than her and that is okay. This self-regulation! Yes!
4) Having a life outside of academia. She enjoys her hobbies a lot, like reading, watching TV, and spending time with her family and friends and her dog. Sometime in 2020 I called Mentor and asked her if I do not belong in academia because I feel like I am not as obsessed with research as many other graduate students and faculty. She provided such a validating perspective about how she too cares about other things in her life more than research and that we can find some enjoyment in research while prioritizing our relationships and hobbies.
5) Responsiveness. She practices consistent responsiveness to emails and requests for help. However, she also communicates clear boundaries about when she cannot respond or when she will take time away, instead of ghosting and leaving students in a lurch.
6) Valuing social justice and questioning the status quo. Beyond caring about social justice in a liberal sense, Mentor always questions norms within academia in a radical way, such as talking about psychology’s inferiority complex as a field and wanting to gain proximity to the hard sciences instead of building collaborations with the humanities, or how academia is rigged and is not an actual test of merit at all. I always feel like I can be my truly radical and unfiltered self when I speak with Mentor given the kind and open environment she fosters.
Though I just spent over 400 words raving about Mentor, I recognize that she is imperfect and that she is privileged as a cisgender white woman. Perhaps her ability to practice compassion and emotion regulation stems from a felt sense of security in the world related to her white privilege, even though I know a ton of white women who are also privileged and treat people horribly. I also acknowledge that she and I are different in some ways. For example, I tend to exude more warmth and bubbliness personality-wise whereas she can come across as pragmatic and practical. She’s also a lot better and more interested in stats than I am, lol.
I write this all out to honor the grief I feel about not working with Mentor anymore, as well as the immense gratitude I feel for having had the opportunity to work with her at all. My feelings of loss and appreciation remind me of how I feel about my grandmother – even if these amazing women are not in my life anymore or are in my life in a reduced capacity, their example of how I want to treat myself and treat others still resonates. Of course on a systems level there are many reforms that should occur to prevent abuse in academia. On a more emotional and personal level, though, I’m letting myself get teary-eyed as I write this. I’m sitting with how, through knowing Mentor, as well as close friends, therapists, and other mentors in my life who’ve embodied radical kindness, I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.
How have you coped or tried to heal from gaslighting and/or abusive behaviors, either in a professional environment or in your personal life? Are there any people you feel particularly grateful for in your life, mentors or otherwise? If you don’t see another post from me again it’s because Rosé from BlackPink is releasing her first single album on Friday so I’m probably gonna transcend into another dimension especially if the title track “On the Ground” is actually a bop. Until next post!