Mentor

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.

One of the reasons I love third-wave cognitive behavioral therapies because I saw how Mentor used them so effectively in her own life to be a kind and regulated human and I was like, omg I want that too! I so appreciate how DBT honors both emotion and logic and how it draws from Eastern philosophy and meditative practices. See here for more info on wise mind, and credit for the pic goes to therapeuticoasis.com.

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!

As someone who can be a bit control-oriented and very idealistic, radical acceptance helps me make peace with reality so I can then take action to fight social injustice. Thank you @ Mentor for being such a big DBT fan so I could then pick up the mantle! Image via healthyplace.com.

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!

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Mentor

  1. Perhaps her ability to practice compassion and emotion regulation stems from a felt sense of security in the world related to her white privilege… I absolutely think of this sometimes in regards to my hard-won self-esteem and equanimity, but then, in icky-meta fashion, I realize that I’m using the thought to invalidate myself and minimize the work I’ve done on myself. So best to say, yes of course! It’s easier to do this work if you have some of the advantages, but it’s still hard, and anyway, the important thing is how I use this awareness to be sensitive to others and avoid judging them.

    • Yes I love this comment thank you for sharing it! This reminds me of the DBT principle of like, and instead of but. It’s like, we can both have privileges that have allowed us to do some of the emotional work *and* we made the decision to do the emotional work even when it’s been hard. I def know people who are similarly privileged and have not done the work so yikes. So appreciate you dropping by and hope you are doing well. (:

  2. I feel badly that you had to suffer in your chosen field of study. I always thought academia was a lot more laid back and collegial. But my cousin, who teaches at a university in the US said it can be brutal. So I guess it’s very similar to other industries. I’m glad you have a mentor. My only advice is to keep developing a strong network of trusted friends / colleagues who have insight into the workings of your university. They can provide you with a heads up, give you perspectives into decisions being made and any office politics.

    It’s also a bit sad that you have to remove your name from your twitter feed. I do worry sometimes that your blog could be used against you (I hope not) in some ways.

    To answer your question, I did have a couple of mentors early in my career. They gave me a boost and developed my confidence. My mistake was I didn’t find more mentors after they left.

    Finally, I do hope if you do transcend into another dimension you somehow find a way to blog.

    Have a great week!

    • Thanks so much for this validating comment Matt! Yeah there have been times where my situation has been rough though I recognize others have it worse (which should not be a thing) and I also have privileges in the position I’m in. I appreciate your points and yes, I feel fortunate I’ve been able to develop other mentors/friends in the field even if some folks have hurt me. I guess it’s a note to not give up on forming connections even if some connections don’t work out or are actively harmful.

      I feel that way about my blog too sometimes! Though I then remember the importance of vulnerability and how at least at this point I’d rather share my perspective and have potential backlash then to not share it at all. I’m glad you had mentors at some point in your career and I hope you will still be able to have them or to serve as one later on.

  3. I’m so sorry, academia can be so vile, my husband’s boss was absolutely awful to her post-docs and doctoral students when he worked for her – and to him, too, but not quite so bad – and she never really got punished for it there were some meetings but off she moved (thank goodness, and she was so entitled she expected him and therefore me to trail her to a new city!!) and he left the university. it’s such a massive problem and I am always glad when I hear about good academics (I know some, too). I’m glad of the friends who build me up and are like my family, and when I get bullied now I know to get out (which happened again with a hobby I had recently; a friend in the same hobby and someone much higher up were very supportive and kind which really helped me deal with it). Lots of love and strength to you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing about your husband’s experience and your experience Liz! I feel like a theme I’m hearing is like, yes, there are people who behave in harmful and interpersonally cruel ways, and at the same time there are others who are kind and supportive. I feel like having some of the latter can definitely help heal experiences from the former. Sending a lot of warmth and strength your way just in general and appreciate you taking the time to read and to share.

  4. Kartavya Ratate

    I am glad to know that you have developed meaningful bonds with so many people both inside and outside of academia and that you still appreciate/ feel grateful about those relationships from the past while actively nurturing those in the present. In most of your blog posts, you write about how you cherish your relationship with your friends and how you consciously take time to strengthen it. As someone who doesn’t have many friends except a few casual ones, I was wondering if not having meaningful relationships in life affects it in any way. Does making our happiness/ contentment dependent on the presence of other people in our lives weaken us or does it only strengthen our sense of self? I feel like life, after all, can’t possibly be complete without the presence of those who we care about, who we love and cherish. But what if finding them itself is not easy? I understand that one may be able to find them in the future or maybe one just needs to recognise them in the present. But is self-contentment possible, without holding on to any expectations like these? What do you think?

    Whew, I wrote a lot here. But I don’t expect you to necessarily reply, in case you are busy:) Take care.

    • Ooooh that’s a great question thanks so much for sharing your detailed thoughts and for being vulnerable about the state of your relationships. I feel like self-contentment is a big deal. I think what makes my friendships with my two best friends really strong is that the three of us have each put in the internal work to really deeply love ourselves for who we are. Thus, while we draw strength from our friendships with one another, we don’t rely on one another to fulfill some lack of self-worth or anything like that. I also feel like developing self-contentment now can always help if you go on to have more close relationships in the future, or even if you don’t. As you probably know from reading my blog I pretty much have accepted I will never date a man. However, I do think the work I’ve put into myself for several years now will help out if I ever do date a man, for example. Hope you are doing as well as possible and appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

      • Kartavya Ratate

        Thanks so much, Thomas. What you’ve explained here helped me get a lot of things clear, especially the reason why I expect having relationships in the first place. While exercising to BlackPink’s ‘Lovesick Girls’ and reading Appetites, I realised that my wish to form relationships stems more from the need to be recognised and known, as Caroline writes: “Being known. This, of course, is the goal, the agenda so carefully hidden it may be unknown even to the self.” I am still trying to navigate how I can express myself better or communicate my feelings to those who care about me, while also practising self-compassion and basking in the knowledge that even if no one “sees” me, I am still always going to be conscious of my needs and my feelings. I will always love myself. So technically I will be seen: by myself. And that’s what really matters to me.

        Sending lots of love. Have a great day.🙂

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