Let Go and Take Hold of Your Dissertation and Your Life

Published in All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide

There's an old New Yorker cartoon which depicts a tired, bespectacled man, sleeves rolled up, sitting in his basement at his typewriter surrounded by piles and piles of paper on the floor, bulletin boards filled with varying sized notes, and crumbled pieces of paper near a wastebasket. As he leans over the typewriter, his wife stands on the staircase above with her arms crossed. He turns to her and says, "Finish it? Why would I want to finish it?"

The mordant humor expressed by this cartoon is familiar to anyone whose dissertation has become a "bad old friend", thorn in one's side, or albatross around one's neck.

Strangely, we humans get used to the craziest things, and even more strangely become attached to them! It's a well known fact that even long term inmates often become so attached to their prisons that they recommit crimes in order to get sent back again!

What does this have to do with you? Has your dissertation become the safe prison that you're inadvertently attached to even while hating it? You can get free! But first you may need to look more closely at the emotional baggage that may be keeping you overly attached to you dissertation. All the good advice in the world won't help unless you can feel free enough to take it in and let yourself get released.

You may need to look at what you're having trouble letting go of so that you can take hold of both your dissertation and your life! These two things occur together. You can not do one without the other. Do you feel a kind of 'been there, done that' cynicism about ever getting out of the dissertation morass? Strange to say, that very cynicism may be one of the ways that you hold on to your painful attachment! You are not a broken record, even though it can sometimes feel like you're going over the same groove (or jumping through the same hoops) over and over. If you're up to the dissertation, you have an inquiring mind, and the capacity to get control of the needle - if you grease the mechanism.

It's true that words are easy but the process of change always involves some amount of anxiety and pain. So rather than focusing on your dissertation /per se/, you may need to temporarily make yourself the project by discovering and acknowledging your latent attitudes and fantasies regarding the meanings the dissertation has for you, including what you're getting out of not getting it done.

Often, people who have experienced many losses and separations in their lives tend to take more time getting their dissertations completed. One of the most common conflicts is that completing the dissertation means truly and fully entering into adulthood and leaving childhood behind. Maybe keeping the dissertation incomplete helps you avoid taking hold of new opportunities or responsibilities in your life - or even cultivating feelings of potential greatness! - which a part of you would like to avoid. As long as you have your dissertation to think about, you don't have to face those challenges.

Sorting these kinds of implicit issues out with a coach or by journaling about it on your own can be very helpful, but you have to be open to asking questions to begin with. Surrender to the fact that you're in a process. Let yourself be with your emotions and fantasies, and then take a mental helicopter ride up above yourself and look down at where you are. It's even possible that completing the dissertation may not be as necessary as it seems for you to have a rich and fulfilling life. Letting go of that notion can help you to put it into a better perspective.

Here's a well-known poem by Marianne Williamson and some questions for you to consider and journal on if you like.

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented or fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not save the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of god within us It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated form our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

What feelings and emotions were evoked as you read this poem?

How does this poem relate to your attitudes towards success and failure? To childhood vs. adulthood?

What would you need to risk in order to live a life of greatness? Be specific. Write from your heart not your head.

Next, write an imaginary letter to yourself or to your advisor. It's a year from now and you're celebrating your dissertation's completion. Describe what actions you took to make this moment come true!

You can take hold of your dissertation! Get out of the basement and into your life!

Perform Your Best at Your Orals

Published in All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide

Orals! They are the final leg on your long journey to the doctorate. At times you may not believe that you will actually go the distance to reach that point, but perseverance, optimism and a good support system will get you there. If you are already there, congratulations!

You are about to engage in one of the most important and exciting performances of your life! Do you feel wonderful? Or do you feel terrified that you'll succumb to stage fright and clam up, go blank, have racing thoughts, clammy hands, a sick stomach or pounding heart during your orals? Are you preparing for the fight/flight response?

Needless to say, you must be prepared for your oral defense, but gearing up for an attack won't help. It will only make you tenser. Here are some suggestions for how to prepare and deal with the final hurdle. Athletes, musicians and other performers who operate at their peak know and practice these tips with great success, and so can you.

1. Get ready. Practice! Re-read your dissertation several times (even if you're sick of it!). Have mock orals with friends or other students. Anticipate possible questions from your committee, and prepare your answers.

Ask yourself what is incomplete. What do you need to do to complete it? What will you wear? How will the room look? (Go there in advance and check it out.) What props/ materials will you need?

Decide what you will do if you don't know an answer. Use the practice session to see if instead of fearing failure, you can re-frame a difficult question into an interesting learning opportunity for the group. Then, declare your preparation complete, and stop practicing. Do not stay up all night before your defense!

2. Get set. Clarify your intention and decide in advance the image you want to create in this performance. Practice focusing and attention control. Learn relaxation techniques, deep breathing, and positive visualizations.

Visualize your most successful moments in the past. What did you feel like? Recall that experience using all of your senses. Imagine and visualize the kind of atmosphere you want to create. Think of your strengths (e.g., creativity, sense of humor, curiosity) and how you will use them in the room. Pick a few "trigger words" to describe how you intend to be (e.g., confident, expert, flexible, powerful). Set aside 15-30 minutes every day to practice. The more you practice getting yourself into this state of mind, the easier it will be for you to go there when the big day comes.

Rest, eat well, and get enough sleep the night before the orals.

3. Go! Remember your trigger words. Say them to yourself as you enter the room. Don't fear your anxiety. Expect and acknowledge anxiety as a necessary "activation spike" reflecting the rush of adrenaline coming from your brain's preparedness to work.

Be in the moment. No thoughts of victory. No thoughts of defeat. Aim high but let go of the outcome. Be mindful of your circumstances, but detach from judgment. This strategy is paradoxical and counterintuitive, but it works.

Can you allow yourself to actually consider being playful? Enjoy this moment that is the culmination of months and months of work! Can you silently celebrate it even as you're in it?

Remember that you are not your performance and you are not your dissertation. Think of what you have to give, to contribute, to learn, rather than what you have to fear.

You got this far because you are courageous, intelligent, and tenacious. Give yourself permission to have a good time and savor your success. Good luck!


Freud and Meaning, Part 1

Published in Psychology Today

One of the chief distinguishing features of noimetic psychology is how much attention we pay to the ways in which human beings demonstrate what matters to them, decide on what matters to them, and experience meaning.

Naturally enough, noimetic psychology is not the only psychology to pay attention to meaning. The question of meaning is central to existential psychology and the idea of constructed meaning is at the heart of narrative psychology. It is less clear, however, to what extent a traditional psychology like psychoanalysis has paid attention to meaning. In this post and in the next you'll see what, according to clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Judith Levy, contemporary psychoanalysis makes of meaning. I'd like to thank Judith for this contribution.

Judith calls this piece "Meaning Making in Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice." She explains:

"As a psychologist, psychoanalyst and longtime admirer of Eric's work, I'm pleased to see him inviting us all to think about the nature and function of meaning making in people's lives. This endeavor is quite familiar to me, since psychoanalytic theory and practice centers itself around how and why various aspects of life are construed as meaningful or become denuded of meaning, how meaning develops, what purpose it serves, how we can create and cultivate meaning, and what stops us from doing so.

"Psychoanalytic theory is far reaching: it's a theory of mind, a theory of normal and pathological development, and a theory of psychological treatment. Freud was the first to posit that what we construe as meaningful or valuable is determined by both conscious and unconscious factors, and that meaning making is a subjective experience, invariably effected by inner conflict.

"Psychoanalysts work to understand the causes of 'stuckness' or inhibitions that make it difficult to passionately create or choose and complete activities that enhance personal meaning.  A major question which psychoanalysis asks is how best can we get our desires met (including the desire for personal meaning) in both love and in work, while maintaining our self esteem, and regulating the inevitable anxieties and frustrations concomitant with the pursuit of what matters to us.  

"Psychoanalysts honor the paradoxical nature of the human condition: that is, that the very things we wish for are also often the very things which terrify us. Why? Because the consequences of their attainment are anticipated to be dangerous.  The dangers are related to both real and fantasized losses, most especially the loss of security, safety, bodily integrity, and love.  We humans have nifty ways of defending ourselves from our anxieties, including by finding substitute forms of gratification which may be pleasing enough diversions from 'what really matters,' but are powerful compromises against the dangers and risks inherent in feeling fully alive. Contemporary analysts help people to discover and examine how both real and imagined relationships with others shape their personalitygoals, values, inhibitions, and sense of freedom of choice.

"The uncovering of unconscious fantasies and conflicts and the elaboration of their meaning is one aspect of psychoanalytic work which allows people to take up their lives more deeply, freely and hence meaningfully, so that the unknown or ambiguous can be experienced not just as potentially unnerving or dangerous, but as a source of opportunity and growth. If I, as an analytically informed therapist, can provide an atmosphere of safety for a person to play with her thoughts, associations, feelings and fears, including those which concern all manner of aggressive and loving feelings about me, then the two of us together have created a 'holding environment' built out of the development of a deep and authentic relationship between us. It is from this interchange that meaning is both created and discovered.

"I want to very briefly address Eric's interest in 'the nature and location of human meaning.' In the last few decades, contemporary psychoanalysts and attachment researchers have been studying how certain chronic mismatches between mothers and babies can create intense tension and dysregulated affect states. Babies' natural, burgeoning ability to make meaning of their experiences by mentally representing them via a process of symbolizing and linking thoughts and feelings to each other can become compromised.

"This is a complicated process effecting the way children's minds get structured. It has ramifications for continuing cognitive and emotional development as a child matures into adulthood, where it can effect many areas that Eric mentions, and show up in subtle and not so subtle ways, including having thought blockages, difficulties with writing (using language), compromised mental flexibility and fantasy life, concrete thinking, clinging to certainty, feelings of mental paralysis, emptiness, dissociation, or a chronic sense of 'meaninglessness.' 

"Often, these kinds of problems are not 'either-or'; they occur on a continuum and in particular contexts. Rather than looking at people as 'normal' or 'abnormal' or thinking in terms of diagnostic labels, psychoanalysts look at these processes on multiple levels.  They 'live into and with' these phenomena as they attempt to generate meaning by creating a mutually constructed 'transitional space' together with their patients. They address both the content of people's conflicts, as well as the process by which these become manifested and enacted with the analyst and in life."

Thanks, Judith. I'll present the second part of Judith's thoughts in my next post.

If you'd like to share with my readers how your particular psychology construes the issue of meaning, just drop me a line and we can chat about presenting your views here in Rethinking Psychology.


Freud and Meaning, Part 2

Published in Psychology Today

In my last post I introduced Judith Levy's ideas on contemporary psychoanalysis and meaning. This post completes Judith's contribution.

Here is her concluding portion:

"The paradoxical idea that meaning is both created and found was first proposed in the post World War II years by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who coined the terms 'holding environment,' 'transitional object' (colloquially known as 'security blanket), and 'transitional space.' He elaborated upon how what we construe as meaningful is highly subjective and involves a developmental trajectory influenced by the interaction between mothers and babies, and emphasized the importance of play in the development of creativity.

"If the mother (or parenting figure) is 'good enough' she provides a combination of both attunement to and inevitable frustration of her baby's needs and desires, which spark the development of the child's mind as well as a sense of agency, continuity, and self as distinct from that of the mother. As part of this process, mother and child 'create' each other. For the baby the particular interactions, behaviors, smells, facial expressions, touch, etc. of the mother are imbued with rudimentary meaning, but, paradoxically, the mother 'was waiting there to be created.'

"The importance of the baby's active agency in creating her particular mother is key, and when the child must eventually learn that her mother is separate from her, she invests aspects of her mother, herself and their relationship into a transitional object. Many adults are quite familiar with their children carrying around 'blankies' or other kinds of stuffed toys that take on tremendous importance and meaning.  They help the child make the transition from feelings of ownership and oneness with mother to separateness and individuation.

"It's this process which allows the child to notice and enter the wider world, still holding on to a piece of 'mother.' Eventually it loses its meaning and is given up (though some people keep their 'blankies' well into college and beyond!) This is the prototypical process by which we all imbue meaning to our lives, rather than simply finding it. It's the beginning of constructing creative solutions to the fact that we all must come to terms with our lack of omnipotence, that we have limitations, are unable to possess everything we want and are helpless to control the inevitability of death. A transitional object bridges aspects of the mother's objective existence with aspects of the child's subjective creation of her.

"As I noted earlier, Winnicott sees play as a most important vehicle by which meaning is made.  It allows for the continuing discovery and construction of the self and the world. 'In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream, and invests (them) with dream meaning and feeling...'

"When children play they create meaning by actualizing their internal imaginary experiences by enacting them in the real world. Artists, writers, religions, use different symbolic vehicles to do the same. Play is a transitional phenomenon because it involves the coming together of inner psychic reality with the objective external world via the positive use of 'illusion.'  It's both very serious, and very fun. In my experience, many people who have difficulty with creating meaning in their lives suffer from an inability to play fully or at all, and may struggle to construct a coherent narrative or story about themselves which feels centering and organizing.

"To me this is what meaning making is all about: the ability to bring inner vision to oneself and the world emanating from a spiral of evolving mutuality with another.  It's a complex matter for some, and easier for others, depending upon a number of factors. I see my work as being about bringing my clients to a place in which they can play more fully, using our dialectic, interactive process to enable them  - and myself as well! -  to experience and to have both the freedom and the discipline to cultivate a sense of possibility and enhanced meaning. It's a continual work in progress. 

"Eric raised some wonderful questions in an earlier post, such as why one parent may find his child's existence as meaningful, vs. another who finds it inconvenient; or what is the relationship between a person's passionate desire to be a writer and the moments when, as an eight year old, he was mesmerized by a particularly beautiful story; or how important it is to address the meaning and influence on a person's life of some particular moments of 'lightness of being' as a child during the liberation and subsequent occupation of Prague.  These are the kinds of questions and issues absolutely addressed by psychoanalytic psychology all the time.

"I look forward to learning more about Eric's views concerning meaning and the overlaps and differences between noimetics and psychoanalytic psychology. As someone who uses my psychoanalytic understanding in a variety of areas, including therapy and life coaching, there is nothing more exciting to me than how the internet has allowed us all  - therapists, neuroscientists, behaviorists, philosophers, psychologists, and artists - to dialogue with each other and to see how much overlap there actually is in what we each feel is meaningful and valuable."