Sunday, August 16, 2009

Impervious to cheerleading?

Got a very encouraging email today from one of my newer supporters.

In the last couple of years, I have acquired a few of these people. They're sort of like mentors, in the sense that they are partly giving advice, and partly cheerleading. Cheerleading mostly consists of them finding gentle but firm ways of telling me repeatedly that I have a warped view of my own accomplishments because of my toxic adviser's manipulation tactics.

Yes, some small part of my brain has a conversation that goes like this:

Are they just saying that to be nice?
Why are they being so nice to me?
Are they just being nice because there are so few women in science?

And part of my brain says:

Um, no. They have no reason to just be nice. So, they must mean it. DOES NOT COMPUTE. DOES NOT COMPUTE!!

But no matter how many nice things these cheerleaders or various strangers say to me, I still suck at taking any compliments about my work.

They say, "That sounds really interesting! What a great project! What nice results!"

And I say, "Well I think it's interesting. And it's very nice of you to say that, thank you."

But what I'm actually thinking is, I should really let this poor polite person get on with their day so they don't have to pretend to be interested in my project any longer.

It's really kind of sad. Supposedly this is one of the symptoms of "depression" - warped thinking, the inability to perceive positivity. So even though I'm feeling better than I was, I think this is a symptom I have had my entire life.

I just really have no idea how to genuinely thrive off of compliments. Applause, okay, I can enjoy that. Who doesn't like that? Gifts are fun too! But from a young age I had it drilled into my head that when people say nice things, it's just hot air and you should always ignore it. Worse than that, compliments could be dangerous - you might become arrogant and lazy!

I think this is partly related to gender roles. Girls are supposed to be seen and not heard; be helpful around the house instead of playing outside until after it gets dark. If someone gave me a compliment when I was little, it was usually for something meaningless or shallow, as in, "What a pretty little girl you are!" (and aren't most little girls pretty, anyway? isn't this something everyone says? doesn't the impersonality of it make it automatically meaningless?)

Then again, I was also the kid who openly disagreed with compliments. I distinctly remember being chastised by my mother after a random visitor to the house complimented me on something I was doing.

He said, "You're very good at that!"

I was probably about five years old, but I looked directly the guy and said, "No, I'm not."

I remember being baffled when my mother told me that it was more important to say "thank you", since it seemed like a direct contradiction to her general attitude.

Although she occasionally says it to me now (about things like cooking, for example), she would never have used the phrase "You're very good at that" about anything that mattered to me when I was growing up. For example, from a young age, I loved writing, but she always said she couldn't understand why I liked it so much because I wasn't very good at it.

As if enjoying something and being good at it are mutually dependent, or something.

I was taught that, just because I enjoyed doing a particular activity, and even if other people said I was doing well, that was never enough to determine whether I was actually good at it. I never won any awards, and I really wasn't a straight-A student. Therefore, I wasn't really very good at anything, as far as my parents were concerned.

So maybe it's partly because my adviser has not been exactly laudatory, and this is the pattern I learned from my family, but no matter how much positive feedback I get from other people, most of the time I feel like this is all well and good but the existing evidence suggests it might not matter much, practically speaking, in the long run.

Which is sort of the point, I think - the idea of living in the moment of a genuine compliment is to get that little glow, I guess, and say for right now, I am doing just fine, and all that matters is right now.


I was raised to worry about the things that last, though, in the sense that actions count for more than words. Reaching your goal, in my family, is more important than enjoying the process.

Which is stupid, because most of life is really about process, and reaching your goals usually just means moving on to the next one. If you just live from achievement to achievement, you're going to spend very little time actually enjoying anything.

And yet, science is set up so that certain types of goals are all that matter. You don't get credit for developing methods, unless they're published. It doesn't matter how much fun you had or how long it took. Process is nice, but achievement is what matters in the long run.

So while compliments can almost always be taken back or easily forgotten, if somebody is really willing to go out on a limb and do something to get you where you need to be, that's meaningful.

But I think these people are genuinely trying to do something by being my much-needed cheerleaders. I just can't quite get it through my thick head how to use positive feedback as persistence protein instead of discarding it like corrupting candy.

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At 7:50 PM, Blogger yolio said...

Once, I took an improv workshop and one of the exercises was to accept applause. We would literally walk into the room alone and stand there while the entire group of thirty people applauded you enthusiastically. We were supposed to face the audience, smile and say thank you. It is amazing how uncomfortable it was to stand there and take it without turning away or slumping your shoulders.

This was a status exercise. (It turns out that status is a major theme for actors.) High status people accept praise graciously. Low status people try to push it off of themselves. According to this logic, refusing praise is part of maintaing a subordinate status.

You were trained to refuse to acknowledge your own excellence. You were trained to be a subordinate, and never a leader. Feminism would call this internalized oppression. We all struggle with it now and again.

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe it's just too soon for the positive effects to take hold. Changing of ingrained habits (like negative thought patterns) doesn't happen overnight. I think that finally being around positive and encouraging people is the right path to be on, just give it time for the positive feedback to take hold.

At 1:31 AM, Blogger Kea said...

But from a young age I had it drilled into my head that when people say nice things, it's just hot air and you should always ignore it.

How depressing that it is still like that. At 42, I still can't help behaving that way. But you are lucky to have cheerleaders/mentors. Try to appreciate them.

At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a similar workshop as yolio. It was for leadership training. We had to jump up out of our chairs at some random time and yell "I want a standing ovation!", and everyone would stop what they were doing to clap for you. The yeller had to nod their head in acceptance, shake hands with people closest, and say thank you. I'll never forget one dude jumping up on the table and yelling. It seemed to be total horror and embarrassment for the women, but a big exercise in entitlement for the men. jc

At 5:17 PM, Blogger daisy mae said...

i think you've identified several really key points, the most important being able to distinguish between hot air, genuine compliments, and the "then what" that follows a compliment.

some people mean well, and truly offer a heartfelt compliment, and they are your cheerleaders. and cheerleaders are indispensable. but it sounds like perhaps you need one or two people to go beyond cheerleading, and help you to constructively talk through your frustrations and help you come up with plans to move forward - effectively, become mentors.

the thing that sucks about mentors is that more often than not, you have to approach them about helping you... which (to me anyway) is about as nerve-wracking as asking someone out on a date. mostly because (for me) it's admitting that i need help, and that hey, i can't do it all on my own (even though sometimes i really really want to).

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Acid_Storm said...

I think you're very good writing posts. Haha, sorry, I couldn't avoid it.

I think you should ignore accomplishments, even, you may be sincere with your so-called cheerleaders if you don't feel comfortable unless you know you're the one with the problem and need to understand it.

There're so many people that always act like that, praising. I knew one of them and I actually ask her stop doing that because I really feel uncomfortable receiving accomplishments when I'm not really good. Their ignorance don't make us better.

Anyway, I truly liked your posts, which doesn't mean you are good at all. You actually suck at it, do you believe these words? People can lie too when they say you suck doing something.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That's a really great point, and one I really hadn't considered.

My toxic anti-mentor definitely tries to put me down as a way of taking control, as in "You suck at this, you should let me do it because I'm the one with all the experience. After all, I'm the expert."

And it always makes me feel crappy - even when I try to ignore it.

But it makes me feel crappiest when said "mentor" turns out not to know how to do it at all!

Then I think Geez, why I did I fall for that, I should have just said "no thanks" and then I could have done it my way and more quickly, and maybe then I wouldn't be in this mess.


At 6:09 PM, Blogger The Grand Inquisitor said...

you could just try doing something for yourself, and not really giving two fucks what anyone else thinks. it is called SELF confidence after all, it needs to come from you, for you. just my two cents. not a compliment, not an insult, just a theory

At 11:10 PM, Blogger EngiNerd said...

wow! i learned the same lesson the hard way that the expert anti-advisor who is the self proclaimed expert couldn't do it either and that i felt crappy for trusting the loser... if he could do it he would have already -- i just remind myself of that when i get stuck.

At 3:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YFS dear...too much Freud... not everything could be about gender...

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how's this for making you feel crappy: my PhD advisor is a very old geezer, he comes from a different era (back when tenure was much easier to come by because there was far less competition). The idea of doing a postdoc is foreign to him ("why don't you just get a job straight away?"). I mean sure he hires postdocs in his lab, but all of them have gone into industry from not being able to get TT positions but he assumes it's because they preferred industry and weren't interested in academia at all. But I have been trying to get an academic TT job and he simply can't understand why now, X years out from my PhD, I'm still stuck in postdoc limbo and trying to get a TT job. Recently I ran into him at a conference. After learning I was now doing a second postdoc, he asked, "so are you doing anything useful in that lab?", what is THAT supposed to mean??...then an acquaintance of his stopped to say hi to him. My former advisor introduced me to his acquaintance this way, "meet so-and-so, one of my former students. She got her PhD X years ago and has been trying to get a job ever since." ... And then they both burst out laughing...Now, how's THAT for making you feel crappy? And I even left his lab years and years ago and he's STILL making me feel crappy!

At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing you said really rang true with me, when you talk about your mentors trying to encourage you *because* you are female. My current boss is always very praising of the work I do, or my progress and goals, and I feel very lucky. At the same time part of me wonders if he isn't being OVERLY-praising because I am a woman, and because he is trying to encourage that in my industry. Plenty of the dudes around here might think exactly the reverse, but it always makes me question myself when he goes over the top and I it just because I am a woman?

At 3:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean sure he hires postdocs in his lab, but all of them have gone into industry from not being able to get TT positions but he assumes it's because they preferred industry and weren't interested in academia at all.

I was at a conference recently and someone mentioned that a recent PhD graduate had gone off to industry (as most do - try finding a tenure-track mathematics position anywhere). Ancient PI responded that the guy "hadn't really looked hard enough for a job".

It's like some people live on a different planet.


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