Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Lesson in Self-Compassion

I remember sitting with my friend Roslyn over drinks one Tuesday night in early September saying, "How am I ever going to get through this semester?"  So, the two of us sat for a while, strategizing ways for me to finish the very last of my PhD coursework and make it out with my sanity (and hopefully happiness) in tact.  Well...  I've done it.  Thank goodness.  It wasn't easy, but frankly, I think I learned some of the best lessons of graduate school during this last semester.  Lessons that people have been trying to teach me for years.  For instance, sometimes, life gets in the way of perfection.  I wanted to make it through graduate school with a 4.0 GPA, probably in part to prove something to myself, in part to prove something to all who doubted me along the way, and in large part because my true nature as a perfectionist was shining through.  I wanted that 4.0 so badly that at one point, I actually talked a professor into bumping an A- up to an A.  Yes, I really did that.  This semester, though, it just wasn't in the cards.  I was in a difficult statistics course and not in the right mindset to really give that class my all.    At some point, I knew that a grade less than A was nearly inevitable.  So, I began to come to terms with it.

When I was living in Lincoln and training for half marathons with the YMCA Marathon Class, the great and all-powerful Ann Ringlein must have said at least a dozen times that when goal setting, you should take into account all of the other things (besides training) that are going on in your life.  She told us repeatedly that sometimes life gets stressful and those times might not be the best for trying to run a new distance or a personal best time.  I always listened to her...  But I don't think I actually heard.  As a result, last spring I turned in a terribly disappointing half marathon performance.  I wanted to quit/die half way through and ran my second slowest time ever.  Ummmm...  Well, yeah.  Probably a training season in which I lost a loved one, got injured and missed almost a month of long runs, turned in my first grant proposal, had a full course load, and experienced a couple of other emotional personal losses was maybe NOT the best time to expect a stellar running performance out of myself...  Geez, Katie.

In any case, I think this semester I finally got it.  Sometimes, life gets in the way and you have to ease up on yourself.  You can't expect perfection from yourself in one arena of life when you're struggling with so many others (and let me just say - for the record - that while I expect perfection from myself, I absolutely know that I, myself, am far, far, far from perfect).  An A- or a B, while they will wreck my 4.0, are not the end of the world.  They do not mean that I'm not a good graduate student, they do not prove the nay-sayers right, and they will not keep me from getting the job I want or being successful in the future.  But my backing off of myself a little and being ok with the A- or the B (whichever it turns out to be) will help me be happier, less stressed, and more content now.

Interestingly, I have happened across a couple of articles on self-compassion over the last couple of days.  People are afraid to show themselves compassion because they fear it will lead to laziness, lack of discipline.  Some research has shown that self-compassion actually leads in the opposite direction of disaster, though.  Maybe in the past I was afraid that if I accepted the fact that I wasn't capable of going after what I wanted 100% that I wouldn't go after it at all?  Or that I would stop wanting it?  Or that I'd stop being motivated to do anything at all???  I'm not entirely sure.  I was very uncomfortable when I found out that I would be ending my semester, and thus my graduate career, with a less than perfect GPA.  My friend Meghan has also been telling me for years that a B here or there wouldn't matter at all.  I believed her.  Completely.  I just didn't want to have to find out.  But, I tell you what...  When the wheels not only go flat on the bus of life, but start to fall off and roll in different directions, there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.  You can be upset and stressed out and frustrated that things didn't turn out the way you wish they had.  Or, you can show yourself a little compassion, try your best to accept what is, and move on.  I know myself, so I know that I will forever struggle with this.  I also know that when I look at my transcript and see the A- or B, it will be a little painful.  But, I'll know that I did the best I could in the moment and that sometimes, that's really all I need to ask of myself.

Here's to the end of graduate classes!  Only comprehensive exams, a year of research, and a dissertation to go...  This is the "easy" part, right?