Belonging in Academia: Space, Pace and Breathing…

Ever catch yourself questioning whether you belong in academia? Whatever your automatic response to this question is: an inch of distance changes your space, your pace and also how you breathe…

Especially given the Covid19-context, causing higher stress levels in general: if you crave an academic year in which you’ll have full access to your time and energy for your research, teaching and core responsibilities instead of let’s say… self-doubt and self-defeating dynamics, this post will help you on your way.

As human beings we all long to feel that we belong, that we are welcome. This sense of safety is a point of departure for adventure and creativity.

Chances are, however, that for whatever personal reasons, you ruminate over the question: do I belong? Self-defeating dynamics cost us quite a bit of time and energy. Although we all have our personal stories in how we create and disrupt our sense of groundedness, this is a shared story for the sensitive and creative professionals that academics are.

*

1. Organizing yourself: access to your energy

How would you feel if you had all your energy available to you for your research, writing, teaching and inspiring others?

In counseling academics and training groups, the invasiveness of self-doubt and the energetic depletion caused by not feeling like a proper and legitimate member of the academy and academic life is but all too apparent to me.

There is nothing more rewarding than witnessing academics, who feel depleted and stuck, coming back to life, remembering themselves and returning more knowledgable about how to guide themselves through challenging projects, gatherings and teaching settings: staying energized, nurtured and inspired.

In starting off the new academic year refreshed and with full access to our time and energy for our core activities, dodging the question ‘Do I feel I belong?’ is not the best way to go.

Rather: addressing this question, observing our responses and raising our awareness to what we need in order to thrive and have access to our energy is the way to go.

So, let’s raise that awareness right now, and address the question: how can we know whether we belong in academia?

Is it the nature of our contracts that determines it? The number of meetings that we get invited for? Is it the number of conferences we attend? The number of publications on our name? The number of keynotes that we deliver? Is it the evaluation of our courses that give us a glimpse? Is the public recognition for either our research or teaching, or both?*

‘Even though I’ve managed to get tenure, I still fear to be found out as not being good enough.’

‘Now that I’m in-between contracts, can I introduce myself as a scholar even?’

‘The competitiveness and ranking… it has such an alienating impact upon me… I have really lost both joy and a sense of belonging because of the harsh comparing.”

*

2. Emotions by Numbers Assignment

If you have caught yourself ruminating over the question whether you belong in academia or you know you will at some point, please make use of the inch of distance that I’m offering here.

Just make sure you have 7 minutes of undisturbed time. Get comfortable in the chair where you are sitting, preferably with your feet on the ground. Take a deep breath, and then observe your whole self in how you respond to the following question:

Do you feel that you belong in academia?

Register anything and everything that rises to the surface right now. Observe which emotions demand your attention. Write down the numbers that correspond most with what you feel while deeply contemplating whether you feel you belong in academia.

  • Yes: you can pick multiple answers.
  • You can even pick contradictory answers.

Don’t try and ‘make sense’. Don’t try and formulate the conclusion before even gathering the data.

Just sit with this question once more, and observe without judging which emotions are triggered in you.

For this to be an interesting assignment for reflection and contemplation: do not scroll down before taking at least 3 minutes for deciding upon the numbers. Don’t overthink! Stick with your primary responses.

Do you feel that you belong in academia?

What feelings were triggered? Please choose 5 to 10 answers.

Did you feel:

NumberEmotion
1Competitive
2Alarmed
3Defensive
4Helpless
5Discouraged
6Hesitant
7Edgy – Touchy
8Hurried
9Fearless
10Lost
11Powerful
12Petrified
13Rebellious
14Trust
15Resentment
16Unsafe
17Stimulated
18Unsettled
19Vindictive
20Vigilant
21Akward
22Indifferent
23Insecure
24Dissatisfied
25Submissive
26Overworked 
27Small
28Loathing
29Sarcastic
30Unaffected
31Restricted
32Reserved
33Useless
34Isolated
35Unwanted
36Disgust
37Remorse
38Knot in your stomach
39Humiliated
40Numb
Based on: Vera Helleman, Encyclopedia of Emotions. Using Your Feelings as a Navigation System Towards a Happy Life (LiV 2019)

As always: feelings are here to be observed, to be addressed, to become literate in.

Your feelings are just smoke alarms, calling for your attention, indicative of an unfulfilled need.

This inch of reflection can lead to a helpful request for support, a request for understanding by you or someone else, or both. For a request to be helpful and nurturing, we need to know what is alive in us in the first place. Usually, it takes a bit of slowing down to get in touch with what is actually going on internally.

*

3. Emotions: What They Are Telling You

So. If you are up for it, let’s find out which groups of emotions are most alive in relation to the question whether you feel you belong in academia.

In organizing yourself internally to such an extent that you feel in touch with yourself, act according to your core values, open to being in touch with others, embark upon your academic journey this year, let’s not move around our more unsettling feelings. Let’s address them empathically, allowing ourselves to get full access to our energy.

In discerning which groups are most alive in you regarding whether you feel like a legitimate member of the academy, look at the numbers that you’ve written down once more.

  • How many numbers you’ve chosen are below or above 20?
  • Per set: how many of them are even and how many are odd numbers?

Maybe you’ll clearly see how this theme triggers anger for you: possibly all of the numbers you chose were odd and below 20. Or, actually, fear is most alive: you chose even numbers up to 20. Or aversion: even numbers above 20. Or shame: odd numbers above 20. Or… your feelings are scattered across these groups of emotions.

Rest assured: there are no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ answers. This test is not about ‘good, better, best’. It is about raising your awareness to what is triggered in you by this theme of belonging in academia. Whatever the dominant emotions are for you, please take all of this along with you, into your week, the upcoming days. As slow questions. As something to kindly pay attention to, and to start with addressing the needs underlying the feelings.

All emotions, even aversion, have positive intentions. Some of them are connected to our survival strategies, our resilience. In order to transition from surviving to thriving: our feelings invite us to start addressing the underlying unfulfilled needs.

Take this quadrant below about what emotions tell us as a point of departure for working with these feelings as slow questions the upcoming days.

Develop your response-ability regarding your feelings, by signaling these feelings as moments to slow down: observe, choose and then act. Our response-ability helps us to stop reacting, being reactive. It helps us to start acting, in line with ourselves.

Based on Vera Helleman (2019) and Brené Brown (2012)

*

5. Being in academia, not of academia

If entering the new academic year, opening up your inbox, stumbling upon narratives of ranking and comparing, derails you a little bit, please remember that the academia to a certain extent is just a theatre for your entertainment. You are in academia, not of academia. You can simply stop right there. You can choose not to buy into these alienating narratives of ranking and comparing. You can contribute to the change towards a more nurturing academic environment by doing simply this: not buying into these narratives. These story lines will probably evaporate over time anyway, and give way to a more nurturing discours with ‘Room for Everyone’s Talent’. We may have to be patient.

Don’t have your inner critic grab your microphone as the only internal voice:

‘Who do you think you are? You’ll never get recognition for your sorry contributions to the field.’

Sure, ranking and comparing always triggers our inner critic. In this example the critique is kind of hard to miss. Your inner critic may be far more subtle, yet… present.

So: make sure, you have the inner wise one enter the room as well:

‘What are the three biggest possible small steps that I can embark upon today, to get myself closer to reaching my goals?’

Whatever you have collected to reflect upon in terms of emotions and underlying needs, please remember that you are merely in academia, not of academia.

You are here to carve out your niche, embark upon your path and contribute exactly those things that deeply fascinate you and you want the world to learn about. There is no given certainty that you’ll manage, and bring your projects to successes.

Academic work is about the willingness to go on that adventure, about taking risks, about not knowing the answers up front. It’s about observing, choosing and then acting, with the best intentions of enriching both your knowledge, that of your students, peers and supervisors.

Organize yourself internally to such an extent that you have access to your time and energy for your key projects, your core interests, for being generous and kind to the ones around you, and embark upon your academic year on your terms.

In touch with yourself, following your personal goals, loving your life.

Have a wonderful start of your academic year!

With love, Anna

*

*

*c Which ever position you hold in academia, usually the annual reflection forms trigger unnerving thoughts about e.g. ‘succes’, ‘worthiness’, ‘belonging’, and ‘being found out as undeserving’. That’s why I’ve used these here to have you contemplate about how you relate to your work and your work environment.

Literature:

  • Vera Helleman (2019) Encyclopedia of Emotions. Using Your Feelings as a Navigation System Towards a Happy Life
  • Brené Brown (2012) Daring Greatly. How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Avery New York)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.