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Postdoc Burnout

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

For as long I remember, I knew I felt sadness and worry differently than most.

But I also knew I was extroverted, passionate, headstrong, and diligent, so the effort I put into college and eventually my PhD helped balance the depression and anxiety I'd come to live with.

When I felt failure, lost touch with a friend, had (another) conflict with my mother, or allowed another relationship to fall apart, I would throw myself into research, find purpose and meaning in service, and seek support in my graduate cohort. By my defense, I had a 10-page CV oozing with diverse experience, solid friendships and even a partnership within my program, and a postdoc in a beautiful city renowned for my work in psychological distress after traumatic injury. Despite how chaotic I felt in my head, the life stats in front of me had me feeling more competent than ever.

Going from the protective bubble of graduate school to the unstructured and solitary experience of a postdoc shattered that competency. Though beautiful, I moved to a place where I knew no one, and the struggle of leaving my closest relationships back in Texas hit hard.

My psychology training made me uniquely qualified for my position, but I was a lone wolf in the medical program I'd fallen into. My mentor went on sabbatical, and there was no lab to which I belonged - only data to analyze, in a building of offices left unoccupied by researchers with clinical duties. For weeks, I would go to work, crunch data, and return home having spoken to no one, living in a rented room of a retired family friend. The loneliness overwhelmed me. The lack of structure left me feeling directionless; with no colleagues or friends, my stagnated productivity left me feeling behind and incompetent. I became frustrated with no consistent guidance. I felt jealous of my partner’s continued productivity and support back home, and resentful at his inability to alleviate my loneliness. The mental chaos I’d normalized in graduate school grew with imposter syndrome.

And then, within six months of my postdoc, my mother died while we were on non-speaking terms.

The year that followed was traumatic. Our conflicts were always behind smiling faces, so my complicated grief was kept hidden. I took on the duties of her scattered estate, with no knowledge of finances. I tried and failed to continue with work as a means to cope - I only wrote incoherent drafts, missed important meetings, and botched complex analyses. I threw myself into friendships that offered short-term validation and distraction, letting conflicts with my concerned partner, friends, and relatives fall away. Academic job interviews would be excited by my CV but give me feedback later that it did not sound like my heart was really in it. As I neared the end of my postdoc, I had become an entirely different person than the one who had started. I was emotionally exhausted, bitter, withdrawn, insecure, and intensely ashamed of myself. Remote working from home turned into not working at all. I would routinely wake up, stare at the ceiling, and run through the constant list of people and responsibilities I’d failed to live up to. Many times, I thought how effortful it would be to keep trying, and debated whether it was worthwhile to do so.

Making the call to a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) clinic probably saved my life.

For a long while I knew that DBT could help, but too afraid of the stigma of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) to actually go through with it. I’d observed my mother long enough, had heard the word ‘toxic’ enough in therapy and in my training, and had assured myself of my own awareness. The piling layers of stressful events helped make my reaction feel normal and temporary, not that they instead magnified a part of me I was neglecting. It took the cold chill of that word used to describe my presence to understand I needed help. For a year I worked to manage the intensity of shame, its avoidance of which had amplified my depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I’d confronted the fear of being someone “broken” and instead, opened myself to the possibility of becoming better. When I did, I could finally face the long and lonely road to loving myself without anyone else’s help: I worked to develop a sense of values and activities that helped define my worth and develop a sense of pride, intentionally kept apart from my CV.

I accepted ended-relationships and established boundaries with remaining ones. And I even took a masters-level position to pursue work in this city that felt meaningful. I’m happy to say that it led to a PhD-level career position, where I hope to stay for the long haul. Though my therapist never offered any diagnoses, I feel confident that I championed the most trying postdoc one could imagine!

I share this story in the hopes it impacts multiple people.

For trainees or postdocs struggling to feel worthwhile, competent, or supported: you are not alone, and there is no right way to get through fellowships. Listen to yourself and take the break when you need to. For psychologists and other PhD professionals who feel the double-standard of professionally reducing stigma while wrestling with the exposure of your own vulnerabilities: you are brave every day for the effort you make to balance both.

And to those who wish they didn’t have to be a certain way, who have hurt others or themselves and are struggling to accept who they are or what they’ve done: you are loved, you are worth loving, and take all the time and space you need to love yourself. It is worth the effort.

1 Comment

Thank you for sharing

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