This time of year my e-mail is overflowing with messages from new faculty members who are in a spring term funk: physically and mentally exhausted, annoyed with colleagues, can't stand to hear another talk, students working their last good nerve, and hopelessly behind on writing and research. While this spring term funk is a recurring phenomenon, I am struck by how many of you also describe physical symptoms and illnesses that have emerged along with your escalating stress level. As a result, let’s talk about Common New Faculty Mistake #10:Ignoring Your Body.
While some of our physical ailments are purely physical, others can result from work-related stress and the manifestation of unresolved emotional issues. When we fail to provide for our own needs and personal care, our body has a way of getting our attention by sending out pain signals: all those aching backs, chest pains, breathing problems, migraine headaches, dizziness, digestive problems, and hair falling out by the fistful that folks described. And I understand why many of you are stressed! The tenure-track is a six year full-out sprint that is stressful by design. If you’re under-represented, you may also be facing racism and sexism in your departments that can result in elevated expectations and scrutiny of your teaching and research. Additionally, many of you are caregivers who are also responsible for aging parents, extended family members, small children, and some grown folks that act like children. The combination of all these factors on a daily basis creates stress that needs to be relieved on a regular basis. The problem is that when we ignore our body's messages in pursuit of productivity and meeting other people's needs, our own symptoms can continually increase in severity. Pushing ourselves past our limits -- until we are ill and require immediate medical attention -- doesn't make any of us more productive! Instead, we are forced to take blocks of time off to recover, and end up being simultaneously less healthy and less productive.
This week, I want to suggest that we each acknowledge the stress we are experiencing and check in with our bodies and our spirits. Below are three steps you can use to check in with yourself, assess your stress, and take a step toward stress reduction.
Check in with yourself
Start by asking yourself (without judgment): How am I feeling today, physically and emotionally? Are my needs being met? Do I have regular stress-relieving activities? What is missing in my life? What have I let fall by the wayside while I've been working so hard and caring for others? How can I get my needs met in an immediate way?
Assess your stress
Once you are in touch with your needs, name them. Some of you may have physical aches and pains that require medical attention. By all means, stop reading this and make an appointment with your health care professional. You may find that you need some basic personal care. Whether it's a guilt-free nap in your office or a honey-butter massage, go ahead and make arrangements to do what you need to do. Some of you have emotional needs that aren't being met, or maybe the cumulative impact of daily disrespect, devaluation, and departmental drama has taken a toll on your sense of self-worth. It's time to ask supportive people in your life to help you restore your internal equilibrium. Or maybe you have a generalized sense of exhaustion, in which case, it's time to open up your calendar and figure out how you can get a good night’s sleep every night this week.
Ask for Help
Many new faculty members are afraid to ask for help because they imagine it will be perceived as a sign of weakness and/or they don't want to impose on anyone else's precious time. In reality, we need other people's help and they will need ours at some point in time. When you are a new faculty member, asking for assistance is expected and serves as a sign of clarity and strength. My experience is that most senior faculty genuinely want you to succeed, and want to be helpful in that process. The problem is that they may not know how to do so because they don’t know what you need at any given time. Presenting them with a problem you’re having and asking them for advice makes it easier and more effective for them to mentor you.
Alternatively, you can describe a problem and ask for specific assistance. Honestly, getting the kind of help that will pull you out of a spring term funk is as simple as: 1) being highly specific about your needs and 2) asking others for concrete forms of help that take minimal time. For example, I have received all of the following requests in the past from pre-tenure faculty and was happy to accommodate them:
- My students are driving me crazy! Will you guest lecture in my class next week?
- I feel so demoralized by my colleagues. Will you call me tomorrow and affirm what's good about my work (and about me as human being) for 10 minutes?
- I haven't cleaned all semester/quarter and my apartment is a disgusting mess. Will you help me find someone to clean it?
- This winter weather has been so depressing I can't take it anymore! Can I borrow your HappyLite tomorrow morning for 30 minutes?
- I just can't get started writing. Can I come over and write with you for an hour?
- My son is sick AGAIN! Can you connect me with someone else who is going through the same thing so I can commiserate and figure out what to do?
- I have a new idea and I've written 10 pages, but I need someone else to look at it and give me brief feedback. Can you read it and tell me if it makes logical sense?
- All I ever do is work and now I feel angry and resentful. Can you suggest 3 things I can do for fun in Chicago that cost less than $20.00?
- I just received a job offer. Can you read the offer letter and tell me what parts I can and should negotiate?
- I'm sick. Can you recommend a doctor?
Isn't that amazing? They state their problem quickly and clearly, and then ask for a very specific action that takes little time (the max was guest lecturing in a 50-minute class, the least was 30 seconds to look up my doctor’s phone number). I then feel free to ask for assistance from them with the same rules: it has to be specific and take less than one hour. I don't know what your needs might be, but I hope this formula gives you some ideas of effective ways to ask for information, support, and connections that will help you get your needs met.
The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge you to:
- Stop for a moment, close your eyes, and take three long deep breaths. Then ask yourself: How am I feeling and what do I need?
- If you are unwilling or unable to do #1, gently ask yourself why you feel reactive to that suggestion.
- If you discover you are physically ill, emotionally neglected, or just plain tired, ask yourself: What can I do this week to address my needs?
- Give yourself permission to take whatever rest you need, knowing that overexertion reduces productivity.
- Ask others for help either by initiating an open-ended conversation or by stating your need directly and making a specific request.
- Write every day for at least 30 minutes.
I hope this week brings each of you physical and emotional health, the self-awareness to identify your needs, and the courage to ask for help from those in your community that are committed to your success.