Moving standards

Yesterday I hit a big deadline: I sent my supervisors a first draft of my PhD thesis. This PhD has been a huge struggle for me over the past few years in various ways, and the fact that I now have something resembling a submittable thesis is, in a certain sense, a really big deal. If you’d asked me a few months ago how I’d feel when I reached this point, I’d have expected to feel amazing. And yet, now I’m here… I feel kind of meh. It doesn’t really feel like much of an achievement. I’m battling with myself over whether I can really justify taking a couple of days off now before I start on all of the thousands of improvements I want to make.

I think part of the problem here is that progress has been so incremental: sure, yesterday was the day I actually handed in the draft, but I’ve been making small tweaks to an almost-done thing for the past few days, and most of the really substantial work that went into it was done over the past two-three months. I don’t have much of a sense of achievement today, because I actually don’t feel like I’ve been that focused or productive for the past couple of days – mostly just faffing about deciding whether I can really be bothered to make any more improvements before sending it off. And that doesn’t feel that great. It can be hard to feel a sense of achievement, sometimes, when the achievements we make are split up and spread out over a long period of time.

But perhaps the bigger problem here is that my standards for what feels like an achievement, what is worth being proud of, have changed. When I’d barely written a thing, the thought of having a 70,000 word draft – even if it was far from perfect – sounded incredible. Now I’ve got that 70,000 word draft, all I can focus on is all the ways it’s imperfect, all the things I want to improve. I’m telling myself that I don’t really deserve to celebrate because what I’ve done has so many flaws it barely even counts as a first draft. Sure, when I tell my friends they think it sounds impressive and tell me I should rest and celebrate, but they don’t really know. There’s something a bit impostor-syndrome like going on here – sure, other people think I’m doing well, but that’s only because I put on a good front – if they actually saw this draft or what I’ve been doing, then they’d discover I really don’t have a clue.

There’s also just a classic”hedonic treadmill”-type effect here: as we move, our standards move. We start off with an idea of what would be an amazing achievement – and by the time we get there, it no longer feels like an amazing achievement – perhaps because part of what made it seem so impressive in the first place was that it seemed almost unattainable. I wonder if there are ways we can avoid this, ways to increase the sense of achievement and satisfaction we actually get from things. Even recognising that there’s this discrepancy – between how good I feel like I ‘should’ feel, in some sense, and how I actually feel – seems like a useful first step. I don’t think I’ve ever been so acutely aware of this discrepancy, of my own moving standards, as I am right now. And yet I still feel caught by them – I can recognise that I have achieved something (at least by my past standards!), but I still don’t really feel it. I can remind myself I’m in a much better position than I was a few months ago, and that brings some relief. But any small amount of pride I might feel is easily outweighed by guilt and anxiety about all the ways what I’ve done still doesn’t feel good enough.

And I’m still battling with myself over whether it’s really okay to take some time off now. If I felt like I’d been going all-out the past few days to get this draft done, then it might feel easier. But I haven’t – it’s been more of a slow burn over the past few weeks, months (which, though probably healthier, is also part of why I don’t feel so much achievement, I think.) There’s this little voice in my head saying that I don’t really deserve to take a break. I think I have this implicit attitude that I should only take breaks when I’ve really pushed myself, when I’ve really been going all-out and have nothing left. Breaks certainly feel better, more satisfying, more deserved, in these circumstances. When I’m just feeling a bit vaguely burnt out, and I’ve had a few slow days as a result, it feels much harder to justify taking a break, and much more tempting to try and keep pushing through until I have that sense of having gone all-out. But I think these are probably the cases where rest is actually most important: because on some level I know I’m just going to keep slowly burning myself out, losing motivation, and being harder and harder on myself. I’m very unlikely to get to the point where I feel like I “deserve” a break. But perhaps it’s when I start questioning whether I really deserve a break, whether I can really justify resting, that I’m in most need of one.

It’s interesting, just noticing some of the language I’m using here – I think I have some kind of implicit underlying fear that somehow I’m actually lazy, or something. I’m scared that if I allow myself to take a break when I haven’t clearly gone all-out and achieved something, then this is the lazy, weak-willed part of me taking over, showing itself. It’s like, I don’t quite trust myself. And this reminds me of what I’ve discussed before – how I have this tendency to quickly turn things I want to do into “shoulds” in my mind – it feels like this is coming from a similar place of not quite trusting myself to actually do the thing I want to do, to actually do the thing that’s best for me. I’m sort of scared that if I don’t override my basic instincts, that if I don’t push myself, I’ll turn out to be this lazy, selfish bad, person. And yet, I think it’s this tendency to push, criticise, and battle with myself that actually causes more problems than anything else – if I could let go of these, I don’t think I’d end up being a lazy selfish slob. There’s too much I care about, too much I want in life. This is the tension I keep coming back to – this feeling that I’m often motivated from a place of ‘should’, anxiety, and not-quite-trusting myself – and that can get in the way of doing things because I truly want to, because I really care, because they actually matter.

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