Digital Fantastic: Aftercare – A reflection on cognitive empathy, self-care and sadposting

– aka mental illness visibility

Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly and if you are here for the acknowledgements then I encourage you to skip to the end!

Part one: reflections on reader reception

My writing about cognitive empathy received some really great feedback and generated some interesting discussions that partially prompted this aftercare post.  After reading a draft of my last blog, some of my loveliest and wisest friends told me that the content was concerning and rightly asked me what I wanted to readers to get out of it: did I want to worry people? Had I thought about what people might think? For someone who studies reader reception theory, I am painfully ignorant of how my work might be received beyond ‘#mood’. But, it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about my readers – I just hadn’t factored in that people that I know might care. Then when they told me, I went ahead and did it anyway.

So, did I want to worry people?

The answer is no… worrying people is just an unfortunate side effect of attempting to cultivate honest and meaningful relationships with new people when you are mentally ill and experiencing a relapse.

Hollyhock | Tumblr | Bojack horseman, Horseman, Hollyhock

As much as I appreciated the advice, to listen to it on this occasion would have been to do myself a disservice.

After so many years negating myself and trying not to have an opinion, I finally feel confident enough to express myself loudly, live unapologetically and to be myself in public. The amount of pain I’m carrying around hasn’t changed, I’m just expressing it.

Sometimes the truth doesn’t fit into the comforting narratives of self-improvement that people want to hear – those narratives tell us that there is a solution. I’m not here to perform the emotional labour of reassurance, to wear a mask or to negate my experiences. I want people to know that if I can be myself in public that they can too. I want to be visible: if that hurts, avert your gaze. If it helps, then stay with me – you’re my reader. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone.

Thank you to everyone who comments on my posts, shares them and expresses their support: each message is a little miracle.

An even bigger thank you to everyone that has the AUDACITY to care about my wellbeing. Please stop (jk), but also, I’ve written you a little something in the last part of this blog because I really do deeply appreciate everything you do for me, though I’m still not sure why you do it.

If you are one of the people who is going to *do a big concern* please feel free to skip to the end to recieve your well deserved applause! Please don’t punish yourself with my writing if you don’t want to.

I love you whether you like my work or not. My writing is just a small part of who I am, even though it often feels like the only thing that matters.

This case study doesn’t show an upwards trajectory – which of course is what I hoped for. It shows that even though I do practice what I preach, my progress isn’t linear. You can do all of the right things and still feel like shit sometimes. 

We try, we fail, we try again, fail worse and then and remember that sometimes that one good day can make all the shitty days worth it.

Until it doesn’t.

My cognitive empathy diagram and my current lifestyle are the culmination of years of trying. I do the things: eat right, sleep, take meds, stay in contact with people, work out, do creative things, try and help people. So, does it work? 

I guess? I’m still here to post this, but also things are just difficult – such is life. 

Part Two: new academic year, same volatile me

As I said, I kept delaying this post in the hope I could show you real progress. But, after coming out of a particularly dark patch, I realised that I was waiting for something that may never come, so I’ve chosen to mark the end of my first academic year as a PhD researcher instead. To make a new start – well, another new start. 

With a new start comes a new notebook for the year: 

– it already got rained on, which is fucking typical. I wanted to throw it away, because it felt ruined. I bought it to start something new. I wanted something fresh, untarnished: a blank slate.

This is black and white thinking, a habit which has dominated my life: if something isn’t perfect, then what’s the point? I’m either good person, or I’m a bad person. No in-between.

This is neither healthy, nor realistic. What it is, is a contributing factor to the pattern of increasingly severe suicidal ideation I live with. The urge is fairly common which is both sad and reassuring – it sucks, but we’re not alone. I can’t speak as to why others feel this way, but a small part of my own struggles with the desire to end my life stems from black and white thinking. I often feel that I’ve left it too late to be the person I want to be, that I’ve wasted too much time. Sometimes I want to die because life feels meaningless and sometimes it’s because everything feels too meaningful. Every little mistake I’ve made feels like one mistake too much. There are times when my desire to die is rooted in the sincere wish for a new start.  

I’m always trying to feel fresh, untarnished: a blank slate. To go back. Sometimes I feel like if I can’t attain the perfection I’m reaching for then I may as well throw it all away, like that journal. All I want is something that doesn’t feel ruined.  

What I should have realised, and what I’m coming to accept, is that we can’t wipe clean the experiences we’ve had. Not only is it impossible, but though starting over would rid us of all of the bad things that have happened, it would erase the good ones too. People aren’t blank slates by nature: we’re palimpsests and each new inscription makes up who we are and helps inform our experiences.

This feels like the kind of trite, inspirational insta-garbage I wish I could angy reacc to: I am suspicious of optimism, I hate being preached to and I hate getting unsolicited advice, so I don’t want to do that to you with this post. I’m not going to patronise us by spouting off ‘all the pain is worth it’, ‘beautiful things grow out of shit’ or ‘all hardship is just good backstory’ – ‘good damage’. Fuck that.

We are not all in the same boat. There is a social element to mental illness which is vast, complex and intersectional – some scholars within the medical humanities argue that mental illnesses are rational responses to the societal contexts which shape us, but that’s a topic for another time, or perhaps scholar. I’m just checking in.

I’m also not going to bullshit you by saying something like ‘scars are beautiful’ because they are an ugly reminder that I have covered with ink:

No description available.

It’s a pretty tattoo, but it doesn’t erase the scars. They will always be there. The lyrics speak to that. It’s Emilie Autumn quoting Hamlet (sooo meta, right?). Without digging into the intertextuality of the quotation and just looking at the lines themselves, the lyrics are there to remind me that even when I’m at my worst I’m still capable of being good. The good may not erase the bad, but it can inform it. I am still capable of learning, but that learning takes struggle – some of it meaningless and unnecessary.  

My old notebook is a tribute to that. It’s the first notebook I used to record absolutely everything without tearing out a page. It’s full of what seems like useless information – things I tried that didn’t work, the good days and the bad. It’s full of calories I should not have counted, schedules I scrapped, projects I started and never finished, ideas for my thesis that I eventually threw out, and the seeds of what would become a formalised structure of coping mechanisms that have helped me restructure my life.

These pages and accompanying social media posts are also a case study for the theory of cognitive empathy I’ve been using on myself.

It’s never fun to get a null result

– but that’s the black and white thinking.

It only feels like a null result, on a bad day.

I can’t claim an upwards trajectory, but I’m learning that progress is not linear.

I want you to know that I’m trying. I am ok, but I also want you to know the truth – you can try and try to do everything right and you’ll still have a crappy day.

No description available.

All of this effort makes the bad days feel even worse: what’s the point of trying to hold it together so much if I still malfunction and fall apart? But, even though the bad days are dangerously bad, at least there are more good days now.

I try and think of my journal as a way of editing myself: any writer will tell you that it takes many bad drafts to create one piece of good work. That’s one of the reasons I’m a shitty writer – I’m still writing through my bad drafts in the hope that one day I’ll get to a good one. I’m still learning to edit.  

Part Three: Acknowledgements

It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes – or more if you’re lucky!

I never wrote acknowledgements for my dissertation, during which I felt very much alone. But now, I would like to write some acknowledgements, not for my writing (which I’m woefully short on), but for those who are facilitating my ability to work in the future. I want to thank the people who have really made a difference to my life in the clusterfuck of the last academic year.

It’s difficult for me to express how I feel, because I don’t want to imply that I need people. I want you to know that I’m quite capable of getting through this alone, but I am extremely happy that you’ve been here.

Thank you for your support, advice and company.

I love you all, unapologetically.

Charlie: You are persistent, smart, patient and giving. You always offer me a level-headed perspective and are an inspirationally strong woman. Thank you for talking about everything and anything with me. I’m proud of this friendship we’ve built together: my relationship with you is the healthiest and most enduring of my life (no pressure lol). Thank you for helping me maintain this ‘delicate system’ of a person.  

Dr Miller: One of the only healthcare professionals who has recognised my struggles and has actively advocated for my well-being. You have helped me find the best medication I have ever been on. I’m not exaggerating when I say that your help has saved my life. Thank you.  

Francis: Thanks for being a reliable and diligent colleague and an excellent friend. It would have been easy to ‘nope out’ of our friendship, but you’re always good for a chat and a laugh. Cheers for reminding me of home m8. I owe you a drink and about one million cigarettes. 

Grace: Thank you for taking me in over Christmas and for accepting a ridiculous amount of boundary-crossing oversharing. I liked you from the first time we spoke and like you more as time goes by! You are one of the best DMs I have ever had – you can master my dungeon any day!

Llarna Llama: You have always been a wonderful friend and it has been a privilege to see you become an amazing mother. Thank you for never forgetting me, including me in your journey and letting me be a flighty wine-aunt to my beautiful nephew Jack. ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you. (P.S. I will always have a crush on you, my sea turtle!) 

Maude: I can’t believe I’ve had to do this without you. I miss you and will always remember you. 

Marita: Thank you for not giving up on me, even when I was distant and reclusive to the point of being a dickhat. You are one of the warmest, most giving, kindest and fun people I have ever met.  You always show up and I always notice. Thank you for reading all of my shitty writing and making me feel both seen and heard. Glasgow felt so much emptier without you, Marita. You are a big nerd. (Please don’t bite my nose.) 

Matt B: Your hard work building the Game Studies community at Glasgow has given me opportunities I never knew were possible. The fact that you started something that can be of such lasting use to others is extraordinary. Thank you for your help, expertise and support in navigating both my thesis and difficult circumstances. You have so much on, but you always manage to find the humour in everything! 

Matt S: You help your supervisees in a way that goes above and beyond your remit. You are so busy, and not only do you make time for everyone – you notice them. You support so many people, but you have never made me feel like just one more student on your schedule. We all appreciate you so much. Working with you is a privilege.  

To both Matts: You are incredible supervisors and were my first and only choices. Thank fuck we got the funding because I wasn’t planning to apply anywhere else! I said that if I couldn’t work with the right people, I didn’t want to do this work at all. The sentiment still stands, but you’ve taught me so much that I have much better foundation as a researcher now, even if things change! 

Ollie: Ever since we first met at the Game Studies reading group I wanted to get to know you more, but I couldn’t. I’m so glad I took a chance and started messaging you – I had no idea we would have so much in common and click so well. I would have been happy with your friendship, but you’ve given me so much more. Your kindness and dedication are inspiring me to become a better version of myself. You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company. Don’t tell anyone I’m such a big sap. It’s a secret.  

Simone do Carmo: An amazing, holistic personal trainer. You are everything you advertise yourself as and more. Thank you for helping me cultivate a positive mindset, be kind to myself and change my relationship to food after years of struggling with it! 

Steph: It feels like I’ve known you forever – even though we’ve only met in person once and I was too shy for my own good. You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You showed me that people can live how the fuck they want to live, have good sex, present however they want and that I don’t need to be ashamed of the weirder parts of my personality. You’ve always accepted me as I am. You were the first person I told when I made the big change and you encouraged me every step of the way. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.  

Ruth: I emailed you with a few questions and you responded with a tailored mentorship plan! I can’t believe that I get to work with you. You have been a source of excellent support and advice; you’re teaching me so many excellent things and I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful person not just in my life but spending quality time with me. I want to make you proud one day!  

I also want to mention the old friends kind enough to reconnect with me this year and the new friends I’ve been privileged to get to know: 

Alex, Amber, Ben, Calvin, Frankie, Kate, Kenny, Meg, Meghan, Maddie, Ting Ting and Toby ❤  

Thank you everyone. I hope that I’m here enough for you too.

Digital Fantastic: My first symposium – Digital Heroisms

Whilst all of my personal bullshit was going on, I was working with my colleagues to organise a symposium! Doing something that others could enjoy has been extremely satisfying. We used platforms other than zoom to run the event, so tried to be as helpful and transparent as possible with speakers/attendees to help get everything up and running! Thanks for your input everyone!

We are going to continue publishing the videos with the GGLab. For now, I’ve uploaded our opening address, for those of you who missed it!

Opening words by Gabriel Elvery Cohen and Francis Butterworth-Parr

Hello and welcome to the 2020 Digital Heroisms conference.

Before we begin, I’d like too say a few words prepared by myself and the board, who I will begin by introducing. I am Gabe, an LKAS funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and co-vice editor of Press Start Game Studies Journal. I research fantasy video games and digital affect with a focus on parasociality and reader response theory. I am joined by our co-chair Francis Butterworth Parr who is a second year SGSAH funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow who researches the deployment of video games as metaphor in contemporary literary culture. I’d also like to introduce our tech support Jack Parkinson who is a researcher at the University of Glasgow and is currently developing a new degree with the Centre for Computing Science Education. Finally, I’d also like to mention our board member Monica Vasquez, a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, who researches immersive narratives, fantasy and VR, she cannot be here today but sends her apologies.

We started this Glasgow-based conference ‘before all of this’ happened, intending to hold it at the University. At first we were disappointed and considered cancellation, but then we realised that holding this conference online was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Digital Heroism – a form of heroism that has become exceptionally apt during these trying times as we use the digital space to work, to play, to disseminate information and to connect with each other when we are not physically able to do so. It has become an issue of political urgency to explore and perpetuate ideals of Digital Heroism in the face of not just villainy, a word which feels more descriptive of Disney’s amiable caricatures of badness, but very real and very human evil highlighted by the increased social, financial and political tensions which have been intensified by the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and protests which followed. Real heroes of our time, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the workers of the NHS, have been both aided and encumbered by the digital space. As well as fighting the physical struggle on the front lines, digital heroes have been faced with digital battles: battles of information and disinformation, battles of emotional labour and of education in the struggle to raise awareness to those who can be reached.

Our venue in Runescape and here on Discord, only strengthens our endeavours as it has turned our small Glasgow-based conference into an international event, in which we are lucky to have speakers and attendees from all over the world.

Image

We started this conference because we wanted to explore the ways in which the digital realm functions as a contemporary theory of context for heroism and how this new context may shape our understanding of who and what a hero is in the digital world and consider how we can traverse the digital space with these ideas in mind. But, though the digital space may change how we conceptualise what is heroic, we felt it was important to keep in mind that heroism can be a loaded term, riddled with cultural bias. For so long heroism has been associated with straight, white, Royalty, with Joseph Campbell, with Tolkien and although there is much to learn and enjoy from these stories and ideas and we need not forget them, must digital heroism perpetuate colonialist, heteronormative narratives, or can we create a new kind of heroism, one which is diverse, inclusive and exciting? We have gathered panels which explore how the digital opens and closes doors to particular kinds of historical, cultural or aesthetic heroes and heroines, how the contemporary setting, weaved as it is with digitality, challenges , reinforces, or creates formulations of heroism, and how fantasy literature, a genre more historically situated in the analog tradition of heroes and heroines, could be purposed to determine the digital heroic were all a part of our thinking.

A few quick housekeeping things – Digital Heroisms is being recorded by Gabe and will be made available through the GGlab’s research hub page, so do check that out if you wish to rewatch talks. Do keep an eye out for the special edition of Press Start, an open-source journal that will be publishing the proceedings of this conference. The edition is open to contributions from non-speakers, so if your creative tastebuds are tingling after the conference then do consider sending along a contribution. For asking panellists questions, please type ‘Q’ in the Questions to heroes text channel, and then the panel chair will choose people to either type out their questions in the text channel or to come into the digital heroisms voice channel to speak their question.

Finally, we’d like to thank the Games and Gaming Lab at the University of Glasgow, in particular its directors Matthew Barr, Dimitra Fimi, Jane Draycott and Timothy Peacock for supporting, funding and believing in Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank all those who submitted to our call for papers and sent us such consistently fascinating engagements with Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank Jack for his creation of our website and above and beyond contributions to the workings of the conference.

Digital Fantastic: Kindness as Praxis

On managing grief, mental illness and orienting oneself towards kind research practices.

Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly and although I appreciate kind thoughts, please do not @ me with ‘you ok hon’. This post may display incorrectly on mobile devices.
W. H. Auden, The More Loving One

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that my grandfather died. That’s the objective truth. The emotional truth is that my father died: he was the one man in the world I could always rely on, the one man who loved me unconditionally, who supported me without expecting anything in return. The one man in the world that gave me hope that kind men exist.

It was the 11th of July at approximately 2am when he passed away whilst my grandmother and I slept at his bedside. I like to think he waited for me to make the long journey from Glasgow to Essex to reach him. If only I’d been a few days sooner, I might have got there whilst he was still awake. I held my grandmother and told her that it was OK to cry, that it’s a perfectly normal and healthy response to grief. Even as I held her close, I felt nothing.

It must be the shock.

Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. Perhaps it’s such a colossal loss that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend it. It’s only recent, it makes sense that I’m still processing it – at least that’s what everyone tells me. I try to listen to them; it would be easy to dismiss this disconnect as a response to grief, but I can’t because it’s not an irregularity, it’s normality. My life is a series of extreme highs and lows punctuated by nothingness, the loud silence: the void.

The day my grandfather died, I performed the role of a dutiful and caring daughter. I did everything I could to raise people’s spirits: I encouraged them to tell stories and played our favourite songs. I asked how everyone was feeling. No one asked me; everyone thinks I’m strong and that I’m putting on a brave face – smiling through the sadness. What they don’t realise is that there’s no sadness to smile through. I passed through the arms of my family like a ghost, performing love and care without feeling it. I do this most days, with most people: I repeat patterns of social behaviour not because it’s what I feel, but it’s what I’ve learned is expected from me. I feel like I’m standing outside of myself, controlling my body like a meat puppet that is slowly rotting from the inside out. I jokingly compare myself to a corpse, but no one realises how serious I am. We laugh it off, say that I have cold hands because I have a cold heart, but the truth is that I feel like I died a long time ago. If only – lol jk (but not really tho).

When I’m in the void, it feels like forever, but it’s not. For there to be a noticeable absence, there had to have been something there.

F e e l i n g s.

But feeling is vulnerability and in a world like ours, vulnerability invites heartache.  Far better then, to retreat into apathy and anesthetise myself. But even when I’m numb, there’s a part of me that remembers that the numbness is where love should be. Even when I don’t feel love, I act as if I do in the hope that it will come.

And sometimes it does. On a good day I get an ecstatic high, I pet the dogs, I smile at babies, I ask people about their days and care about their answers. I say ‘I love you’ and actually mean it. I want to teach, I want to take part, to make love instead of fuck. I want to be kind and trust that others are kind too, even when I’ve been so consistently proven wrong. The high can be just as dangerous as the low that follows. I deal with my feelings by negating them with alcohol, binge eating and isolating myself, or heightening them by indulging in intense emotional connections, sex with strangers, starvation and self-harm. I zigzag between extremes in fits of emotional vertigo.  I’m always dizzy, always trying to catch my breath and sometimes I fall. Each time I get up it becomes a little bit harder. The more I neglect myself, the more I resent spending time with people. I isolate myself, try and reduce the emotional burnout I feel, tell myself that I’m happy alone, but it never lasts. I can’t help but love, care and take care of people.

But caretaking isn’t valued, nor recognised for the skill it is. Some of our worst paid professions are the caring ones: crafting human happiness is just not productive. You can’t quantify a smile. Kindness is viewed as something that people just are and do, rather than something which should be learned and practiced. During my PGCE we all joked about the Teachers’ Standards (Department of Education, 2020), which is an outline of the kinds of qualities a teacher should embody in order to be considered a professional. It includes points about upholding public trust, treating pupils with dignity, and behaving in a professional way. We took great pains to gather evidence to meet the standards and joked about how pedantic it was.

“Surely some of this about NOT being a dick, right? Just common sense?” (Giles, 2018)

If only.

Maybe we need a set of standards across the board to recognise that kindness isn’t innate: it’s a skill that must be encouraged and developed.

As I went about the day-to-day of bereavement admin and looked after my family with numb compassion, I realised that I had been so isolated (during lockdown and before) that I had almost forgotten how to nurture. Even at the best of times researchers often feel so disconnected from everything and everyone that it’s easy to forget how to be kind, especially when there is no perceived benefit. Taking time out of our packed schedules to make someone else happy can feel like an unnecessary distraction. But what if kindness was a standard that we were encouraged to aspire to? Is there a way to orient our research practices towards kindness so that when we don’t feel like being kind, we have a theory to fall back on?

I was recently listening to a Psychology of Video Games (Madigan, 2019) podcast for my research and ended up learning something about myself (because making EVERYTHING ABOUT ME is one of my greatest talents).  In that podcast, Kelli Dunlap PsyD, outlines a model of empathy which is used to inform game design. Dunlap divides empathy into two types: affective (or emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy (12:11 onwards).

Dunlap describes cognitive empathy as “the mental ability to project yourself into the experience of somebody else and to understand what’s going on and why they might be thinking or feeling what they’re thinking and feeling”. Put simply, cognitive empathy helps us to “walk a mile in [others’] shoes and see the world through their eyes”. On the other hand, “emotional empathy are the feels”. If we see someone else experience strong emotion, we may feel these emotions mirrored in ourselves and this “gives us the motivation to care or to act, because it’s uncomfortable for us and we’re trying to decrease our discomfort”.

Dunlap explains that empathy works optimally when the two aspects are integrated:

“-because if you’re all cognitive empathy and zero emotional empathy, you’re basically Hannibal Lecter where you understand what everyone is going through, but you don’t care … and if you’re all emotional empathy, you’re a weepy mess and you have no idea why”.

Let’s break it down with some simple examples:

Acts of emotional empathy
(action compelled by feeling)
Acts of cognitive empathy
(action guided by perception of others’ needs)
Acting emotionally during an argument.
Stepping back from an argument to manage the situation.
Physical or verbal affection driven by feelings of connection, desire or to comfort.Phatic exchanges, etiquette and hugging people (if you’re not a hugger).
Cleaning up after yourself because someone made you feel bad about your mess. Cleaning up after yourself because you know not doing so will cause someone inconvenience.  
Apologising because someone made you feel bad about your actions and you want to feel better.Apologising because you understand why your actions may be hurtful, then acting to rectify the problem.
Improving social situations because you feel awkward.Defending someone verbally, even when they aren’t present.
Romantic spontaneity.Thinking of gifts/dates.
Initiating text conversations because you miss someone.Checking on loved ones when you’re busy/not craving their company.
Wearing a face covering because you’ve seen the effects of COVID on a loved-one, or refusing to wear one because of your personal feelings.
Wearing a face covering to prevent the spread of COVID because you know its potential effect on others, or not wearing one because you believe bullshit conspiracy theories.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because it makes them happy, which makes you feel happy.Doing an activity someone you love likes because you want them to percieve you as a suitable partner.
Sending emails in the heat of the moment.Crafting communications in advance.
Expressing your emotions to share them with others and help you understand each other.

Modelling emotional processing by simulating and/or talking about feelings, even if/when you don’t feel them.

Extremes of emotional empathy may include:
– Oversharing
– Lack of boundaries
– Being a ‘mood sponge’
– Negating or minimising others’ pain to reduce your own discomfort.
– Acting without consideration of others’ circumstances.

Extremes of cognitive empathy may include:
– Policing others’ boundaries
– Attempting to control others’ perceptions of you using social tactics.
– Gaslighting.
– Faking emotional empathy to help others feel better, or to manipulate their perception of you.
– Assuming someone’s feelings and acting based on those assumptions.

Though I’ve separated them out, the same action can be motivated by a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy. I will emphasise however, that being motivated by combined factors isn’t the same as faking emotional empathy – one skilled enough at cognitive empathy may not feel emotion at the time, but can use their understanding of others to perform emotion either in the service of others (altruistically) or themselves. This has can be termed “feeling with your head” (Thomson, 2020).

Dunlap’s explanation of cognitive empathy resonated with me. I realised that I often default to cognitive empathy in an attempt to control people’s perceptions of me, or focus on their needs to nuture them whilst neglecting my own. I experience a strange kind of amnesia that makes me forget who I am, what I value and why it’s important. I negate my personhood and allow myself to be defined in relation to others. But, because I do have feelings (ew), repressing them takes up a lot of energy, which results in emotional burnout and self-neglect. When it gets too much, I end up feeling all those feels all at once, to an almost unbearable extent.

But how can one avoid this? How can we go about integrating cognitive and emotional empathy after a life of swinging between extremes?

What if I was to treat myself like I’m someone I care about? Is it possible to use my cognitive empathy to take care of my emotions?

I know ‘self-care’ is a staple millennial cliché, but I’m late to the trend and I’m still figuring out how to turn my nurturing side inwards. The whole thing feels counter-intuitive; it seems so ridiculous to be doing so many things that will increase my lifespan when I spend so much of my time wanting to die, but I have to do it for the days when I remember how much I want to live.  I’ve been trying to figure it out for years and never managed to get suitable help, so I’ve done what I do best: paperwork. I’ve made a diagram to refer to when times get rough, to try and keep track of how I’m feeling, what behaviours I want to avoid and which I want to encourage myself to aspire towards. Although it might not always be possible, the aim is to use my cognitive empathy in the service of my emotions and to treat myself how I would treat someone else in distress. The creation of the diagram is itself an act of self-directed cognitive empathy.

Whilst this specific exercise is perhaps only relevant to me, is demonstrative of one of the ways that we as researchers can put our capabilities to use in a way that benefits us as people, not just as professionals. I propose that we practice kindness as praxis. Use our creativity, apply the analytical and critical thinking skills we’ve developed; take the best we’ve learned about humanity and APPLY it to our lives. But, how?

Here are a few simple things we can do to enact kindness as praxis:

  • Establish self-care habits and routines to provide yourself with structure during more challenging times.
  • Monitor your mood and check-in with yourself as if you were a friend in order to better understand how your emotions may impact your workload.
  • Use your understanding of others to present your research in a way which is engaging to your audience, rather than one which serves your ego.
  • Think about how those outside of academia may perceive you as a researcher. Is there a way that you can make impact in a way that genuinely serves the wider community, rather than as part of a box-ticking exercise?
  • Consider how you interact with others in a professional setting and use cognitive empathy to temper your emotions in order to treat people kindly.
  • Use cognitive empathy to consider if there are any social/emotional/moral lessons to be taken from your research and think about how to implement them.

Of course, we’re not perfect. We’ve probably all fucked-up and are going to again, but using cognitive empathy to learn from our mistakes can help us course-correct and be better people, as well as more effective researchers. Be kind with your head, even if you don’t feel it in your heart. Use your skills to make someone smile – there’s a little impact for you.

I’m sure I must be feeling the loss of my grandfather. I’m sure that that one day the realisation will hit me. The loss. Until then all I can do is look after myself so that I can best support others. I just hope that when the emotions hit, I’ll be better equipped to manage them.

Maybe I can’t diagram my way out of grief, but I have tried to deal with everything as well as I can.

I am trying.

I promise.

References

Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. 2020. Teachers’ Standards. [online] Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/665522/Teachers_standard_information.pdf&gt; [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Dunlap, K and Madigan, J., 2019. Empathy In Video Games. [podcast] The Psychology of Video Games. Available at: <https://www.psychologyofgames.com/2019/07/podcast-50-empathy-in-video-games/&gt; [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Giles, D. 2018. The Teachers’ Standards: a rant.

Thomson, R. 2020. Armchair Psychology for Dummies

Digital Fantastic: PhD Life is a Fairy Tale

On early PhD life, demystifying the APR and becoming a cliché

Hi all!

I just wanted to add a little note to let you know that this blog will be ‘rona free. I hope that it can give you a few minutes of distraction during a difficult time.

Love,

Gabe xoxox

P.S. I’m technically an English Lit researcher, so the PhD experience I’m talking about in this blog is primarily an arts one. Also, it’s just my opinion and often hyperbolized for the sake of comedy! You probably won’t agree with everything I have to say, nor should you! It’s all in good humour (or supposed to be)! Please read my disclaimer, but there are no trigger warnings today!

OK. I think I’ve covered my ass.

We hide | Cute animals, Funny animals, Animals beautiful
Phew! That was close lads.

Are you sitting comfortably?

If not TOUGH LUCK, because it’s time to begin…

Once upon a time, in a tall ivory tower, a message was sent to all of the scholars in the land. This message comprised of three letters:

A P R

The scholars were all in a flurry. They could be seen scrambling for papers, ingesting impossible amounts of a mysterious brown beverage and weeping into their books, most of which were upside down. If approached, the scholars would beg to be left alone and if pressed seemed capable only of mumbling those cursed three letters over and over again:

A…P…R…”

Friends and family who were wise thought it best to leave the scholars alone. The wisest of them even left tributes of food at their scholar’s door and some would even send etchings of cats in an attempt to ease their burden. They wanted to help. The problem was that no one knew what ‘APR’ even meant…

Well friends, I am here to explain it to you. It’s time to demystify the jargon and reveal the arcane secrets of the APR process…

If Sorting Algorithms Were Pokemon - Monique Tuin - Medium

(For my colleagues who know what an APR is: first of all – I’m so sorry, we’ve TOTALLY got this, second of all – please join me for a session of masochistic mockery as I recount the details… )

For those of you who were wise enough to choose a sensible career path, APR means ‘annual progress review’. It’s that time of year when PhD students must discuss their work with a panel comprised of their supervisors + someone new who will provide helpful insights into our projects – or proceed to beat us about the head with our own misguided words.

Alan Rickman Slapping GIF by Cheezburger - Find & Share on GIPHY

As much as they like to tell us that it’s not a test, it is a test. PhD researchers must submit a specified number of words of their project (around 7000 for UofG English Lit researchers – look, I know it used to be 10K, please stop bitching about it) alongside a few forms including an especially fun and not at all irritating box-checking activity called a Researcher Development Log. We complete the paperwork to prove that we’ve been doing things other than our research such as organising events, attending research development training courses and ‘networking’. The whole thing is an elaborate charade designed to help the university pretend that it’s teaching us skills which are applicable to ‘the outside world’ so that it doesn’t have to feel bad when we can’t get a job in academia after graduation…

JUST KIDDING GUYS. 

Of COURSE doing an arts research project teaches us valuable skills that helps us secure later employment. 

OF COURSE bureaucracy is useful part of developing reflective research skills and not a waste of time. 

OF COURSE the research development training courses are always of the highest quality and contribute to our employability. They’re not at all designed to help us check the more obscure boxes of the researcher development framework.

OF COURSE the researcher development framework is intrinsically useful and not something that universities must use to shield themselves in order to justify the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which is no longer deemed useful by wider society because it’s difficult to commodify…  

OF COURSE we understand the benefits of this process. 

Of course we do. We get it. I swear.

Actually, I’ve heard that APRs can be genuinely useful: they’re rare a chance to talk about our work with people who understand it and the process can be a bit of practice for our viva – a much more formal interrogation meeting us researchers must complete at the end of our projects. The reflective logs also give us time to think about all of the hard work we’ve been doing outwith our projects and consider how this has developed our professional skills. If we’re lucky we might even get a little pat on the head to acknowledge our hard (often unpaid) work.

Pats head GIFs
mmmm serotonin

YUP! Us layabout, late to rise, work from home skivers actually DO things you know. Even lit students can’t just sit around looking at books all day anymore. We have to make IMPACT (whatever the fuck that means) and take part. We have to be do-ers; as a misanthropic introvert I feel as if I was grievously mis-sold this lifestyle… The agony. (Press f to pay respects in the comments please!) 

Anyway, all of this APR stuff and bullshit useful reflective exercises made me think about the start of my own PhD. Not just the research project, but the experience in general. Honestly, I feel really blessed to be doing something I love, but at the same time I have faced difficulties, I have journeyed-

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered

No, it’s fine. Really. 

My research is my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, especially as I’m one of the lucky few who is actually paid for my work. I can’t overstate the fact that I am incredibly privileged to have the means to do what I love as my job. (Thank you to the University of Glasgow: you have been the Sugar Daddy that I always wished for. Please don’t get mad at me for teasing you… I do love you so!)

it was love at first stipend payment

So early PhD life has been going pretty well, aside from one thing… I’ve become a cliché. I mean, I’m practically a walking meme: I’m that weeby-smol-big-tiddy-goth-girlfriend-sarcastic-millennial that never grew-out of emo music, eats avocado and had a mid-life crisis (well, a quarter-life crisis, now that I’ve quit smoking – going 44 days strong – gib congratz in the comments please). For some reason being a PhD student cliché is even more awful because I SWORE when I saw the sad posts and memes that I would avoid every trap and be my own person. Alas, clichés are clichés for a reason: they’re lived experience converted into shorthand. Although we cannot entirely understand a cliché until we experience it, they are stories that are there to guide us. 

Just like fairy tales.  

My first chapter (and APR submission) is about fairy tales, well, fairy tale video games. It has been an especially challenging start because I burnt my whole life to the ground and was extremely mentally ill folklore is such a dense topic, full of long intersecting histories and counterhistories.  Situating my research within the field seemed like an overwhelming task. That was until I found Jack Zipes. Jack Zipes uses Dawkins’ theory of mimetics to define fairy tales as MEMES. Now, if you’re my facebook friend (in which case I’m so, so sorry) then you know that memes are things I can get behind (or on top of, or underneath).  Now, I’m going to hit you with this theory rather gently so I don’t accidentally self-plagiarize (and because we don’t have a safe word).

Kink Spank GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Basically, Zipes describes a meme as a ‘a unit of cultural transmission’ that must be ‘relevant’ in order to be replicated. 

I’ve outlined what this means in this extremely fancy and SCIENTIFIC flowchart down here:  

 *See the annotated bibliography for sources that more fully explain the concepts below.*

The short of it is that ideas become memes if people find them relatable enough use them to communicate something to other people about themselves. As a meme comes into contact with individuals, it mutates as the teller shapes it in order to make it feel more relevant and more personal. If the meme remains relevant to enough people, it continues to proliferate. Fairy tales are stories which have persisted, remaining relevant enough for their continued use as a means to communicate with each other about ourselves in relation to society.  For something to become a meme, or a cliché, it has to have been true for a long enough time to continue spreading, and versatile enough to be adapted from teller to teller and generation to generation….

I was a fool to think I could escape. It’s extremely tiring to understand how painfully average one’s existence is, BUT at least I had those memes to help me when I was facing difficulties… They reassured me that I was… normal?  

Me? Normal. 

Well, OK then.  

IF YOU SAY SO. 

What I’ve come to learn is that PhD life isn’t just one fairy tale, it’s pretty much all of them.

Fairy tale: Rapunzel

The story of a princess shut away in a tall tower by her witch of a stepmother.

Book tangled rapunzel crown lila bored bed cama rubia GIF on GIFER ...

Reality: tangled up at home

We are both the princess and the witch.

The nature of our work means that researchers often end up shut away at home. There are some provisions on campuses for researchers to work, but unlike many corporate workers, only a few of us are allocated desks or an office to work in. When we’re not attending events and meetings, we likely have the freedom to create our own workdays, so those of us who like to work from home are fortunate enough to be able to. It’s a personal choice for me as it’s cheaper and easier just to stay inside (plus, Pixel is great company).

Fairy tale: Cinderella

Forced by her stepmother to work all day whilst her family go to the ball without her.

Cleaning gif 19 » GIF Images Download

Reality: ‘when you do something you love you’ll work every day of your life’ (Ruth EJ Booth, 2020)

Being our own bosses and working from home means that it can be difficult to separate work from leisure time. For at least three and a half years our work is never done. Nothing can ever be truly finished until our submission date. Many researchers are also unfunded, meaning that if they’re not financially supported by their families they often have to get another job on top of their research: very few of us have fairy godmothers (funding/rich parents/sugar daddies).

Fairy tale: The Golden Goose

Everyone wants to pet the pretty, golden goose, but they quickly change their minds once they are stuck there.

goose knife cute weird untitled goose game...
fucking honk

Reality: if one more person tells me to play more video games, i’m going to fucking stab a bitch

People say that it’s a good idea to study what you love as that passion makes the project more intrinsically motivating, however, disciplines such as Game Studies and English Literature often require us to cast a critical eye over our objects of study. To see its flaws. When you spend all day picking literature or video games apart, it can be difficult to disengage the critical mind and enjoy it after hours. Studying something and enjoying it are VERY different things and require different mindsets; switching between the two can be challenging. This is detrimental as not only does it become more difficult to enjoy ourselves, but often, there is an expectation that PhD researchers should be broadly knowledgeable about their subject areas, when actually specializing in a subject is the antithesis of general knowledge.

Note: losing interest in leisure activities is also a symptom of depression which can be difficult to identify if it’s high functioning. Any researchers out there struggling to disengage from work should consider having a check-up – I did!

Fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood

She was supposed to follow the path to grandmother’s house, but was distracted by a wolf…

Red Riding Hood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: sidechicks – hot or a heavy burden?

Most of us have chosen to study something we love. Our projects are like spouses: we adore them, but the road is long and after a while the novelty and excitement wears off… Sometimes it’s all too easy to venture into the woods and get distracted by a tasty little side project! Side projects can be great and sometimes they can even support and reinvigorate your relationship with your research – however, it’s important not to neglect your main squeeze.

Fairy tale: The Three Little Pigs

Built their houses of straw, sticks and bricks – only the latter house survives the wolf’s wrath.

three little pigs | Tumblr
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff,’ said the wolf, “and I’ll blow your-“
“-do you promise?” interrupted the pig.

Reality: we are the wolf, reviewer three built their house of bricks

To be competitive in the academic job market, researchers have to get published! In order to have our work published (an honor that is largely unpaid, by the way) we have to go through a process called ‘peer review’ in which other academics read our work and leave comments. Many reviewers, such as those who take part in Press Start journal are considerate, knowledgeable and leave constructive feedback. Some are reviewer three. Reviewer three knows only destruction. Fuck you reviewer three – did you even read the paper? (The answer is almost always no.)

Fairy tale: Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin span straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, later returning to claim her first born as his reward. He would only relinquish his claim if she guessed his name correctly.

Rumpelstiltskin GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
“Say my name.”

Reality: impostor syndrome

Researchers are the Miller’s daughter and our thesis is Rumpelstiltskin.

One of the biggest PhD realities is that despite our years of training in academia, none of us feel like we know what we’re doing. Experts aren’t born, they are made, and experts are only human. We can’t know everything! Please don’t expect me to know and remember every game every made – most of the time I can’t even remember my way home!

I Have No Memory Of This Place GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s likely that we know a lot about a very niche thing, so when questioned broadly, some of us must seem like frauds (sometimes it makes us feel like frauds too). Furthermore, during the process of becoming an expert, we have to trawl through so much research and write so many terrible drafts that sometimes it feels like we’re the miller’s daughter spinning piles and piles of straw in the HOPE that it turns into gold.

And just like the miller’s daughter, we are always searching for that illusive name… The TITLE of our project. We often begin our work with a clear idea of what we want to investigate, but the more we work, the more we learn and the more the project changes. “Speak my name!” Our thesis cries before bursting into flames! Our projects should change – that’s the point. If we already knew what we needed to know, we would have our doctorates.

On a darker note, like Rumpelstiltskin, the PhD is capable of stealing our children if we let it. Kind of. OK, this one is a stretch, but for a lot of women, PhDs take place during childbearing years. Although many people are capable of both completing research and having a family, sadly, some feel as if they must choose one or the other.

It’s cool Rumpel, if i ever have a kid then you can keep it. lol

Fairy tale: The Little Mermaid

Gives up her voice in exchange for legs.

The Little Mermaid Ariel GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: losing our voices

It’s a common stereotype that PhD researchers have no social lives because our work takes up so much time. What we don’t talk about are the social dynamics of the job. Except for organizing the odd event, there’s little incentive to work as a team. Outside of term time, we can go for days and weeks without speaking to anyone (at least I do, if I’m lucky). It’s easy to forget how to communicate like a functional human, especially if you don’t have a cat to talk to.

We have cohorts and are encouraged to bond and help other researchers, but sometimes this can exacerbate things. Sometimes (not all the time and not everyone) researchers have a way of accidentally pressuring each other. Even though logically we know that our projects are unique and we work in varying ways at different paces and have very diverse circumstances (full time/part time, family/single, funded/unfunded, supported by family/self-sufficient, etc) a lifetime of comparing grades to ‘be the best’ so that we can join a PhD programme in the first place has made it difficult to speak to each other about work without somehow feeling the pressures of competition.

Many researchers are so overworked and so stressed that spending time together may not produce the chillest of vibes. To make matters worse, those of us in similar fields will be competing for the same few jobs when we finish….

But hey, I’m just antisocial anyway. Maybe let’s forget about being competitive and go for drinks when the world has healed? (´。• ᵕ •。`) ♡

Fairy tale: The emperor’s new clothes

Two weavers promise the emperor an exclusive set of threads: in reality, he’s just naked. Everyone pretends he’s dressed until a child points it out and shatters the collective lie.

Emperors New Clothes GIFs | Tenor

The reality: we are fragile monarchs of very tiny kingdoms, please appease us

We’re all pretending that our arts qualifications are leading us somewhere and that we’ll get something out of it at the end. Our loved ones are complicit in this elaborate lie: “But you’ll have a doctorate,” they say. “You’ll get a job easily,” they say. The harsh reality is that the letters are about as useful as the emperor’s new clothes these days.

We’re not just naked, we’re also also fucked.

Just please don’t mention it to us.

WE KNOW!

Fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel

Lured in by the promise of gingerbread and nearly cannibalized.

Mean Lisa Simpson GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The reality: cannibalized by the system

Have I mentioned that there are scarcely any relevant jobs for PhD researchers after graduation? To be fair, we were warned. Senior academics are quite transparent about the state of the academic job market, but we enter the gingerbread house knowing how fragile it all is because it’s fucking delicious and maybe, just MAYBE, our particular gingerbread house won’t have a witch inside. Or perhaps if there is a witch inside, she’ll magic-up a contract for us that isn’t precarious.

But what about the happy ending?

Believe In Your Dreams GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

According to Tolkien (because we CAN’T talk about Fantasy without mentioning Daddy), one of the most important functions of fairy tales is ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’.

They are there to make us feel better because life is beautifully flawed and full of disappointment.

So you see, PhD life is a fairy tale. It just so happens that it’s the shit bit at the beginning, rather than the good bit at the end.

Just kidding!

Researchers! How would you describe your experiences using fairy tales?

Annotated Bibliography 

For mimetics: Dawkins, C. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some fairy tales (gruesome): Grimm, J., Grimm, W., & Mondschein, K. (Eds.). (2011). Grimm’s complete fairy tales. Canterbury Classics.

More fairy tales (cutesy): Perrault, C., & Betts, C. J. (2009). The complete fairy tales. Oxford University Press.

Apparently Pratchett talks about a lot of this stuff, but I haven’t read it yet – it’s a cheerful book and I’ve been depressed: Pratchett, T. (1997). Hogfather: A Discworld novel. Corgi Books. 

For a happy ending: Tolkien, J. R. R., Flieger, V., Anderson, D. A., & HarperCollins Publishers. (2014). Tolkien on fairy-stories. HarperCollins Publishers.

Relevance theory: Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (2008). Relevance Theory. In The Handbook of Pragmatics (eds L.R. Horn and G. Ward). 

Fairy tales and memes: Zipes, J. (2006). Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Routledge. 

Digital Fantastic: Critical framework – psychoanalytic theory

or: so I sublimated all over my research


*Please see the disclaimer and trigger warnings before continuing*


“It’s funny,” I said to my supervisor, without smiling. “I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but back then I didn’t know what I was writing about. Now I think I know and the project is starting to look a little clearer. I didn’t realise that it was so personal to me.”  

Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines sublimation as a ‘developmental process… by which instinctual energies… are discharged…  in non-instinctual forms of behaviour’ (p 176, 1995). At the basic level, sublimation makes the terrifying and socially unacceptable useful; it’s like putting a zombie on a leash and making it push trolleys instead of eating people: though, I’d rather chain it up in the shed and play games with it, but that’s another metaphor.  The gist is that dangerous things are fine as long as they’re productive.  

Image result for shaun of the dead zombie shed

In his definition, Rycroft suggests that the urges sublimated are situated in the pre-genital stage of development (p. 177, 1995) which to plebs like us means those survival instincts we get before we become obsessed with dicks: oral and anal fixations. Apparently as we get older, the urges don’t go away, we just focus them elsewhere: like music, art or academia. We channel all that energy into something useful, more socially acceptable. However, in the typically dick-obsessed Freudian manner, Rycroft also ties sublimation to more adult urges. Here’s a fun fact for you lads: apparently academic curiosity is the result of sublimating scopophilia: deriving sexual pleasure from watching people fuck. Well, that’s me well and truly called out… Oopsie.  

Image result for binoculars spy

I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that certain urges correspond to particular interests, but it seems like common sense that art we create, fiction we produce and research we conduct can be an outlet for things we have repressed (be that an urge, or a memory): an attempt at processing it.  

That’s why psychoanalytic theory can be useful. It’s a contentious field: still used widely in therapeutic practice but derided by many as ‘those weird books about daddy issues and fucking your mum’ (some guy called Allan, 2020). Though I would not dare to venture into the realms of practical therapy (and am poorly qualified to do so) we can utilise psychoanalytic theory to analyse cultural artifacts such as literature, visual art and video games because it attempts to explain the processes behind their creation via the accessible language of metaphor. There’s a reason that many of Freud’s terms are still part of common parlance: it’s because they feel like common sense; whether that’s because they’re already so ingrained in our culture or because they manage to so clearly describe how we experience emotions, we cannot know. But, either way, the terms are here to stay. Why? Because I say so (see my thesis in four years – I hope). 

Image result for hiss angry

So, back to sublimation. What if it’s an outlet for more than pregenital boob and shitting obsessions? We don’t stop developing after childhood, our lives are long and there is plenty of time to accumulate other urges and debris to store within the dank basements of our unconscious minds.  

We grow, we change. Things happen for us. To us.  

Instinctual urges aren’t the only things we repress… What if during the process of sublimation we drag up other things lurking within the depths of our unconscious? What if our art or our research reflects the impulses or repressed memories that drive us? What if I chose to study psychoanalytic theory for reasons I don’t understand, or can’t remember? I’d never thought about how my research might reflect my personal experiences. Academia is perceived as an ivory tower (a tower I’ve been dragging myself up brick by bloody brick). Research is just something students do because they’re lazy and don’t want to join the real world and get a real job! Right?

Image result for ok boomer

I experienced the theories I read in a disembodied way: they were just intricate trellises used to display a pretty argument and the argument felt essentially like a logic puzzle rather than anything real

Then the flashbacks started. 

I was writing my dissertation for my MLitt in Fantasy Literature. It’s about using Fantasy video games as a means of processing unconscious trauma… Purely theoretical of course. Nothing to do with personal experience… Then the connections started to form. I started to recall shadows of memories. Something inside me snapped. I lost touch. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, that I was finally remembering.  

I remember studying psychoanalytic theory during my undergrad and frantically contacting one of the wonderful tutors.  He was so understanding.

“When you spoke about repression in class… I… I have the feeling I’m forgetting something. I don’t know what. Is there any way you can help me? My therapy isn’t working.”   

I’m not superstitious, yet whilst writing my dissertation I started to believe in ghosts and became afraid of the dark. My anxiety was so heightened that I experienced everything as a threat: I couldn’t even walk along my two meter corridor alone to get to the light switch and the (perfectly normal and healthy) sound of the crying child next door made me weep in despair.  

“Why won’t somebody help him?” 

I got lost in the hypnagogic fog between the sleeping and waking worlds. I woke up sobbing, fighting someone who was not there. 

“Don’t touch me.” 

Almost nightly I rolled out of bed half asleep and confused to search for clothes as if my life depended on it. I didn’t recognise my own room, or the man who’d been sleeping next to me for five years.  

“I’ve got something to tell you that might change the way you think about me,” I said to him. “I think I know why I feel dirty all the time. I mean, it might not have even happened. It probably didn’t. No big deal. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.” 

Then there was a murder in our apartment complex. It may be rather self-centered to point out how it effected me, but it didn’t do much to help my sense of security.  

Still, after hours of compulsive checking (the kind of checking that hurts your eyes and your brain so much that it’s unproductive – as many symptoms of OCD are and become) I submitted the dissertation and went to the pub with the other Ravens (the name of our cohort). I knew I shouldn’t have had a drink, but I wanted to try and feel normal. Celebrate, perhaps?

Nope.

I’d not had the luxury of being able to relax. Not for a very long time. Relaxation is dangerous and I confided in someone I shouldn’t have. 

“I think I’ve been attacked,” I said. “I still don’t know. It’s been around ten years. It probably didn’t happen. I’d remember it if it happened. It can’t have been that bad? It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.” 

She was sweet. She was wonderful. But, friends are not therapists. It wasn’t the time or place. That’s one of the reasons I never go to parties. If I let down my guard just a little, the dam breaks down and all of that ‘tragic backstory’ comes pouring out. What is repressed always fights to resurface. My trauma was inked across the white pages of my dissertation and I hadn’t even realised until it was too late.

It wasn’t the time or place.

Is there ever a time or place? 

Perhaps this isn’t the time or place either. 

I’m so sorry to be such a burden to all of you. I don’t deserve your time.  

Really. 

It’s no big deal. 

I’m so sorry. 

I suppose that’s why psychoanalytic theory is so appealing to me, as well as its academic merits (which I will detail in my thesis), the theories have changed my understanding of myself. It wasn’t the reason I chose to study it, but it’s the reason I was drawn to it.  

I know that now.

I didn’t mean to make it all about me.  

I had no idea.  

Then again, it might not have happened anyway. I still can’t entirely remember.  


Sources used:

Rycroft, C. (1995). A critical dictionary of psychoanalysis (2nd ed). Penguin Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

Useful resources:

An introductory guide to Literary and Critical Theory (unsure of reliability, but explains things well)
Online Encyclopedia
APA Online Dictionary

Armchair Psychologist in session: to meme, or not to meme, that is the question

A disclaimer:

Before we proceed, I would like to remind everyone that as an unprofessional I have adhered to the strict unethical code of armchair psychology. As such, in response to the serious and important topic below, I have provided an answer that is both lacking in substance and facetious in nature.

As I don’t want to get sued care about my readers, I found it prudent to include further resources regarding support and suicide prevention at the end of the post. I would also like to advise anyone who is struggling with such thoughts to speak to someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about.

Trigger warnings: death, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

Now, let us begin before we all succumb to the inevitability of decay.

*****

Dear armchair psychologist,

Ever since the beginning of the year I have had an unhealthy relationship with death. I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted. It has certainly helped me re-evaluate my priorities and I’ve spent less time on social media and more time with my family, but it also sends me into existential spirals filled with feeling of overwhelming dread. I guess I don’t really have a question, per se, but I struggle with keeping these thoughts in check and any help would be appreciated. Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it.

Yours faithlessly,
The influential existential

To the influential existential,

Thank you for your question (even though it was really more of a comment). Before we dive into the listicle, let’s break down your problem.

‘I have had an unhealthy relationship with death.’

Out of all of the unhealthy relationships to be in, this one is a real doozy because you can’t break it off. Death is the morbid spouse you never asked for. However, you haven’t consummated the marriage yet, in fact, you haven’t even met. Your relationship with death is an inexpertly arranged marriage. Really, you’re in an relationship with the idea of death, rather an death itself. As death is an abstraction, rather than a reality, therefore, you may be able to improve your relationship to it by changing your perception of what it means. But how?

Not to worry! All will be revealed in the listicle below: point 11 will CHANGE your LIFE.

I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted.

OK. Let’s assume that you’re being honest and not overly critical of yourself. Maybe you have wasted time – but, don’t lose hope! In our youth-centric society, a ‘quarter’-life crisis is only natural, but you (probably) still have many excellent years ahead of you (excluding traffic accidents and terminal illnesses). Some people are late bloomers. There’s still time to turn things around, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

If a strong dose of personal responsibility doesn’t help, then try picturing yourself as one small part of a larger whole: the un/intelligent and spectacular/ly useful/less human race. If you think you’ve made mistakes pal, take a glance at the 200,000 years that humans have inhabited/destroyed the planet. Like your shitty decisions, our shitty decisions are what got us to this point. Flawed as we are, we tried our best under the circumstances. Could we have made better choices? Yes. But it’s too late to worry about it now. The Titanic is sinking: listen to the violins, have a scone and enjoy yourself while it lasts mate.

‘Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it. ‘

In my unprofessional opinion, the reason that we are (mostly) able to cope with our impending extinction is because as a species, humans have repressed the shit out of it. We have distracted ourselves via displacement. To paraphrase A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis , displacement is the process by which someone shifts their emotional energy from one thing, to another. All of us know that death lurks behind every corner, so we distract ourselves by doing other things (like making listicles)… If you’re unsure about how to silence the crushing knowledge of your mortality, why not select something from the veritable buffet of distractions below. (Number 9 will SHOCK you…)

11 Ways to Ghost Your Existential Anxiety

1. Religion

Religion was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in religion for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose that scripture gives them and are consoled by the idea that life after death is more than just oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of an atheist edge lord to admit that you’re capable of faith, just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead. Clean your room bucko.

2. BDSM

BDSM was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in BDSM for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose having a sub/dom relationship gives them and are consoled by the idea of being fucked into oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of a prude to don your gimp suit and call your Master ‘daddy’ then just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead.

Image result for contrapoints daddy

3. Nihilism

Admitting that life is meaningless can unburden you from the responsibility of having to live a meaningful life (which is such a lot of effort). So just chill the fuck out, because nothing matters anyway!

4. Cardio

Related image

Bro, have you tried walking it off?

Medical professionals and medical unprofessionals agree that exercise CURES ALL MENTAL ILLNESS, so ignore that crippling anxiety, remember that fatigue is an illusion and get on your bike you lazy shit.

5. Yoga

Image result for yoga meme

Worried about death? Well try stretching in a silent room full of people without farting! That’ll take your mind off it.

6. Essential Oils

Just rub some lavender oil on it babe, it’ll totally cleanse those chakras! And if, like me, you want to be your own boss and set your own schedule, you can join my essential oils marketing team for the low, low price of a starter set (£300). Start your journey to self-actualisation today!

7. Join a Cult

Image result for creed cult gif

If you’re down on cults, then you obviously haven’t seen Wild, Wild Country. I mean LOOK AT HOW HAPPY THEY WERE. Being a part of a tight-knit community can really help with what ails ya (if you can ignore casual acts of domestic terrorism).

8. Catch ’em all

Image result for catch em all meme

If joining a cult is a bit too sociable for you, then you’re in luck! Playing Pokemon, or similar creature collection games, may be the key to reducing anxiety surrounding death.

Terror management theory, as summarised by McIntosh & Schmeichel suggests that people can reduce death-related anxiety by collecting things as these collections allow for the collector live on symbolically via their contribution after their demise.

There’s good news for stamp-haters! Game Studies researcher Sonja C Sapach suggests that this feeling can be digitised, as by collecting creatures, players obtain a feeling of immortality by ‘contributing to a fragmented database of collective knowledge’ destined to outlast them (at least until someone deletes their save file).

There’s no better reason to catch ’em all than to evade the fear of one’s inevitable demise. Though, it might be best to avoid Lavender Town if you’re maudlin.

9. Meme it

There’s no greater proof that many of our generation are existing under the rapidly gathering storm clouds of our impending personal and planetary demise than memes; death memes, depression memes, suicide memes.

Poor taste?
Yes.

Hilarious?
Also yes.

Though depression memes aren’t to everyone’s taste and may look like idiocy at worst and insanity at best to ‘normies’, you have to admire the creativity of the movement surrounding them. They’re part of a special form of displacement psychoanalysts term sublimation which is the process of channelling negative emotions into a productive activity: like music or art. It’s 2019. Memes are art now. Make a meme page and sublimate the shit out of it.

10. Make a plan

One thing that has helped me cope with my mortality is that knowing if I die, then at least I won’t have to worry about anything any more. However if you’re a Type A asshole considerate person and worry about what will happen to your loved ones after you pass away, try alleviating this anxiety by getting your affairs in order before you go. Make a list, check it twice, seek professional help.

11. Personify Death

Image result for grim reaper meme

OR Maybe you don’t like death because you haven’t got to know them yet. If you’re still having a tough time, why not try having a chat with death and see what happens? Turning death as an abstraction into something more concrete by personifying them might make the idea easier to deal with. You could write a letter, a short story, or a play. What would you say to death? What do you think death would say back? Read your conversation aloud, or leave it in the comments below. It might be cathartic.

Conclusion: death is millennial culture

If you think that you’re the only one walking around thinking about death all the time, then THINK AGAIN sunshine. You must be talking to the wrong people or visiting the wrong parts of the internet (or the right places, depending on your perspective). I’m sure that members of prior generations had equally bleak mindsets and equally difficult anxieties (don’t flame me boomers), but growing up with the internet has intensified millennials’ existential angst by giving us a never ending supply of depression porn (instant news) and a plethora of terrifyingly dystopian echo chambers where we can all gather together and masochistically bitch about it.

Speaking of dystopian echo chambers, come for a chat in my discord server!

Kind regards,

The armchair psychologist

*****

Aftercare:

Mental Health Resources

List of international suicide crisis lines

NHS List of Mental Health Helplines

Samaritans Contact Details

The University of Warwick Counselling Service’s advice on existential anxiety

Academic disclaimer ***

I realise that in this post I’ve misused theoretical frameworks and left a lot out for comedy/convenience.

If you’re interested in a more thorough look at the topic, try the below resources which give a better overview of the psychoanalytic views on death anxiety and signpost more appropriate primary literature.

Freud on Death (an overview)

Freud (1856–1939).  Reflections on War and Death.  1918.

On ‘the fear of death’ as the primary anxiety: how and why Klein differs from Freud.