Digital Fantastic: Why Kindness as Praxis is Bullshit

Revisiting the theory in light of constructive criticism

On mental health advice, hypocrisy and hope for recovery.

Looking back at that first blog post, I feel… Well, at first, I feel nothing, because it takes me a while to figure out what I’m feeling, but I think I feel… Shock. I remember the process of writing it in the midst of planning my grandfather’s funeral, during a pandemic, and I wonder… What the fuck was I doing? During a time of crisis I should have been focusing on my family and looking after myself, but instead I was scribbling out diagram after diagram in the hope that one of them would make me feel better. No wonder people were worried about me: I wasn’t worried about me, and that perhaps, is the most concerning thing. Although I was advised to take time off, I kept trying to work in one way or another. Did I step-back from the event I was co-running? Did I stop working on my thesis entirely? Did I fuck. I wrote a whole essay giving advice about how and why we should be kind to ourselves – none of which I took. I knew what I wanted to do in theory, but had no idea how to apply it to my own life in any consistent way.

I’m so grateful for everything that blog did for me: it helped me figure out the connections between my research and my personal life, it gave my work and writing visibility and led to the opportunity to present at some incredible events where I met fabulous people. All of these opportunities, and the amazing support I received in response, made me feel even worse. I publicly state that I hate when people give trite mental health advice and voice my distaste for how well-meaning mental health campaigns and academic writing obscure the messy realities of dealing with mental illness – whilst doing both of those things. We should be kind to ourselves, I said, whilst doing things in private which actively harmed me. Be kind to others, I said, whilst slowly isolating myself from the majority of people I was acquainted with because I lacked the internal resources to be kind. I was, and probably still am, a hypocrite. Writing about something is different from doing it.

I was trying my best the only way I knew how: by working. When I’m working I know who I am. When I’m working I can create useful things for people and I can make uncomplicated connections because I know who I am when I have a designated social role. When I’m working I don’t have to worry about my identity. My work gave me some level of stability, but doing it was just another way to avoid my problems. My theory of ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ was meant to be about how we can use our research skills to improve our mental wellbeing and personal lives, but my real aim was to be stable enough to be able to work – fuck the rest of it. I want to be a brain on a stick. Luckily for me, workaholism is baked into our capitalist society, which rewards my unhealthy habits and further obscures the difficulties I experience. Maybe that’s why I sadpost so much when I get upset; I have always been productive enough that few people have ever taken my mental illness seriously. I just want to be believed.

Pin on Funny Mental Health

I was trying my best, but I still felt like a fraud. I was lucky to be given a little perspective in the form of feedback – aptly, through my work. I took my original ‘Kindness as Praxis’ talk to an event called [X]pertise run by the Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service at the University of Glasgow which is run to promote communication across disciplines and give researchers a chance to showcase and talk about their work. This event was a little different to usual conferences as it included mentoring. After I ran through the talk, my mentor asked if I could explain about the practicalities of how the theory worked. What did it look like?

It was then that I realised I had no idea. I was doing what I hated: hiding behind academic theory and glossing over the difficulties of living with mental illness. I felt so out of place discussing my problems at an academic event, that I had omitted half of my story, which actually perpetuated the personal/private divide I was trying to speak out against. I did it to myself. I was lucky that my mentors were supportive and encouraged me to speak my truth. Instead of presenting a theory about making impact in a nebulous manner, I wrote myself into my presentation to show what the impact of living by my theory had been.

The following is a re-write of my ‘Kindness as Praxis’ theory, which turned a nigh unintelligible scribbling into what I hope is something that can actually be used, as well as something that highlights the lesser-appreciated skills that researchers develop throughout their studies.

Kindness as Praxis Revisited

I used the graduate attributes, which are the soft skills we develop whilst doing academic work in any field, to create an outline of what kindness as praxis might look like.

The structure has much in common with the stages of carrying out a project.

As easy as it would be to leave it at that, this methodology is not just a list: it’s a story.

A listicle, if you will…

Step one: finding a concept

Step one is much like finding a suitable topic for your research project: you have to identify your needs (as you would spot a niche that needs to be filled in your research field) and analyse the most viable way of meeting these needs. It’s like pitching a project to yourself: a self-improvement project *cringe*.

Sometimes motivation finds you! 😀 - Friday Fun

My step one happened after my break-up. I was still processing a lot of the traumatic things I had been remembering and realised that if I wanted to meet my goals as a researcher and (less importantly for me at that point – lol) as someone capable of living a long and healthy life, I needed to find a more sustainable way to cope. I was lucky to find a supportive GP who confirmed my suspicions that I am suffering from emotional dysregulation. I took this information to a psychologist who confirmed my BPD diagnosis and knowing this helped me identify areas in my life I wanted to work on.

Step two: research

Step two encompasses doing new research for your personal project and identifying the ways your academic research might be applied to your personal life.

Having my BPD diagnosis meant that I could find more effective ways of coping, because, though everyone experiences the disorder differently, it meant that I could at least narrow down my research and find resources more specific to my needs.

research | Cute animals, Animals, Cute baby animals

I also realized that I could apply some of the game design principles I had been researching to my personal life. The main thing that helped me was understanding different types of empathy as detailed in my original ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ post. Tl;dr: The conclusion of my findings was that sometimes I unconsciously shut down my emotional empathy because I have a tendency to experience overwhelming emotions and when I do that, I have to try and use my cognitive empathy to access, understand and process my emotions in a more mindful way. I try and apply this to my relationships, which makes them complicated. I’m doing better, but I’ve had to reduce my connections. I fail a lot and I can’t always tank the pain it causes. Relationships are risky for me.

Step three: creating resources

This step is one for all of you fellow admin lovers out there! Every good project needs resources to help you organize and present it.

Stationery Everywhere - Happy Squirrel | Make a Meme

Once I had narrowed down the things I wanted to work on, I created resources to help me work on them. Using my DBT workbook which I use (and threaten to set fire to) every day, I made a colour-coded diary including emergency action plans and coping mechanisms, as well as a list of positive affirmations which I have plastered across my flat.

My diary is a useful resource I can carry with me, so I have access to my action plans whatever I am doing, wherever I go (which is nowhere right now lol). The affirmations are written in strategic places around my flat so that when I’m having an episode so bad I can’t check my diary, I am reminded that what I’m feeling will pass. It will not last forever.

Step four: do it

This step is both the hardest and the least immediately rewarding – both with regard to completing a research project and maintaining one’s mental health. It’s doing something every day, forgoing instant gratification and thinking about the bigger picture. When you’re doing a research project it’s easy to procrastinate because there are other, more immediately satisfying things to do. When a project is going well, it doesn’t look like much is happening – it’s a case of quietly keeping yourself on track.

27 Tumblr Posts Writers Will Relate To

For me, this is similar to maintaining my mental health: it’s only really noticeable that I have a disorder when I use a maladaptive coping mechanism as a way to deal when things have gone wrong. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are the loud things, the noticeable things, the bad things; they’re an extreme way of expressing the severity of the emotional pain I am in and a way of escaping it. Although they’re very effective in the short term, these behaviours are things capable of doing long-term damage to both myself and my relationships.

Living well is often thankless. When things are going well, it looks effortless, when actually, I’m walking on a tightrope, carrying a pole on which my healthy habits are balanced. If I make one wrong decision, I risk falling, and there’s not a net to catch me. All I can do is keep walking and hope that, one day, my funambulism will feel as effortless as it looks.

Step five: editing

Like every piece of academic work, your self-improvement project will need adjusting and revaluating as you go along. There would be no point to research if we already knew everything, so it’s important to be reactive to our findings, so we can improve our work and adapt to overcome difficulties.

Writer Meme Monday: And Editing Continues… | The Mom Who Runs:

One of my worst relapses happened when I caught COVID, which developed into long COVID. I struggled because one of my main strategies to control my mood is physical activity. Being ill meant that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do at first, so I fell back on my old, maladaptive coping mechanisms and it fucked me up. Losing my ability to be active made me realize I had been using it as yet another way of avoiding my problems. Being forced to slow down meant that I had to find other ways to cope: I FINALLY started doing DBT and facing my problems rather than (literally) running from them. Hopefully when I can exercise again, I’ll be able to incorporate it into my lifestyle in a more balanced and sustainable way.

Step six: communicating

Once you have a chapter of your project done, and something to say, it’s a case of finding a way to present the information that will make it interesting and comprehensible to others. This might include changing your presentation style for different audiences: are you giving a talk, or a paper? Who is the audience? Who are you communicating to and why? Is what you’re saying appropriate? What does your communication say about you? Apparently these considerations also apply in your personal life. Fuck.

Characteristically, I enjoy communicating when it’s for work: I give a decent presentation, and I’m an excellent teacher (with more to learn). However, everything else…

eh.

I’m still in the process of learning how and when to communicate my feelings. I’m lucky that I have a few people I can safely vent to about my silly problems which are not problems (more specifically, problems which were once problems, but are now feelings which appear disproportionate because they’re divorced from their context). They’re people who understand I’m still working really hard on steps 1 – 5; people who give me the kindness of the benefit of the doubt whilst I figure out more considerate ways of communicating in general. Otherwise, a kindness I can give myself is admitting that I want to be happy more than I want to be sociable. I don’t have to do friendships in the same way other people do. It’s a bit of a shit that fixing one’s interpersonal communication isn’t something one can do alone, so until I get access to a therapist I’ll be living a very careful life and making changes that help me cope a bit more easily.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned about communication in the past few months is when not to communicate. Isolating oneself is listed as something ‘destructive’ that people with BPD do, but taking time just for me is often one of the kindest things I can do for myself.

One of the adjustments I’ve made is my use of social media: the sadposting. I wanted people to understand me (which led to making some wonderful friends online), but I was also using social media as a form of self-harm. Using social media when I felt vulnerable and impulsive meant that I broadcasted information about myself that, actually, I would rather keep private. I didn’t enjoy the unsolicited advice, or attention I received from such posts – why was I posting when it just made me feel worse? I think perhaps, that my sense of self was so tenuous, that any kind of acknowledgement made me feel like I existed. I didn’t care about protecting my self-image because it didn’t feel as if I had one.

The truth is, I’ve been constructing a sense of self from almost nothing. I know that I was someone, at one point. I know that I liked things and wanted things for myself. I lost myself. I lost myself on purpose because it was too painful to be the person I was. I wanted to say goodbye to them. I wanted a new face, a new name, a new life, a new everything and found an even worse one. I became someone else. I hid. I moved from one dangerous relationship to another and pretended to be someone I wasn’t. It wasn’t her fault, but it is my responsibility.

I am not her any more. Was I ever? If she was anything, then she was my illness. I’m getting better now.

I have found myself again and actually I quite like them. I want to take care of them.

I’m finally mentally well enough to be able to appreciate my freedom.

Doing DBT has helped me remember who I am and what I value. I am not a story: I do not need to be told in order to exist. I am more than what I produce and more than what I can do for others. What I do is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Doing the thing, is more important than sharing the thing; being appreciated is wonderful, but enjoying what I do is more so. Extrinsic motivation is a nice supplement for intrinsic motivation, but, where possible, it should not usurp it. I am allowed to exist entirely for myself: alone, in an empty room, without an internet connection.

But OBVIOUSLY I care about your opinion babes, you’re not like the rest of them. Remember to like, share, comment and follow my blog! You mean the world to me.

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Kindness as Praxis as a Methodology

A methodology is more than a selection of methods, it’s an approach to research.

Similarly, ‘Kindness as Praxis’ is a method, but it’s also an approach to life.

In all of my talks I included this slide:

I didn’t take my own advice. It was a form of internalized ableism. I was trying to apply neurotypical standards to a non-neurotypical problem by being ‘kind’ to myself in the wrong way. I advise people that our research is just one part of who we are, that being kind to ourselves is about having a life outside of work and that we should keep our careers in perspective and that perhaps we can use what we learn at work to fortify our personal lives: we should work to live, not live to work.

I agree with this advice: in principle, but not in practice.

Do as I say, not as I do : memes

Writing about something is different from doing it.

I still live to work and I’m OK with that. It’s not really about my career as such, but my capability to teach and to write. I’m privileged enough to be in a position where I’m paid to do both, but I haven’t always been and even back in the darker days I still made it work.

That’s why I need boundaries. I need to separate my personal from my professional life because I need something that’s simple. I need something that’s uncomplicated by my mental illness. My life is the best it has ever been and I would like to try and enjoy it, even if I still don’t feel like I deserve it.

Friendships and relationships are getting a little easier, but they are harder for me than an average, neurotypical person. I will neither concede that point, nor use it as an excuse to treat people badly. What I will do, is mitigate my risk. Maybe one day, I won’t have to treat every relationship like it’s a time bomb. Maybe one day, I’ll trust myself. Maybe one day, it’ll be effortless.

I see recovery as making the same difficult decision every moment of every day until it becomes a part of who I am. I still haven’t quite figured out how to be kind, but I’m very relieved that I have a self to be kind to and that I finally care enough about them to try;

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: 

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– 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:

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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.

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.

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.  

Grace: You are a kind and clever person. Thank you for taking me in!

Larna: 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 aunt to my handsome nephew Jack ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you.

Maude: I miss you and will always remember you. 

Marita: Thank you so much for your wonderful company and excellent editing skills!

Ollie: You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company.

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: You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You’ve always accepted me as I am. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.  

Ruth: 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 in my life.

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

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.

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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