Being a grad student comes with a constant sense of guilt. There is always more work to be done, always something more you could be reading, always something you could be writing.
I am well acquainted with crushing guilt, having grown up Catholic. I can’t exactly pinpoint why Catholic guilt is so crushing. It’s just this constant sense that I’m doing something wrong. For me personally, my Catholic guilt was much stronger when I was a child. I think that’s due in part to Catholic parents strategically using Catholic guilt to get their children to behave. It’s like having Santa Claus watching, except instead of being deprived of presents at Christmas you’re doomed to an eternity in a fiery hell.
I think Jack Donaghy sums it up best:
I know what to do about Catholic guilt, though. I can go to confession and have my sins absolved. I can be reassured by the priest that I am not in fact a horrible human being.
But I don’t have that same respite for grad school guilt. There is no one telling me that it’s okay to not have publications, or not be constantly working on my dissertation. There is no one telling me that it is natural to get tired and take a break. There’s only the sense that if I’m not working constantly, someone else is and they will advance in academia and I will be left behind in the dust. You don’t get top 3 publications by taking weekends off! At least, that’s what the grad school guilt in my head tells me.
Some days the guilt crushes me, and other days I barely feel it. On Saturday, it was devastating. It was a series of guilt-inducing circumstances, from waking up late to falling back asleep on the sofa after eating breakfast. Every minute that passed I heard the grad school guilt in the back of my head: You should be working. You should be at the office. Why aren’t you at the office? Why aren’t you writing? You will never finish that dissertation. You will never get out of here. You will never finish. You are so lazy.
There was a time when hearing those negative voices motivated me – calling myself a piece of shit forced me into working. I was depressed, I had dangerously low self-esteem, but I was high functioning. It was a dangerous combination – those are the kind of conditions under which anorexia thrives. I spent too many years doing that; both my body and my mind decided it couldn’t keep up with that pace, and now instead of motivation, that grad school guilt voice just puts me into shut down mode. I hear the negativity and I can’t fight it anymore. You’re right, grad school guilt. I’m not a good scholar. I will never be a good scholar. I better just lie down on the sofa…
And then I lay down and the voice comes back with a vengeance. You are wasting time! How can you be so lazy?! You never get anything done! You never work! You will never be successful! It’s no wonder you don’t have a job! And I just burrow deeper into the blankets on the sofa.
Spoiler alert: yesterday I did eventually get off the couch. There are very, very few days where I don’t. This is helped largely by living with a partner who knows the right balance of “I know you’re hurting” and “Okay, let’s cut the bullshit” to get me motivated. I moved slowly at first. I took a shower and brushed my teeth, and the guilt didn’t feel so heavy anymore. I eventually went into the office, and even though I didn’t write any more for my dissertation, I applied for a couple jobs, and that settled my troubled mind.
And today, the guilt is not nearly as heavy. I soldier on.