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Dear Captain,

I am a 4th year PhD student in a STEM subject and I feel that everything has gone off the rails, in part because my adviser and I don’t communicate well. I will try to be brief- there is a lot to unpack.

I started my PhD at 23 without a Masters, so I knew it would be challenging, and I came in with a pretty huge chunk of imposter syndrome. I was hoping my adviser would be a lot more hands-on than he has turned out to be, and without any kind of structure (other than “here’s what our current grant is, do something related to this”) I have struggled to find my footing and push my way forward. I struggle with anxiety/depression that leave me paralyzed when I feel I don’t have direction, and have been left largely to self-direct in a vacuum. Consequently, I have made a lot of mistakes and fallen flat on my face a lot. All of that is on me to fix, and I have a therapist who is helping me build better habits and address these issues. I know it is within my capability to finish this PhD, even if I feel I’ve wasted a lot of time and I’m no longer certain what I’ve been doing is what I want my question to be. I achieved candidacy, so I’ve managed to keep pressing forward despite my own mistakes and some systematic failings in my program. (They want us to finish in 5 years and I have felt very rushed by their demanding schedule, even though no one has managed that yet. I didn’t push back on this schedule until I slammed into a deadline I wasn’t prepared to meet. Consequently I had to re-do my proposal defense, in part because of our communication issues.)

My adviser is a major source of difficulty for me. A year and a half into my PhD (after I had just sat for my first set of exams), he told me that I was “falling behind”. He couldn’t really articulate to me what that meant, apart from suggesting I put in more lab hours on the weekends. It hasn’t gotten a lot better from there. His criticism is always framed with a lot of judgment and personal attacks- for example, when telling me that I don’t do well speaking off the cuff, he told me that I sounded like Donald Trump. He’s also told me multiple times that he doesn’t know if I can make it through my PhD (including the day before my second proposal defense.) He has high expectations but I don’t ever feel they’ve been clearly articulated to me, and all I get from these conversations is the sense that I’m not meeting them. He’s also a bit temperamental, and I find him very difficult to read, so it’s easy to make him irritable without even realizing that you’ve done it until he chews you out. The problem with his criticism is that there are often valid pieces mixed in that I need to address- pointing out that I’m struggling to frame my work properly is valid and helpful. Saying that he can’t visualize how I’m going to be a successful scientist is…not. Admitting to him that I have been struggling has not gotten me a lot of support either- when I said I struggled with the second proposal defense and became really depressed, he told me maybe now wasn’t the right time for me to be doing this. Several times he has framed his criticism with “and other people think this way too” without elaborating on who or in what context. I honestly don’t know if he knows what he says comes across as hurtful/abusive/manipulative, or if he thinks he’s being supportive. I also don’t think it matters which he intends, since the effect is the same.

Captain, I’m aware that this sounds like a terrible toxic relationship. But I love the field I work in, and it’s a small enough field that if I can’t repair this relationship with him, I don’t know that I will be able to continue having a career. I do want to finish school. I don’t want to quit, or be thrown out, but he’s hinted multiple times that he’s unsure of my capabilities and that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I need to be more confident and assertive and I need to be proactive in pursuing ideas instead of checking every decision with him. I think that’s what he WANTS me to be doing, even if his criticism sometimes makes it hard to feel safe to do so. My resources for who I can talk to about this are thin, and every time I try to think of what to say it mostly sounds like “I know I’m screwing up, but he’s really mean, ok.” The other graduate students are supportive, but I don’t know how to draw on my committee for support right now or how to approach other faculty for mentoring. Particularly when it seems like he’s talking about me behind my back and telling them I’m not doing well. Sometimes I feel so completely lost in this mess that I don’t even know what I want help with any longer, except that I just want help, and to feel supported. Which I don’t think he’s capable of giving.

How do I begin to fix this communication issue? He is not going to change at this point in his career (he’s a significantly older white male, I’m a young woman etc.) I am not going to quit or give up. I don’t care if he likes me as a person any longer, but I do care about my career, and his potential impact on it. I want to make it to the end of my PhD and do a good job. How do I tell him that a) I understand his critiques and respect his opinion on my shortcomings, but that b) the way he frames them makes it difficult to implement them and makes me feel…anxious? Upset? Furthermore, how do you tell someone (who is known for expecting people to read his mind) that his expectations for what he wants aren’t very clear? What can I say to him to get a better idea of what he expects from me, without offending him? I’ve tried to approach the “what do you need from me to help you help me” angle, and tried to get more regular communication going, but for some reason or other it falls apart. I’m willing to try again, but I have to have a clear idea of how to make it stick and how to approach him constructively. Right now I just don’t.

Any help would be appreciated! Thank you so much, Captain. I’m sorry this got so long.

Sincerely,
Very Tired Graduate Student (She/Her)

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Thanks for the emails. I made some small edits. -CA

 

Dear Captain,

I’ve been in a wonderful relationship with my best friend for a little over three months. She is the perfect partner, we communicate well, we love each other, and everything is (in theory) going as well as it could be.

However, I have a problem. I’m plagued by this bizarre, irrational retroactive jealousy and insecurity about her past relationships and I can’t seem to get over it no matter how I try to rationalize it away.

She’s had two serious relationships: one for a year with a guy she dated while we were friends and before she was out as bi (we’re both women, I am gay), and one that happened between when we first dated for a few months (broke up because of distance) and this current relationship. I literally can’t stop fixating on her past relationships and feeling jealous of those guys for having experienced that side of her. I know that there is nothing wrong with her having dated other people, and that it’s wrong to feel possessive of her, but I do anyway. I’ve fallen into weird destructive habits like searching her instagram for old photos of her with her previous boyfriends, thinking about their interactions and how they might have been better than me and how she must have cared for them and the sexual things she did with them. I feel so sick and miserable when I have these thoughts but I can’t help but indulge them anyway.

What really exacerbates this is the fact that I never had any experience before her. I used to be awkward, shy, and unattractive, and never had any sort of romantic experience whatsoever before her. She has been my first and only kiss, first only relationship, I lost my virginity to her, everything. So not only am I jealous of the fact that these other guys got to date her, I’m also jealous of her and her exes for having had such normal romantic experiences. She’s literally never been single since she started dating unless by choice (and for good reason!) while I am lucky to have somehow fooled this incredible person into being attracted to me. I feel incredibly inferior for not having had the life experiences that she has.

I know that logically speaking, all these feelings are bullshit, and that I should just enjoy our relationship as it is now and let go of the past. I would love to do that if I could. I’ve talked to her about this before and of course she reassures me, but then I’m back to my self destructive spiral again. How do I get over this without destroying my relationship?

Thank you!

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Hi, and thanks for an awesome and helpful site!

My situation: I’ve recently begun a new relationship, and am experiencing some…friction. I’m having trouble telling how much of the issue is incompatibility, and how much is me being “rusty”/ungenerous/inflexible, and I would love some outside insight!

A bit about me: I’ve never been a big dater, and being in a sexual/romantic relationship has never been a priority for me–I’ve been happily single for long stretches, including recently. I know that I have some real trust issues and some sensitivity around body image and bodily autonomy, probably stemming from “Stuff From the Past” (nothing deeply traumatic, but still stuff). I enjoy sex, but I’m not a big cuddler or casual toucher, and I am strongly anti-PDA.

My new date-friend is *much* more oriented towards physical affection: his actions make this clear, and he has straight out said that touch is his primary “love language”. The way this has been working out in practice is that we have fallen into a pattern where he is always instigating or escalating different kinds of touch, or talking about my body, and I am always shutting him down/pushing him away. Examples: we were in the midst of a conversation (that I thought was going really well! we were having an emotionally intimate moment) and he kissed me mid-sentence, before I could finish what I was saying…Or, he wants to rub my knee during the entirety of a hour-long car ride…Or talk about my “sexy hips” in a family restaurant at 2PM. Or make out in a public place. Even his “thinking about you”-type texts are always touch/body based–“Sending you big hugs”, “I wish I could see your pretty face”, “I want to tickle your tummy and give you kisses” (That last one I had a really visceral negative reaction to, and we did have a conversation about how tickling is NOT my thing…)

All these things make me *so* uncomfortable. I’ve tried to explain my boundaries/comfort levels, and I genuinely don’t think he is trying to make me uncomfortable, I think he just deeply doesn’t understand. To him, touch always feels great and is a sign of affection, compliments about my body are meant to make me feel good, etc. And he never makes me feel unsafe–whenever I have told to him to stop doing something, he stops right away. But I don’t like to have to keep saying “stop”! It feels shitty and mean.

I have also been second-guessing myself and my own feelings: I’ve definitely had the thought of “Don’t put your hands on my body in public like you own me” but I think that has more to do with my own current political rage, and less about him as an individual, and that seems kind of unfair? And then another part of me wonders whether I should be trying harder in general–maybe I’ve been single too long, maybe I’m too guarded, maybe I should learn to be more affectionate, maybe my hangups are getting in the way of me having something really nice, maybe my discomfort with touch is not a true preference but a result of all my past issues and it would be “good” for me to work through that a bit. Maybe it’s really sad that compliments about my body make me cringe, maybe it’s weird and cold and ungenerous of me to be like “touch me during sexy time, please, but omg can you just keep your hands to yourself when we are watching Game of Thrones?” Or, maybe we are just straight up not compatible and we will only make each other unhappy!

What do you think? (she/her pronouns are fine)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

What do you do if your significant other thinks that you will go no where with your dream?

My boyfriend is a well known, local photographer. He does mainly fashion photo-shoots and is honestly, very talented at what he does.

I’m newly, discovering modeling. I had tried it before when I was younger; but, it didn’t workout since I had acne. I didn’t get my face cleared until I was almost 30 (ancient in modeling years). But I enjoy my hobby. I have discovered this new passion of mine. Walking on the runway feels great and I get a lot of compliments on my walk! People want to book me for shows, work with me in photos and I even try their new designs! Its very exciting.

I even came up with a concept for a photo-shoot. I made a head-piece, found a makeup artist, made sure to communicate how I want the lighting and am going to see my idea come into fruition. I would have never believed, I could bring that many people together to make an image. But, I can!

It all sounds great… but, my boyfriend doesn’t believe I’ll go anywhere. He’s made so many comments about the photos we’ve done together. He’s literally told me, “You’re not Naomi Campbell,” and he’s even tried to hide a photo-shoot he was doing with a couple of models from California… saying, “You would only be jealous of their careers.” And then invited me to hold the lights.

I have no idea what to do. I told him, I’m not jealous of anyone, but the fact that he got nervous about telling me was odd. I honestly, thought it was because he was going to flirt with them; not because “You’ll be jealous of their careers.”

I’m not sure where he would get a comment like that in the first place? And I’m tired of him trying to put me down with his harsh criticism. He told me, he would say things like that, because he works in a an industry where its normal for people to say those things… However, he’s had a TON of other photo-shoots and has never told anyone else these things? I guess, I don’t understand.

I know, he doesn’t believe I will walk in New York Fashion Week. He’s reminded me that I’m 5’7″, on a daily basis, saying he’s just giving me a “Realistic perspective.” But I never asked him. I also, didn’t even have that as a goal… I just, honestly like what I’m doing. Its inspired me to create things, to try new adventures and meet new people.

My heart is kind of broken because he’s the one person, I thought, would believe in me. Or at least, be proud of me…. instead, all I get is “You’re not Naomi Campbell.”

I told him he could no longer take my photos. We can no longer work together. And I have no time to doubt myself. I work a full-time day job. I have shows booked until November and I want to plan more things! There should be no time wasted on being self-conscious.

We have talked about this issue a lot over the last few days and we worked out some resolutions we are both happy with; along with boundaries of not working together anymore…

But there is still this pain, knowing that he doesn’t believe I can do this. I tell myself, I never needed anyone before, why would I still want his approval?

What should I do?

Half of me, thinks that we can still be together despite this. Because I am quite old, it’s too late to walk the New York runways. I wouldn’t even qualify for them at my height. He has a point…

But there is that other part of me, that still wants to continue. That never wants to place a ceiling on my passion… And that part, is extremely hurt, the love of my life wants to give me a “reality check.”

Thanks in Advance,

The Independent Model

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I would like some advice on how to deal with this. Let’s start in the beginning. It was the beginning of the school year (8th), when a boy asked for my number. (We will call him Earl) I gave it to Earl only to wait for practically half the school year until I get a text from him. Of course, I could have talked to him in the single class we share. But I was extremely awkward and did not know how I could initiate a conversation with him. Our text conversation was very awkward. After several other conversations, Earl suddenly asked for a selfie of myself. Right after that, he sent a (unwanted) photo of himself, which made me feel like I had to send him a photo in return.

Several weeks later, I saw Earl in the hallway and was about to greet him when I saw him walk towards another girl and hug her. I assumed that she was either a family member (many students’ relatives attend our school) or a close friend. I later found out they were actually dating, that Earl was actually a player, and showed off the pictures he acquired from multiple other girls to other boys. He also asked for a few of my friends’ numbers, even when I was in the same room! I was devastated and felt like it was my fault it happened. Earl even sat with my friends and I during lunch and asked for their names (Just thought I would add that). That was a month ago. We have not talked in that time. Two days ago, he began texting me again. Once again, Earl requested a photo of myself. This time I declined. Immediately after I said no, he just (and I quote) said “K, gn”. I would like to cut ties with him completely. I’m not sure if this is a bad enough problem for you to share some advice, but I would be grateful if you could help.

Sincerely,
Troubled Teen

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Dear Captain Awkward,

An anniversary is coming up, but I am so frustrated with my husband! When I met him, I looked a certain way (i.e. hair length, weight, etc.).

I used to be a fitness instructor and went to the gym in my spare time, all the while juggling multiple jobs and trying to go to school. So, I was always toned out and at a happy place with my weight. I then got a full time job that still requires me to work out, but not as often as I used to.

Anyway, due to the heat, my new job, I wanted a change to my hair. I did not want to change my hair if my husband would not have liked it. So, I asked him and confirmed close to a million times as he kept saying, “Yes. Do it. I can’t wait to see how it will turn out.” and I did. Chopped it all off and it was a drastic change that took me a long time to get used to. In between that time, my husband kept asking me to do different colors and styles of my hair. So I did with no hesitation (okay, maybe sometimes, but I still agreed and went with the flow). He loved every single look I did and the one he had the brightest reaction to was dying my hair back to my original color. Other events in between all of this, he would bring up my previous hair style and how attractive I was with it. The insecurities crept in and crawled under my skin. But he stopped bringing it up when I came home with my original hair color.

Anyway, now, he brought it up again, mentioned how I used to be, how I used to look, the past this, the past that. So now, I feel almost guilty for ever beginning to change my hair style the way I did. Now, it’s going to take months, maybe even years to get it back to how it used to be. So now, the insecurities really dug under my skin and are clawing, scratching hard inside. During me trying to get my look back to how it used to be, I feel like it won’t amount up to what he wants–the original “me” until then and it worries me that when I do get it back, he’s going to keep addressing what I used to look like during this time, or that time, or that he wants me to go back to my current look. If that makes sense Am I over thinking this? Am I wrong for being hurt and feeling the way I do? I have been at a loss for words with talking to him about this situation and whenever I would try, it would be me jumping to conclusions rather than trying to calmly address the situation and find a happy medium for both of us.

Trying to remember my breathing,
The Palette Wife

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Dear Captain,

For nearly two years I have been rolling around in the same low-level but wearing problems like a pig in my own muck, and it’s got to the point where I think I’m the problem – in two ways. One, I keep having the same problems over and over, and not managing to change, so it’s got to be at least partly me. Two, in the specific instances at the moment, being unhappy is making me act like an asshole. I feel like the villain in my own life – every time I read a book with an antagonist, I think ‘Yeah, I have that fault’. Basically, I feel stuck in my own head and trapped by circumstances and I simply don’t know what to do or how to make a decision about it.

I am in a relationship with a very decent, lovely man, Rob, who is the father of my 18-month-old daughter, Lila. Lila was unplanned – Rob and I had been together just 10 months, lived in different towns and he knew he didn’t want kids (I was undecided). He changed his mind immediately she was born and is a devoted dad now. He does so much: cooking, cleaning, his share of the childcare, gardening, making things for the house. He moved in with me two weeks before Lila was born. The house is mine but since we’ve been living together we’ve got a joint account and split everything. Rob is also supportive of me wanting to change career and of my pursuing my childhood ambition to write.

Rob wasn’t my usual type and some of the things that attracted me to him were (I see in hindsight) things that weren’t like my ex (e.g. not criticising the way I ate or sang). I’d recently become more healthy and fit than I’d been for a long time and felt really good. Our relationship was based a lot around food, sex and big physical challenges in those early days.

Since having Lila, a lot of that has changed. Rob always had a lower sex drive than me and I was not always as understanding of that as I should have been (instead feeling rejected). Since I got pregnant our sex life has disappeared. In the last year we’ve had sex maybe once. He has many (undoubtedly true) reasons for this – to start with, he was shocked by becoming a father and thinking his life was over; then he was exhausted from having a newborn and dealing with my depression; now he thinks we need to spend more time together so he feels a connection, and feels I would rather spend time on my phone than with him (this is sometimes true – I feel like we don’t have that much in common or interesting to talk about, and get frustrated with our conversations – if I’m 100 per cent honest, I don’t feel intellectually challenged by him). But I’ve felt very rejected and ‘I still find you attractive’ is not convincing when not backed up with any actions (even hugging is rare, and the only kissing is a peck goodbye in the morning).

We do things together as a family at weekends, but not really the same outdoorsy things we used to. But we take Lila out a lot together – to the woods, to model steam train exhibitions, to farms, camping, to see grandparents or friends. And we host games nights at our house or have friends for dinners. We only rarely do things just us though.

We argued a lot after Lila was born – not immediately, but it started after several months. It goes in phases – we can get along OK, doing the routines, but if certain topics get brought up, arguments flare into volcanic force with breathtaking speed. Some of the resentments run deep on both sides and we don’t seem able to address them. And the worst thing is, neither of us seems to have any self-control once the floodgates are down, and we argue in front of Lila (who is now 20 months).

Rob actually proposed just under a year ago. I feel awful because although I didn’t pressure him, he knew I wanted my mum (who’s terminally ill) to be at my wedding. Immediately he proposed, it felt wrong to me, in a visceral way. I said yes – we were on vacation and had been happily making our 5 year plans the night before, it was romantic and I was cowardly. But then I think subconsciously I started pushing at the pressure points of the relationship after that. We starting arguing more and I started distancing myself more.

Rob isn’t perfect and he’s said some pretty mean things to me in arguments – that I’m pathetic, useless, to just ‘take pills’ for my depression (despite my stated personal preference for counselling and two doctors’ opinions to the same effect), saying when asked why he’s with me that he loves ‘the old me’ and knows I can be kind and lovely etc. (he means emotionally/mentally, not physically – I’m the one who can’t come to terms with my post-partum look, although his lack of desire for me doesn’t help).

Where I’m unhappy, I am acting out and am often unfair. Sometimes I am so childish in my emotions and reactions (although Rob can be too, and he loses his temper easily). I’m also selfish and feel I’m using him. When I’m depressed, I get lethargic and he ends up doing more than his fair share of chores. I feel really torn. On one side, staying together would be the optimum outcome for Lila (assuming we can have a healthy relationship), and for us too, even if just in terms of sharing her growing up and not having to split time to see her. Also, Rob wouldn’t be able to buy a house on his own, finances would be tighter for us both (probably also not helping Lila down the line), I may have to go back to work full time (I’m currently part time) and we don’t want Lila in childcare 5 days a week. So if it can work, I want it to. And I don’t know if it is just my attitude getting in the way, that I need to commit more. But small things seem to take so much effort. I don’t know if that’s because I’m depressed, or if my depression has partly stemmed from the situation. I’ve also started stupidly romancing in my head about someone I barely know but who showed a flicker of interest in me. Rob is a great guy – loyal, kind, generous.

On the other side, something doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to go without sex. Sometimes I’m so frustrated that I want an affair – although I wouldn’t actually do it, I hate that the thought even pops into my head. I don’t feel we have enough intellectual common interests or ground. We don’t ever agree on even films to watch. We do have some interests in common, but I worry I’d be bored sitting on a sofa with him in 20 years’ time. But I have a history of ‘grass is always greener’-ing, and maybe I’m just jinxng the relationship all by myself? I don’t want Lila to grow up seeing an unhealthy relationship. And without him, my life will be a lot harder and any career change (I really hate my job) or creative/social time would be much less likely. There’s no guarantee I’d find a more fulfilling relationship so maybe I should try and make the best of things. But then I feel bad for using him. One of my pragmatic practical friends said we should just keep going for now until Lila is a bit older, but that has its issues too.

These counter arguments have been rolling in my head over and over for more than a year now and I’m exhausted and no nearer to knowing what’s best.

Rob says he wants to make it work, but I secretly feel maybe it’s just because he wants to see Lila all the time and because of the house situation that he’s trying. We never seem to change, however often we mean to.

Sorry this has gone on and on and waffled. But any clarity would be welcomed.

Sincerely,

The villain in my own life

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