Silencing the critical voices

All of us at one time or another have had to confront “blank page panic.” There are many reasons for that panic, but the #1 reason is that the voices of all those critics who have torn apart our work are blasting in our ears, making it impossible to hear our own voices.

I have two clients right now whose various advisers and committee people have responded to their submitted chapters with criticism that, however polite, however much phrased in the language of “nice,” has made the authors feel as if their committees believe, deep down, that they are grossly incompetent. Surely they must be thinking, “How in the world did we allow this student into our program? She’s clearly not cut out for it!”

Whether or not the committee members are ACTUALLY thinking that is irrelevant, particularly (but not only) for minority students, because for so much of their lives they have been told that they will never measure up, that they will never be good enough no matter how hard they work, because they were born into the world as second-class human beings.

White (majority) students do also encounter that deep and abiding sense that they are somehow frauds, and when their work is being criticized harshly it must be because their true incompetence has been revealed. Every one of us at one time or another had that nightmare where our degrees get stripped from us, or we are told our admission to graduate school was a mistake.

Women also are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem and minimal self-confidence. We’ve been bombarded with messages from every which direction telling us that we will never be good enough, and especially, we will never be SMART enough to be anything more than second in ability or accomplishments. And these feelings stick with us, often, no matter how many accomplishments we have listed in our CV’s.

Men (or at least, white men) don’t understand this. My graduate/thesis adviser (both the same person) told me several years after I started the doctoral program at Iowa that the department determined that it would give me its award for outstanding doctoral student in research after my first semester there. But they didn’t tell me how highly they regarded my work for fear I would get a “big head.” I did eventually receive the award, but I can guarantee that the danger of getting a “big head” was never there! Throughout the entire program I struggled with self-confidence. I sorely needed reassurances and support.

Minority students, especially female minority students, are hit even harder — a double, even triple whammy of cultural forces telling them that they are no good and never will measure up to the best.

So when you are sitting down and facing that blank page, all those voices of criticism come back to you, telling you that the “fraud” you’ve been perpetrating all this time is now being revealed, so you might as well give up. They become a wild chorus, rising in number and volume, to the point that your OWN voice becomes a whisper, or is silenced altogether.

Here are three strategies to counteract that deafening crescendo:

1. Utilize whatever means you have developed to help you relax. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to soft music. Take a hot bath if need be (assuming it won’t put you to sleep!).

2. Break your tasks down to manageable chunks. I have a “five minute rule” for most of the tasks that I avoid. That is, I know I can do anything for five minutes. After five minutes I can go do something else. Usually after I get started on something that way, I want to keep going.  But even if I don’t, I will have at least accomplished that five minutes worth of work. And it’s amazing what one can get done in five minutes!

With writing, five minutes won’t get you very far. So instead of five minutes, maybe you can say you will write five paragraphs — some small enough quantity that you no longer feel overwhelmed with all that you must get done. The trick is to psych yourself out by breaking your project down into small, do-able chunks.

3. Substitute MY voice (or the voices of members of a support group) for the voices of your critics. Although I am very demanding in my expectations for quality writing, whatever critique I offer has the sole purpose of helping you to succeed. Your success is my success. I’m not there to weed you out of the game. I’m there to help make sure you win it. You are not alone. I’m on the sidelines, cheering you on.

4. Join a writing support group. As of this date, there are five spaces left in “A Room of Our Own.”  Substitute the supportive voices of your friends for the vicious, harsh voices of your academic critics.

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