The Guide to Emotions of a Highly Sensitive PhD Student

I have recently completed a PhD programme. Lots of people think doing a PhD is hard work. Of course, for me, it also was. But, what was even harder, as a person with a hyper-sensitive brain, was to be open to the experience of various emotions that visited me as I continued the PhD programme.

First came the impostor syndrome and with it a sense of deep shame. Hearing all the intellectual conversations around me, I felt like I didn’t even deserve to be in academia. I remember the first day, the orientation day of the programme. Lots of PhD students from all around the world, getting together, meeting for the first time. In a very knowledgeable, confident, and curious way, everybody tried to get into small talk. It felt fake, of course. In fact, everyone was at the beginning of their journey; and everyone was unaware of how little they actually knew about their subject of interest. I remember going home, hugging Haydn- my boyfriend at the time and husband today, and telling him how I felt like a failure already and that I didn’t think I could get through this PhD. That night, I cried silently in bed, thinking I have wasted my life because I knew nothing. I didn’t realise it then, but that is when depression crept into my mind.

I was only 26 when I started the PhD programme. Frankly, I had no self-awareness then, but I didn’t even know what I lacked. My early 20s were very intense. I travelled a lot, gained a lot of experience, met lots of people. But, I never slowed down. So, I never had to digest, make sense or create meaning from these experiences. This lack of “digestion” time changed a lot with the PhD. As I started the PhD, I realised all I had was digestion time. A sudden switch from timelessness, to having all the time in the world to reflect. I was reading about the topics of my PhD, learning new things, and also looking inward. As I isolated myself from the external world, I felt a massive disconnect between what I needed and what I got, what I wanted to research and what I ended up researching, how I wanted to impact the world and how little the impact I had. I realised that I was sad, angry, and frustrated. Mostly, at myself.

Moreover, I felt let down. Academia disappointed me. I had a different image of academia when I started. The image in my head was close to perfection. In reality, academia was not any better or worse than the business world; it was just different. I was studying sustainability, and I wanted to do more than only researching it. I wanted to volunteer at a charity and make some valuable contribution to their work with my research. I remember someone telling me at the time, “you are exaggerating this sustainability thing too much. We study and teach sustainability. It doesn’t mean that we have to be sustainable…” We have a saying in my language: “Do what imam tells you to do, but don’t do what he does”. This led to another disconnect between who I was and who I wanted to be.

Other times, I was being told: “You are only a PhD student, and you don’t know how publishing an article works, and you know nothing about academia”… It was true; I didn’t know… What I also didn’t know then, was that judging other academics, continuously criticising everything and everybody was not going to help me at all! Because it does not help anybody! The extremely critical culture of academia is helpful, but only when we are critical of ideas, theories and research questions or methods. Though, as others judged me, I also judged, judged, judged others…The worst is I judged myself.

Long story short, depression not only crept into my mind but captured my body, all my senses, and finally my willingness to live. After a panic attack, I have found myself ringing the suicide helpline. Because I knew deep down that life was still beautiful, even though, I couldn’t see the beauty from the dark depression clouds over me. How didn’t I see this coming? I actually did. But, embedded in the “rational” culture of academia, I have distanced myself from actually feeling all the emotions, so I was trying to numb the pain. I was, unfortunately, far away from feeling the pain and understanding it. Instead, I was trying to suppress it or make it go away. So, the clouds of depression turned into the thunderstorms of attacks. So, I stopped! Because I was feeling scared. When you experience fear, you can either face it or run away from it. I didn’t find the power in myself to face the fear. So, I tried hiding away.

At first, my blurred judgement made me think that the source of my negative emotions and fears was the PhD itself. But, as the storms disappeared and the sunlight seeped in through the clouds, I started to see how my childhood traumas and fears were at play. I don’t know when and how, but, thanks to conversations with my loved ones, I was able to see what was actually happening. I started to find meaning in all these experiences. I realised some patterns and cycles that go back to some memories I thought I buried years ago. This was and still is a phase of awakening and awareness.

I had to go through a hard time during my PhD. But, somehow, I found myself in a relationship with the pain, but not feeling like a victim, just in acceptance of the pain. Perhaps, it is not right to romanticise the suffering itself. But making sense of it, understanding where it comes from, defining it, researching its roots, looking at its history has helped me find joy again. Joy helped me realise things that I love in myself. It was those joyful moments that made me realise I love my smile. Then, it continued like the Nina Simone song and I realised other things I loved about who I am. So, self-awareness and self-acceptance are where I dwell these days. I have a long way to go. Along this journey, I realised several things that I wanted to share:

  • Everybody feels impostor syndrome. The problem in the impostor feelings may be (perhaps) the worshipping of knowledge. Though, all we actually seek is a little wisdom.
  • There is a belief that authority figures can have power over you. A friend used to tell me, they have power over you, as much as you give it to them. Power is also something that we perceive. We can give power to things when we talk a lot about them. Use your words wisely!
  • Everybody is afraid of something or has met fear at some point in their lives. Sometimes, we are so scared to finish the PhD, because of the unknown afterwards. Your best friends will be the ones that give you courage, as opposed to those that complain, judge, and tell you the reasons why you cannot finish a PhD.
  • Experiencing negative emotions are ok. Suppressing negative emotions will be more dangerous than actually feeling them.
  • You may want to change academia. But, perhaps, even the key to that, is to transform your life, your perception and expectations.

To conclude, my PhD journey is over, and my self-awareness journey has just started, and I hope the story of my journey becomes an inspiration for others.

Life long learner