Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Existential Crisis

Depending on which day and at what time you talk to me these days, I will give you a completely different analysis of where my life stands and how I'm feeling. Factors such as length of time that has passed since receiving the most recent rejection letter, how much sleep I've gotten, and whether or not I have consumed any alcohol will impact that analysis. 

Right now it has been one day since the last rejection letter, I'm on about 6 hours of sleep, and I am stone-cold sober (much to my dismay). This is just to let you know what you're dealing with here. 

Today I attended the practice presentation of the talk my grad student mentor and I will be giving at a pretty big conference next weekend. I witnessed her cry in Rockstar Professor's (her advisor) office after said talk. My heart broke for her. I tend to get motivated by criticism - she had to shake it off first, which is totally fine. The question posed to her by a faculty member in the department that upset her the most was basically a variation of "What is the point?"

Indeed. 

I'm driving home from the MRU campus (which gives me about an hour of reflection, uninterrupted excepting occasional 'get the fuck out my way' outbursts that I am prone to) and I am asking myself the exact same question. 

What IS the point?

Why do I want to be a social psychologist? So I can change aspects of the world in ways that I believe would be beneficial to society. How do I plan to do that? With research, of course. 

But then I asked myself when the last time was that psychology actually changed something about the world in a positive way? I have not yet come up with an answer to that question. 

We have studies that show the mere presence of an IMAGE of a gun is enough to increase aggression in humans. But guns are still everywhere - in life and on television. We have studies (like Zimbardo's) that show how a breakdown in authority and depersonalization can lead human beings to do horrific things. We still had Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. We have studies that show how objectification of women in the media leads to lower self-esteem and even weight problems in women. Vogue still plasters their pages with these women and we see them all over the tv and in movies. We know that racism can be drastically reduced by using Jigsaw Classroom methodologies and various other techniques that psychologists have come up. But these programs barely have a presence in our culture and education system. Things are being studied and answers obtained - but they're not being put to use. 

So what HAS psychology brought to the world? Well, torture for one thing, aka "interrogation techniques." We know how to fuck with people's heads. Water-boarding is NOT physical torture - it is psychological. We know how to manipulate juries to get the verdict we want through everything from gender of experts, clothing, eye contact, etc. And advertising, referred to as the "dark side" of social psychology, has created a rampant consumerist culture where people have been fooled into believing that advertising doesn't affect them all the while driving off to Wal-Mart to buy some Glade scented oil candles because "dammit, if the house smells like clean linen, THEN I'll find true happiness!"

We have therapies, but many of them don't work. We have drugs for every mental condition you can possibly dream up:

"Don't feel like socializing? You're not an introvert, you're depressed! Here, have some Paxil. Try to ignore the constant dizziness. Oh, and by the way, suicide is a possible side effect so I recommend staying away from tall buildings and train tracks in case you get the urge."

There are a LOT of fantastic researchers out there in all sub-fields of psychology who are doing wonderful research that has value to society and answers hard questions - but it doesn't seem to be affecting positive CHANGE. Social psychologists are basically spending their lives trying to undo everything that Freud did, hoping that (like Freud) one person's influence will be enough to change how the world views humanity. It's no wonder that psychology came about as an extension of philosophy. 

Do I want to spend the rest of my life feeling frustrated because I have answers to some of society's problems but goddammit why won't anyone listen?

Isn't it like perpetually being the parent to a teenager?

I won't be the one to find a cure for cancer or HIV/AIDS, or Alzheimer's. I won't even be the one providing counseling to those patients and their families. No, I will be the one who figures out how to create better work-life balance for families, gender neutral norms for societies, etc., and hoping that someone, somewhere is paying attention. 

If all I wanted was to have my name cited in a textbook, I would be all set. But if I could be the person who directly lead to a federally mandated paid parental leave policy in this country - I would do it anonymously if it was required in order for that to happen. 

I love my field, I really do. I'm just starting to feel as though I'm not worthy to take it where it was meant to go all along. I'm no Freud. I'm not even a Zimbardo, Milgram, Gilligan, or Darley. I'm not even my arch-nemesis David Buss. 

I really believed I might be able to accomplish things that would change society for the better. I believed it was my purpose. Call it delusions of grandeur if you will, but I think we all take this path with the hope that we will do something important and believing that it's possible.

So WTF is my purpose, then? Why was I led to this field just to be turned away at the gates for not having a ticket to get in? And if that wasn't a ticket in my pocket, WTF was it? Lint? An old receipt for a bottle of Bombay Sapphire?

16 comments:

Comrade Physioprof said...

Glade scented oil candles

All these motherfucking chemical air "freshener" fucking things allthefuckovertheplace make me want to find each of the absurd dumbfucks who have emplaced them and projectile vomit in their motherfucking faces. These fucking things smell ten thousand fucktillion bajillion times worse than whatthefuckever smell they are meant to cover up! Jesus fucking christ!

JLK said...

LOL

The things that you find to comment on in my posts, CPP.......

Candid Engineer said...

So you want to help people. You are dissatisfied with the ability of psychology to do that without incurring all of these negative side effects (e.g. consumerism).

Ask yourself: How can I contribute to psychology in a way that WILL help people? Ask yourself what the problem is with the field, and how you will approach it differently. This is the way for you to be happy- feel like your work will have a positive impact. It just seems that you will have to step outside of the box.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I'm no Freud. I'm not even a Zimbardo, Milgram, Gilligan, or Darley.

They didn't think that they were either. And that didn't stop them from figuring stuff out.

As far as figuring out cool shit and and then finding that nobody listens...I think that you'll find that irritating phenomenon in any field, not just psych.

As much good information as is out there, people are still selective about what they take in. How many MDs are frustrated as all fuck by patients who just. won't. follow the treatment guidelines. Look dude, I'm a doctor, you're sick. This is what you need to do to get better. And then the patient comes back saying that they haven't done what the doc suggested and they're still complaining that they're sick.

The point is that you can feed people all the information that you want but you can't make them a) believe it, b) internalize it, or c) act on it. The onus is on them and all you can do is get the information out for those who ARE interested in hearing it.

Changing the world is too much to ask of one person. If your work allows one person to change their world for the better, that has to be enough.

PhizzleDizzle said...

The point is that you can feed people all the information that you want but you can't make them a) believe it, b) internalize it, or c) act on it. The onus is on them and all you can do is get the information out for those who ARE interested in hearing it.

Changing the world is too much to ask of one person. If your work allows one person to change their world for the better, that has to be enough.


AA, I'm officially giving you the slow clap. Old sayings have value: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. But sometimes, a damn horse wants water but doesn't know where it is. When you lead them to water, they drink it and you've done a good thing.

And as for changing the world: people who change the world (in a social way), I don't think are usually psychologists. They're someone who is uniquely in the right position, at the right time, gets motivated BY THE RIGHT IDEA (that's where you come in), and mobilizes what they are good at to change the world - i.e. influencing people. The ability to change the world requires the massive ability to influence, and while I think you are capable of both, if your forte is social psychological research, then it's your duty to put those ideas out there to inspire action from those whose ability is to mobilize and act.

It's like how my friend recently got a job with the DoD. At first, I was like, ew. But then, he said (rightly so), they need smart people with good hearts to do the right work. We're all dead if the right people give up. So....don't give up.

Also remember that many brilliant people who had a lot of impact....are not recognized until long after they are dead. Do stuff for the passion, not for the point.

Either way, believe me I know the existential crisis. It sucks. I'm thinking of you.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Phizz - You make a good point, but what's "the slow clap" mean?

DuWayne Brayton said...

Oh for fucks sakes. You're fucking brilliant, but that is never going to make that much of a difference in and of itself. Accept that now and get over it. The difference is made collectively and painfully slowly.

Dr. Lance Dodes wrote a fucking remarkable book about addiction and has published remarkable and groundbreaking papers over the years. He's fucking amazing - yet what real impact has he had on addiction? Very little in and of itself.

I am a mere freshly minted undergrad. I am doing what I can, with help, to achieve fucking rockstar status. I'm fucking brilliant and will produce fucking amazing work. Yet ultimately, it is going to be little more than adding onto the work of others, with negligibly more, if anymore impact than those who have come before me.

And I am one tenacious and angry motherfucker. I have huge goals that I know are about as likely to see fruition as my likelihood of winning the lottery twice and getting struck by lightening twice, standing in the same fucking spot. I have and maintain those goals because they keep me going. But I accept that it's all worth the effort, even if my work only directly impacts a few thousands of people or even a paltry few.

Our direct impact on the world is not proportional to our brilliance, perseverance, our status in our profession or even our status in the world at large. But the shit isn't going to get any goddamn better, isn't going to move forward that inch or two we can make it move, if we don't buckle down and fuckingwell just fucking do it!!!

Reality sucks fucking balls. But at the same time, no matter how small our overall mark, the world will be a better place because we made it. And if we don't make that mark, it will be less of a place than it could have been, because both you and I are fucking brilliant and we have marks to make that no one else can make!!!

And I should goddamned well hope your no Freud. He was fucking brilliant, but also stupendously and painfully wrong. Wrong in ways that are still fucking people up today.

You'll get in. Maybe not where you want or in ideal circumstances, but you'll get in. And you will do fucking brilliant work that will shine. If that happens to be from a shit location, all the better - you'll stand out more.

And please, stay away from the Bombay Sapphire. If you need to go there, for fucks sake drink something that's good for you - like Knob Creek or Basil Haydon. If you can't stomach bourbon, go for Ciroc fine French vodka, tried that over the weekend - fucking rules.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Oh, and I do offer my sympathy as well, existential crisis really do suck.

...but what's "the slow clap" mean?

The opposite of sudden onset Gonorrhea?

PhizzleDizzle said...

Oh for realz??? You know, the slow clap shit that's in movies.

Clap....

Clap...

Clap...

*slowly increasing in speed*

Clap..clap..clap....

*everybody joins in*

CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP

THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE AS WE SLOWLY ABSORB THE BRILLIANCE/MAGNITUDE OF WHAT WE HAVE JUST WITNESSED.

I dunno, AA's words just foshizzle resonated with me.

PhizzleDizzle said...

And I'm surprised CPP didn't tell you to lay off the Bombay and have some motherfuckin Jameson. what gives, CPP??

Ambivalent Academic said...

Ha! My elementary school principal used to do that to get the kids to quiet down before an assembly speaker.

I was thinking that it was something akin to a polite golf clap, in which you might acknowledge something to be true but it is in general unimpressive.

I read the rest of your comment thinking....but Phizz, we AGREE! Huh? And then I chalked it up to the caterpillars crawling around in my brain making it impossible for me to communicate or understand anything at my normal capacity at the moment.

Anyway, Yeah, what Phizz and DuWayne said.

PhizzleDizzle said...

For a slow clap tutorial :) :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KpoqynjV1g

JLK said...

*JLK returns to her computer with a Tom Collins (sorry DB, but I love it) to find 10 new comments to address*

@Candid Engineer - I know exactly how I can help people and I know it's what I want to do. I'm just so totally overwhelmed with disappointment right now that my thoughts seem to all be turning toward the negative. I have never, ever had the thought even occur to me before that psych wasn't helping people. This was a new thing for me. I had to write it down to figure it out. And there's still a part of me that feels hidden right now but that still believes I can do this.

@AA - thank you for that. Another facet of this issue for me is like that one-on-one impact that an MD is intended to have: I can focus on trying to change people as a whole (the purpose of social psych) and deal with the likely possibility that it won't make a difference, focus on my own eventual children to make the next generation better, or try to do both and risk not having a real impact on either.

@DB - Normally I would be saying exactly the same things that you said. I know that it's all true. I'm pissed at myself for feeling so deflated right now. Thank you for your vote of confidence.

@Phizzle - "We're all dead if the right people give up. So....don't give up." This struck a nerve with me. I'm thinking about making it scroll across my desktop as a screensaver. :)

And finally, to all of you - I think if my husband wasn't about to leave for 6 months for the military, I would be dealing with all of this much more effectively. THIS IS NOT ME. This isn't who I am. I'm just in such a goddamn FUNK. When I'm not thinking about grad school, I'm thinking about how I have 3 weeks left with my husband before we're forced to lose contact. It's just all too much for me right now.

But on a different note - did none of you laugh at the humor I tried to inject in this post? Not even a chuckle.....?

Mrs. CH said...

Sorry you're feeling so down on everything. Everyone had great advice, so I won't give more - but have a few drinks and hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Anonymous said...

HAHAHA slow clap. You people are insane.

"I'm no Freud. I'm not even a Zimbardo, Milgram, Gilligan, or Darley."
Neither were they at their starting points.

I'll share my get-into-grad-school story. I applied to several grad schools, got into a great program, turned the others down, but the advisor decided to take another student at the last minute and screw me over. I was DEVASTATED. I went to work in a factory mailing out junk mail (yes, the horroh!) for a few months. I scrounged for a last minute internship, went away for 4 months, met some great people who pointed me to another potential advisor and another potential advisor. So, I completely changed direction and after interviewing with both of them, decided to go to a strange never-would-have-thunk-it place for my masters.

And the asshole that screwed me over .... the student he picked DROPPED OUT. the project never got done - a fed agency hopped in to work on it. And last year, I reviewed a shitty grant proposal from asshole and canned that mo-fo.

You hang in there. Cheesy saying alert: shoot for the moon, at least you land with the stars.

Stephanie Zvan said...

All right, I've been thinking about those psychologists for you. How about Elizabeth Loftus?

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