While it is wonderful to get the insights of fellow graduate students on the subject of boundaries, it’s also important to hear from a mental health professional about this topic. I sat down with Dr. Stephen Case from the Baylor Counseling Center to talk about work/life balance, boundaries, and overall mental health in graduate school. If you would like to make an appointment with Stephen or one of his colleagues, you can call the Baylor Counseling Center at (254) 710-2467 or visit their website here for more information. Additionally, if you or someone you know needs mental health help, please avail yourself the resources found at the bottom of this post.
BearTracks: All right. So my first question is just, who are you? Give me a little info on yourself for the people reading and your role here at Baylor.
Dr. Stephen Case: Great. Well, first of all, thank you, Anna, for interviewing me. It’s great to be here with a person I consider spiritual stalwart and spiritual mentor as well. So, I’m Stephen Case, and I’m a psychologist at the Counseling Center. I’ve been working there for about four and a half years. And I really love the student population at Baylor, there are some really incredible people that inspire me so much, and getting to sit down with them one-on-one or in a group everyday is something that really brings me a lot of joy – to be able to be with someone in the midst of their pain and their suffering. It’s actually a really connecting thing. So I selfishly get a lot of benefits, personally, from being able to do my job.
BT: Now you have a PsyD, right? So you were once a grad student as well. Tell me about your own graduate student experience and what boundaries or growth into boundaries looked like for you when you were going to grad school.
DSC: I think the first thing that comes to mind is that when I went into grad school, it was an exploration phase. You kind of have to sell yourself as if you know exactly who you are and what you want to do. But that’s what graduate school ended up being for. I went to graduate school thinking that I was going to be really into one thing, but it turned out to be something very different. That process was a beautiful thing. It was humbling as well, just learning more about who I was, what I was meant to do. I see that a lot with students, that they feel like they have to prove their worth and who they are right from the beginning. And that got shaken up for me pretty quickly.
BT: So talk to me a little bit about that, because I feel like even a willingness to pivot midstream takes a certain degree of awareness and health. But I also know that certain programs are less friendly to this. In some, you are pigeon-holed, and there’s not really a way out of that. But how did it work for you, entering it for one reason or for one purpose and and realizing that you were going to come out of it looking very different?
DSC: I understand that many graduate school programs are so competitive, and it feels “do or die” or like it’s you have to be this certain thing. For me, luckily, I had a feeling of that it was okay. That it was okay to explore. My program allowed me to do that. And I think that most people were lying to themselves if they thought that that wasn’t the truth of what was going on. Imagine what that feels like in your life. If you have to do something that you’re not really wanting to do year after year after year, that’s gonna lead to burnout really quickly. And so I think I just tried to be okay with it pretty quickly, getting to the things that I was really interested in.
BT: That’s great. Speaking of burnout, that’s a big reason I wanted to do this series, and encourage students to think more holistically about boundaries and self-care. Something that Sara Dolan, one of our deans, is really concerned about is redefining self-care, because often when we think of self care, it’s just going to the spa or retail therapy. And she would say, No, that can be part of it, but that’s such a narrow vision of what it can be. Something we’ve been talking about a lot is the creation of boundaries and space in your life that isn’t graduate school. So, as a mental health professional who works at Baylor and sees students, what are things that you see as common symptoms of a lack of boundaries in a graduate student’s life?
DSC: Just on the symptom level, it’s things like feeling tired all the time, and then trying to medicate that. Medication looks a lot of different ways for a lot of different people. And when you feel a sense of anxiety, kind of spinning and spinning and spinning, and then that eventually turns into, “I can’t anymore. I’m so tired, I don’t even care.” Those signals point to something that’s deeper than just the symptoms; it’s more existential, it has a lot more to do with who you are and your sense of self. What is it that really gives you value and what makes you a valuable person? What gives you a sense of meaning and purpose? And so many times, people’s meaning and purpose, whether it was imposed by family or themselves or culturally, it’s usually tied to one thing where all of their time and energy is spent. And that’s understandable because for seasons we sometimes we have to put in unhealthy patterns to get through the season. But you have to decide, is this really a pattern that I’m comfortable adopting for the long run? I have to be intentional to say I’m going to step out of this pattern. I’m going to work towards a different pattern. At what point is this not the season for me anymore?
So I think of students who are very difficult to programs, like first years or biology students, and they’re already very tired. And that’s understandable. But the question you have to ask yourself is, what is this for? Is it so that you can get to the next year, so that you can get to the next year? So sometimes in therapy, we end up talking about what was it all for by the time you get to retirement – or even on your deathbed.
BT: That feels both like a very high stakes because it’s so far off in the future, but at the same time like it also manages to put things into perspective. At the end of things, the things that I feel are really important right now, they might still feel important, but they also might not.
DSC: Yes, yes. I think a lot of times when people end up leaving a program, it’s because they’re finally at a place where they can say I am more than this. And hopefully you can find that in the midst of of where you are, and it’s okay to change things midstream, because that one thing never defines you completely – who you are at a core level. And I think that is connected to self-care for me. It’s an acknowledgement deeply that you are valuable, and you have worth that is different and independent of this one thing that’s right here. It’s the things that bring you energy.
BT: I like that you brought up the idea of being more than this, because I feel very lucky that I have an advisor who does not put the kind of pressure on me to make grad school the end-all-be-all or totalizing thing in my life, but I know a lot of other graduate students here who that has not been their experience. And their advisor or their PI creates a culture in the classroom, in the lab, or in their department where their work is the gas that fills the room – it takes over everything. How do you advise students about this? I know that not everyone can get out of a situation like that. I mean, you can always leave but some people don’t want to leave, and that’s fine if they want to stick it through, but how do you help students find and create space for those things that make them more? How do you help them fight for real estate in their life that isn’t graduate school?
DSC: One of the core questions in therapy is what do you want? A lot of the time people will realize that there’s a lot of conflicting things that they’re want, and there are different pressures they feel that feed into what they think they want. And if they really get in touch with what the differences are, they can tap into the core of what they really want in life. And if you ask yourself the question of what you want and then what you are feeling right now, that builds a sense of acceptance – just being in touch with your feelings in your body. So if you can start to do that, you’ll start to let go a little bit of the “shoulds.” The I have to be this or I should have studied harder or I should have stayed up later or I should have been in this category or other types of normalizing that is impossible. You have been doing the best you can with what you have. And eventually of course your body is going to start to shut down, because it’s trying to tell you that this is not who you are. It’s not. This isn’t health for you. Sometimes people get really scared when they stop being anxious, and they start to feel down and depressed. And I think that’s actually a good sign, because your body’s trying to tell you: enough. It’s not gonna do it anymore.
BT: So the one of the lovely things and simultaneously awful things about grad school is that it’s so much brain time. You’re constantly thinking and synthesizing and analyzing all these wonderful things. But the unfortunate side effect is that you can just become a brain on a stick. In order to realize that your body is telling you “I’m tired and depressed and anxious and had enough,” that requires a certain kind of interoceptive awareness of of your body that academics struggle with. There’s a stereotype of academics that they are terrible at social situations, which is an unfair stereotype sometimes. But when you’re in the lab, in the library, in the classroom all the time, it’s easy to just become a brain. What are practices that you recommend to students to get back in touch with themselves as bodies and not just as brains?
DSC: I have mixed feelings about mindfulness practices. Here’s why. I think mindfulness is a connection to body presence and self. So that is a wonderful thing; it’s a way of being. But sometimes people think, “okay, I’ll just do this mindfulness practice, because it’s an extra thing that I will do for self care that will fix me.”
BT: It becomes another box to check.
DSC: Yes, and that’s not the point. A mindfulness practice is something that will get you in touch with presence, which is the opposite of anxiety. If you can really experience the present moment, then you’re not worried or concerned about the next one because you’re just here. You’re encoding your memories, even if you’re sad, and feeling a sense of satisfaction in the present. So maybe it is trying some of those practices to see what they’re all about, but then it hopefully gets integrated into your way of being.
For instance, when you are walking across campus, are you frantically on your phone? I know sometimes I am, especially in unhealthy seasons, but maybe take a step back and ask, what is my life for? Is it for the next day? Or is it for this moment? I’m going to listen to the wind and trees and birds. I’m going to feel what it feels like to be walking. I’m going to feel the sun on my skin, which I know can sound corny, but we are embodied people here. That’s what our life is! You can try mindful eating. Are you just on your phone while you’re gobbling some food down and trying to make it to the next thing? Are you enjoying the moment where you are being sustained by the Earth? So I would recommend starting off with trying to be in tune with what you’re feeling without judging it – without the “shoulds,” like, I should be doing something different. If you’re sad, or if you’re angry, or if you’re feeling resentful, just sit with it and be where you’re at right now. And paradoxically, the feeling is going to come down. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t feel like this,” you’re trying to feel something different. That’s when it just keeps going back up. Yeah, anxiety is pushing stuff down. And it just gets harder from there.
BT: What is the thing that you hear over and over again in graduate school culture that you wish you could just kind of lovingly shake every graduate student to tell them that it’s not true, and an offer a different truth instead?
DSC: I would un-affirm that in grad school you are owned, that you do not have power in many ways because your purpose is to make sure that you’re performing and doing it the way that another person is hoping for. And the only person – no matter how great a professor is – they cannot do anything but try to give what they know to you. And sometimes that will feel like you have to do it their way. So again, no matter how good that professor is at holding space for you, you ultimately have to be the one to say, I may not please this person, and the implications of that may feel really difficult. I’m going to do my best, but it can’t be from a motivation of pleasing them. This is ultimately for me and my trajectory. And that’s part of grad school worth I would posit that some of real grad school is learning to not always please the people who are saying you must please them.
BT: Wow. That’s wonderful. What do you think keeps graduate students from imposing these boundaries? What keeps people from carving out space in their minds where other things can flourish, even things that they do truly desire, but perhaps they don’t feel like they have time, or like it’s not pushing them towards their goals? What do you think holds people back from making that first step of actually saying no to things and yes to others?
DSC: Because maybe for their entire life, they’ve rationalized that they can do it themselves; that they’ve got this if they just push a little bit harder, and if they just push the feelings down a little bit more. If they just keep spinning as hard as they can, then maybe everything will work. But actually it’s just going to keep exhausting you. And so I think it’s because of underlying fear. It’s anxiety that’s keeping them spinning, and they think that’s the only thing that’s going to work because that’s what’s been working. And so it actually has to be a letting go. Some sort of letting go to allow yourself to be more. Sometimes that’s a bereavement process. Letting go of what you think you are and acknowledging where you actually are, sometimes it takes your body shutting down to end up surrendering like that.
BT: Yeah, hopefully you can catch it before that, but unfortunately not everyone will realize until they reach that line. That’s hard.
DSC: It’s truly deeper than the symptoms for people. There’s a lot of messages that either externally or internally happened to make you believe that this is what you must do for your psychological survival.
BT: Building off of that, I want to talk about something we don’t talk about, because it isn’t good for R1 status, it isn’t good for metrics, it isn’t good for prestige: How does someone know when it’s actually in their best interest to walk away? Because grad school isn’t actually for everybody, even if on the surface, you might be succeeding from an intelligence standpoint or a grades standpoint. How do you know if this actually isn’t a big-picture good for your life, and the best and also scariest thing to do is to walk away?
DSC: Talk about a bereavement process! You know, one of those stages can be denial. Sometimes, having grace with yourself to let go of the belief that you should have figured it out faster – no, you were doing the best you could. So first of all, grace with that. But if you notice that your body is repeatedly trying to tell you something as you’re trying to get in touch with your body, maybe you notice that the reason that you’re doing it is so that there can be some sort of external feeling of control or external feeling of praise that never satisfies you. And you realize that it’s actually making you more exhausted every time you make the next achievement and you’re not actually loving it. Getting real with what your motivation is for being here, and acknowledging instead of shaming yourself for the history of what you’ve been doing, knowing that there’s really good reasons why you’ve been functioning that way. If you can start to accept that, then maybe you can accept that you can also be okay moving on to something else. Sometimes in therapy we ask the question, what’s the worst-case scenario? Because if you’ve started to believe that everything has to be okay within this one thing, and if it doesn’t go well you’re nothing, let’s go ahead and deconstruct that.
BT: Are there any words of encouragement or certain resources that you wish grad students were more aware of that you’d like to leave the readers with?
DSC: One of my soap boxes more and more is about sleep; more sleep and less caffeine. I don’t want to discredit anybody’s differences or genetic differences, but by and large I think people don’t even realize how their cognitive capacity is actually diminished. And then they have to do harder, longer work because of it, because they don’t even realize how tired they are and that they’re not thinking fast. And then you medicate it with caffeine, which doesn’t completely help, and then you need more and more and more of that. It truly is an act of surrender and acceptance to stop so you can go to sleep. I think that’s a really important choice that might actually have academic payoffs. A lot of times clients think that I’m asking them to give up on the school part and be more okay with themselves. And I’m saying yes, we’re moving towards being okay with yourself, but that’s actually going to help you academically. Paradoxically, that’s actually gonna help you. So that’s a huge one for me.
Also, things like taking an extra year. What is the function of being at the top of your class? Does that really help you get to the next point? Okay, well, then what’s the function of that? If so, okay, that’s good. Try to go for it. But if it’s about your ego, then maybe start to really look into that, because it’s not going to feel good in your life. You’re going to be 50 years old, and going for some sort of tenure position and still feeling horrible about yourself, because there’s always a next step. There’s always a next step. So it can’t be all about that.
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