whelm: the under/over

I envy people who can throw themselves into their work. Who obsess and compulse over the details, who live and breathe the process, who rank and file the data, who drink and drive the literature. At the same time, they have the patience to sit with their work, to get closer to their goal, but also let it come to them. They dive into the deep end, letting the bottom rush towards them as they push themselves ever deeper. That’s not me. I stand on the side of the pool, hoping to some day take a dip. When the weather’s nicer, and I have a bit more time.

For me, it’s not an aversion. If it were simply aversion, I wouldn’t be in this mess. I wouldn’t spend my days on the edge of the pool waiting and hoping. It’s more like an evasion. I, too, feel that what I imagine is that same thrill at moments of discovery. It’s exhilarating. But rather than cheer me onward, this feeling overwhelms. It overwhelms me. I am overwhelmed. Instead of embracing this feeling as the jumping off point for a productive work session, my body has a way, in the immortal (?) words of Todd Akin, of shutting the whole thing down. The thrill almost immediately lurches into threat, the flash of inspiration becomes hot flashes of fear and anxiety.

Certainly, this comparison rests on a model of other people’s work that smacks of an overly idealized image of the creative process. That they get wrapped up in work, in words, in worlds, in ways that I can never dream of, and thus I will never be able to do what they do. I’ve been exposed to enough self-help strategies to recognize that this image is both highly unlikely to describe most people and highly likely to be a significant cause of my own sense of coming up short. But as I have learned the hard way, knowing these things is not always the first step towards overcoming them. In fact, at least in my case, knowing and learning just makes it harder — it simply provides a perch from which to catalog my shortcomings. I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to change. Of course, maybe this means I haven’t “learned” or don’t “know” what I think I have. Maybe I am using these words imprecisely, or at least misrecognizing their objects (and possibly, even, their subjects).

What do I mean by overwhelm? I’m not completely sure myself. Maybe an example or three would help illuminate things.

  1. When doing the reading necessary for research (what we in the business call the “lit review”), if I come upon a book or article or a phrase or a finding that’s particularly exciting — something that could fill an old hole or blaze a new trail or build an unexpected bridge, my heart races. It feels like something important is happening. There’s a spark, some energy, some insight. Quickly, however, dread overcomes me. It’s too much. I can’t deal with the feeling, so I stop. I put away the book, take a break, unable to handle it. Even when planning to come back, I am wary and slow to do so. When you slow down and jump out every time you experience those connections, it makes for a difficult and often failed journey.
  2. The same feeling comes while writing. Unfortunately, my best writing falls into what can only be called an extremely niche genre — short classroom handouts for students, written in a manic, sarcastic, ridiculous style, displaying both a breathless quality (keep moving, keep moving, keep moving) tied to a strong (strange?) propensity to fall into useless detail and recursions, peppered by silly word play and strained metaphors. I enjoy writing them, and actually take pleasure in the end result. “Real” writing (and I recognize this framing could be part of the problem (or do I?)) is more challenging, because it is too slow and when I give myself time to think about the process, it overwhelms. It is too much. I can’t handle it. I shut down. Thus, while I am perfectly capable of waking up every morning and spinning out 2000 words of loosely coherent ideas, when it comes time to transform that into something for other’s consumption, suddenly it’s too much.
  3. I have a data problem, and it might also stem from this dynamic (assuming this is all one dynamic). Here it seems twofold. First, the process of collecting good data overwhelms, it is too much, I don’t know what I’m doing, etc. I imagine many people face these concerns, and it’s something that might be solved, perhaps, with a decent methodology text book. Second, I there is some underlying (overwhelming?) aversion to having to deal with data. Perhaps it’s because it provides a check on my thinking. Maybe it is the outside world which overwhelms.

What links all of these examples is that I am overwhelmed when faced with the two threats of a) an audience and b) the world. Which points to the conclusion that I would prefer to avoid having to be confronted by either of these. Rationally, I recognize that this is not a very productive way to be, particularly not for someone who would like to write, do scholarship, engage with the world. And yet, it persists. I can’t seem to knock this feeling of excessive fragility, driven perhaps by perfectionism and/or by lack of confidence. And, as I keep noting, knowing this doesn’t seem to help.

[For those following at home, you might note that the continuing exceptions to all these rules can be found in the classroom and teacher-student interactions. Any tips on making the entire world/written world a classroom would be appreciated.]

Today, I woke up feeling overwhelmed. I had foolishly committed to this public writing project, and for the first couple of days, I could play along without thinking too much. It was easy enough at first. But a couple days in, I struggle again, slipping into the same traps from previous efforts.

One question moving forward: how to minimize or manage the feelings of becoming overwhelmed? One strategy, implicitly laid out in the previous entry, was to try to keep busy, to focus on process instead of product, to do more, with the hope that something somewhere lands, and to do it in a more public way, nursing the dual hopes that I will succeed and get some positive reinforcement or that I will fail and learn how to better take a punch. The risks of such a strategy, I’m realizing, is that it is itself overwhelming. Not necessarily because it is too much, that the to-do list is too long, but rather that the most overwhelming moment remains that first step — towards speaking to and with an audience engagement, towards engaging with the “real world.” The issue is that, when faced with this choice, I retreat into the safety of my own world. Yet, as is clear, my own world is hardly safe. So what’s keeping me here?