Working Through Life Circumstances

When I started taking my final doctoral course to prepare for my comprehensive exam and dissertation, I created a timeline anticipating when I would be done with my program. However, the following two semesters, my schedule kept altering, pushing my dates back. A semester later than I anticipated, I passed my written comprehensive exams and started writing chapter 1 of my dissertation. Counseling, self-care, and close friends and family helped me get through these adjustments with a positive attitude. In the summer of 2018, I re-organized my thoughts and motivation, determined to defend my dissertation proposal the fall of 2018.

By early September, I had momentum and found my writing rhythm. I finalized chapter 1 with approval from both my co-chairs and decided to proceed writing chapter 3 next instead of chapter 2. As I was working on my dissertation, I had learned one of my grandmother’s cancer was spreading and progressing. She had decided to end chemotherapy at the beginning of the year due to its effects on her body. For months, she was doing okay but in the fall her health started to decline rapidly. Being far away from family, my smartphone became my connection to stay informed through video chat, texts, and phone calls. I felt like I was toggling between two worlds, the family-oriented Amanda who wanted to be in the Midwest and the achiever Amanda who wanted to be done with her proposal so she could be at the next stage of the Ph.D. process. I managed to devise a way of compartmentalizing my focus in order to be present for each situation. It worked for a period of time until my grandmother passed away.

Since her passing happened on the weekend, I figured I should have enough time to process. That Monday, I resumed my previous schedule of working at the lab, writing my chapter, and setting up appointments with a few of my committee members. I kept writing chapter 3 as I traveled to the Midwest up until the day before the funeral. The eve of the funeral, a very rough draft of chapter 3 was submitted to my co-chair. The next day I attended the funeral and took additional days away from writing and working to be with family.

I returned to New Mexico, feeling like I should be ready to get back to work and writing, especially since I had taken time off. I resumed my writing and work schedule as I started EMDR therapy with my counselor. My first week back I felt I had resumed my previous rhythm but gradually my productivity decreased. I often found myself sitting in front of my laptop or notepad writing out thoughts that seemed disconnected. Mornings became a motivation struggle where I had to tell myself step-by-step what to do: “get out of bed”, “brush your teeth”, “put on clothes”, etc. At the same time, I was feeling the pressure of the timeline I created and the guilt about my writing fog and lack of progress. The self-care routine I had established and close friends and family helped me get through each day and find moments of joy.

It took me a month to recognize that I was heartbroken about my grandmother’s passing and tired more often due to my intense EMDR sessions. After my awareness, I noticed I had a bit more compassion for myself, but the guilt didn’t subside. Most days I tossed between compassion and guilt, which only led to being more exhausted. I did not realize the amount of frustration I had accumulated until I felt the pangs of envy towards my therapist during a session. She felt refreshed from the winter break, and I felt even more exhausted. I told her about my inner struggles, and we began processing my feelings. Halfway through the session, I noticed how negative and uncompassionate my self-talk had been. I admitted, “I only truly value accomplishments based on academic and professional achievements. What about the other things I’m doing. I’m being unloving, unkind, and unfair to myself.” It was then I began to question my interpretation of accomplishments.

Even though I thought I had a holistic view of myself, this life challenge allowed me to discover I really did not. The term should was often a part of my self-talk, which was accompanied by feelings of guilt and disappointment. According to my should statements, dealing with grief and EMDR therapy were not sufficient reasons to be off schedule. I should still be able to get back on track and work through anything.

Since that therapy session, I’ve expanded my definition of accomplishments to include relationships, healthy lifestyle choices, healing, and non-academic pursuits. Cultivating relationships with others who share a similar holistic approach to life has helped ensure I live and embody my new interpretation of accomplishments. I’m more aware of my self-talk and am actively working to minimize (and one day eliminate) those should statements. Because I have less emotional and mental struggles, I have more energy and motivation to pursue multiple endeavors. I still have moments when I feel disappointed or regress to my old approach to life. In those moments, I remind myself of my value of living a holistic life, practice self-care, or spend time connecting with a friend or family member.


*Photo by @jasmine-wallace from

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