“I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are your secrets. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.”
-Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
If you read part one, you already know some of the difficulties I faced while earning my Ph.D. in education. You can also probably intuit that I left my critical theory laced program with a fair amount of self blame and shame–much of which caused me to question my ability to speak and act in the world. By the end of my doctoral program, I wasn’t sure I could share an honest opinion with someone, much less write something worth reading. Spending five years in a program that shatters everything you thought you knew about yourself (without putting any of the pieces back together) will do that to a person. It did that to me.
That’s why, during (and after) earning my Ph.D., I regularly sought (and still seek) to talk with someone about the difficult things I faced as a doctoral student. Therapists are supposed to help you put yourself together. Right? Well, that’s what I thought, until recently. My experiences with critical theory and the therapists I’ve cycled through have taught me to be more careful with my assumptions. I have learned that not every therapist is willing to attend to the parts of me that were broken by an academic program that valued the ideas of CRT more than the humanity of their students. Perhaps this is because this kind of brokenness is something that my therapist and I share. Or, perhaps this is because the therapists I’ve seen are not trained to deal with issues related to critical theory. Or, maybe the majority of therapists just outright agree with critical theory and silently disagree with me. Whatever the reason is, this is my story of what happened when I brought my Ph.D. experiences to therapy.
At the beginning of my doctoral program, I was seeing a therapist for $25 a week (a screaming deal that was much needed with my paltry graduate assistant pay). Besides helping me with my anxiety and depression, my sessions were aimed at helping me assert myself more by being able to identify and tell people what I need, when I needed it. To this end, my therapist had been encouraging me to speak up in class more often; so, I did which, unfortunately, resulted in the instance where my professor and another student yelled at me for my privileged question about safe spaces. Upset about this, I relayed the class experience to my therapist at our next session. She thought about the circumstance I described and asked, “Is there something about the professor that reminds you of someone you didn’t like? You know, mannerisms or ways of talking or something like that?” This question made me feel strange. After all, my therapist was the one who had encouraged me to speak up more in class while my professor was the one who had a poor response to my mild question. Why was my therapist asking me about the physical characteristics of the person I felt shamed by? Trying to keep an open mind, I answered her question with an “I guess so…” as my therapist guided the conversation away from the topic of my class. Weeks later, I tried to bring up the same experience again. This time I brought up the idea of “white fragility” and “whiteness” and how frustrated that made me as a white person whose family had experienced poverty. Once again, my therapist brushed off my feelings of anger with a brusque, “Well, it’s just a theory, isn’t it? You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to.” Although I agreed with her (she wasn’t wrong), I felt as though I wasn’t able to talk about the issues that were really bothering me.
Following this, I decided to switch to a therapist at my university since counseling sessions were free for students and I didn’t feel like I was getting what I needed with my then-current therapist. My first appointment at the counseling center was with a graduate student who was being observed by a faculty member. I don’t remember much about the session itself, but, I do remember that my senses prickled as we entered the small room with two-way glass. Sitting in one of the oversized chairs, I noticed a box of tissues sitting on a small table nearby. I wondered if this was supposed to indicate that this was a safe place for me to cry. I do remember that we had a nice enough, surface-level conversation; and, at one point (as I was talking) there was a beeping sound that made my therapist stop and say, “Excuse me. I need to consult with my supervisor.” “Okay,” I said, sitting back in my chair and wondering what I said to make the student’s supervisor need to disrupt our conversation. I started feeling agitated, like I was waiting for a serious diagnosis. What were they saying about me? What “conclusions” were being drawn from the past hour? When the session was done, I left as quickly as I could and didn’t return.
Feeling uncomfortable with the prospect of therapy through my university, I met with my previous therapist again, trying to take what I could from each session and conveniently “glossing” over (or just not speaking about) the frustrations I faced in my doctoral program. Often it seemed like we were stuck in a cycle of rehashing the same things: the challenges of being a working mom, balancing school and family life, moving past childhood wounds, etc. Increasingly, there were times when I missed a session or came quite late. Eventually, I missed so many sessions that my therapist said, “I think you’re done with therapy.” I said, “Okay, I think I am too,” and then I didn’t see a therapist for another six months. Looking back, I recognize that missing sessions should have been an indication to me (and my therapist) that something wasn’t working well in therapy. But, at the time, I told myself I was just too tired and too stressed to do therapy.
When my anxiety started creeping up again, I saw another therapist in an online therapy program. We messaged each other through a “chat” that allowed each of us to respond in our own time. I told myself that this was better because it allowed me more flexibility within my busy schedule. Although, really, I think I was just disappointed with my previous therapists and afraid of what might happen if my Ph.D. experiences were dismissed in a face-to-face setting–again. So, typing into the chat, I told my online therapist about my frustrations with CRT and the subsequent shame and sadness that often followed encounters with my peers and professors. Like before, my therapist briefly acknowledged the difficulties and then moved on to discuss childhood wounds and the challenges of being a working mom. With this dismissal, I began to wonder if maybe I was blowing the whole critical theory thing out of proportion. Was I really just being too sensitive about everything? No one else seemed to have a problem with critical theory. Why was it such a sticking point for me? Feeling perpetually uneasy, I told myself that these feelings must be related to stress of my studies.
This reasoning held together for me until I took a Ph.D. course that was literally titled “Critical Theory.” During this course, I tried to keep a semblance of therapy going. Riding the bus to class or work, I would “message” my therapist, and then on the way home I would check my messages again to see if she replied. It was helpful to have someone listen to the everyday stressors of life; yet, as the semester continued, I found myself messaging my therapist less and less and calling my family members and friends more and more. With my therapist, I felt like I was dissecting childhood wounds and talking, ad nauseum, about the conservative community I grew up in. In some ways this was helpful, but in other ways, it was tiring. After all, how much can a person take when academia (and more precisely, CRT) is doing a good enough job of ripping one’s history, beliefs, and values to pieces? Talking to family and friends (as opposed to a therapist) reminded me who I was, deep down. It reminded me that I wanted to be put back together. It reminded me that the foundations of my life for the past 30+ years were good things. Things to hold onto. Things that were meaningful.
It was around this time that I stopped my online therapy and decided to go it alone for a while. I wasn’t doing too bad now that I was finished with my coursework and working on my dissertation. If anything, I had fewer interactions with students and faculty members at the university and my family life remained a purposeful reason to disengage from anything other than what I needed to do to earn money and graduate. So, life fell into a busy rhythm of researching, writing, teaching, and coming home to begin again the next morning. Taking responsibility for myself and my family felt good against the constant grievances that circulated through my coursework in previous years. I felt like I was doing just fine on my own–which at the time, I was. But, I still hadn’t worked through my feelings of frustration, anger, and disappointment at the ways I had been treated while pursuing my Ph.D.. In fact, there were times that I could feel bits of resentment creeping up in my thoughts and into my words. This scared me. I didn’t want to become bitter. Yet, like anyone else, I knew I certainly could. In other words, I had to deal with this or suffer the longer-term consequences.
A year later, after successfully defending and completing my dissertation, I decided to take a teaching job nearby. My kids still had some years to go in their schooling and my husband was pretty settled in his own job, so it made sense for me to find something close to home. However, the work of teaching was challenging (to say the least) and a few months into my new job, I contacted a new therapist with the intention of working through some of the anxiety that had recently cropped up. To her credit, this therapist helped me in many ways. She showed me that my voice was valuable. She helped me sit with difficult feelings of anger and sadness. She allowed me to be a human being with strengths and flaws all wrapped up together. For these things, I was (and still am) very grateful–more than she probably knows. However, despite these positive gains, there was still one part of myself that she could not, would not (or perhaps didn’t know how to) deal with in therapy: my poor Ph.D. experiences at the hands of my former critical theory and CRT professors. Similar to previous therapists, when I brought up these experiences, there was a brief acknowledgement of the difficulty with a quick move to talk about something else. Like before, I couldn’t talk about the things that shook the very foundations of my life and all but broke me into many pieces.
Reflecting on my own experiences with therapists in the last ten years, I can’t help but wonder: When will the harm of these ideas–these critical theories–be seen by others (therapists in particular) as real wounds that continue to be painful even as the situation recedes into one’s memory? Although there are more and more ways to work through a painful past on your own (Jordan Peterson’s self authoring program is one excellent way that has given me, and many others, some relief), I have found it to be immensely valuable when a friend or family member sits with me and listens as I talk through hurtful memories of my Ph.D. experiences. How much more healing might occur if a trained therapist did the same?
As a survivor of a graduate program heavily laden with discussion after discussion of privilege and white fragility, I believe that we–those of us who have been broken apart by poor experiences with critical theory and CRT–are not a lost cause. We will do what it takes to pick up the pieces and integrate ourselves into more whole beings. We will move forward in our lives and not be slaves to the past, even if we have to do it on our own. I do hope that you, our therapists, will come with us on our journeys; although, you should know, there are some things you will likely need along the way. First of all, you will need to travel light, without the burden of critical theory. Secondly, you will need tools so that you (and we) can sit productively with the difficult emotions that come out of our experiences with critical theory. This may mean that you need to truthfully interrogate your own academic experiences while aiming to help us truthfully interrogate our own. Finally, and most importantly, you will need to be honest with yourself about your own humanness–your personal strengths and your personal challenges. This is because, each time we (your clients) choose to share our secrets with you in a therapeutic relationship, we are trusting you–and ourselves–with our very humanity. Please be careful and handle us with care. We will try and do the same for you.
Thanks for listening.
A.W. (Anonymous Writer)