It seems that on many occasions, people use their stress as a bragging right. Rather than simply acknowledging their stress, they display it as something to be admired or even emulated. Stress seems to afford a certain type of status.
Colleagues, mentors, and friends expect that we “ought” to be stressed. And I use the word “ought” intentionally – we are led to believe that stress is a moral obligation, a mark of our hard work, of our commitment to our profession. If we aren’t stressed, we must be doing something wrong – perhaps we’re lazy or taking our opportunities for granted.
Or, our reasons might be inward-facing. In addition to that external legitimation, we might feel, ironically, relief that we are stressed, because we interpret that stress as an indicator of the effort we put into our work. We buy into a culture that tells us that stress is not only inevitable, but also essential to success. Do we derive a sense of pride and satisfaction from our stress?
I certainly did. When I was in a tenure-track job, I thought that if I wasn’t stressed, it meant I wasn’t working hard enough. I believed I should be pushing myself to exhaustion all the time. If I completed my to-do list, I should add something to it. This was a sentiment reinforced by my department chair, who once told me that she didn’t understand why I had time for a hobby when there was so much work to be done.
If we are stressed more often than not, we need to stop and examine the conditions of our stress. Are we constantly in fear of losing funding, of being passed over for an opportunity, or of disappointing an adviser or mentor? Stress is inevitable, especially in competitive professions. Academia is, for many, a world of precarious funding and unstable job conditions. So my point here is not to tell you “don’t feel stress.” What I am saying is that we should not appoint stress more power or value than it deserves. To use a sociological perspective, we should acknowledge the empirical reality of stress without assigning it normative value. Looking at stress empirically also enables us to investigate the conditions that are creating our stress. In most cases, they’re fairly obvious.
But remember this: stress is not honorable. Stress is not a metric you can use to compare yourself to others. Stress is not an accomplishment.