I remember being in a history seminar on Post-1945 Europe towards the end of my BA. In class one day we bounced around a number of ideas for our major research projects with our professor. One classmate wanted to look at some aspect of post-war Irish history. The professor responded: “I always encourage students to think very carefully about the length and depth of this project before they commit to picking any Irish topic. Most students who look at Irish history end up getting terribly depressed.” We chuckled. She countered: “I’m quite serious. It is important to consider the emotional toll certain research might take on you.” We sat with that for a bit and the conversation moved on.[1]

That moment would prove to be one of those moments I wish I could revisit. At the time I had no notion whatsoever that I would later find myself working towards a doctorate in history. And as someone who finds her research on complementarian advice manuals taking quite an emotional toll, I wish I had asked more questions of the only professor who has ever come out and made connections between historical study and emotional/mental health in one of my classes. I have found very little discussion since, either in person or online.

I have muddled my way through my research, coming up with different coping tactics along the way. I am hardly in the most ideal place for giving advice on the topic, so in sharing these I am not putting forward a fail-proof guide. Rather, I am hoping to start a conversation about research and what it demands of us as scholars aside from our time (lots and lots of our time…). Here are a few steps I have taken to help navigate the emotional side effects of my research project:

knowledge-1052014__340First: naming it. Through my research efforts I have coined a new term: rage cramp.[2]Perhaps it is self-explanatory, but a rage cramp is when you cannot continue in your research exertions because you are just too darn angry. Not all, but a good number of the authors I am engaging in my research lead me to develop rage cramps with fair regularity. Rage isn’t the only emotion of course. Cramps can come from grief and sadness too. Whatever is tripping me up, being able to name my response to what is happening has helped immensely.

Second: allowing myself to feel it. At first I was put off by my own reactions. This might have stemmed from any number of places, including some expectation that an ideal scholar is a ‘detached’ scholar,’ all the way through to the way I have been socialized in my Christian community and a woman to deny and supress negative emotions (joy in all circumstances, remember?). At first I coped by calling it a symptom of novelty. I expected that I would become desensitized to the content of my sources, that the rage would wear down and dissipate as I made progress. Instead, the rage has worn me down. I still get just as angry when I come across authors who blame abused women for their situations and tell them that the only way to honour God is to stay in their abusive marriages. I still get just as tripped up when I see authors using scripture to tell men and women that their families (and hearts) are only pleasing to God when they are arranged a certain way.  I still have a deep gut sorrow when I read theology that equates particular class identities as the best (if not only) way to be loyal to the gospel. The cramps have kept coming. While they have slowed the progress of my research overall, feeling bad for having them wasn’t helping the process.

Third tactic: ranting, or, more positively, externally processing some feelings. Whether itliterature-3176774__340 is to my housemates, my ever-patient small group, or into a Word doc that will never see the light of day, it has been helpful to express what has been angering or disappointing in what I have been reading that day. It is a way to stretch out the cramp, if you will. Without supportive ears and empathetic souls around me I don’t think I would have made as much progress as I have. And while the outlet is mostly emotionally beneficial, there are some academic side benefits, too. Some of my rage-processing notes have led me through to new points of analysis and critique I am working into my thesis as I go.

Fourth tactic: reframe the feelings. Instead of seeing my strong feelings as a failure of objectivity, I have come to a certain peace with my emotional responses to my work. They aren’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of the depth of my capacity for empathy. My rage at how I see the gospel distorted in ways that do harm demonstrates the gift I have been given in my personal journey with faith to know that it is and can be something different (bigger, better, healing, positively transformative) than what is presented in this these sources. If I recall correctly from several earnest evangelical sermons on the topic, to truly be passionate about something means to be willing to suffer for it. So I suppose I can call myself a passionate researcher? At least there’s that!

Fifth tactic: reading theology that doesn’t give me rage cramps. This is an important part of remembering the scope of what I am studying. It is a helpful reminder that my sources don’t represent the whole.

Sixth tactic: maintaining non-scholarly activity in my life. This takes a few forms, of IMG_8347course, but the two that have been most helpful as modes of self-care in this season of research slogging have been the maintenance of my individual faith practice (prayer, journaling, time in scripture), my baking hobby (kneading bread is a great way to process negative feelings), and going for a bike ride or a hike. There isn’t time for these things everyday, but I find the days I can work them in I have better sense of my own scope, a sense of what I can achieve outside of my scholarly work, and I am less bogged down in negativity the next time I sit down to research.

Have you struggled through the emotional toll research has taken on you? What have been things that have helped? What resources, if any, have you found on the topic? Please share in the comments or send me a note. I would welcome your feedback, suggestions, and personal experiences with these questions.

[1]Certainly there are some non-depression inducing aspects of Ireland’s history, and by no means does Ireland have a monopoly on tragic and difficult history. In the Euro-centric arena of our particular course the comment made sense. And, as an aside for those curious, I did my MRP on 1960s British youth subcultures, focusing on Mods and their socio-cultural significance. It was a very fun project that took no more emotional toll on me than might be expected of a big graduation project.

[2]At least, I am pretty sure I coined it. Sometimes we can do so much reading we forget where we picked something up and I hope this isn’t one of those cases. If anyone sees it elsewhere please let me know I’ll update this post with a reference.

6 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this helpful piece Allison.

    Some of us have been going through similar pain down here in New Zealand and Australia in response to the widely reported, and ongoing media discussion on, a prominent sports player’s comments that God’s plan for gays is “HELL, unless they repent”.

    My strategies for coping are prayer, scripture study, family, fellowship, nature, rest, doing what I can and leaving the rest up to God.

    Many blessings

  2. Thanks for this post. Acknowledging the things that our research leads us to feel is such an important first step. In addition to the things you mention, I’ll take a quick trip over to the campus art museum sometimes. Good art has always helped me process feelings. Another option is taking a five-minute break at my desk to listen to a song I love. That’s a good one when time is scarce.

  3. Allison, I had a similar experience with my M.A. thesis on Jansenism, though I wasn’t aware of it during the process. I just remember when I finished and was no longer engaging with Antoine Arnauld’s theology that it was like a huge weight had been lifted from me and I realized how depressed the Jansenist theology of grace was making me. I think theologians especially have to be careful about our research because, by definition of the discipline, it is personal to us. I really appreciate the tips that you’ve included here for dealing with the emotions that can come out of research.

  4. I had reactions like this when I worked in the Ministry of Justice in New Zealand doing statistical research. I remember a project on sex offences on children. I had to be objective and report the facts as that would be most helpful for the policy makers. I examined one court file where the offender sat in a park I passed when I travelled to and from work. He watched the children play and was part of a network in the neighbourhood. That felt personal. Although the Ministry had counselling available, I did not think to use it. That said, I was proud of the paper I wrote and I know it was useful.
    I also remember sitting in Church one day waiting for it to be my turn to go up for communion. New Zealand had recently changed the sentence for murder so that is was no longer an automatic life sentence. I started speculating on how to report that. Suddenly I realised where I was and how inappropriate that was. I faced the fact that my attempts to maintain objectivity in my work were numbing my legitimate reactions of horror to what I was doing. It was time to move to another field of research.
    In the theological area, about five years ago I was writing a paper which included some of my personal experiences which had not been great. I wrote two papers pouring it all out and then used some of my conclusions in the final paper. I have electronic and paper copies of my rants, but would not make them public. It just seemed important to me to preserve how I felt. Recently I used one of the papers when asked to respond to someone else’s paper on the same subject. I realised how angry I had been. The conclusions were valid, so I worked out how to take the anger out of my original paper.
    Thank you for writing this. I don’t feel so alone in my experience.

    Bless you


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