Monday, 18 February 2013

‘To Weep, or Not To Weep’

"To weep is to make less the depth of grief" (William Shakespeare).

“I have full cause of weeping, but this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws or ere I'll weep” (ibid.).

Recently, I have tried to follow instructions from a fantastic book, called ‘Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day’, by Joan Bolker. (I will write more about this book soon. It doesn’t actually do what it says on the tin, of course, ie. help you write your dissertation by only working for 15 minutes a day, but one of the things it suggests is that if you are completely stuck, then writing for even ten minutes a day – about anything – can help you get started. If you are unable to write anything at all, then writing for ten minutes a day is, as Bolker suggests, an infinite improvement. So anyway, recently, I have tried to fit in ten minutes of ‘writing’ – free writing, writing a bit of thesis, writing a note to myself about what I am doing. It’s kind of what I already did anyway, you might say. Except this time I try to make sure that days don’t go by in which there is no writing at all, and I’m pretty sure it makes a difference. And I have gathered quite a collection of little notes-to-self.)

Today’s note-to self will be about crying. To cry or not to cry? More specifically, should one cry in front of one’s PhD supervisor, or should one not?

Here is why: say you have recognized that you struggle with your PhD a lot, and that perhaps some of this is due to feeling low/ unconfident/ depressed/ whatever. Say you also realise that, of course, your supervisor has no inkling of this. You might have noticed your supervisor saying things like ‘well, at least now you’re not totally ignoring [his/ her earlier advice and suggestions], but now try and [implement them more]’. You might realize that when you are completely at a loss as to how to complete a particular assignment, your supervisor may not know that this is because you have found something difficult or impossible to do, but may think that you’re being lazy or just ignoring useful instructions and advice. You might think that you’ve been doing the right thing by going into your meetings armed with positive thoughts only and determined to find solutions, rather than offload problems – joyful smile plastered resolutely onto face, in place of habitual tearful scowl. You might even have congratulated yourself on how well you’ve been hiding your uselessness. It's OK; he/she will never know. But now you’re wondering if this was a good idea, and if maybe honesty (full-blown, red-faced, and weeping) might not have been the better (if much scarier) policy, from the word go.

Do you cry in front of people, or do you not? I, for one, must confess that I find the thought of crying in front of other people fills me with horror. To let yourself be seen at your most vulnerable – well, let’s not even go there. Only once or twice in my adult life (my childhood, we shall not mention) did I do this, and the looks on my friends’ faces when I did it were so horrified that I knew it had not been a good idea. Crying makes my face look hideous (I wish I could pull off that attractive dewy-eyed, pink-cheeked look, which actresses seem to be able to do, but with me it’s more a case of tomato-red face and blubbering lips; my face just seems to sprawl in all directions when I cry, and my voice goes all over the place, too; thick, uncontrollable gasps and sobs). And the trouble is, once those floodgates open, there is no going back. So I try not to cry in public; and if I ever do, I disguise it immediately (loose, long hair is great for hiding behind; and pretending to stare thoughtfully out of the window – face turned away from companion, pose thoughtful and serene – also does the trick.)

Would I ever, therefore, impose any of this horror on my poor, lovely supervisor? Of course not. This person is not my therapist, for goodness’ sake. Nor, I tell myself, did this person directly make me cry. Yet when I posed the question to fellow- and ex- students and postgraduates, the response was overwhelmingly pro-weeping. The confessions ranged from the mildly surprising -  ‘yeah, I’ve cried in front of my tutor now and again’ – to the frankly astonishing: ‘oh my God, go for it!... I cry in front of my supervisor all the time – I’ve even cried in research project meetings, with lots of other people there.’ I would never have guessed. Apparently, it’s a thing, and everyone is doing it.

‘How are you getting along with your supervisor?’ asked the nice middle-aged lady counsellor with the clipboard. (yes, I have finally done it; I have typed the words ‘student counselling services’ into the search engine, and I have emailed them and asked for an appointment. I have somehow found words to describe how bad I sometimes feel, and I have typed those words nicely into the relevant bit of the self-referral form. I have finally got it into my head that you can do this.)

‘Fine’, I said, and I described, more or less truthfully, how we are getting along; but somewhere along the way, my brain must have registered the alternative ending: she means, are you able to talk to your supervisor about this stuff? And the answer would be – no, there is no way I would ever risk my voice getting wobbly in front of my supervisor, the way it just wobbled unsteadily throughout the 50-minute appointment with you.

Anyway, I went into my latest supervision armed with chocolate (by way of a gift), a bit of a chapter I had written, and a bold resolve: today, I will tell my supervisor how it’s really been going, and how I really feel. Spurred on by my friend who cries in meetings with loads of people, I was determined to let myself go. But – and here is the annoying thing – I didn’t cry. I didn’t even feel low. I did talk about how shitty I feel sometimes, and my supervisor did listen and respond, but we basically had a very productive supervision, with positive things happening. And the chocolate was definitely a good idea.

Turns out, you don’t have to weep in front of your PhD supervisor. Surprisingly, just talking to other people about this, and laughing about it – ‘oh my God, do it!’ ‘OK! I will!’ – kind of helps the problem.

Have you ever cried in front of your supervisor, and if not, would you?... Send us your comments below.


  1. I have ... when I am sad it is very hard to cover it up.

    I do regret it, but I think I have accepted that it is one of my coping mechanisms. I can't change it if I don't acknowledge it is a part of me.

    I used to push it deep down, but somehow it festered to the point it is extremely hard to control.

    I struggle with low moods, but that is normal for many PhD students, PhD programs seem to attract perfectionists, who are more prone to depression.


  2. i have for some reason never replied to your post (my phone usually alerts me when there is a comment on this blog, and this one somehow slipped through the net; and when one day I noticed it, for some reason I still didn't reply). Thanks for commenting on this post. I seem to be crying a lot less nowadays, after seeing the counsellor and reading all those self-help books, and making a massive effort to do nice things with my time more often. Hope you are doing better too. Hugs xxx