so your worksona is somehow a high-strung diva and a long-suffering stagemanager
Disclaimer!!! This is not a literal description of actual psychological phenomena, I don’t know what’s going on inside your brain, and this is just a framework that I use for articulating some thoughts and emotions that may or may not work for other people. I’m not a doctor or therapist or expert at all, I’m not diagnosing anyone with anything, and nothing I’m talking about is (to my knowledge) a medical intervention.
Let’s say I have a cordoned-off part of my brain that is Worksona. This is the part of my brain that thinks about work, and also the sort of… associated personality around that. I think this is something a lot of teachers and professors are especially familiar with — there’s stuff that the worksona doesn’t do because I don’t want to do it in front of students, or don’t want to have to have some sort of weird parasocial public conversation about on academic twitter. That’s very normal! Lots of people have worksonae — I think it’s especially common with customer service/public-facing positions, which in some ways is true of professoring/teaching.
But my job isn’t just teaching! My job is research and teaching and admin and service and outreach. My research job has four active large projects going and about five smaller or inactive projects in stasis right now. My teaching job is two very different classes with different assignments and very different amounts of prep (and I feel very lucky that it’s just two!). My admin and service and outreach jobs are all things that could easily be full-time jobs if I let them, I’m chair of a committee in my professional organization, I’m on another academic kind of procedural committee at my institution, I do try to do a good amount of lingcomm. It’s A LOT. It’s more than I was doing last year, and last year was more than I was doing the year before. And frankly, it’s too much to contain in a single brain, so I’ve started splitting my worksona brain into smaller brains to keep things tidy.
The two biggest parts of my worksona brain, which I’ve lately identified in therapy as important and load-bearing, are the Diva and the Stage Manager. I like thinking of them in these terms because they’re archetypes that are sort of legible and coherent to me, but I imagine there’s other ways I could describe them. But for my autistic brain thinking of my academic work as a kind of performing art fits pretty well, and the metaphor has gotten me quite far, so that’s the one I’m keeping for now.
The Diva, if we’re being nicer, we could also call the Talent. This is the smart interesting performer who’s a bit of a microcelebrity* and who is good at what they do, but who’s also very very sensitive to their environment, and a bit fussy and not amazing at having work/life boundaries. I picture like “me if I were a very beautiful tenor.” The Diva needs certain conditions met in order to do their best work, and is not really good at making those conditions happen. The Diva has extremely high standards for themself, and will throw a bit of a tantrum if, after a performance, there was only one standing ovation and encore. Or if there was an extended ovation and two encores but they know they were half a tone flat on a note, and they’re pissed off that no one noticed — the applause seems disingenuous if the Diva thinks they messed up and the crowd didn’t seem to notice. The Diva’s hypersensitivity and single-mindedness is an asset in academia — they get a LOT of work done when conditions are right, and the work they do is genuinely pretty good.
The Stage Manager is… well, the stage manager. The stage manager is at the closed dressing room door gently trying to talk the Diva out of a hissy fit because the lighting is “weird tonight” (it’s the same lighting we’ve had every night this week!) or a button came off their costume (we’re sewing it back on literally right now!). The stage manager has to do these things because the Diva is the public face of the performance, and the show doesn’t happen if the Diva refuses to perform. And the stage manager’s job is to coordinate everything so that the conditions are as close as possible to what the Diva needs. And to also cajole and convince the Diva to go on stage and please do a B+ show. If you refuse to go on stage, Diva, we lose a ton of money, and if you go on stage and do a B+ show then we do not lose a ton of money and all get cancelled and have to get jobs as accountants. Please just go on tonight.
The way this works practically speaking is that I have realized that I need very specific conditions to write or do deep research thinking, and specific conditions to teach or give a talk or run a committee meeting or any of the other many things where I am in the vulnerable position of being the “face” of the work I do. And my sensitivity makes sense — it is very vulnerable to do this work, and writing feels terrifying when the prospect of receiving criticism is extremely painful, and god knows I’ve seen people torn up in the questions after a talk and if I’m extremely high-strung and neurotic in order to try and avoid that, then that makes sense and is a reasonable adaptation to my circumstances. But I also do still have to figure out how to get myself to go out on stage and do the vulnerable thing. I have to make sure I am fed and rested. If I can’t write because the room is one degree too warm, then I am also the person who needs to make sure that the temperature is regulated here. I am the person who has to make sure that my office drawer is stocked with snacks, and the scary emails are triaged and staged for dealing with, and the calendar has buffer time blocked out for after teaching when I need to sit silently in a dark room for 15–45 minutes.
I don’t know if everyone has their own internal Diva and Stage Manager — maybe y’all have those functions but don’t have to neatly separate them out into different containers to be able to regulate them? But separating out the containers is nice because it means I can stage little dialogs to help myself work out difficult thoughts and feelings around my work.
Diva: I cannot write today.
S.M.: What? It’s Monday, it’s your protected writing day, I cleared your whole schedule so you could write today! You were so excited to get some writing done!
Diva: No, I simply cannot. It’s not right.
S.M.: Okay, what’s not right? I really really need you to at least write a little today, unless you’re like sick or really need a day completely off, do you need a day off?
Diva: NO NO I do not need a day off.
S.M.: Okay… do you need to skip writing today, and we can work on something else, if you don’t need the day off?
Diva: Oh absolutely not. Everything else… is garbage. And trash.
S.M.: Okay… okay, you don’t want to write, and you won’t take the day off, and you don’t want to work on something else. What do you want to do?
Diva: I cannot write because…. the emails.
S.M.: ….the emails?
Diva: They’re not right.
S.M.: What’s not right about the emails?
Diva: They are all in disarray and it upsets me deeply. I cannot go on.
S.M.: Do you want me to…. answer some emails?
Diva: ABSOLUTELY not.
S.M.: Organize the emails?
S.M. I can get rid of all the newsletters and snooze some of them to make it a round number in the inbox, would that make you feel better?
S.M.: Good, okay, how about we get you a little coffee treat while I do that? And when we come back we can see if you feel like writing a little. Or just taking the day off, that’s okay too!
And so forth! Importantly, I want you to know that writing this out made me tear up a little bit. It’s surprisingly emotional stuff, negotiating with yourself! What’s really important is that I am really trying to ask the Diva and the Stage Manager to treat each other as respectfully and politely as they can, even if they sometimes have differing opinions about what needs to happen today. I ask the Diva to please try and explain the issue whenever possible, and to please not do extreme self-deprecation or weird backhanded compliments, because it really bums the Stage Manager out and boy communicating your feelings makes it easier to get your needs met. And I have to ask the Stage Manager to please never lose their temper at the Diva, even if they’re being really difficult — yelling at them or bullying them will never help, and having an antagonistic relationship will make it much harder to trust them in the future.
And, honestly, it’s still a work in progress. And the Diva and the Stage Manager are just a couple in the cast of characters I’m working with here — they’re two aspects of the Work Brain, but there’s lots of me that’s not Work Brain. This technique of staging a dialog works pretty well for navigating when conflicts come up between Work Brain and The Entire Rest Of Me, too, but it’s always going to be an ongoing project of trying to figure out how to relate to myself with patience and kindness. I hope we all get there.