Is Academia Your Abusive Partner?
Nine Warning signs, and Nine Dos and Don’ts
Content notes: abuse, relationships, trauma, mental health
IMPORTANT: I am not a therapist or health practitioner. I’m just an academic, and these are just my experience-based thoughts, not diagnoses or treatments. If you think you may have experienced trauma or abuse please talk to a doctor, licensed counsellor, or other trained professional. If you or someone you know is suicidal, crisis lines are available:
- Canada https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/
- US https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- UK https://www.samaritans.org/
- More by country https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines
I’m not here to talk about abuse by individuals right now (though of course that happens in academia too). I’m talking about academic systems, and academic institutions, as abusive agents in their own right.
Academic systems and institutions can be abusive without any individual being so, and this means serious consequences can manifest without any obvious “perpetrator.” This can be confusing, and might even prevent us from properly recognizing what is going on and getting help.
I’m far from being the only person to have noticed the parallels between academia and abusive relationships. Indeed, I was prompted to write more about this by observing how widely resonant the idea is. I’m also not going to get into the background of why this is so prevalent, and how we got here. For now, I think the more urgent thing is to call attention to the nature and scale of the problem.
- Initial charm and charisma: the ideal of academic life completely sucks you in. How wonderful to think and read and research all day and be paid for it! To set your own agenda! To work with others to change the world and help people with the power of ideas! You are committed to this, heart and soul.
- Once you’re committed (emotionally, financially, practically, etc.) things start to feel "off" somehow. Perhaps you start to notice that your extra-curricular interests have gradually been abandoned (in order to prove what a dedicated scholar you are). Perhaps you suddenly realize that you only have academics as friends, and have become cut off from everyone outside. Perhaps you start to feel like you will never be good enough by academia’s standards. Perhaps you’re regularly being personally insulted or belittled or demeaned—whether by anonymous reviewers, as a collegial “joke,” or “for the sake of argument.” Perhaps it seems that the goalposts set for you are vague and shifty, to the extent that pretty much anything you do might be lauded or pilloried and you don’t know which until it’s happening. Perhaps you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, and don’t know when the other shoe will fall.
- Shame and pain start piling up, but if you react or even acknowledge it you are regarded (and may be explicitly labelled) as weak, overly sensitive, a “crybaby,” a “snowflake,” unsuitable for academia, etc.
- A few crumbs of approbation or prestige are dropped to string you along. This might also manifest as a cyclical “honeymoon” phase in which specific forms of non-threatening success are rewarded with a raise, a promotion, or some other kind of pat on the head, before things start to feel “off” again. In my experience, many of the people who end up in this situation are both highly motivated by professional recognition, and (what I might call) structurally empathic: acutely attuned to what the social structures and institutions around them expect, reward, punish, respect, etc.
- The better you think you are doing by the lights of the ideal of academic life—the more original your work, the more exciting or critical or ground-breaking your ideas, and so on—the worse things seem to get. This is especially confusing and bewildering: it’s almost as if academia doesn’t want you to succeed. Consequently you may feel inclined to start downplaying your abilities, self-censoring your best ideas, etc.
- Gaslighting—the downplaying, manipulation, or straight-up denial of your experiences, memories, and emotions, especially as they relate to 2-5. You may also notice conspicuous over-emphasis on the charming and charismatic ideal of academic life (1). This can be internalized, but also comes from a wide range of external sources (including university PR, management systems, and even other targets who cannot/will not acknowledge what is happening to them).
- Feeling trapped—as if you can’t leave academia because you’re no good for anything else, no other career would want you now, etc.
- Identity loss—that what am I doing with my life and who even am I? feeling.
- Ongoing mental and/or physical health concerns without other apparent origin (e.g. generalized anxiety disorders, dysthymia, disordered eating, self-harm/self-sabotage, suicidal ideation) especially if these coincide or worsen with stages of your academic life.
- Trivialize the risks. Others will do this; that’s part of it (see 6 above). But this is actually some real shit.
- Trivialize the complexities. The solution is rarely as simple “just leave.” Many people in this situation are financially dependent on academia already, or on its promises with respect to future employability. They may be heavily in debt (perhaps because of the price of education and/or exploitative, poorly-paid teaching positions). There may be kids or other dependents involved. There may be all kinds of expectations, projects, commitments. Academia may represent one's entire social world. It's not as simple as just walking away.
- Buy into the victim-blaming culture of “resilience” that puts the onus on you to get thicker skin. (Imagine telling someone in an abusive relationship they just need to “get thicker skin” so they can be more “resilient.”)
- Seek comfort from other academics who are still invested in the ideal of academia. What you are realizing and articulating may be quite threatening to them, in ways they are not fully aware of. Even if well-intentioned, they may try to persuade you that it’s not happening, you just need to get thicker skin, etc. They may even lash out at you to vent their discomfort.
- Consider counselling, therapy, or other forms of professional help. If possible, go outside of your academic institution(s) for this.
- Consider seeking out advice targeted to people recovering from abusive relationships, especially relationships with a narcissistic partner. See if there’s anything that strikes a chord, anything that you can use.
- Consider seeking out advice targeted to people recovering from trauma and PTSD. If the situation has been ongoing for a long period, you might be particularly interested in CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). Again, see if there’s anything that sounds familiar or helpful.
- Build (and call upon) your non-academic support networks. External perspective from trusted people can be very revealing. It’s like when your friends are trying to tell you there’s “something up” with your abusive partner: they’re also telling you they’re someone you can go to when that situation explodes. If you have such people, talk to them. If not, it might be worth acquiring some if you possibly can.
- Know that abuse (of any kind) is not your fault. It is irrelevant that you are imperfect.