It’s funny that I’ve chosen a career in academia given that rejection and criticism — major triggers for bipolar episodes — comes with the territory. I am precariously privileged that I have access to financial support from my academic institution and grants as I pursue my PhD. I have funding from NYU, but I also managed to secure a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2019. However, even with the blessing of this support, the uncertainty that comes along with a humble stipend and not knowing how I will be able to afford big ticket items in life (like childcare in New York City) causes quite a bit of anxiety.
The life of a PhD student requires a constant cost-benefit analysis of how much research or teaching assistantship work to take on to make ends meet against the reality of the limited time and energy resources that are required to finish coursework, fieldwork and dissertation writing well and on-time. So when I come across grants that would significantly increase my financial resources and provide significant professional development opportunities in my field of study, it’s difficult not to get too hopeful about my prospects in the application process.
This summer I applied for a fellowship that fulfilled both of financial and profession development criteria. I was very optimistic about my chances of success. An academic advisor even commented that this opportunity looked like it was made for me. Others I shared this opportunity with gave similar affirmations. So I put my best foot forward in my application and did everything I could spiritually and energetically do to materialize this win. Against my greatest hopes, I was not a selected applicant and this triggered the depression I am currently in. Upon reflecting and processing out loud with my partner and a trusted friend, these are a few nuggets of wisdom I have found to help me ride out this depressive mood triggered by disappointment.
1. Be stubborn about the goal and flexible about the journey.
I had so much nervous energy as the announcement day was approaching that I wrote myself two letters — one for if I won the fellowship and one for if I didn’t. What I discovered is that both letters essentially had the same message:
We are worthy of all our desires and dreams.
Even though something does not turn out the way we planned, we will always be guided and led to other people, places, and opportunities that are more aligned with us to help us get to our destination. Wisdom from The Alchemist has so many beautiful illustrations of this. One being:
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
We need to hold our plans with a loose grip because there is a grander design that we often cannot picture. Instead of putting too much hope into one idea of how my life could work out, I am learning how to have more openness and curiosity about the daily opportunities life brings me to help me along my path. It’s important not to lose sight of the goal or the big picture and yet to be flexible about how it can all unfold.
2. Lean into interdependence.
We are not meant to solve all of life’s problems alone. This is a really hard one for me because I put so much pressure on myself to be responsible, do my part, and carry my load. But often this includes carrying burdens that are not mine alone, but are meant to be shared with others we do life with. I have a feeling that this will be the lesson and theme of my Saturn Return as I am 27 and entering this astro-energetic period of my life. Since Saturn is in my 7th house of marriage, partnerships, and committed relationships, I am already seeing this lesson manifest in my resistance to relinquishing control in my current relationships.
As an Aries I really value independence and creativity to solve problems. However, I am realizing that too much independence can put an unhealthy amount of pressure on me to take complete responsibility over myself and other people’s needs while denying others of the opportunity to take care of me, have their own agency and control as well as find synergistic ways to collaborate.
The perspective can be so liberating as it allows us to rest rather than remain in a survival state of fight-or-flight. It also allows for our needs to be met in unexpected ways by unlikely or unforeseen circumstances.
3. Focus on the now.
Many plans are made with inaccurate information because we do not have access to the future. Even in my own spiritual practices with tarot, for instance, I am learning that the future is malleable and its course is set on what we do, think, and feel in the current moment. So why not focus on the now? The quality of our current health, habits, relationships, and beliefs is what will ultimately set the course for our futures.
Returning to those two letters that I wrote myself, they both emphasized what I have going on for me right now regardless of the future outcome. I wrote down all the professional development I am already facilitating for myself with the current projects I am involved in, the people I know, and the spaces I have access to. Although I may have applied for the fellowship out of a sense of lack, my letters reveal that I already have so many untapped resources at my disposal.
After talking the rejection through with my partner, I realized that I realistically did not even have space for this fellowship which required a weekly time commitment when I already have already two research assistantships. Realizing how much extra work I would be doing had I got accepted, he told me he was even happy that I got rejected! The extra income would not have been worth the added stress of juggling so many responsibilities as a PhD student, a mom, and a doubly booked research assistant.
Focusing on what I have now instead of what I lack in an unforeseeable future made me realized how blessed I am and how abundant my life really is.
In light of the wisdom, am I still disappointed? Yes. And that’s okay. I am so proud of myself for letting myself really want something and not expect the worst. And even though I didn’t get the outcome I wanted, rejection was still not the worst. Are the nuggets of wisdom relieving of depression that followed my disappointment? No, because mantras are not magic and positive thinking is not a panacea. Once you’re on that wave of bipolar depression, you just gotta be patient and ride it out. Even so, I am more hopeful and expectant about what other opportunities the Universe will bring me and how this intricate and beautifully messy life will unfold.
How do you deal with disappointment?
Image Description: A sillouette of a girl standing on a hill releasing a butterfly into the star pink night sky
Photo Credit: James Bailey