This month, I have learned about the importance of taking a guilt-free break. My research is on mental health among Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the D.R. I’ve completed almost 60 in-depth interviews with people (a research assistant did 20 interviews). In addition to questions about perceived discrimination, I have been asking people about depression and anxiety symptoms, coping strategies, and general life stressors. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this work would have an emotional impact on me, but I was.
I was caught off guard when I started to feel my own feelings. I mean, can you imagine feeling guilty for feeling guilty? Yeah, I went there…But here is how it started:
First, I felt the pressure and responsibility of being the “only one I’ve ever shared this with”. Then the urge to help fix the situations that burdened people. Then inadequate and ill-equipped to listen therapeutically…because I’m not a therapist. Then helpless, when it became clear that a major problem is poverty and I am not equipped to solve poverty in my remaining five months. Next came the guilt of my own privileged position. Then I dreaded going to my field site and decided I would never choose a research topic like this again.
I was overwhelmed. So I started to talk about it. I reached out to friends and colleagues who have also worked on emotional topics. I wrote about it. I read articles about it. And I started to feel less alone and less guilty.
It also helped me to do “non-academic” things. Many of my respondents used “avoidance coping” – doing other things to take their minds off of daily stressors. (Note: I also felt ridiculous because I was asking them to talk, in depth, about things they would rather avoid thinking about.) Anyway, avoidance coping is my thing, but I usually use work to cope with personal stressors. In this case, the work was the stressor. So I started reading fiction, painting, doing yoga, and watching Netflix. The work was still there every day, but at least there were moments when I could completely not think about it.
So, this break was a good one. In hindsight, I would have planned my research design with a break in mind, or maybe small breaks throughout the year to recharge. Either way, I feel much better after a little distance.
(Note: If you’re looking for a starting point, Arlie Hochschild and Sheryl Kleinman are sociologists who write about the emotional labor of fieldwork. Also, I bet social workers have good insight on this…)
*photo credit: http://www.liveandlovework.com/2013/09/20/its-break-time/