Thursday, March 20, 2014

The secret superpower of subjectivity in science practice

Subjectivity - our internal experiences and perceptions of ourselves and our world - can be devalued in many aspects of life, and particularly in scientific training and careers. The pursuit of objective methods and analyses can lead to a sense that subjective experience more broadly is unimportant or inaccurate or irrational -- this is part of the "hidden curriculum" in graduate training and related professional norms. But, the thing you are rarely shown is that a healthy relationship with your subjective experience can be a big asset, particularly in fluid, practice-based careers.

I grew up being told that I was overly sensitive and that I had "big ears." These weren't compliments, and so I always felt that being sensitive was something to squelch. That feeling was exacerbated in graduate school where it seemed like much of the advice I got was around learning how to not notice things, to develop a thicker skin, and to toughen up - I still get that advice a lot, actually. But, I've tried. And failed. Often. And now I am mostly grateful for the failures because they have allowed me to really have to reclaim, for myself, the value of being perceptive about, for example, the presence of grief and other profound emotions in professional life. Being aware of my sensitivity and related reactions to what is so often unspoken has become important to the way that I move through the world.

Learning to value subjective experience hasn't necessarily been a straightforward process, but it has become a necessity. During the past decade as I have worked in several different government, non-profit, and academic staff positions, I have found that paying attention, not just intellectually but emotionally and bodily, has helped me navigate many confusing situations. As just one example, over a period of a couple years I found myself often saying things I wouldn't normally say in meetings, like, all the time. Words would literally come out of my mouth and I would immediately wonder why I'd just said that. With sustained curiosity and some frustration, I learned that given certain group power dynamics, I will express what others are unwilling or unable to say, which is helpful at times and not so helpful at other times. Understanding that dynamic has helped me to question power structures, to be more intentional about the things that I say, and to better place my limited energy.

Your own "subjective superpowers" are undoubtedly vast. Maybe you were somebody who avoided hard conversations and are now learning how to help others ease into voicing concerns. Maybe being deeply ambivalent has allowed you to become comfortable enough with uncertainty to ask hard questions. Maybe working with your own insecurity has helped you become confident enough to not have all the answers, allowing space for the wisdom of others. Often these are capacities that start out feeling detrimental, but with practice and intention become invaluable and ultimately connect us with others.

At first, working with subjective experience can feel overwhelming -- it can be a lot of extra information. Like, "why does my stomach hurt when this topic comes up?" Or, "wow, that interaction just gave me so much energy I'm jumping out of my skin." Our perceptions can also be marred by trauma, privilege, ego, cultural norms, and many other things, and modulating them is a lifelong process. And, in really paying attention to our experience we may realize that a change is needed -- that a relationship with a co-worker needs to be addressed or that the values of the organization we work for don't mesh with our own -- and that can be scary. For me, contemplative practice, whether moving or still, indoors or outside, is key -- I need time and space to reflect, with curiosity and compassion as guideposts. Therapy and working with symbols and archetypes might be pathways, professional communities can offer saving graces, and many thrive with improv or storytelling practices.

These truly are lifelong practices, and your own pace is perfect. No matter the route, and there are many, there is much to be gained in befriending and honoring your own experience of the world.

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