Emotional Vulnerability

Recently, the NIH OITE Careers blog published a post on revealing vulnerability in the workplace. While the article and linked study are definitely worth a read, the vulnerability I wish to discuss in this article is what Dr. Brené Brown describes as being powerfully and intrinsically human. We live in a fast-paced, competitive world that wants us to “suck it up” and keep going whenever things don’t go our way. It is a world and culture that for the most part perpetuate the myth that we have no time to understand or work on our emotions. In fact, revealing our emotions in the public sphere is seen as a weakness and something that will negatively impact our lives. This continuously perpetuates the stigma of seeking help on emotional and mental health and strengthens the myth that anyone seeking help is fundamentally broken beyond repair in some way. I’m writing this post to help break that stigma. I, Juan Pablo Ruiz Villalobos, successful PhD student and emotionally-balanced human being (happiest in my lab by the subjective opinion of my colleagues and an online psych test we all took), needed help, and sought out counseling.

I should start by saying that I grew up in a house with a mother who studied psychology but never practised officially. Like most Latin american families of her day, she dedicated herself to raising us. And like most Latin american children, I grew up in an environment that taught children that men didn’t cry. Like my father who studied engineering, I was very skeptical of any type of psychotherapy during my teenage years.

Because I also consider myself creative, I wrongly thought that psychologists were trying to push people who exhibited symptoms of non-normalcy and creative genius to a homogeneous norm that stifled seeing the world in a different and innovative way (I have had interesting conversations regarding mental health and how it relates to creative inspiration with other friends. If you’re interested in this topic, this video about Paul Dalio is a good place to start). For me, it was the fear of unethical psychologists out to get money from patients and purposely stifling creativity in those of us who didn’t necessarily fit in. For my father, like for many other scientists, it was the incorrect belief that psychologists and counsellors are only pseudo-scientists and that emotions are subjective fluff not worth our time.

I have encountered many other people with similar or different objections against seeking the help of a trained counsellor or therapist. Most of these objections are not only unfounded, I believe they stem from a fear of actually delving deep into ourselves and trying to work out the clutter. It’s like the excuses we use to keep ourselves from cleaning out the bottom of our beds as children, where we hide our messes when pretending to clean our rooms. Eventually, we can’t fit anything else down there, and it overflows. This is known as an emotional crisis, and we’ve all either experienced them ourselves or seen someone go through them.

Despite my mother’s lessons, it took me a few years to recognize that I needed help, and then another eight months and an emotional crisis to finally seek it. I had always been the strong one (at work, at home, and with romantic relationships) even when I wasn’t asked to be. It interestingly took training on how to emotionally support others (you can hear my interview with the HelloPhD crew on this topic here) to realize that I too, needed professional help. In my case, it wasn’t lab causing most of the emotional stress. In fact, lab was a reprieve (To my dear labmates: the joy and enthusiasm were never faked!). But lab too can be stressful, and I’ve witnessed way too many people harboring unsustainable stress levels due to the lab.

When the cup did overflow for me, I was lucky to have the support of my training group, but also of my trainer, a professional and ethical university counsellor. She had nothing to gain from helping me. Like many counsellors, psychologists, and therapists out there, her ethos (the university counseling ethos) revolves around empowering people to take control of their emotional lives as well as to maintain healthy emotional habits once they have. And after a few sessions, that’s exactly what happened for me. It also in part led to my inspiration for Labmosphere, to help empower others. But it was hard, both to come to the realization that I was hurting and then working through the healing process. How long it takes or how many sessions depends on the individual and counsellor, but ultimately, the goal is to make a person emotionally independent.

For now, I am living a healthy emotional life. I have a great support network in friends and family, as well as meditation and mindfulness exercises that keep me balanced. But someday, I may need to seek professional help again, and am now open to the fact that this doesn’t make me weaker or any less of a successful scientist and human being.

If you are at a research university or center that provides free counseling or groups for its students and employees, I highly recommend you seek them out for tips on how to maintain a healthy emotional balance. Because taking care of ourselves emotionally should be as routine as brushing our teeth and taking a shower, or even cleaning out the bottom of our beds. Trust me, it’ll make you much more productive and creative as a scientist and human being. Oh and guys, in case someone hasn’t told you yet, it’s completely ok (and healthy!) to cry.

We will be posting different tips, techniques, and resources for emotional well-being here, so stay tuned. However, if you do find yourself in an emotional crisis and need immediate or urgent help and don’t feel your university or institute provides a safe and confidential space for you to get help, click here for an extensive list of hotlines across various countries. Because as we say in one of my Peer Support groups here at Oxford, “All Hurt Matters.”



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Fátima Sancheznieto

Dr. Fátima Sancheznieto, PhD has recently completed her postdoctoral training at the UW-Madison school of medicine, where she studied mentor training interventions and STEMM training environments. Fátima became interested in the science of training when, during her PhD, she was trained in peer support by the Oxford University counseling center and began advocating for systemic and cultural changes in academic training environments. She has served on a working group for the Next Generation Researchers Initiative at the National Institutes of Health and is currently the President of Future of Research, a nonprofit organization that advocates and empowers early career researchers. Her current research continues to focus on studying the training environments of early career researchers.

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