Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stress and coping

This morning I was on the phone with the insurance company and the MRI provider place, arguing and pleading -- to no avail -- for some kind of help or installment plan to pay for the MRI. Subsequently, I was 45 minutes late to class. Dr. Jerk didn't say anything at the time, and responded to me in his usual way during both classes he teaches: half the time he ignored my raised hand, and half the time he actually let me ask a very relevant and useful question.

But later in the day, just before class with Dr. Adorable, I ran into the computer room to check my messages, and I really wish I hadn't.

Dear Ayelett [sic.],

I am writing to let you know that I expect students to arrive to class on time (you were 45 miunutes [sic.] late this am) and that timely and reliable attendance are part of the evaluative process for the class. This is particularly an issue as you already missed an entire class a few weeks ago.

Sincerely,
Jack Jerk, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology

I had to take an extra painkiller and two tranquilizers to sit through Dr. Adorable's class, which I usually enjoy. Today, it was torture.

Now I can understand Dr. Jerk being annoyed that I was late for class, and I didn't go up to him after class to apologize, but after our last one-on-one encounter, I'm very wary of engaging him directly. And when I missed that class several weeks ago, I told him a week in advance, I apologized profusely, and he was benevolent and gracious; just told me to get the notes. Well, I got the notes, and I did all the assigned reading, as my classroom participation (when I'm allowed to open my mouth) should make abundantly clear. It's unfair for him to pull that out as an example of my lack of commitment to his classes and the program. I really don't think two instances of lateness show a pattern of disregard that merits a decrement in grade.

But, interestingly, the topic of the second Dr. Jerk class of the day was stress and coping. He taught us that optimistic people, who are active problem-solvers/proactive copers and believe they have social support and other resources at their disposal, are happier, healthier, more productive, and live longer than pessimists, who avoid troublesome situations instead of trying to find a solution, believe they have no control over what happens to them, isolate themselves from potential sources of support, and ultimately give up entirely.

Well, I'm not about to give up. I have worked too hard and spent too much money to let Dr. Jerk drive me out of school. So I employed proactive coping measures: on the subway home, I asked four of my classmates, who are familiar with my situation, what I should do.

They were very empathetic; they can't believe Dr. Jerk and the rest of the faculty are being so critical, judging my behavior so harshly and cutting me so little slack.

Their advice boiled down to this: Ask Dr. Octopussy for another meeting to discuss the faculty suggestions for my loose boundaries and the situation with Dr. Jerk, which has deteriorated to such a point that I don't know how to handle it. At that meeting, ask for a meeting with both Dr. Octopussy and Dr. Jerk to clear the air and achieve a courteous relationship.

After my first meeting with Dr. Octopussy, I sent an e-mail to her (with help of my friend Boaz, who ghost-wrote it):

Thank you for bringing the faculty's concerns to my attention. I understand they've chosen to draw some tentative conclusions based on my performance thus far, but it's still early in the term, and I think we can implement a course correction and move forward in a successful and meaningful way.

I look forward to receiving your feedback and suggestions for future participation in class and colloquia, and to working with you in the future. I also plan to meet with my adviser.

She responded:

The faculty will be meeting today and I will let them know you are eager to receive further feedback and want to work with us to remedy the problem.

Tonight I sent her this note, with the subject line "Follow-up meeting":

Dear Dr. Octopussy,

I would like to meet with you to discuss the faculty's recommendations for how I can bring my behavior more in line with what is expected, and also to discuss how best to handle my situation with Dr. Jerk. I am meeting with my adviser on Nov. 2 but would like to touch base with you as soon as possible.

Please let me know when would be most convenient for you to meet with me.

Many thanks, Ayelet

I had wanted to get my lawyer involved, but my classmates thought that bringing in a lawyer might be premature, even though it's clear that Dr. Jerk is creating a hostile study environment and wrongfully threatening to dock my grades. (Consulting a lawyer about this matter and starting a paper trail, on the other hand, might not be a bad idea.)

I should just get used to the idea that he's not going to grade me fairly. He just won't. But I don't need to get the A's that my work will merit; I just need to pass. I have to let go the anguish of getting a B- for work that deserves an A. It's just not worth it to agonize over a grade; that kind of rumination and pessimism can only make me sick.

Literally. Numerous studies (as we've been reading about this and last week) have shown that people who avoid dealing with their problems and ruminate over the injustices done to them have higher rates of mental and medical disorders, from depression and anxiety to heart disease and cancer. People with a lot of hostility are especially vulnerable to heart disease.

There's another little silver lining. Dr. Jerk is clearly seething with hostility. Is it too much to hope that he won't make it to the end of the year -- or semester? ;)

I was greatly amused to see that Dr. Jerk is only an associate professor, not a full professor, even though he's been at this school for more than a decade and brings in tons of research grant money. Another concept we've been studying recently is Baumeister's threatened egotism. Baumeister rejects the prevalent theory that low self-esteem leads to violence and aggressive behavior. On the contrary, he argues, violent people tend to have highly favorable opinions of themselves -- but they commit immoral, hurtful acts when they feel their self-image is threatened by others.

Maybe that's why Dr. Jerk is so hostile and rude toward me. I challenge him, and he can't stand to be challenged. His ego is so fragile that he can't countenance any contradiction. I know his ego is fragile because he's always bragging about his incredible therapeutic success rate -- certain ailments, he alleges, he can cure in one or two sessions -- and how much money people pay him for this treatment.

My theory is, he's not curing them -- he's alienating them. They stop coming to therapy because they can't stand him, not because they're all better.
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

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