Sunday, November 23, 2008

On being a woman and a leader

I am certainly the one, and I know enough about myself to know that I am also the other despite the strange, intangible confusion that I sometimes feel as a result of the former. Today I'm going to write about biology--my own biology and biochemistry, how it goes on in my life and lab and which I study quite subjectively in myself without any good positive or negative controls, and without nearly enough systematic data (although I wish I could get it!).

See, all the fighting of the good fight, all the discussions about what rationally and objectively should be done as a leader and in difficult situations and when managing people and when running projects etc., all of it becomes like a jello tower of unsureitude at certain times when my hormones change who I am. And that really is what it feels like: you go from one week of being like a razor cutting through the bullshit and carving this amazingly solid beautiful map of what is happening now and where it needs to go... to suddenly overnight wondering how you ever managed to understand anything, seriously doubting the abilities of the people around you, your own abilities, and your ability to even assess other peoples' abilities. You, who are outgoing and friendly and comfortable with people (even difficult people), good at getting what you want and need, turn into an awkward, laugh-too-loud and make weird non-sequiter comments, detail-forgetting airhead, who comes down like a bolt of lightning on anyone who does something stupid. I feel all of this from inside, and some of it shows outside. It changes who I am.

I can't understand things, I can't make decisions, my confidence is gone, my anxiety is huge, my perceptions of people are obsessive and threatened and/or judgemental...

Or are they? Or is it just my own perception of myself that I am wrong? Is it that I can really see the truth and am not blinded by my usual feeling of wanting to be nice? I JUST CAN'T TELL. The worst is how you can't tell.

The scariest part is how I never even know where these waves of body-snatcherism come from until after the fact when the chemical cloud has shifted and my brain is not being overwhelmed by WHATEVER it is that causes this (is it a LACK of estrogen? An OVERABUNDANCE of progesterone? Or just the IMABALANCE or SHIFTING of the two and whatever other ones like prolactin or lutein that are all pummeling or not pummeling as usual or WTF is going on). Because of human biology, this thing that comes over me from these hormonal shifts really does change who I am, my fundamental brain chemistry that determines how I interact with my environment.

So what does this mean for me being a leader? I do, and I have to, fight my way through these things. I suppose other people probably just see them as a part of my personality, the natural range of behaviors I present, probably don't even really notice the difference--but it's so upsetting to feel from the inside that it's some other thing taking over making me somehow different from who I really am and who I want to be, for a significant portion of my life (~25%). And how do I trust myself to lead, and to make the right decisions and judge appropriately and productively from this kind of mindset? Isn't this the fundamental question we all try not to think about and don't know what to do about? Because I might be different and less fair when my hormones change me, and then how can I be trusted to be in charge?

I'm asking this devil's-advocate-facetiously, of course, but it's a real question, and so far the discussions on women as leaders try to set this up as a non-factor and push it out of the way, because it's a freaky problem--both unsolveable and non-understandable. What does it really mean? Does it mean we A) can't make the right judgements, or does it mean B) we have some extra-special supernatural-natural abilities to make even better judgements during the times of harsh no-bullshit critical feelings? It certainly adds another cosmic dimension to the difficulties of leadership, and science too since it gives me such a feeling of ineptitude and mental thickness.

I really don't know, and it is just so stressful to not know, and to find that no matter what you accomplish, how good you are at people, everything else: there will still be recurring, unavoidable days when you're a little kid again feeling like you just said something really dumb in front of the grownups (stupid), or threw a rock at the defenseless neighborhood weirdo out of spite (pointlessly mean) (and no, I never actually did that but that's what it feels like).


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Well, regardless of your hypothesized hormonal basis for this kind of day-to-day variability in emotional and intellectual capacity, there is no doubt that men experience the same thing. Women do not have a monopoly on moodiness, and I seriously doubt that men are systematically more even-keeled than women.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Great post - I was going to respond int he comments, but it took on life of it's a post at mine.

Arlenna said...

I'm sure men do experience the same feelings of self-doubt, ineptitude, confusion. That is a human issue. I guess I'd have to be able to measure my hormone levels and keep a diary to get anywhere closer to connecting these things, but I have a very clear impression of a pattern of these feelings over the half of my life through which these cycles have been going on.

And there will never be the definitive experiment, and besides, the monumental efforts put forth towards keeping these internal swings in check and from causing a problem are what make all of us humans able to go beyond our biology in many contexts.

But what about when the biology is our humanity? That's kind of the crux of my question: since neurotransmitter and chemical activities ultimately dictate who we are and what we are capable of, what does that MEAN here? Are our fluxes and our ability (or inability) to manage them significant or not? I HAVE to feel that they do not dictate who I am, I am invested in that, but what if I am wrong?

Arlenna said...

And also, the key here is the recurrence: 3-4 days when I feel as dumb as a post and literally can barely follow an argument string for more than about three words. And during which I can't stand the sight of people who have been causing me irritation, and sometimes develop random irritation against others who have not.

The flipside of the pattern is the few days I get on the other side of the circle when I feel like I am the Queen of the World, the smartest human being to ever have lived, and I am so excited about everyone and their progress, however incremental, and I just think I am probably the most awesome team leader that has ever existed.

Both seem unrealistic, but I like one more than the other.

NeuroPostdoc said...

I have the exact same problems...luckily my cycles are highly predictable which has helped a great deal in my ability to deal with them (i.e., I'll only feel like a stupid idiot for about 3-4 days and then I'll feel fabulous for 3-4 days and I know when those days are and can plan accordingly--I can deal with that).

Interestingly, my (male) mentor and I have mood cycles together which makes lab entertaining sometimes...

Becca said...

Thanks for posting this!
I'm so glad that the 'body snatcherism' feeling is something other people notice, and that they process some of the acompanying doubts in a similar way.

The only comfort I can offer is that noticing these things might actually make you better at making decisions.
If you are careful enough to notice how your perceptions are affected by your biology (be it hormonal cycles, lack of sleep, low blood sugar, or what have you), you can 1) often avoid making important decisions when your judgement might be compromised and 2) have better judgement in general, because you regularly see the same things from different angles (more information should be better, right?). I'm not sure the later always implies better decisions, but it's a useful rationalization.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

He he, I was just talking to my husband yesterday about how my cycles vs. his steady state represents a major difference in the way our bodies work... I don't tend to feel "dumb as a post" on those days, just like all I want to do is sit on the sofa watching old movies and eating cake. And I get really physically clumsy and walk into things, knock things over... which probably makes everyone else think that I'm an idiot, just not me.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Cath! I have a Clumsy Day too! I used to think that this was a myth but one of my college roommates swore up and down that she had a few during her cycle. It was not until grad school when I started having predictable patterns of days when I would drop or run into everything that I started to really wonder about this. Lo and behold, it maps to exactly three days prior. Every time. Very useful to know - I can now plan experiments so that I avoid critical steps on Clumsy Day. It has saved me some heartache knowing this for sure.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Hee hee!

On Day 2 right now and covered in bruises from walking into furniture and gym equipment.