Eat me alive

To me, one of the weirdest aspect of being a clinician academic is regularly feeling that someone seems to want to chop my head off, without me clearly knowing why.

I mean, I get it if I seriously wrong someone and they acquire a desire to kill me. That is entirely fair. It might not be sensible (my understanding is that hating someone ultimately eats you inside) but I can totally see it. Someone did something nasty to you, and now you hate them because you can’t figure another way around it. Yes, I can relate to that. I’m not endorsing it, but I’ve been there enough times to recognise it.

I am more baffled by the situations when someone has hardly met me and they already seem to want to eat me for breakfast… Where (in my view) I have not even had a chance to do anything nasty to them (even if I wanted to – and I don’t usually even want to!).

I’ve had a couple of these situations recently. E.g., I met someone for the first time, for an informal coffee. I thought we were just going to chat and get to know one another. I was hoping we could maybe advance common goals, help one another out – if not, fair enough, worth a chat anyway. But over that very first coffee that person tried to trip me over with some silly tricks, make me feel stupid by trying to catch me out about not knowing things (it didn’t work because in research you get used to not knowing things…). It seemed to me that the person had already decided I was an enemy, and their interaction appeared to aim to pierce holes in me.

Sometimes it’s quite tempting to explain this sort of situation by thinking that the other person might feel threatened, or be jealous. This also seems to be the most common explanation that others give me if I seek their thoughts on these situations. But I sort of find this explanation a bit dissatisfying. Even where I think it might be true, I still can’t quite accept it. I don’t know… Maybe I just find it a bit of a sad explanation. Or maybe I am naive, or just kind of cognitively distorted. I think “…but changing the world is just at our reach… if we just work together…” and I genuinely struggle to find it plausible that an individual’s insecurity could even enter the stage in such a big play as Changing the World. I think I have a blind spot for that part of the cast list.

So when I get dissatified with the feeling-threatened/being-jealous explanation, I’m often left with paranoia. I wonder if I actually have a really nasty reputation, and the people who seem to want to chop me up merely honestly reflect a wider desire. I hear others talking about this kind of thing too, about self-doubt and insecurity even in the face of substantially contradicting evidence. One of my (female) PhD supervisors said this is a particular thing to female academics. She said that even when you know you have good skills, and you know your work is good, and you know you are ethically on a good path… there is still a self-doubt. You say “maybe I’m good, but am I good enough?”. Ultimately, I pretty much always conclude that whether or not I am good enough (and liked or disliked) is unlikely to make someone want to dispose of me – I think most people don’t care that much one way or another. So, ultimately this leaves me baffled.

My experience tells me that most clinicians and clinician academics are in our line of business because we want to make a difference to patients. To me this means we are not in competition. We are definitely stronger together.

So why do we seek to eat one another?

Any thoughs and experience (either on eating or being eaten), please do comment below. No log-in required, you can sign with a fake name (e.g. “EatR”, or “BittenOnce”).

8 thoughts on “Eat me alive

  1. I’ve experienced this in the clinical world, too. Especially when I got to a senior level. With one particular female colleague, she wanted to chop me up and dip me in oil and vinegar as an appetiser (and she wasn’t afraid to let people know it). I never got to the bottom of it. I got explanations like: she’s threatened, she’s competitive, she’s got personal problems…The weirdest one, and there did seem to be some truth in it, was that what she really wanted was my approval and attention. But, as you’d expect, her behaviour just made me recoil further and further. I haven’t experienced this in the clinician researcher world yet. But your post is a good reminder to be aware of it…and try never become one of the cannibals.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. That’s really interesting. I had not thought about it in a purely clinical context – but now that you say it… I think even before I got into research there was one time when a senior colleague was working really hard to BBQ me. I suppose back then I thought it was just the kind of bullying that juniors get (I really only now recognise it as bad behaviour!).

    Some comments on this on twitter have also made me reflect that the ‘eat you alive’ behaviours might manifest slightly differently at different stages of careers. In Canada they talk about ‘eating your young’. My post above reflects more my current experience, and I think my early days were quite different. There seemed to be more ‘institutionalised eating’. It seemed to be the norm that the young (and “too aspirational/clever for their own good”) were free meals for all. A culture where it was ok to humiliate and attack the juniors to see “what they are made of” and “bring them back in line”.

    Of course there were great and supportive people too, in at least equal measure. The interesting – and dissapointing – thing was though that even the good eggs rarely called the bad behaviour for what it was. A more common reaction was to play it down and brush it under the carpet (“oh s/he just has low confidence, feels threatened, don’t worry about what s/he said…”).

    On reflection, I wonder if many of us have at some point fed in to that culture by pretending we are not affected by the bad behaviours, by choosing to look the other way rather than say something.

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  3. I can definitely recognise what you’re talking about in a clinical context. I wonder if it has something to do with structures and hierarchies?

    When I worked in the statutory sector, I definitely saw and to a lesser extent experienced the whole ‘eating our young’ phenomenon – and I think it was in some way connected to the ‘institutional’ NHS/Social Work settings with a clear and strongly reinforced hierarchy of students at the bottom, then untrained staff, then the trained staff through the juniors, then seniors, then the top brass (and who knows where you’d place the patients in that hierarchy!) – all in a wider context of inter-professional and inter-team joint working and the occasional ‘turf wars’ associated with that (that sounds terrible, like a happened to end up in particularly dysfunctional workplace, but it didn’t usually feel terrible, it felt normal and fine most of the time, and I think it’s pretty standard across the board).

    If you’ve got a hierarchical structure, then you’re going to have a hierarchical culture, and so individuals’ behaviours have to reinforce that structure in some way – whether in good ways or bad ways.

    When I moved into the voluntary sector that edge of competitiveness/antagonism between people was much much weaker – not because people who work in the voluntary sector are any nicer – I think it’s just that the hierarchies are much flatter and there are fewer competing structures (eg. distinct professions and teams) all with their slightly different agendas, approaches and priorities, to set people against each other.

    (Just think about the word team – its nice to be part of a team, but in sport the whole point of being in a team is to compete against other teams!).

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  4. Thanks for commenting Katie. That’s an interesting point about hierarchies – certainly seems plausible. Although, I have worked in places that were very hierarchical on paper (titles, positions, salaries, etc) yet were very ‘flat’ in culture (equal, no eating). And I have worked in places with flat structures with real feasters – maybe they were trying to create a structure by eating themselves to be the top dog! =)

    I wonder if there is something really important about the common goal and priority. In places (even sport teams!) that have had a strong focus on a common goal (or enemy!) the eating of team mates might be less than if everyone perceives to have their own (competing) goals?

    Thanks for contributing Katie!

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  5. Hello. Enjoyed that (and your other blogs). It is a very weird phenomenon isn’t it. I can confirm that it is certainly not unique to women to question whether they are “good enough”. Imposter syndrome is never far from the door and does not have any sensitivity to gender as far as I can tell!

    I am sometimes, like you, surprised by other’s reactions to me. Not sure that I have any real understanding of the motivations these moments. Saying “it’s complex” feels like a bit of a cop-out, yet is pretty accurate I think – multiple reasons with varying different contextual characteristics that have formed people to react in that way.

    Fortunately there are lots of people I work with and know who are not like that. When I come across such destructive people though it still takes me by surprise. Then I think that perhaps I am niave…and then I usually decide that such apparent niavety is a much healthier and happier way of exisiting than their negativity which seems to rot a person from the inside out.

    So. I niavely, but happily, continue to be surprised when people try to eat me alive. It just serves as:- 1) a wake up call to ensure I never behave like that; and 2) to value my colleauges and friends who don’t even more.

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  6. Well said. Thanks Eddie. =)

    I can’t decide if the imposter syndrome overlaps with this or not… my gut feeling is that it’s a different thing. Imposter syndrome to me sounds something like “Am I as good as I make it out to be?” while the “Am I good enough?” is more about meeting an external standard – I could be exactly as good as I make it out to be, and still not be good enough to meet what ever standard others seem to hold for me…. I’m still happy to fully accept though that it’s not gender specific.

    I will hold your two conclusive points in my mind when I feel the teeth again =).

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  7. Definitely been there, Niina! And I don’t think I’m very edible anyways, but yep… Academia and female and all the uncertainties of every single move are part of daily routine, sadly 😦
    Im all for changing the world together though! So let’s work on that! 🙂

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