In academic work, when we are writing or have written a paper for example, there might be strong feelings of shame about the work done or to be done. These feelings can get in the way of finishing or revising the paper, or sending it to colleagues. These feelings may often lead to the writer feeling, quite strongly, suicidal. For example, when shame is the first thing they think of when they wake up. Not getting work done also leads to further feelings of inadequacy and panic over the future. Hence, these feelings make writing difficult, but overcoming these feelings requires finishing the work to a good standard.

As per the title:

How can a researcher write and research when they feel ashamed?

The shame is about the style of writing and the depth of the content/research. It is not about there being something wrong with the research. For example, I might read what I have written and feel too bad to fix it. Or, I might feel that the content (the research) is simply not deep enough, which makes going deeper difficult. Through perseverance, I finish writing papers. But, it takes a long time in an environment where both quantity and quality are important.

I have in the past seen and asked a university psychologist, but they didn't have any specific advice. The psychologist was also supporting too many other members of staff and students to really give enough time to this problem, so I am not sure that this is an option to take again.

I am looking for techniques, founded in psychology, and ideally with some supporting evidence. But more general advice is also welcome.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 17:18

13 Answers 13


This sounds a lot like depression, first step is to go see a professional. The fact that you are sharing your experience and identifying what is going wrong is already a good step in the right direction. Share more, don't walk this journey alone. The best I can offer is general advice (things that worked for me). I believe too many people suffer without sharing, so thank you for sharing your story.

What helped me get through it was as follows:

  • Identify the next exciting thing that you would rather want to start with or do once this is out of the way (a new job, a vacation, a new task, a hobby).
  • Break down the work into the smallest possible chunks you can (e.g. write a paragraph on X, containing the following points, or improve on X by trying things 1 - 10, or code one six line function).
  • Then every day, just try to tick one of those off the list. Write one sentence, the next day try to get to two, the next day to three and so on.
  • The hardest part is to start. Just start. Think of one thing and just type that out, even if it is nonsense and you know it is. You can always come back later and improve on it.
  • Forget perfection, just get the stuff on the paper and tick off the tasks, see the progress.
  • Once everything is "done", critique the work, and write the things that suck about it as recommendations for future work.


  • Forgive yourself every day! What you are going through is a completely valid experience, and you don't have to beat yourself up about it.

The upside of this experience is that you can now more easily identify the next time it pops up and act on it more quickly.

Best of luck. Its not easy but definitely doable even though it does not feel that way.

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    I agree, this sounds like generalized depression (possibly with a helping or two of anxiety and low self-esteem). These are things that need to be addressed by a counselor/therapist -- one with whom you can have regularly scheduled appointments with to track the behavior/feelings and any progression toward addressing it. In the end this is a question for a qualified professional, not the internet.
    – Doktor J
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 18:20
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    The OP said their university psychologist wasn't helpful. I personally haven't seen a university psychologist/therapist, but my friends and family who have all say that they weren't very helpful. My (non-university) therapist was extremely helpful for me, and I've experienced similar symptoms to the OP. @AnonymousScholar, I encourage you to not give up on therapy, perhaps even speak to a doctor. If you're feeling suicidal, please call a suicide help line.
    – mgarey
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 22:12
  • Perhaps imposter syndrome, coupled with depression? And per @mgarey's advice, if you are feeling suicidal, PLEASE DO NOT DO THAT! PLEASE call a suicide hotline immediately! Commented May 15, 2018 at 23:02

One tip to perfectionist writers: don't wait to write until your inspiration is perfect. Start writing. Write, write, write, even if it isn't perfect.

If you do not like it afterwards, throw it away and write again. And, if necessary, again.

It's good to be a perfectionist critic. It's not good at all to be a perfectionist creator - separating the two can help you balancing quality and quantity and be more productive while making progress.

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    This is very hard to do, but it's good advice. Just starting is the most important thing, but for those perfectionists out here (me included), the hardest part.
    – Mafii
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 13:56

The opposite of shame is compassion, I have learned. (If you do look for books or therapists or meditations, "self-compassion" might be a good keyword.)

For the writing part specifically, I highly recommend the book "The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: How to Overcome Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block". Some of it is about recognizing and calming your inner critic, and some of it is useful writing advice about finishing. (Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is a more literary, humorous take on writing advice.)

On shame in particular, Brene Brown is an expert who has written excellent self-help books based on her research. (She has a Ph.D. in social work, so sometimes her examples even come from academia, and I've enjoyed her methodological appendices to an unhealthy degree.) The Gifts of Imperfection is the one most centrally about not letting shame get in the way, and it's the book she generally recommends people start with. She has some videos on her website (including her TED talks, where I believe I first heard of her).

Good luck, Anonymous Scholar! You are not alone in struggling with shame about your work, and you deserve to feel better!


AnonymousScholar, hello! I am a mental health professional, and I treat suicidal people. I am not, however, your mental health professional, and my replying to you here does not make me your mental health professional, or otherwise establish a clinician-patient relationship between us, and it does not constitute medical treatment.

I wanted to reach out to you because feeling suicidal is a rather big deal. It may not seem like that you. Often people in your situation experience so much suicidal feeling for so long, that it becomes rather ordinary to them. Like, "Oh yes, another paper, another day of wanting to kill myself, ho hum."

But it's not.

Posting to StackExchange, asking for pointers for how to write papers while feeling so much shame you feel suicidal is sort of like posting to ask how to focus on writing papers while the room around you is on fire. This being StackExchange, you'll get a bunch of friendly, helpful replies that try to answer your question as asked. But really, the answer to "how do I focus on writing my paper when the room is on fire" is not creative attentional hacks to focus despite the flames, it's evacuate the building! Similarly, the answer to "how do I manage to write while burning with shame to the point I want to die" is not really how to manage to write while feeling like you do, it's treating your agonizing shame before it kills you.

Because, realistically, the answer to "how do I write while feeling crippling shame" is, obviously, "with enormous difficulty, if at all, and great suffering". And you knew that already, but I think maybe you needed somebody to point out to you that that's not really negotiable, and that the problem here is not how to write, but how to feel less shame.

I'm glad to hear you've reached out to a psychologist in the past. I hope when you talked to them, you didn't just ask for pointers for writing papers while feeling shame, but I'm suspecting that's what happened. When you go to a mental health professional and say, "Hey, I'm having so much shame I'm having trouble doing my work" you get one sort of response - and sorry to say, it might not be much of a response, at an overworked university clinic. You can anticipate getting a very different response when you go to a mental health professional and say, "Hey, I'm having so much shame I want to commit suicide." That's a very, very big deal for mental health professionals. Really for most health professionals of any sort. We take that very seriously, and it's the sort of thing which justifies health systems mobilizing resources for you, that might not otherwise be available to you.

And if you did tell the psychologist that you were feeling suicidal in response to the shame you feel about your work, and they didn't respond with concern and additional resources, then I'm very sorry that happened. That doesn't sound right at all. I would beseech you to try again with a different mental health professional.

The standard of care where I am is that someone who is regularly experiencing the urge or inclination to kill themselves should, at the very least, be having a weekly treatment appointment with a psychotherapist. "Psychotherapist" is the general term for a whole bunch of different sorts of mental health professional who can provide psychotherapy, which is treatment for emotional problems. It includes psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and various other sorts of professional. Your jurisdiction may vary in what professions it credentials or licenses.

What the psychotherapist would help a person in your situation with is feeling less shame. Unfortunately, that's not something that can be fixed overnight. Would that it were so! Alas, as you have probably noticed, pernicious thoughts and feelings can be very tenacious and hard to shift. It can take a while, and quite a lot of effort. It's easier with professional help and guidance.

I don't know where on the planet you are, and even if I knew, I might not know what resources are available to you besides your university's counseling service. I recently learned that at one school near me – MIT – the students all have a commercial health insurance product that they can take off campus to get treated anywhere that health insurance is accepted; the MIT counseling center only does very brief therapy, and if a student needs longer or more involved treatment, they're expected to use their insurance to go find a psychotherapist in the community. Most MIT students don't even know this is an option. So I encourage you to look into what options for treatment you might have, and not know about.

In much shorter term, though, I wanted to mention: if your suicidal feelings get so bad that you think you might act on them to end your life, or if you resolve to act on them, that's a medical emergency and you should call for an ambulance to take you to a hospital (call 911 in the USA and Canada, 000 in Australia, 112 in the EU, 111 in NZ, and 999 in the UK, Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong and a bunch of other places), or, if you can manage it, take yourself to an emergency medical service (e.g. an "Emergency Room" or "Urgent Care" in the USA or an "A&E" in Britian).

If you're struggling with suicidal feelings, but aren't thinking of killing yourself imminently, you can in some countries and locations call a suicide hotline to talk to a trained listener who can provide emotional support and help you access mental health treatment resources.

In the USA, you can call 1 (800) 273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For elsewhere, Wikipedia has a list of suicide hotlines by country.

Please take your condition very seriously, and seek professional help. The amount of suffering you're going through is terrible – and needless. There is help in the world for what you're struggling with, but you may have to let it know where you are and how badly you need it for it to reach you.

And then it would be a whole lot easier for you to write research papers.

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    So glad to see this! For a very broad and convoluted question like this, it's hard to know which parts to ignore, which parts to postpone, and where is the crux of the matter that needs immediate addressing. Exceptional answer. If you didn't post it, I would have to, but my version would be so much worse.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 8:05
  • @kubanczyk - Let's just say so much less good. Commented May 23, 2018 at 5:00

I am looking for techniques, founded in psychology, and ideally with some supporting evidence. But more general advice is also welcome.

This answer is squarely in the 'general advice' category, filtered somewhat by personal experience.

You raise two areas of concern with your writing:

  • style
  • content

Let's take these separately.

With writing style, revising your work can help a lot. Naturally, if a later revision is 'better' than an earlier version, it stands to reason that the earlier version is 'worse' than the later version. But without the earlier version, you're not going to get the later version. So just get started - then you have something that you can improve ... and you don't have to publish any of the early drafts.

With content, it's sometimes the case that things that look amazing can feel quite mundane when you peel back the layers to look at how things were actually put together. Look at the recipe for (say) your favourite cake, for example. You might be over the moon with the final product, but the ingredients are likely to be simple, and (at a deconstructionist level, at least) there's nothing particularly wow about applying heat or directed energy.

Your familiarity with the content can make it seem less exciting than it might look to someone else. However, even if you deem it to really be nothing all that exciting, your 'job' is to document the work you've done. So long as the reason(s) you had for conducting the research in the first place still hold, it doesn't matter that you're documenting a somewhat boring piece of the whole - in academia, it's still important to communicate what you've done.

It might help also recall the anecdote about the stone cutters and the cathedral builder. Regardless of the work itself, how you view it affects your enthusiasm: cutting stone vs earning a salary vs building a cathedral.

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    In terms of style, it may be appropriate to deliberately (well, at least knowingly) write in a non-default style, e.g. first person discursive (so I said to Joe, this formula is all wrong..) in the knowledge that at least you can get your thoughts down, and then later use a semi mechanical process of extraction and conversion of the points into the (finished article's) desired style. Once the conversion technique is highlighted it can be easy to do. Commented May 14, 2018 at 21:54
  • @PhilipOakley Yes, even jotting ideas down in point form can help. The key is to produce a first draft.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 23:48

One angle that hasn't been voiced yet is to own it. A key part of science is acknowledging the limitations of what you have done.

If you did some research and it failed to produce any meaningful results because of a critical error in the trial design (for example). Don't try and squeeze some meaning out of it just because you feel you have to, write a frank and honest appraisal of why the experiment was flawed, detailing what should be done by future researchers wishing to investigate the same subject again, and how they could perform a better study. But don't forget to explain what you did well, and what you did learn.

Every time you think "I should have done this, I wish I'd done that" etc. Don't think of it as a failure, think of it as more content for your 'Future work required" section and move on.

Your professors will read thousands of papers explaining why some naively designed study into something pointless was the pinnacle of scientific achievement, surpassing all previous human endeavours An honest, grown-up, paper will be a breath of fresh air.


THANK YOU for reaching out instead of hiding it. Please continue; it’s a healthy action. Suicide does not end the pain; it only transfers it to people who love you.

I suspect that the feelings that your writing is bad are lies from “demons.” Not necessarily actual spirits, but thoughts triggered by physiological problems that a psychiatrist could help with, or past traumas that a psychologist could help with.

But also, please keep reminding yourself that even if your writing were terrible* that there are people who still love you. Maybe I’m one—writing this through my tears

Or maybe I’m crying because I’ve been there. I’m 64 years old, and though I still haven’t overcome my excessive perfectionism, I am thankful to God and many others that nothing I can do will stop them from loving me. I am praying a similar story for you.

*and we know your writing isn’t bad after reading your question.


The shame is about the style of writing

If you are embarrassed about your style to the extent that you can't ask what people think about it, then that may obstruct you too much. Have you read widely enough? Perhaps you should take time to read for love of reading rather than love of the subject-matter, pick up random books and find writers of non-fiction whose style you enjoy, and then emulate them.

Start a writing project purely for fun to take the focus off your sense of commitment and allow for uninhibited self-expression. Or write about something you care deeply about and write your feeling. Try writing to highlight injustice and appeal to emotion in your writing. Don't bottle anything in. This type of exercise could help "unblock" you.

Alternatively you might simply need a non-academic friend to read your work and offer thoughts or suggestions based purely on the style. This could help to round out a person's writing style, which will be apt to change and evolve throughout his/her life anyway.

I think the psychological issues are of course a related problem, but the writing problem may also have a separate or additional solution. You sit down, you look at what you've written, and you just feel too bad to actually fix what is wrong and write something good.I am wondering if there is something one can do for that specific moment.

Yes. Your body is the key to your mind, whether you need some nutrient that is exhausted in your body by over-work or poor diet, or need to take more exercise, or you're just generally not exerting enough influence over your mental state, by withdrawing regularly from the vexations of the world and the intellect, and concentrating undividedly on pleasant physical sensations in your body. Spending five minutes doing just this can recharge, reset, recalibrate and reprogram body and mind, and it's very easy to do, so long as you're comfortable and fully relaxed, not excessively hungry of thirsty, cold or warm.

FIRST Close your eyes and let go of everything in your mind, and feel muscular tension leave every part of your body

Think of your arm as very heavy and very warm

Allow this heavy, warm feeling to encompass your four limbs and your neck and develop this feeling by dwelling on it exclusively with your mind

After a few minutes of complete relaxation your breathing will feel more effortless and shallower as if it is breathing you in and out

Think of a pre-selected positively-phrased motto and calmly and confidently assert it inwardly:

I Can Do It or I Will Do It or I Shall Do It

I will take a break and return fresh, free and clear

I will view previous work objectively and work on it assiduously until it is complete

Or I will break on through or I will win

Or I will push to deeper content/research or I will complete each task in the right sequence

Anything positive that will help should it ever become a reality - so carefully pick a phrase in the first place, and ensure it has a positive formula, excluding the words not, no, none, never, and so on.

The main thing here is to remain calm and confidently detached, but gradually develop a firm will and a sense of undeflectable determination. Any muscular tension that creeps back in here should be let go as it arises

LAST Emerge from this state of deep relaxation with following formula:

With your eyes still closed, and thinking of your arms as strong and firm, you get rid of the feeling of heaviness and warmth by making fists with your hands and pulling in your fists to your shoulders and pushing them out in front of you in one gentle controlled motion

This will cause you to breathe in deeply

Then open your eyes and think "Awake!"

Get up and rub your hands together to shake off any sleepiness that remains. Falling asleep or being disturbed in your meditation will automatically make you come out of deep relaxation

Repeat at least once a day, but take it one day at a time, and if you experience dangerously suicidal thoughts please seek counsel with an expert.


Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and this is not medical advice or a substitute for medical advice. Follow the advice at your own risk.

These feelings might be memories of past experiences, that are activated by various "triggers" in the present.

In my opinion, the correct approach to treating such feelings, is to use trauma treatment techniques. You weren't born with these feelings, you got them from damaging situations in your past. Also known as traumas.

A simple technique that you can do at home, is called EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. There is scientific evidence that it works for trauma.

EMDR steps (my version):

  1. Face something other than a white wall, preferably something far away.
  2. Think of or notice the problematic memory, feeling or trigger.
  3. Hold your finger up in front of your face and quickly move it left and right while you follow it with your eyes. Keep your head still.

After doing this for several seconds, up to a minute, you should get a sensation that your feelings are clearing up.

If it works, keep doing it many times a day.

  • Also not a medical professional: I can possibly understand how this would work for a trauma where someone is reliving a distant reality, and this makes the brain process that they are in the here-and-now. (This is my guess at the mechanism.) However, if the problem is some sort of rumination (more cognitive- or thought-based), it may be unwise to poke at it on purpose. Commented May 14, 2018 at 19:10

I'd split off the "suicide" parts from this question. While you should certainly stay in contact with a professional about that part, there also likely is an outside problem, typically a lack of technical support, regular feedback and intellectual stimulation, that leads to you actually spending too much time on individual tasks, making you feel slow and inadequate and frustrated.

I hate it if I feel bad and the someone tells me oh look others have it much worse. ;-)

For your present writing problem, my above doesn't help much, but just in case you notice things being too slow in your next project: That's bad and needs adressing before it turns first into a writing (or funding not extended etc.) problem and then a psychological/health problem.


Write a paper, spend a decent amount of time on it, then stop and submit it to colleagues. If you feel like it was an inferior paper, laugh about it and say "HaHaHa! Even my inferior work is awesome! Onto the next paper!" By not caring so much about the quality, you can work hard without being distracted by depression and shame. Then, occasionally, spend a lot of time on one paper you can be proud of so that it is perfect. You end up with 3 mediocre papers and one perfect paper. Your perfect paper will inspire admiration from your colleagues. Your mediocre papers will inspire others to do more research on the topic. Enjoy what you do. Be happy.


Your post brings two things to mind. First:

In the 19th century, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was known as the "doubting disease." OCD can make a sufferer doubt even the most basic things about themselves, others, or the world they live in. I have seen patients doubt their sexuality, their sanity, their perceptions, whether or not they are responsible for the safety of total strangers, the likelihood that that they will become murderers, etc. I have even seen patients have doubts about whether they were actually alive or not. Doubt is one of OCD's more maddening qualities. It can override even the keenest intelligence. It is a doubt that cannot be quenched. It is doubt raised to the highest power. It is what causes sufferers to check things hundreds of times, or to ask endless questions of themselves or others. Even when an answer is found, it may only stick for several minutes, only to slip away as if it was never there. Only when sufferers recognize the futility of trying to resolve this doubt, can they begin to make progress. From an article about OCD by Fred Penzel.

Does any of that resonate with you at all?

There is unfortunately a shortage of therapists who have the training and expertise to evaluate for OCD. There are legions of therapists who are great at what they do, but who don't recognize OCD when it's present, because they haven't been trained to recognize it.

If you're interested, you can contact the International OCD Foundation for help finding someone with expertise in evaluating for OCD (and treating it). See related answers: A, B. (But note, those questions are somewhat different from yours.)

Important note: I am NOT expressing an opinion as to whether you do or do not have OCD.

Second (this will require some background information -- please bear with me):

My son has Tourette Syndrome. For five years, I struggled with his school district, to get him the support he needed. It was an uphill battle. School districts can play very, very nasty, and they certainly did in our case. All of us -- my son, my spouse, and I, experienced a lot of trauma throughout that time.

I eventually reached my goal of establishing his eligibility for special education under IDEA, playing the role of lawyer (without any prior formal legal training) in an impartial hearing, and then appealing to my State Review Officer.

However, nothing changed in practice, and seven months after I won on appeal, I moved an hour away and put my son in a different school district. That was last September.

My son has recovered to a great extent, but it's taking me longer. This is a comment I've heard from other parents of children with Tourette Syndrome who've been through similar experiences.

It seems that I have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Our current school district is more supportive than the previous one. But whenever I have to send an email to a teacher or administrator, or attend a meeting at school, I find myself spending ages analyzing the situation, to try to strike the right balance. I want to advocate clearly for my son's needs, but without antagonizing staff in our new district, without annoying them or pestering them. I edit every email painstakingly, and then after hitting "send," I still go around and around in my head, asking myself a million anxious questions, such as, "Are they going to see me as a trouble-maker? Are they going to get fed up and start giving me the cold shoulder? Are they going to try to declare my son ineligible under IDEA?" I suffer through agonies of doubting.

But I am starting to recover. In November I looked for a therapist with expertise treating PTSD using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and other techniques. The therapy is helping. I've been improving, slowly.

The interesting thing about this is that I wouldn't have won the legal matter if I hadn't been pretty obsessive about researching relevant case law, building a strong case, and writing a well-documented closing brief, and later, a strong petition of appeal and memorandum of law. But that some obsessiveness has, more recently, been making it hard to function.

(Again, I am NOT expressing an opinion as to whether you do or do not have PTSD, or anything else.)

Bottom line: these problems are treatable.


Something I haven't seen noted elsewhere - get a reality check.

From what you've said, you have already completed papers (and, presumably, published them if appropriate).

If you haven't, then sit down and assess the reaction to your past work.

  • Are there critiques of your style?
  • Are there complaints about your content?

If so, then you may have existing, outside data you can use to help improve future work.

If not, then you can assume that your normal work is acceptable (at a minimum!).

You can go over existing feedback with a psychologist - someone who may be able to help you objectively assess the feedback. You may tend to exaggerate or misread statements as being more negative than intended.

If there's insufficient feedback (pro or con), then (as others have suggested) you may need to bring in a colleague of some sort who will give you that feedback directly.

Of course, that deals with objective reality. It may be of little help (especially immediately). But, it can be an important step.

As others have noted, we suspect that (regardless of the objective reality) you may have a condition of some sort that exacerbates your problem. I personally have dealt with depression for my entire life (on medication since 1990), and understand that such things can make you ignore objective reality.

This is why its important to seek medical assessment and assistance, if at all possible. in the throes of depression, I can blow off objective reality, at least for a while. But, with appropriate treatment, I find that I can get to the point where I'm ready to deal with objective reality relatively quickly. And, at that point, this exercise may help make you more comfortable with your own work.

An additional personal note: I have been told in the past that I generate emails that are more detailed than all the recipients need, and that are very long (the expression "books" has come up). Having gotten feedback, I've worked to trim out things that are unnecessary; to highlight key points; to direct those who don't need complex details around sections they may not need to read. My emails have gotten generally shorter, and I've gotten good feedback that they're much easier to digest.

The point of the anecdote is to accept your weaknesses, and seek explicit ways to improve them. Initially, this may take at least as long as what you're doing now; but, the more you do it, and the more positive feedback you begin to get, the easier it will be to do, and the faster it will go.

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