One of the earliest and probably the most important professional relationships you will ever have is with your academic mentors.
It shares many similarities with a parent-child relationship. We are the eager ducklings learning to dive into the pool of knowledge, with the help of gentle nudging and the guidance of our mentors.
Ideally, our mentors are there to encourage us, challenge us and to prepare us to ultimately leave them and seek greater adventures. Almost inevitably, the relationship reaches its natural end. We graduate and leave the safety of our mentor’s aegis, hopefully with their blessings. Sometimes, the relationship turns bad, and when the mentor-mentee relationship sours, it can turn ugly like a horrid breakup.
I will freely admit that I am terrible at breakups. I will listen to Tracy Chapman on repeat while looping through the 5-stages of grief. And it is grief, because we are grieving for a relationship, a bond that was once wonderful and full of joy, goals and achievements. It can be difficult to accept when reality hits us in the face like a 5-ton truck, that something didn’t work, and we must accept it and move on like civilized adults. So, let’s have a look at the general process of grief.
Denial: “This can’t be true, my mentor adores me.” “My mentor couldn’t have said that about me.” Like it or not, all mentors understand that we, as their students, WILL leave them one day. How it ends is dependent on the maturity of both parties. We often feel it’s easier to deny that the relationship has run its course, and we hold on like a clingy baby koala bear. Not only does it make no sense whatsoever, it rarely changes the outcome.
Anger: “Well, I will show her!” We might retaliate with exaggerated truth, or our own interpretation of events that led to the relationship’s demise. We might even dump an earful to the nearest victim. However, it is neither mature or a professional way to conduct ourselves, and what was said in the moment of anger has an uncanny tendency to stick around and bite us in the most inopportune time later.
So, if you ever feel the need to vent, type it in a word document, spit fire to your heart’s delight, then delete the whole thing. You will be thankful that you did.
Bargaining: “What if I ask for a third party to mediate the situation?” That might actually be a good idea in some cases, especially if you managed to catch the whole shebang before it went too far south.
If you were fortunate enough and have a mentor who is willing to resolve the pressing issues together, then you could salvage your relationship, and possibly end it on amicable terms. However, if you snoozed through the early “Danger, Will Robinson!” signs, then it’s better to move on, or it could just lead to further annoyance of the other party.
Depression: This is probably the most difficult stage. You feel utterly shattered and disappointed that your relationship ended up in Splitsville, a destination unintended. You might feel the dread of having to still go to work, and interact with your mentor knowing where things are heading.
During this stage you might feel unmotivated and your work is in danger of neglect, so it’s important to have a support network in place, friends or colleagues who can keep a tab on you, make sure you are dealing with the situation in the most sensible way, and steer you towards an outcome that is least damaging in the long run. It’s not easy, but you are almost at the end of the tunnel, so choo-choo along like Thomas, the Little Engine That Could and chime “I think I can, I think I can”, and you can.
Acceptance: Not everyone reaches this stage. Some never quite accept how things ended, and harbor regrets and resentments, or never fully recover from the blow of the relationship demise. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept the outcome of the event for us to move on and learn from the experience. We might not like how things ended, but we do have to agree that it has ended.
Finally, I would like to add one more stage to the process.
Goodbye: It takes guts and character to be able to do this stage well. Our mentors had good intentions for us, how things played out is almost always a two-party dance. Our mentors, in however small a way, taught us something valuable on how to conduct ourselves in a dignified manner, how to bow out of an expression of gratitude for the things they have taught us and a concrete end to the relationship.difficult situations gracefully, how to manage interpersonal relationships better and how to resolve conflicts to minimize causalities. We owe them an expression of gratitude for the things they have taught us and a concrete end to the relationship.
As for myself, I wish I had been able to do the goodbye stage with some of my mentors. Sometimes, it takes distance and time before we can look back and really see things clearly and admit our own culpability in the failure. If you are currently in this situation, please do seek help and guidance to make sure you have minimal regrets later. And to my previous mentors, a belated thank you and an overdue goodbye from me.