Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
I am 40, single, living in a city (Miami) where I have no friends or family. I moved here two years ago for what appeared to be a great job opportunity. But the reality hasn’t been so hot.
Most of my co-workers are from Latin America, and prefer to speak Spanish among themselves — naturally! I do not blame them for this at all. But for me, it means there are all kinds of conversations going on that I can’t understand, much less participate in. For instance, HR organized an event outside of work at which everyone spoke Spanish. I stood off by myself, clutching my drink, until it felt like I’d been there long enough and could escape. This is one specific case, but the language barrier means I feel isolated and alienated at work on an almost daily basis.
Outside of work, the language problem continues. I have gone to, for example, Meetup things where, again, Spanish is the dominant language. How do you make friends in this situation? It is also somehow really alienating when you have no idea what people are talking about at the grocery store, or out on the street.
The obvious answer is to take Spanish classes, which I did for a year. Every Saturday was spent in class, learning. But I have a job to do at work, which I cannot do in Spanish. And the idea of breaking into someone else’s casual conversation with my broken Spanish is not appealing (read: horrifying). So my Spanish has not improved. I am frustrated with myself about this since living in Miami is a great chance to learn a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people. Why can’t I just buck up, put on my big-girl panties, and deal?
And the job has not turned into the opportunity I had hoped for. My budget was canceled shortly after I started. Late last year, a project I was working on went really, really badly. I’ve been in this field for five years, and never had such a disaster happen. This is the first and only project I’ve actually been given that has been a total flop. Why would anyone at this company promote me? And the career potential is why I left behind friends and a stable job for Miami.
On top of that, I make the same pay I had in a much cheaper city, while my rent doubled and car insurance tripled. Stupidly, I didn’t research the cost of living until late in the hiring process. When I brought up the difference between Miami and the city I was in, the recruiter told me it was too late to negotiate the point. I decided to bet on the Miami job leading to bigger/better things.
So I am 40, single, friendless, effectively making much less money, and failing at the job I moved here for. I’m struggling to keep a positive attitude — I am snarky and judgmental, and catch myself criticizing others in a harsh way for stupid things (like what they are wearing). This is all internal, of course, since I don’t have anyone to talk to. I have to fight a general attitude of “What the fuck is the point?” about work. The frustration builds up so much some days that not even a good sweat session at the gym (surrounded by people talking in Spanish) releases it completely.
How do I release the frustration? How do I accept that I made a huge mistake moving to Miami, and just need to fix it now by moving and/or finding a new job? How do I force myself to study Spanish seriously? How do I just let go, accept the lessons gained from all of these mistakes, and move on to the next step?
Another Neurotic Middle-aged Woman
Dear Neurotic Middle-aged Woman,
Start by forgiving yourself. You took on a giant adventure at age 38, and had no idea how it would turn out. My guess is that even if you quit your job and move away you’ll still end up happier than you would’ve been if you never tried out something new. So it’s important to stop defining this chapter of your life as a failure simply because you weren’t christened a rising star and rewarded with a circle of adoring friends. There are dead ends along the way for everyone. The most important thing is that you integrate this dead end into your wider understanding of yourself and your life: You were brave enough to take a big risk and throw yourself into a new environment. You continued to work hard at your job. You threw yourself into learning Spanish. You kept exercising like crazy. You kept going to work events where it was incredibly difficult to talk to anyone. These are things that half of the people reading this right now could never, in a million years, have pulled off. We would’ve been crying into our hands at the end of the second week, and back on a plane home after three months.
So cut yourself some slack. Learning conversational Spanish overnight is not exactly a walk in the park, and immediately using it to make a bunch of friends sounds beyond difficult. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but Jesus, you’re not 18 and this isn’t a hostel in Barcelona inhabited by drunk young people anxious to interact with linguistically challenged strangers. You’ve walked into an established scene as an outsider who can’t communicate. I cannot fucking imagine. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it. So what if you made mistakes or didn’t have the energy to spend every last one of your lonely moments studying Spanish? You’ve felt lonely and disappointed and overwhelmed. You can’t possibly expect yourself to be firing on all pistons under those circumstances. Your first goal right now is to forgive yourself, every hour of every day, until you’re no longer reflexively beating yourself up over this choice.
What’s crazy about overachievers who take big risks but who are also neurotic is that we expect ourselves to FIND A SOLUTION using our minds instead of allowing our feelings to tell us what should come next. Slowing down to feel your feelings doesn’t mean not exercising, which you know manages to keep you afloat moodwise. It doesn’t even mean giving up on learning Spanish. It just means not lambasting yourself every second for all of your so-called mistakes, and instead making some room for yourself to feel where you are without judging it badly.
How you feel right now isn’t your fault. It’s natural to feel the way you feel. Let yourself be where you are.
When you stop beating yourself up and you stop trying to decide a new path (which only leads you in tight little circles like an overexcited dog) and you just feel what you feel, you’ll find that it’s much easier to make good decisions. You’ll get upset about something, but because you’re feeling it completely instead of pushing it away and bellowing GET BACK TO WORK, YOU FAILURE, you will be able to follow your instincts for a change. Instead of saying to yourself, KEEP MOVING, STOP BEING SUCH A MESS! you’ll ask yourself what you need to go forward. And you’ll be able to ask other people for what you need, too.
I think you might have a problem with acknowledging your own needs and also asserting your needs with other people. When you say that you asked for more money once you realized how expensive it was in Miami, and the recruiter told you it was too late, that made me wonder if you’re good at advocating for yourself. (Also, does a good recruiter send you off to a low-paying job in a place you will never be able to afford to live?) Sensitive women who work their asses off and don’t feel their feelings enough tend to have a lot of trouble standing up for themselves in work situations. We’re hyperalert to social cues, we want to succeed, and we want to make sure that we’re viewed as valuable. But because we’re ambitious we’ve often been told that we’re bossy and arrogant, simply because we’re women, and many, many humans are unaccustomed to confident successful, independent women.
So we’re always paranoid about being “bitchy.” We ignore our own feelings and we try to ignore other people’s feelings, too, to compensate. And yet, we’re also trying to please everyone. I don’t need to tell you what a shitshow this is.
I don’t think it takes a massive amount of dysfunction to land in this place as a woman, either. Just yesterday I realized that anytime someone asks me for something, the very first thing I think is, “How can I move worlds to make this happen?” It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend, a professional associate, or a complete stranger. I don’t ask myself, “Does this make sense to do? Do I have time for this? Does this work for me? How do I feel about this?” I just start moving things around on my to-do list to fit in this new thing. And yesterday I was being asked to basically take a day off from my one big vacation of the year to do something career-related. And even though I wasn’t being pressured, even though I’d already promised myself that I would not, under any circumstances, fuck with my vacation, I sprang into motion, looking into changing my flights. And then I took my frustration over not being capable of giving a hard no and holding my ground and honoring my own feelings over someone else’s, and I poured it into one line in one email from this associate that stuck in my craw.
Sometimes when I’m conflicted, I get fixated on small things. I can’t let them go. Someone makes a false claim, and I’m immediately copying lines from past emails and inserting them into new emails and I’m writing things like, AS YOU CAN SEE I TOLD YOU THIS LITERALLY SECONDS AGO. As a young guest at the Paradise Hotel once put it, “I got some lawyer in me.” So my self-neglect becomes this absurd moment of “If you’ll turn to page 35 of document 7A and read the line highlighted at the bottom, I think you’ll discover that YOU ARE FLAT-OUT WRONG, MOTHERFUCKER!” But when I stop and ask myself, “where did my fucking day go? Why does this matter so much?” what I discover is that my anger lies in my inability to stand up for what I care about. I don’t care if busy people skim their emails, not really. I just don’t want to fuck up my vacation. I just need to learn to stand up for my own needs without needing to be furious or in crisis to do it.
I know this sounds like it’s a far cry from your situation, but it’s in the same ballpark with being paralyzed by regret and anger at yourself. Knowing how you feel and being able to stand up for how you feel instead of defining yourself as a fuck-up and a judgmental bitch is pretty much essential to every woman, and it’s particularly essential if you want to enter middle age without constantly hating yourself for not having “arrived” in some magical place by now.
This is part of why I tell people to accept that a lot of people will see them as a bitch no matter what they do. But it’s also why a lot of us are bitches when we don’t really need to be. When you know that you’re capable of clear boundaries, when you know what’s important to you, when you know what you deserve, you can be clear and even be vulnerable with other people. Vulnerability no longer means either “I’ll agree to whatever you need” or “I’ll rip you a new asshole for not magically giving me exactly what I haven’t said that I want.” Vulnerability is just you being human and saying, “This is what I need. You might not be able to give it to me, and I understand, but this is my hard limit.”
I have never liked hard limits in any realm. I associate them with rigidity and stubbornness. I like to see myself as accommodating. But the truth is that I’m way too accommodating, to my own detriment. I need to assert what I want without always apologizing for it. I need to know how I feel, so I can use that information to establish boundaries that work for me.
I really think you’re punishing yourself at this point by staying in Miami. Instead of caring for yourself and honoring your feelings and allowing yourself to take a new path based on those feelings, you’re still trying to LEARN SPANISH MORE QUICKLY. This is making you angry at other people and that’s making it almost impossible to make new friends. No matter what you do next, you have to honor your feelings and give yourself more credit for working so hard to get to this point.
You’re so hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Savor your time in Miami now. Slack off at work a little, if you have to. Take your time looking into new jobs and new places. Be truly, completely good to yourself, which includes consistently quieting the voice that says you’re a loser and a failure, and replacing it with a new voice: “You are so brave. Look at how much you’re learning, every day.”
I know that’s the hardest thing to do. But that’s where your happiness lies. Not in a place or in a job, but in that good feeling inside your heart that says, “I am doing my best. I took a big risk and I floundered but I’m still trying so hard, and that’s a beautiful thing, maybe even more beautiful than sailing across some imaginary finish line.” There is promise in this false start. Forgive yourself and be here. Forgive yourself and breathe this in. You’ll never be right here, feeling this way, again. Forgive yourself and savor this.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.