‘I Work Too Hard and I’m Still Poor and Miserable!’

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Photo: sue bishop/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I always feel like I’m a little kid pretending to be an adult. I’m trying on my mom’s dress shoes, and they are so oversized that I am tripping every time I try to take a step. In some ways, I have managed to achieve success and have done things that I’m proud of. I grew up in a poor, dysfunctional home in a violent neighborhood but transcended this to become the first person in my family to go to college. I was also in the Army for a while. Right now, I am a therapist who does home-based counseling with very poor people with very complicated and difficult issues. The problem is that I really feel like I am the blind leading the blind.

Many of my clients tell me that I help them tremendously, and my entire case load has followed me from one agency to another, so I do feel like I am effective in my job in many ways. However, I feel very stressed, overwhelmed, and frustrated most of the time. In addition to my job being very difficult and heart-wrenching, I struggle very much with my own mental-health issues and history of trauma. There are days (most days!) that I come home feeling like my soul was just sucked out of my body and I have nothing left to give. Naturally, this affects my relationship with family members and my boyfriend. I am very snappy and moody and often feel very depressed and bitter that my job takes so much out of me. I am in therapy myself and on medication, but this only seems to take the edge off my frustration and irritability. I engage in various activities that are designed to be an outlet such as exercise, sports, and trivia nights, but nothing seems to make me fully relax. I feel like my job is slowly killing me. Part of the problem is that I care too much. I think about my clients all the time, and I have a hard time putting up boundaries with them/resisting the urge to bend over backward to do anything I can to help them.

As a result of all of this, I cannot keep up with the needs of my own adult life. My house is always a wreck, my laundry is never done, dishes sit in the sink until there are fruit flies swarming, and my car looks like it is a second home. I also just filed for bankruptcy. As much as I try to argue against negative self-talk about it, I cannot help but feel like I am falling apart in so many ways. Part of me thinks that I should get out of this line of work because of my own mental-health struggles, but the other part of me feels trapped because I don’t know what else I can do to pay my bills and all of the college loans that are drowning and choking me. I have this overwhelming feeling that I am just not “making it” and I don’t even know what making it means. I feel so angry that I took all of the steps one should take to live a comfortable life and I’m stuck in the same pattern I felt as a child: poor, stressed, and hopeless. What do you think?

Drained

Dear Drained,

This morning when I woke up, I felt good. I’ve felt good most mornings for a while now, but it’s still totally foreign to me, after a lifetime of waking up and feeling ambivalent or avoidant or anxious or depressed about what I had to face each day. And even though I could list a million reasons why I feel good now — I mean, I’ve examined this stuff, I’ve worked hard on it, and also I’ve been incredibly lucky — one reason stuck in my head: I’m good to myself.

I know that will sound absurd to someone who’s struggling with money like you are. I’ve been in debt and had next to nothing and worked way too hard before, too, and I know the panic there. But even once I had some money I was still wound up and working too hard. So I want you to stick with me and suspend your disbelief for a second.

Last year, I had a lot of good things going on. And I had learned how to stop talking shit to myself. I’d learned to cut out the soundtrack of “Look at you, such a mess, running behind on everything. When will you get your act together and grow the fuck up?” I had learned to ask for what I wanted from other people SOME of the time. I had learned to enjoy some part of my day, most days.

But I didn’t know how to be good to myself yet. I still said yes to a lot of stuff I really, truly had no interest in doing. I said yes to a lot people I shouldn’t even have been speaking to. I did these things because some part of me believed that I was fundamentally wrong about the world, that my perspective couldn’t be trusted. I had to second-guess myself because I had made mistakes before. I also believed that there was a mob watching me closely and THEY knew what I was getting wrong and they were laughing behind their hands at me, at what a fucking stupid immature pathetic mess I was.

I didn’t feel this way around the clock. I did stuff that required calm confidence and belief in myself, including writing this column every week and also making sure my kids were reasonably happy and making sure that my husband and I weren’t falling out of touch or starting to resent each other. I felt pretty good — better than ever, really — and I made rational decisions for the most part. But I didn’t feel truly, deeply happy and grateful and excited about each day. I mean, that kind of happiness is a lot to ask, isn’t it? I felt like I should be satisfied with the great life that I had already.

But maybe a part of me felt like I didn’t deserve more. Wanting more than that seemed a little absurd.

So I wasn’t good to myself. I gave too much to other people, I watched other people’s reactions to me too closely, and I took on way too much work, all the time. I set everything aside regularly to handle other people’s emergencies. I also set my own sanity aside and fixated on people who weren’t considerate of my feelings, because I believed that their bad behavior was probably some rational piece of that disapproving mob in my head who could see through me and knew I was an immature crazy mess.

In April of this year, something shifted. I was juggling too much. One of my dogs died. I kept having stress headaches and mood swings and other strange afflictions that I’d never had before. I felt ill a lot of the time. I wasn’t sleeping well. And even though I had lost the steady soundtrack of “You keep fucking up!” I was carrying around a deeper belief that I was destined to rush and do mediocre work and disappoint myself and others. I didn’t want to be good to myself and give myself a break, because that meant I was lazy or undeserving of the success I’ve had.

But something strange happened: I decided to slow down anyway, even if that might mean I was lazy and undeserving.

I started asking myself and my husband, “What if I never wrote another book?” and “What if I just decided not to finish this high-pressure project?” I started to say things like, “What if we made less money?” and “What if I wore this one pair of pants for the rest of my life?” and “What if I just stand still and appreciate this day and do no work at all?” I started to try on radically different visions of my life. What if I could chose anything? How should I spend the time I have left?

Part of being good to yourself means asking really strange, sweeping questions about what you truly want, and resisting the urge to factor in what some outdated version of yourself wants and what anyone else wants. I had to set aside what my husband might want and what my editor might want and what my boss might want. But what was even more important for me was learning to set aside what some imagined mob might think — not just the detractors (totally invented by my mind, of course, because no one fucking cares!), but also the imagined wide world that believes that people like me should ACT LIKE THIS and DO THIS and SAY THIS.

I’m sure you have something like this, too, Drained. Therapists and social workers often work until their eyes cross, because they care a lot, and also because there’s a lot of pressure on people in helping professions to give until they fall to pieces. Even though there’s always talk of putting your own oxygen mask on first and getting the support you need, you still have a job market dominated by full-time jobs that require engaging in the sorts of activities that very few humans can successfully perform for 40 hours every week. Not only is that convenient for the companies doing the hiring but it also suits professionals who are so in love with the idea of “paying your dues” that they want everyone to suffer the way they suffered when they were starting their careers. It reminds me of surgeons who train other surgeons by depriving them of sleep, as if everyone is working in a war zone. Somehow, if you haven’t nearly lost your mind, you’re not a badass or you’re not dedicated enough. Writers fall prey to this, too. Plus, we tell each other that it’s sane to try to make a living by juggling half a dozen low-paying writer gigs at once. And even though I’ve always made pretty independent decisions about what to do with my life, the wider world’s views filter into the groundwater eventually.

So sometimes you have to test the groundwater. And you do that by asking, “Why do people live this way?” and “Why are these jobs structured to fucking kill you?” Sometimes women give up their jobs to have a baby, and then they find themselves asking, “Who makes it out of these hours alone with a baby with their sanity intact? What kind of a chill motherfucker IS BUILT THAT WAY?” And look, any kind of job with a nurturing element to it needs to be interrogated, because we women view ourselves not just as failures but as terrible selfish pieces of shit when we can’t give and give to infinity and beyond. And as you already know, people with dysfunctional backgrounds who are attracted to helping professions are particularly vulnerable to this identity trap. The truth is that you can be amazingly good at helping others and still be torn to shreds by too much of it.

That’s what it is to be human. And if you want to be happy, YOU are the one who must decide what it means to be good to yourself. You are the one who gets to ask, “Do I care about measuring up to other people’s ideas of what success in my field looks like?” and you are the one who gets to answer “Hell no, I do not. I want to invent my own unique path to happiness.”

So do an audit of your life. Take the mob of voices that say you’re a wretched bankrupt mismanaging overtaxed disappointment and drown those voices in a lake forever. And while you’re at it, drown your own private disparaging voices in a lake. You must drown the voice that says you’re bad if you’re not the lord and savior to an army of human beings who need you. Because your body and your heart are telling you clearly that you can’t manage this. You’re helping so many people, and yes, they need you, but your life is falling apart. You’re not going to be able to help like this for much longer, even if you wanted to! You are telling me this clearly. Now you have to listen to your own words and trust them.

Is it wrong that you don’t want to be a low-paid lord and savior full time? No. You want to make enough money to survive. I know that’s hard to say out loud when you care as much as you do about others. But is it fair that someone doing such valuable, self-sacrificing work is paid so badly? I don’t think so.

I know you don’t want to turn your back on anyone. BUT YOU MATTER, TOO. It’s time to enter a new reality where your happiness matters.

This is what it boiled down to for me: You have to stop wanting to be heroic and impressive, and you have to start wanting to feel good. You have to stop wanting to be better for everyone else and start wanting to be good to yourself. And you have to believe that you deserve that.

Treat this like an emergency. That’s what I did. I asked, “Do I really want to feel sick and stressed out all the time? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I’m always falling behind?” And I knew I would feel horribly self-indulgent once I slowed down. So I learned to tolerate that and learned to say, “The most important thing is that you’re happy. That’s what matters every day.”

That is not selfishness. People like you and me are in no immediate threat of becoming selfish dicks who don’t do anything for anyone else. And the irony is, I have so much more to give — to friends, to my kids, to my mom, to my husband, and to my writing, and to strangers, even, now that I’ve resolved to be very good to myself every single day.

And you know what else? My work is better than ever because I slowed down. I had no time before to believe that I might even be brilliant if I worked hard and took my time. And I had to decide that I fucking deserve to be brilliant. That was a leap for me. Because I don’t like the idea of reaching for that much just for myself and no one else. I don’t like the idea of deluding myself about my abilities. But by refusing to try, I was cutting myself off not just from my own potential but from my happiness. Because for a writer, that’s what happiness is: reaching as high as you can possibly reach, and daring to believe that you have what it takes to be great.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mozart. Mozart sounds like pure joy to me: the joy of being alive, the joy of being good to yourself, the joy of embracing the sadness and the fear of life with the same gusto that you embrace the light. But his music also sounds to me like the joy of believing that you might just be brilliant, if you dare to believe in yourself, if you dare to feel that YOU DESERVE THAT. That’s really fucking hard for women and for people who grew up poor and for people who survived emotional abuse and for people of color — for so many of us. It’s part of our work: daring to believe in what we can create, if we take the audacious step of believing that we hold infinite wisdom in our hands. We just have to conjure it, we just have to feel our true power and realize our true potential, at long last.

How can you realize your potential, Drained, and what would that look like? Who could you become if you had infinite time and infinite courage? I want you to believe in a new vision of how you could live. You can help people and also believe in your own future for a change. I want you to see that you deserve to feel good and you deserve to have the time and space to be brilliant.

I’m sure that sounds like reaching waaaay past the limitations of your collapsed and fucked-up present. If I were you, I’d start researching new career paths that might sustain you instead of draining you, and I’d think about reducing your load to half-time and then filling in the financial gap with something that’s less emotionally exhausting. I know that the money is a big issue. But you can’t let your guilt over lack of money and past fuck-ups constrain your vision of what’s possible. One of the terrible side effects of poverty and also ingested dysfunction is that nothing feels like your choice. But you have a degree and job experience and you’re smart and good at what you do. You do have choices. Believe me. Debt can really crush your imagination, I get that. Your work right now is to dare to be courageous and imaginative about the future in spite of your circumstances. You need to give yourself permission to be bigger, to be brilliant, to explore more, to experiment with what you can do without fearing failure the whole time.

Stop telling this story about how you’re someone who can’t hack it, who doesn’t work hard enough (even as you come home exhausted!). Your religion of I AM BAD only guarantees more fuck-ups. Your religion needs to shift to I AM GOOD AND I DESERVE TO BE GOOD TO MYSELF.

You deserve to feel happy. Say it. Feel it. Believe it. Remember: No one knows better than you do what you need. Trust yourself to make decisions that feel right. The better you are to yourself, the easier it will be to trust yourself. This is how it feels to be an adult. This is how it feels to be happy, truly happy, every single day.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I Work Too Hard and I’m Miserable!’