‘My Job Is Making Me Sick and Miserable!’

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Photo: Stevie Remsberg; photos: Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I’m currently sitting at my desk, stewing in anger and sadness when I should be billing hours. I’m 30 and I work as a lawyer at a large law firm. I am so hurt, disappointed, and angry about how my work life has ended up.

I’ve been here for four years, churning out hours, rarely saying no to assignments, trying to please the spectrum of distant to straight-up mean partners at my firm — including working while my dad was in the hospital (he’s okay now) — and trying to maintain some semblance of mental and physical health over this time period. My current mental health is pretty poor; I erupt into tears biweekly at least. My physical health is poor; when I started this job, I was exercising daily, and now can’t keep up any workout routine at all, because this job interrupts every attempt at a schedule, and what’s the point? My relationship is struggling, too, in no small part because I have been so stressed for four straight years that I truly feel it’s eroded my ability to be happy, let loose, and enjoy things, and my partner spends a lot of effort emotionally supporting me.

For a time, at least, I was doing well enough at work to compensate for missed events, distracted time spent with friends and family, and general self-neglect. But now that’s completely changed, too. I’ve made a few mistakes recently, and as a result I’m struggling to get assignments, even though all the partners have been nominally very supportive.

After those mistakes, I learned through the grapevine that I would be phased out of the one case I am really interested in, without any acknowledgment or explanation from the partner managing the case. Since then, that same partner has sharply limited my involvement in the case and treated me with increasing, open disdain in front of my peers, who have started to take notice. It’s embarrassing and insulting on a near-daily basis, and it’s so, so hard to keep it together, let alone be productive and not self-sabotage further.

The thing is, I don’t really want to be here. I just want approval and affirmation from them, I think because seeking affirmation and approval has served me decently well so far in my life — through high school, college, and law school.  When I joined the firm, I had initially planned to pay off my loans and then get out as soon as I could. I paid off my loans two years ago, yet I’m still here. Plus, I’m not so sure I want to be a lawyer at all. I always felt forced into this for “pragmatic” (read: financial) reasons, and gave up so much that I loved and cared about to be financially stable. Now I’m stable only financially, and I feel trapped.

If I stay a lawyer, I would want to be a prosecutor so that I can serve the public good. My favorite quote is this one from Bobby Kennedy, which I cannot even repeat out loud without crying:

“You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But history will judge you, and, as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to enrich the lives of your fellow man.”

This quote haunts me because I have already judged myself a failure for this. I fundamentally disrespect the work of large law firms, and right now I’m embarrassed about who I have become. I care about the world, Polly, and I care about issues bigger than myself. I want to serve the public, not help big companies avoid government regulation, but I can’t seem to get traction with public-service opportunities, at least not right now (note: the Trump administration has made such a transition a particularly fraught and challenging endeavor).

Now, I’m waiting to hear back on an offer from another firm that I am praying comes through. Yes, it would be a great developmental opportunity for me, and the firm has made clear it would encourage me to get involved in the community and pursue outside interests. But I also just need OUT, because I feel awful and my confidence is undermined every day. I feel like I’m giving up too easily and that I’ve failed, though, and I don’t understand how I got from being a diligent, well-respected associate to barely scraping by. I’m used to being the best or close to it, and now it’s like every door is being slammed in my face. Maybe people detected my ambivalence or lack of commitment, or maybe I tried so hard to please others I never chose a lane for myself. I really don’t know how to function any other way.

And in the meantime, I still have work I should be doing, but I am so distracted I can’t focus, and I’m afraid that things will be the same no matter where I go.

Polly, what should I do? I know that you encourage accepting uncertainty, but this hurts. How do I exist in this awful pit of angst and keep my chin up against the open hostility of partners whose approval I need to survive here, at least for the time being?

Sincerely,

Working Through Despair

Dear Working Through Despair,

The best advice my mom ever gave me was this: You should never keep a job that’s making you miserable. This is a privileged bit of advice, of course. Lots of people have to keep jobs that make them miserable. But if you can afford to quit and scrape by for a few months while you keep looking for another position, then for fuck’s sake, quit.

I understand that you’re used to being the best or close to the best. I get that you’re very driven to please others. I know how bad it must feel to recognize that you aren’t performing well. What’s worse, other people recognize this and they’re treating you like some half-assed, shoddy, inadequate loser as a result. I want you to remember this feeling, because people who treat other people badly when they start to stumble or fall are people who treat themselves badly when they fall apart, too. Right now, you are at the center of a dysfunctional ecosystem. You can’t flourish there. Hell, you can barely even breathe.

In your entire letter, you haven’t given me one good reason that you should stay at that job for another day, beyond your personal compulsion to prove them wrong about you. As long as you stay in that office, you’re buying into their masochistic lifestyle. You lack compassion for yourself and others. Generosity, inspiration, kindness, collaboration: None of these things are fostered by an environment where everyone hates themselves and each other.

The only reason you show up to work every day is to prove your co-workers and your boss wrong. That’s not a good reason for staying in a friendship, a marriage, a job, or anything else. Anytime someone who cares about pleasing people a lot tells me that they’re locked in a situation where they just can’t please someone and IT’S KILLING THEM, warning lights start flashing for me. I know that feeling so well. It’s fucking primordial, and it will keep you locked into a stagnant no-win situation. RUN DON’T WALK to your nearest exit and never look back.

You’re trying to prove them wrong because you suspect, deep down inside, that there’s something wrong with you. You’re sure that you’re weak and worthless. You’re fixated on proving that this isn’t true, but you wouldn’t be trying to prove anything if you knew in your heart that there’s nothing wrong with you. Look around you. That’s why a lot of the people you work with are still there, too. If they felt really good inside, if they were happy and at peace, would they walk into an office where all anyone does all day is improve the bottom line for huge corporations? I understand and sympathize with the need to make a living. Not everyone has the freedom to follow their wildest dreams at all times. But given the values you’ve laid out for me in your letter, I think it pays to look through a pretty harsh lens at your fellow workers and let yourself off the hook once and for all for failing to please them.

You’re not pleasing them because you don’t give a shit about this job. When you don’t care about the work you’re doing, it is EXCEEDINGLY EASY to fail and struggle and fuck up and make everyone around you angry and annoyed and dismissive. When you don’t care about the work you’re doing, it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to succeed.

Remember, also, that you can sometimes do a job very well for a while, and then start failing at it because — BINGO! — you don’t care anymore. This happened to me when I was a TV critic. I loved writing but I didn’t care about analyzing TV anymore. In contrast, I love writing this column so much, it feels like a gift just to start writing back to you. I’ve been doing this for five years and I can’t imagine not doing it. The idea of being bored with this? No. I can’t picture that. I know I’ll go through periods where I struggle to be inspired or inspiring — that’s normal. But I find that no matter what I bring to the table on any given day, this job gives so much back to me.

If I didn’t feel that way, I would be bad at my job. Skill and talent could not save me from fucking it up.

So should you feel ashamed and embarrassed for failing and quitting? No. You know why you fail. You know why you need to quit. You know what you want to do with your life instead. It couldn’t be clearer.

Something deeper and more insidious has a hold on you now. Your fear of rejection is keeping you stuck. Pay attention to how much you look for that rejection instead of ignoring it. Pay attention to how much you talk about it and think about it and focus on specific enemies in the office. I used to do that, anytime I felt dissatisfied. I always suspected that I was bad and broken, and I took that energy and channeled it into examining what was wrong with everyone else. I would get one email from a boss or editor or co-worker and just burn up over it for the rest of the day. That wasn’t just me being obsessive or negative. That was me TRYING to make myself look at what I really wanted instead of molding myself into a shape that might please everyone else.

Until you can learn to be your own lighthouse, you’re doomed to get lost in every storm. That would make a really irritating inspirational poster, but it’s true. If you ask other people you know what you should do, all they’re going to tell you is that you should trust yourself (this is good advice but it often sounds like a cop-out coming from someone you know) or they’re going to tell you what they would do in your situation. And the truth is, lots of people stay at bad jobs for way too long. Lots of people have jobs they hate, and they tell other people to stay at jobs they hate, too, because the dream of a job you don’t hate is a fucking LIE to them. Lots of people believe that no one should ever quit a job that pays well without having another job that pays well lined up.

But I think your mind and your body are telling you that you’re different. You literally cannot perform at a job that makes no sense to you. You’re not capable of it. You’re haunted by that Bobby Kennedy quote. That’s you. And every minute you spend NOT finding your way to a job that serves the greater good is a minute wasted.

Also? Some people can wait a long time to make a big move. Other people, once they know what they really want to do, start feeling sick immediately. THEY NEED TO ACT. And taking action quickly is exactly what gives them the momentum they need to hurtle forward, into the unknown.

Personally, I think there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing yourself and honoring who you are, particularly when you have a clear vision of what you want, like you do. If you have the financial resources to quit, I say do it. Because a lot of interesting things can happen in your life when you step back from the rush of 9 to 5 (or in your case, 7 to 7) work. Leaping out of the rat race sometimes offers you a chance to slough off the poisons you’ve been ingesting and refocus on what you care about the most.

Even if you only have a few weeks before your next job begins, you deserve a break. You deserve a chance to rest and exercise and eat well and think over what kinds of frustrations and obstacles you’ll encounter moving forward. But you also need a second to understand yourself as an independent agent in the world: You are your own lighthouse. Feel that in your heart. Being your own lighthouse is required, if what you really want is to become the living embodiment of Bobby Kennedy’s words. That means shifting your focus away from other people’s approval. You have to decide that you’re good enough and worthy enough right now. You have to stop aiming for best or close to best, and aim for what FEELS GOOD TO YOU instead.

My decision to write an advice column evolved into a more radical decision over time, actually. Instead of writing the clever, slightly harsh column I set out to write, I started writing heartfelt, rambling, honest words that sometimes embarrassed me because they weren’t stuffed full of jokes or cynical asides like my other writing was. I didn’t really plan to land in such an earnest space. All of the very sharp clever writers and cool people I’d spent the previous decade or so trying to impress were surely going to find my new style hideously unguarded and embarrassing!

I don’t really know if they did or not. All I know is that I had to accept that I loved something that didn’t feel nearly as impressive to some cool audience in my head as the other stuff I’d done. That forced me to think more about what I truly cared about, and what I found impressive in other people’s work. And what I noticed was, as much as I love clever, sharp writing, if it’s not remotely emotional, I’m generally indifferent or bored. I want some idea of where a writer stands emotionally, or I’m out. So when I write things that are purely intellectual, guess what? It doesn’t work. I have to care more.

At some point you discover that there’s a wide gulf between what YOU love and what you want other people to love about you. My attempts to impress others were wrapped up in the ways I won approval from my parents: by being funny and clever and proving that I knew some things. But that pursuit also feels hollow to me at some level, so no amount of praise from others really adds up enough on that front. What I care more about is locating something in the air that we’re all feeling but no one is talking about. I like trying to figure out what’s broken, what’s working, what’s making us lose our way, what’s feeding us.

One of the hardest challenges of becoming an adult is figuring out what you want in a vacuum of what other people want from you. Most of us are so conditioned to please. It takes us decades to chip away at the wall of bullshit around us and finally develop an unclouded relationship to ourselves, where we can honor how we feel and what we truly want. When I read your letter, what I hear is the voice of someone who’s very afraid of honoring her own feelings more than the feelings of others. You’re willing to suffer, just to avoid being seen as a failure.

I want you to embrace the idea of yourself as a total failure instead. Because I don’t think that’s going to depress you at all. I think it’s going to liberate you. Quit your job, and don’t walk around apologizing for it. Give two weeks’ notice and don’t explain anything to anyone. When people say things like JESUS and WHAT ARE YOU THINKING and I DON’T KNOW, MAN, bask in their confusion but say nothing. Think of Gandhi. Think of Jesus. Conjure that calm, present energy that says, “I’m sorry you don’t get it, child, but I cannot possibly slow down and explain it to you right now, there are people here with palm fronds and I have a date with destiny.”

You are the lighthouse. Let the storms swirl violently around you, throwing rocks and sand and unsteady ships in circles. You know who you are. Your vision is clear.

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: ‘My Job Is Making Me Sick and Miserable!’