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‘I’m Juggling School With Full-Time Work and I’m Miserable!’

Photo: Tammy616/Getty Images/Vetta

Dear Polly,

I’m tired. Right now, I’m working full time in a law firm while also going to school full time. Most of the people my age have already graduated from college and moved on to grad school or their degrees, but I took a different path and I’m just now finishing up my bachelor’s degree so I can, hopefully, go to law school.

My job is a lot, and I’m only just scraping by there. I put in my 40 hours every week, and I still come out way, way behind schedule on everything. It’s the kind of job where I really should be working late and on weekends, but I can’t because I already don’t have enough time at night and on the weekends to get my schoolwork done.

I’ve felt really proud of myself for surviving this impossible amount of work. It’s hard – I’m tense and stressed and anxious all the time, and I cry daily about how I can’t do it anymore, but I’m still doing it. And, knock on wood, I’m doing okay in spite it all — I’m not thriving anywhere, but I haven’t irreversibly dropped the ball on anything, either.

At the same time, I’m clearly doing too much. I feel guilty for getting eight hours of sleep every night. I feel guilty when I have sex, or go to therapy, or exercise, or take a long hot shower. I feel guilty for writing this letter now, on my lunch break, when I really should be reading for school. Am I really committed and working hard if I do things other than work? I obviously need to take care of myself, but I really, really need to be doing work and everything else feels like self-sabotage.

My incredible, supportive partner and I have been talking about the possibility of me finding a job that is more part time so that I can be more balanced and maybe even take on more schoolwork to get through undergrad faster. I am so, so fucking tired and miserable and constantly on edge that all I want to do is quit, pare down my responsibilities, focus on finishing up this stupid fucking bachelor’s degree so I can just move on. But I’m afraid to quit my job because I don’t want to be a quitter. I’m a lifelong quitter. Until now, I’ve quit every hard thing the minute it got hard. I dropped out of high school because I was too depressed to function. I have dropped every sport, craft, and friendship once it got complicated enough to require real work from me. I am so tired of quitting. I feel like I have a lot to prove, and I’m entirely too weak to prove any of it.

Quitting my job would also mean that I wouldn’t have money to keep going to therapy, or to keep going to my gym (which is always the highlight of my week), or to keep buying art for my walls or the occasional date-night cocktail. And it means that I’d be a quitter, someone who tried something big and gave up when it got hard.

This is all without even addressing the shame I feel for being a bit older than most undergrads and for not going to a “good” school. I get the vibe that some of the people in my life (teachers, co-workers, friends) think I might be a little silly for aspiring to be a lawyer. The people who know me best are excited for me and so supportive, but people I don’t know well (but who do know the legal field) aren’t as enthusiastic about my future. People I respect, who are otherwise kind to me, tend to use my current school as a punch line and clearly think that it’s only for stupid, low-achieving failures.

It feels so unfair. Despite how proud I am of all this work, I’m still so ashamed of what I am doing and how hard I have to work at it. It doesn’t matter that I’ve come so far and that my life is unrecognizable from where I was just a few years ago — I’m still working really hard to barely scrape by in my job and at my crappy school.

I want to be big and tall and self-assured about it all. I want to believe things like “I can be smart and great even if I didn’t have it in me to get into a great college when I was 18,” and “26 isn’t too old to get your first college degree,” and “What I learn from this long and hard path I’m on is the best thing I’m going to bring to the table in ten years,” but I feel so cut down and useless every day that I’m increasingly unsure of it all. I so want to be brave and self-assured, but not at the cost of reality and practicality.

I don’t feel like I’m getting credit for any of the hard, hard work I’m doing. I do poorly at work, I do poorly at school, my personal life is largely on hold, and I’m always stressed and anxious and tired. I feel like this thin spread of myself will never end — when it’s not school, it will be the balance between family and career, or health and family, or personal growth and surviving this world. All of this feels like I’m being told: “Welcome to womanhood! You can’t physically do all of these things, but you still have to do them all. Enjoy!”

Polly, does quitting my job to focus on school make me a quitter? Does being old and in debt with no degree mean I should just quit trying to become a lawyer while I’m already behind? Should I be paying more or less attention to the people who seem to think I’d be wise to aim lower for myself? Is this just how it feels to be in your mid-20s and new to everything about everything?


Legally Losing It

Dear Legally Losing It,

Quitting things doesn’t make you a quitter. That idea is so boiled down and reductive that it could never have the teensiest bit of wisdom inside of it. The fact that you can walk around saying “But I can’t quit because then I’d be a quitter!” is truly a testament to how blind your self-loathing and black-and-white thinking have made you.

You are a person of extremes. You quit things when you were younger because you were sad and fearful and didn’t see any other escape. Now you punish yourself and never, ever quit. Neither way of living is good for you. Avoiding hard things is bad for you. Working full time while being a full-time student is bad for you. FULL STOP. You are killing yourself. You are teaching yourself that suffering is the only way to be “good.” That’s terrible for you now and terrible for you over the long haul. Shaking off that belief system is the best thing you can do for yourself, now and in the future.

You feel guilty for sleeping eight hours or having sex? Dude. I mean. I don’t even know where to start. Your brain is a 24/7 broadcast of self-recrimination. Yes, you need therapy. And sleep and sex. You also need to find part-time work. You need to learn to quit things again. You need balance. You need to train your brain to stop beating you up every second of every day.

When I met my husband, I was like you. I worked way too hard. I didn’t believe in quitting. I didn’t want to quit my job because other people would say it was a dream job, even though I didn’t like it anymore. I didn’t want to slow down because I would never write a book or do anything with myself if I didn’t work my ass off. But I also had very little ambition. When it came to actually writing that book I was supposed to write, I felt tired and unmotivated. Why did people write books again? Did I really care about becoming an author? Why do anything?

I was conflicted because I worked myself way too hard around the clock, and it made me depressed and anxious. My body and mind were rebelling against the strict demands of my punishing 24/7 broadcast of guilt and self-recrimination. I wasn’t allowed to take a day off or sleep late or exercise because these things were indulgences that I couldn’t afford until I proved I was “good” and hardworking enough to deserve them.

Eventually, I did quit my job, and I wouldn’t have the life or the career that I have now if I hadn’t made that leap. I still felt like a quitter at the time. But I had to find balance. I had to forgive myself for being a human trapped in a body with limits. I had to protect myself from sickness and fatigue. I had to value my own feelings instead of pushing myself too hard at a job I didn’t love anymore.

As I write those words, though, I know how foreign and impossible they’ll look to you. For someone who doesn’t understand how to take care of herself, the words “Protect yourself” and “Listen to your heart” and “Honor your needs” just sound like a load of shit, like some lady-magazine fluff about bubble baths and sheet masks and journaling. But truly PROTECTING and VALUING yourself is a minute-by-minute experience. It’s about talking back to your bad brain, responding to the voice that says “You’re already running behind!” and “Jesus, you’re fucking up again!” by saying “You’re doing fine,” and “This is not a race, you set your own pace,” and “You’re kicking ass right now. You work harder than anyone you know, every day. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

That doesn’t just mean you don’t have to feel guilty for going to therapy. You also don’t have to feel guilty for sitting down and thinking for a second in the middle of the day, or writing me a letter, or taking a long shower, or not doing the dishes immediately.

Other people, people who don’t understand how trapped you are in your guilty brain, might say things to you like “The world won’t end if you cut yourself some slack occasionally.” But all you hear is SLACK and that makes you think you’re a SLACKER. “You can quit!” they’ll say, but all you hear is “Accept that you’re a quitter, at least that way you can relax.”

As long as you’re using the words “quit” and “too slow” and “behind” as some simple blunt weapons to bludgeon yourself with, you’re not going to understand what a dramatic shift in perspective is required of you at this point in your life. So let me put it this way: You were put on this Earth to enjoy your life. Your life will end one day. You need to make sure that you enjoy it.

That doesn’t mean you have to panic about how much time you have left to do the things you need to do. That means you need to learn to slow down time by savoring your existence. You need to learn to take a deep breath and sit with the silence around that breath. You need to learn to stop. You need to learn to listen to other people, to what they’re really saying. You need to learn to feel what you feel without attacking yourself for having feelings. You need to slow the fuck down.

You are killing yourself. Do you hear me? And you need to stop that. You have a body with limits. Live inside of it. Listen to it. You are here to enjoy your life. That is your first job.

So train your head to say new things. Be relentless about THAT. This is not a choice between torturing yourself with 100 hours of work a week and turning into a useless quitter on the couch. It’s a choice between happiness and self-destruction. Stop destroying yourself, and start honoring your feelings and your heart.

The second you start to listen to your own needs, everything gets easier. The work becomes more efficient, the day looks brighter, you relocate your ambition — and your joy at being alive, and your emotions, and your passion. 26 years old is not “late” — it’s so NOT LATE that I have trouble not laughing my ass off, right in your face, when I tell you that. Take your fucking time, FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Because once I learned to take my time, I found happiness. And also? I magically had more time! How does that work? I don’t know, but it does.

After I had kids, it seemed like I had less time suddenly, and I panicked at first. But then I learned to savor my time with my kids AND make more efficient use of my work time. I figured out that I could only pull it off when I was exercising and sleeping well at night. Having EVEN MORE THINGS TO JUGGLE made me a much more efficient, harder working, more ambitious person, but it also made me much more relaxed and less guilty. Because the second I felt guilty or rushed or panicked or worked myself too hard, I could feel it immediately. It showed in how I parented. It showed in my bad, humorless writing. I had to find balance in order to be good at anything. I had to be kind to myself in order to thrive. I basically had no choice but to address the bad habits I’d developed and embraced for years.

Taking on a lot without letting it crush you forces you to grow. That doesn’t mean anyone else should decide how much you take on. Because when you take on way too much and destroy yourself with it, you not only strip yourself of a reasonable, enjoyable life but you impede your ability to thrive in the future by twisting your entire conception of what a productive, responsible life looks like. Productivity should never look like suffering. If it does, you may not achieve much. You’ll be your own bad boss, and you’ll never have any real, genuine connection to your work. You’ll do what you’re told and slog along in a state of miserable mediocrity.

People who succeed and are happy with their lives do it by finding balance. They work efficiently and then THEY STOP. And when they’re in a bad, unsustainable, unhealthy situation? THEY QUIT. They recalibrate often. They ask “Is this working for me?” often. They are shameless, even, about making big moves in order to honor their truest desires. It takes a lot of courage, though, to honor yourself. You have to see past your anxiety and depression, too. You have to address those issues and work through those fears in order to take the kinds of risks that are necessary to live a great life.

Quitting can be heroic, if it makes your life more enjoyable and more balanced and it makes you more brilliant, relaxed, and connected to your work and the people around you. You have to step back from your black-and-white mind-set to connect like that, in order to access the full range of your brilliant mind. Right now you’re blocking out everything that’s good in your life, and ignoring all of the progress you’ve made.

You say you never get any credit for working so hard. That’s you withholding credit! You say it’s unfair. YOU ARE BEING UNFAIR TO YOURSELF. You work constantly but never congratulate yourself or reward yourself for it! No one else is judging you. If people who work in law question your pursuit of a law degree, I guarantee that’s because they question their own pursuit of a law degree. You should ask less questions about how worthy they think you are, and ask more questions about whether or not a career in law is worthy of your energy and intelligence. I’ll bet a lot of lawyers would tell you — like they told me when I was considering a law degree — that they’re unhappy with their jobs. Instead of making everything that happens a verdict on you, gather more information about the specific kind of law you want to practice and listen closely, with an open mind, to what people tell you about it.

It’s natural that you’d be obsessed with your worth when you do nothing but punish yourself with too much work. You have the mental health of someone breaking rocks in a prison yard. So stay in therapy and downshift to part-time work. Taking more time is not the same thing as aiming lower. Sometimes it allows you to aim higher, and to clarify your vision of the future. I would consider asking for financial help from your partner while you finish school. Make a pragmatic plan that includes exercise and sleep and time off. Learn to take a spontaneous day off, out of nowhere, when you’re feeling overwhelmed. (For overachievers, that’s a SKILL. It takes practice.) Learn how to reward yourself and ENJOY your rewards. (Also a skill!)

Back when you quit things all the time, you weren’t lazy. You were too depressed to function, as you said, and you were an anxious overachiever, even then. It takes a lot of emotional energy to actively avoid the sources of your stress the way you did when you were younger. You’re still anxious now. Learn to let your feelings flow and give yourself what you need, and trust me, you won’t toggle between guilty self-indulgence and guilty self-punishment. You’ll get out of your head and honor your heart and your body. You’ll find balance. You’ll connect with your work and take real satisfaction from it instead of just GETTING IT DONE.

It’s time to be a quitter. Quit your old way of life. Your job on this planet is not to race through a series of difficult hurdles as quickly as possible. Your job is to enjoy your day, to enjoy your life. Figure out how to do that job, and everything else will follow from there. That’s the best, most simple advice I have to give anyone. It’s the main thing that’s made me happier. Every single day, I treat enjoyment like it’s my first priority. It’s changed everything — my way of talking to myself, my way of spending time with other people, my way of handling problems and juggling tasks. And it’s improved my writing and focus and yes, productivity, a million times over.

Will you have to change your path entirely? You might, if your path looks punitive and unenjoyable. But it will be worth it. That’s not you giving up. That’s you learning how to be happy.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I’m Juggling School With Full-Time Work and I’m Miserable!’