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This is a guest post from a kind Patreon contributor who took on the “Advice Columnist For The Day” mantle. I meant to post it ages ago and never actually hit “Post”, so, apologies for the oversight b/c it’s a very good read.

Hi Captain!

I just graduated college a few months ago and I’m having trouble finding my way into the real world. I have a decent amount of experience for a new grad, I think. I’ve had jobs doing work relevant to my STEM field, I completed a 7-month-long thesis, and I had a leadership role in a club. While my GPA was not amazing (mental illness dragged me down the past two years), it’s definitely not bad and I know for a fact I was good at my major.

All that stuff should make me feel confident about my job search. Instead, I’ve sent out two applications in three months. I am absolutely petrified of job hunting. Clicking on online job postings sends me into a panic spiral. My heart races when I open up my resume.

Over the years, I’ve tried to be kind to myself about not “living up to my potential.” I try to remember it’s not that I suck, but that my depression/anxiety/maybe-ADD/etc. has its thumb on the scale. But that leads to terror that I’ll always be bad at the basic skills I need to survive on my own and I’ll just crash and burn out in the real world. I was a mess at school. What if the stress is too much for me? And my references, who saw me fall apart at school. How do I communicate with them about my job search when I’m still so mortified? Not to mention the nauseating thought of all the emotional, mental, and literal capital I’m going to have to spend up front settling into a new job, a new home, a new city (I’m job searching near some beloved family a state away).Every time I try to think past one issue, another comes up. The whole topic is a big ball of fear in my mind now.

Consistent treatment for my mental health has been difficult due to moving back and forth from school all the time, but I have a great doctor working with me on medication and I’ve finally found a therapist in the area. My question for you and your amazing commenters is: How do you do the terrifying thing? What tools do you use to move forward when you feel paralyzed with fear? And how do you hold off the self-loathing when you struggle with something you “should” be able to do?

Thanks,

Paralyzed

(she/her pronouns)

Dear Paralyzed,

Congratulations on your recent college graduation! I am honoured that the Captain opened the opportunity for recruit awkwardeers to be the advice columnist for a day, and I very much wanted to answer your letter because it really, really speaks to me. I know from my own experience how hard it is to be in college while living with an illness and I am genuinely proud of you.

Often, the questions we ask are not to the answers we are looking for, but I don’t want to neglect your actual questions, so here goes:

*How do you do the terrifying thing?*

There are two ways that work on their own, but best in combination: you make yourself less terrified and you make the thing less terrifying.

*What tools do you use to move forward when you feel paralyzed with fear?*

You wiggle a little if you can. If you can’t, figure out what you need in order to wiggle a little. A snack? A nap? A hug? Go and get the help and support you need to wiggle a little. If you manage to wiggle a little, be really proud of yourself. Next time you feel paralyzed, and wiggling a little is okay and you feel adventurous, wiggle a lot. Great job! Maybe next time around you can move sideways a little, and then you do that, and so on, and then maybe you realize that you can move forward, or maybe you realize moving forward is not what you want at all because there’s a wall ahead, and then you try and find a door, or realize you want nothing to do with that wall and walk around it until you find something that you want to move towards.

*And how do you hold off the self-loathing when you struggle with
something you “should” be able to do?*

You take yourself seriously, you give yourself permission to feel what you feel, and you focus on being kind to yourself and getting better.

Let me start elaborating on the last point, to take yourself seriously. If you’re too sick to find a job right now, you are too sick to find a job right now. It’s okay. It happens. If you feel too scared browse job listings, you *are* too scared. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Take yourself seriously; if you can’t do it, no one can tell you you should be able to do it. Don’t tell yourself that either. Take your experiences and your life seriously. The job you don’t have right now is not “the real world” — your world is very much real. You
live in the real world already! If you aren’t well enough to do what you want to do, your job is to do everything you can do in order to get better. For instance, if you think you should be browsing job offers, and you can’t because it upsets you so much, be actively kind to yourself. Prepare your favourite meal. Go for a walk. Meet a friend. That’s not procrastination; it’s taking care of yourself and it is and will always be your number one job. If you don’t think you will be well enough soon to find a job you like, apply, interview,
start and have a regular income, make a plan for what you will do instead (e.g. stay with family for some time) Having to find a job when you *have* to because the money is running out is a lot more terrifying and less likely to succeed. Recovering from mental illness is a full-time job and while many people don’t have the luxury to treat it as such, there is absolutely no obligation to work full-time while you’re at it if you can avoid it.

Taking good care of yourself also means facing your anxieties. Not overcoming them, not battling or suppressing them, the first step is facing them. What is the ball of fear you’re experiencing made of? You mention settling into a new job, a new home, a new city. Take a big sheet of paper (or, if you have, a journal) and make three columns, one for each category. Are they still one big ball of fear, or three smaller ones? Pick the one that you think will be easiest for you to think about. What issues do you think you will be experiencing? What exactly are they? How do they look like? Can you put them into words? If you can, write them down into that category. If you have any energy left, think about how you might be able to tackle it. (E.g. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to find a place to live that I can afford.” — “I could ask [person I know in city that I want to live in] if they have
an idea in which part of town I could look for something suited to my budget”). The ball of fear consists of strands, that, when untangled, become more definite, and better to approach than an indefinite big knot.

While you’re at giving yourself permission to feel what you feel, give yourself permission to want what you want. (Poetry time! Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”). What do you want? (If there’s nothing you want but nothingness, it is your job to create the circumstances that the you who went to college and graduated, who worked on the side in STEM-related jobs, and was captain of a club, who did all those amazing things gets the possibility to come back if she wants.)

If you had a guaranteed income that covered all your needs, what would you do? For instance, it took me a year and a half of self-loathing to realize I wasn’t finishing my thesis because I wasn’t remotely as interested in Green Economy in India as I pretended to be, and that graduating with a degree in South Asian studies would not let me be the physician I had never admitted to myself I wanted to be. I don’t have the resources to start anew and go to med school, but I mentioned that to my thesis advisor and she suggested a new topic for my thesis. This new topic let me write a long chapter on the medical aspects of an issue relevant to my subject, and that helped.

If what you want is to find a job and nothing more, try and reframe. Try not to think of it as “I’m job-hunting”; a job is not an elusive animal, the rare quetzal you might hear but rarely see, impossible to keep alive in captivity. A job is like a pair of pants. You might never find the one that fits you perfectly and stays with you until old age. There are those pants that fit quite well, others that are a favourite for some time that you throw out once you’re over them, those that you try on and discard right away, and so on. It’s perfectly fine to get a cheap pair to make do while you shop around for something more durable. It’s perfectly fine to wear corduroy even if you’ve been a jeans type of person all your life. If you can, start to find something that will do for the moment. If on a day you feel well enough to maybe start an application, tell yourself (better, write it down) beforehand what you will do, such as “Today, I will spend ten minutes thinking about how I’m going to list the things I did at previous job that I liked. I will write down two bullet points.” The more specific the better. Set a timer. Don’t even open your CV; write it by hand or into a different file. If that was something you could do: great job! You are done for the day and you can return to your main job of taking care of yourself and recovering. If that’s something you could not do: commend yourself for trying! Return to your main job of taking care of yourself and recovering, and set a smaller goal the next time.

When you start to feel better over time, and more daring, but postings or your CV still petrify you, find something you can do instead. Is there a job fair near the place you
are looking for a job? Could you go and just hang out for a bit? Do you know people who work at companies you’d like to work at that you can ask about how they got that job and what they can recommend? Can you call HR at a place you’re interested in, introduce yourself and ask if you have a shot at applying? Don’t set out to buy the perfect pants. Allow yourself to not go for the one perfect gig. Go window shopping! Find something you might like and try it on. Give yourself time to figure out what you like first, and when that happens — it will, slowly — the terrifiedness will waver and wane. Once you think you’re up for sending out applications that will require communicating to your references, send them a short note. (I’ve never lived in a part of a world where references are a thing, so I’m not completely sure about that; the framework I nicked from https://captainawkward.com/2012/12/20/410-how-do-i-tell-old-professional-contacts-about-my-recent-name-change-now-that-i-need-a-reference/.
Comments welcome).

Dear Reference,

I hope things are well with you! + Some comment about a topic you
talked about, your thesis, your favourite class, a thought you had
etc.

As you may have realized I was not well during my last two years at
school. I am a lot better now and am setting out to apply for jobs. I
will be interviewing for some jobs in [field]. Would it be okay if I
listed you as a professional reference?

Best
Not So Paralyzed Anymore

Lastly, I recently stumbled onto a small project that sifted through the research on what makes a job good for people individually as well as globally. They also evaluated the research on how to get a job, andI like what they came up with.(I am not in any way affiliated with this project). Basically, they recommend that if you apply for a job at a place where you’re not already known, add a “pre-interview project” to your application. A pre-interview project is something that you wrote/designed/came up with that relates to what they do and could be a valuable contribution to their work. If a pre-interview project is something you can see yourself doing, instead of starting with looking at job postings at an organization or company, you could browse through their internet site, read up on their projects/publications/whatever it is they do and think about whether that’s something you’d like to contribute to, and how you’d like to contribute to it, and maybe even sketch your idea. This will give you a better feel for whether it’s worth applying, and gives you an edge if you do apply. If you can’t come up with anything, that might just mean that it’s not something you want to contribute to and that would be alright too, because you’re taking yourself seriously. Keep on doing that, give yourself permission to feel what you feel, and be kind to yourself.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Signed,

Your friendly street medic

Readers, how do you steel yourself to do the hard things?

 

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a situation that is getting very awkward indeed. In a few months, I will be going on vacation to Tokyo with my best friend. This has been a dream of ours for a long time, so we have a lot of plans. A coworker – with whom I’m friendly, but not very close – heard through the grapevine about my trip and started a conversation about when I was going and what I planned to do.

The week after that, she told me that she was planning a trip on the same dates, and she was so glad to know someone who could ‘show her all the sights’. I was a bit taken aback, but I told her my plans had just included myself and my best friend, and we already have reservations booked for just the two of us for most of the attractions we want to see. She seemed to understand and didn’t mention it again for a while.

However, I later overheard her talking to another coworker about ‘our trip’, and how I had planned everything out for ‘us’ to do. I waited until the other coworker was gone so as not to embarrass her, but this time I told her in no uncertain terms that my plans had not and would not include her. She got upset and said I’d been so enthusiastic about my trip that she’d gotten excited as well, and why was it so difficult for one more person to join us?

Since then, she’s kept talking about ‘our’ trip and what ‘we’ll’ do and all objections I make are completely ignored, even though I’ve stopped being polite and I have told her in front of others that she is in no way involved in my trip. I want to have a great experience with my friend and I absolutely do not want to be stuck playing tour guide to an acquaintance.

Since this is not work-related, I don’t feel like I can bring it up to our managers. I know I can’t stop her from making her vacation plans, even if they coincide with my own, but she already knows the name of my hotel and my rough itinerary from that first conversation, so how can I get it across that my friend and I do not want her with us? I’m concerned that she might have booked at the same hotel or that she’ll show up there, and I don’t want to cause a scene or have to try and avoid her. To my knowledge she’s never done anything like this before, so I’m completely baffled by her behavior. Obviously this problem is a bit different from many of the other letters you get, but I have no idea how to address this situation. Help?

Thank you,
Tokyo Traveller

preferred pronouns she/her

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Hi Captain –

I have a question about keeping yourself sane while trying to get out of a bad situation.

I’m trying to leave my job. Everyone I work with is too. I’m at a very small startup, and the main person in charge is both incredibly demanding and extremely volatile, which makes it virtually impossible to succeed. For a variety of reasons,* I can’t just quit, but I am actively looking and trying as hard as I can to get out.

The problem is that, for me at least, job searching is stressful too, and I’m much better at it when I’m in a good place mentally. Unfortunately, our head honcho makes this really difficult. It’s not just a matter of ignoring or deflecting manipulative or unkind comments; it’s that they’re in touch constantly, with all of us, making it hard to even get the time or space for reflection. They don’t have a lot of family and have devoted the last few years to making the company work, which means that they constantly want engagement and validation (even if they’re berating us), and they won’t stop trying to engage until we cave and give them the answer they’re looking for.

For example: they’ll ask, on a weekend, if a previously-undiscussed deliverable can be done by Monday. If I say it can’t, they’ll ask why we’re not working on the weekend when everyone else is working “like mad.” They’ll then keep messaging me asking what it is that they haven’t explained properly about the opportunities before me, and what they can do differently so that I understand it, and then ask if I’m receiving the messages. If I don’t answer, I’ll receive a talk on Monday asking what it is that can be done to make sure a situation like that, in which we’re unreachable, doesn’t happen in the future. (This is often followed by “I’m tired of arguing with you and want to make this work, but I don’t know what else I can do.”)

So my options boil down to either a) completely acquiesce to all requests, regardless of their merit or any other factors, or b) have a pointless, hour-long conversation that consists mostly of being reprimanded. I should also note that they also want to hang out socially with all of us a lot, and pout if we won’t, which, as you can imagine, also affects the workplace dynamic.

I will be much, much better off if I can stay in this position until I find another one or am in a better financial position to leave. In the meantime, though, I’m so stressed and busy that it’s hard for me to do anything, including look for other jobs. Do you have suggestions for scripts I can use on *myself* here in order to keep myself going? My therapist says just to remind myself constantly that I won’t be here forever and that I am leaving as soon as I can, but the more frustrated I am, the less likely that seems. And I feel like this is a situation that a lot of people get into – cutting toxic people out of your life is necessary, but it’s so complicated.

Sincerely,

Working on Freedom (she/her)

*You can include these reasons if you want, but I left them out for brevity. I’m including them here to indicate that I really have thought about leaving, and really have decided that the best option for the moment is to stay until I get another job. Those reasons are:

– I have < 1 month of rent in my savings account, and am reluctant to borrow from my parents
– My job history has quite a few short stints, mostly due to coincidence and/or bad luck (yearlong grant programs, getting laid off, leaving a part-time job in order to take this one, and, yes, one where I was a bad fit)
– I’m in a weird specialized field where the work I’m doing is actually hugely beneficial to my ability to get a job in the future

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Dear Captain,

Thank you for indulging me by reading my email. I have been a lawyer for the last almost 13 years and been at the firm where I am for the last 5. I was so happy to get this job as I have worked in other firms where my desperation to qualify as a lawyer was ruthlessly exploited in the form of terrible pay, or where I was the only person in the firm doing the area of law I do when I was still in the period where the law required me to be supervised, meaning that I had no-one to discuss cases with and was forbidden from having my own stapler or printer and had to walk down 4 floors to pick up printing, which was massively disruptive. For the first 4 years everything was great. I started the job on the same day as an older lawyer called “Jacob”, and we did the same job ie Big Deal Files With Lots of Money Involved That The Other Side are Fighting and the Court is Involved Which Have Massive Consequences If You Mess Up. Two things happened in 2015 – poor Jacob had a breakdown and messed up a lot of his files and left just after Christmas last year, and also I was ill for a few months with terrible ladies’ problems that caused me to bleed non stop, all over the office, for 4 months. I didn’t take any time off work apart from the day I was actually operated on because I had so many Big Deal Files with deadlines, and if I hadn’t done them they would all have gone to poor Jacob who was already struggling with his own work. So I messed up 2 files by not filing documents in time, because I was distracted by bleeding and/or dazed from meds. Unfortunately, “bleeding all over the office” isn’t a legitimate reason not to file documents in the eyes of the court, I should have made sure someone else did it (although if I’d been well enough to think “this, this and this needs done” rather than “aaaaagh stop bleeding” I would just have done it myself) and the cases got thrown out of court, costing the firm money.

After Jacob had a breakdown and left, I inherited all his files. I am now the only lawyer here who does this type of work (we are a very small firm). For the last 5 months or so, my own mental health has been getting worse and worse. More mistakes are happening, the bosses are reminding me constantly that I am costing the firm money, which makes me more nervous, so more mistakes. I am having multiple panic attacks daily, my hair is falling out, I end up being sick from nerves and I have started cutting myself after over a decade of not doing that. I have been having suicidal ideation since the summer but don’t really want to do it, yet find myself planning how I would. I have seen my doctor and been referred to a psychologist (referral came through last week, one session so far) so I am getting attended to by professionals. My husband and friends think I need to quit and get a new job, or at least have some time off. I don’t know how to get that though – Jacob’s “stress” was met with incredulity (“What does he have to be stressed about? We’re a very lenient firm”) and I can’t even articulate why I am finding everything so difficult that I need time off. My doctor has been trying to sign me off for the last 2 months but I have been fighting him off because I have too much to do. If I wasn’t here nobody else knows how to do this kind of work. The bosses know that my mental health is on a downward slide as I told them in the summer after an embarrassing sobfest in the office, and last week I had a file review where I was found to have not worked on some files and I broke down again, sobbing that I wasn’t well. The bosses squirmed awkwardly at the hysterical woman and said that they were a very lenient firm, and that in other firms I would have been fired after the bleeding disasters. I am worried that they are right and that I am just too useless to be a solicitor. I am also worried that I could make a mistake that causes the firm to be shut down.

One of the bosses, “Adrian” has a tendency to nitpick, and once a mistake is made, goes on and on about it, and will call me in to tell me to do something right away even if I am in the middle of something else. The other two are less inclined to lecture, but I still feel guilty for messing up their business. I am not messing up all my cases, just a tiny proportion, but any mistake on cases like this has massive consequences, in the way that the cases that the bosses and the one other lawyer here deal with don’t.

TL, DR version: I am very depressed and anxious and making mistakes which get me into trouble, then I get more depressed and anxious. Am I unreasonable when the bosses are trying to run a business to want some time off? I already had a week off in September to go away with my husband but the day I came back I was already panicking by 10am. I don’t want to stop being a lawyer, I used to be able to do this job. I don’t hate working here either, it is a nice place to work compared to everywhere else I have been, I just hate that this has spiraled out of control to this point.

Thank you again for reading, sorry so rambling

A once-competent lawyer

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Hi Captain,

Earlier this year, I agreed to do some work for someone. We hashed out that I’d do about X hours/week, and they’d pay me $Y/hour. It was a hobby that I never expected to monetize, so I was really surprised that someone was willing to pay for it. Between my two official jobs and all the other stuff I’ve had going on this year (moving, cutting ties with my abusive parents, my mental health taking a nosedive), I hadn’t even noticed that they didn’t pay me… for months, now that I look back on my records. Add to this that the work, which used to be fun, now feels like an utter chore, and I really don’t want to do this anymore.

I need a script (email or text) to deal with them. Ideally, I’d like to a) maximize my odds of getting paid (I know there’s no guarantee, since we never signed a contract or anything, and luckily I can survive without the money), and b) make it clear that I will no longer be working with them, since this behavior is unacceptable. Any advice? All my attempts at writing something come out rude and profanity-laden.

-Why Does Everyone Feel Entitled to Free Millennial Labor?
(He/him.)

PS – any advice on not feeling foolish and irresponsible for not noticing this sooner?

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Dear Captain,

I’m in my early 30’s. Having spent my 20’s doing the ‘right’ things (college -> law school -> office job), I have now recognised what was clear all along, namely that this is not for me at all, and that maybe that’s okay. I’ve also realised that maybe it’s okay to not be making the maximum amount I possibly could be, and okay to say ‘no thank you’ to the budding career I have zero interest in in favour of pursuing my passions.

Passions, of course, don’t pay very well, certainly not at first and possibly never. If I quit right now, today, I would be living hand to mouth with virtually no safety net. If I hold on for another 22 months, then I would have a very substantial safety net, enough to cushion me for a decade or more to come (I would still need to work to feed myself, but I would be able to absorb a good number of unexpected financial blows before going into crisis mode), plus put me in a better position in old age. There is no in between here.

Herein lies the quandary: I could die in six months’ time, in which case I would rather quit now and take my chances. On the other hand, if I did quit now and then didn’t die shortly afterwards, 2020!Me’s life is likely to be significantly more precarious and uncomfortable than it would be if Present!Me stays for the 22 months. I should add here that I tend to be a lot more productive in the creative area I want to pursue when I feel immediately secure, so this isn’t even just about my own comfort, but potentially impacts the quality of the work I want to do (and of course the point of this whole exercise is to give myself a better chance of producing quality work).

Knowing myself, I will probably do the 22 months. I don’t hate my job, have no reason to expect my imminent demise beyond the fact that it could happen to anyone, and the job comes with a fixed end date at the end of the period, so I’m less likely to fall into the trap of just putting it off and putting it off until it becomes too late. I’m just having a hard time reconciling myself to the ‘what if’ part right now right now. Help please?

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Readers! Especially Readers Who Are Also Writers! Here is a blog you might want to know about:

Longtime Awkwardeer Rose Fox has started an advice site for writers called Story Hospital. Every week Rose answers a question from a writer who’s struggling with a work in progress or with writing in general. The site’s tagline is “Heal your relationship with your writing” and it reads a lot like a relationship advice column, with a balanced mix of writing tips and deeper analysis of what leads writers to feel blocked, anxious, or uncertain about their work. So far the site has covered being your own muse, writing peer-reviewed papers while feeling overwhelmed by academia, patching plot holes in novels, and figuring out when to let go of a script draft that’s just not working out, among many other topics relevant to both fiction and nonfiction writers. The site is supported by Patreon and patrons get cool perks, including inspirational postcards and access to a priority question queue. Rose has been a professional writer, editor, and book reviewer for 20 years and is overflowing with great advice. Take a look at their site, and if you’re having trouble with writing of any kind, ask them a question!