Dear Captain Awkward,
I reached a major professional milestone that I have been working towards for seven years in college and while working. (Not an unusual amount of time.) My colleagues and I received our results simultaneously. Less than half of us were successful (also not unusual). We’re around the same age, but I am not close to them. I sat quietly within view of them congregating near my desk to discuss, but felt it was not my place to interject much disappointment with my good news. I am sure they did not want to put me on the spot (often we wait to be told rather than ask unless you’re close).
I emailed a few colleagues and texted my family/friends. My family wanted to know what I was doing to celebrate, and I had nothing to report. My three local friends were not available. My colleagues were also unavailable to grab a drink or fancy dessert. My boss encouraged me to leave early, which I was reluctant to do, so I took a break to have dessert at a café. By myself.
As the news spread this week, folks urged me to make extravagant purchases, plan trips, and eat and drink copiously to celebrate. No one offered to join me. Usually there is a happy hour to mark the results, but if there was one I wasn’t informed/didn’t overhear.
I made plans with a friend for today, but she canceled shortly beforehand due to an unavoidable problem with her apartment. All local friends are now unavailable for two weeks. My family lives out of state.
Tangentially, when I first saw my results, I didn’t really feel anything. When I completed the previous step, my success was a huge surprise, and I clearly recall my astonishment and delight. This time, I felt more confident when finished, but I didn’t feel the relief that I remember from before. After the long wait for results, I was expecting/hoping for relief and joy, but neither manifested.
I told colleagues who asked that I felt excited but a little anxious because “I’m already behind with studying!”
There is another optional step that will take at least two more years, possibly much more. Due to company policy, short of a medical exception, I am not allowed to take a break (though I may stop permanently) and must continue these assessments twice a year. This accounts for 400-600 hours of commitment annually outside of work. Most colleagues have made or are making this commitment, and it’s standard for my industry. I am told the previous step was the most challenging. I had a rough couple of months preparing, being very focused but also easily upset.
This process requires lots of my non-work energy. I find group studying to be less productive. I am also a lifelong introvert. (I would even say I’m aggressively introverted.) I engage socially with colleagues/friends once-ish per week outside work in “off” study times, less when I am studying. I often initiate. I try not to turn down invitations because I receive few, and I usually have a good time. I also have lunch with a few people and socialize at work. The folks I started with aren’t in my office anymore, and the group I tested with all started together later. My closest friends live in different states, so I see them rarely. I would rather have a pelvic exam than have to meet/befriend strangers.
tl;dr I didn’t react appropriately to amazing news. Instead I felt sad, empty, and isolated. I am not sure if the root of this is the milestone itself—what have I really achieved? My daily role has not changed, and I am not truly finished, so I must again begin the grueling cycle of preparing for the next assessment. Or were my feelings influenced because I didn’t have an outlet to celebrate and that was disappointing?
So my questions are: 1) How can I better nurture my friendships when I have these responsibilities and this introverted temperament? I feel like my emails go largely unanswered and engagements cancelled as often as not. What can I do differently? I have been told I am a good, supportive friend, and people ask for email updates (without reciprocating), but I feel like Team Me is largely second string, and it’s not my right to demand anything of anybody, while gentle requests for support are not taken seriously. And 2) How can I be more excited and positive about this accomplishment? I am afraid I am focusing too much on the friend-related disappointment or the difficult steps ahead. I want to savor this, but I seem not to know how.
She/her is fine.
Finally a Professional
Dear Finally A Professional:
Congratulations on achieving (whatever it is). It makes total sense that the achievement would feel anticlimactic since so much work on this particular goal remains ahead of you. You’re in the middle, and it still feels like the middle.
You sound to me like a person who needs a break, a short trip to visit someone close to you, and an ongoing local pleasant, low-pressure outlet for companionship.
Could you get a massage? It sounds like you can afford a nice treat, and the catharsis of being rubbed and kneaded until some of the tension leaves your body might help right now. It sounds like your shoulders are up around your ears. See if someone can help you (physically, at least) drop them down a peg.
Could you spend a little time thinking about your career & life goals? Maybe jump on a journaling habit? Are you happy and excited about where all this testing and studying is leading you? Can you think of some people in your field who you admire, who do the most interesting and relevant and useful aspects of your profession? Is there a way to add something that really interests you to your current job duties? Does your company have an opportunity for you to job-swap with another department, cross-train in another role, or transfer to an office (maybe one that is closer to your favorite people)?
Could you take a day off from work to take a long weekend to visit one of your far-flung friends or family? Why not throw some clothes and a book you’ve been meaning to read in a bag and hop a train to see a friendly face? You need a change of scene and to be in a room with someone who loves you. Combine the “celebration of milestone” with “short break” and “refilling your friendship well.” And don’t gently hint at it – ask/tell. “Old Friend, I would love to see your face this weekend. If I make it into town for a day or two can we meet up for brunch or dinner?” “Friend, I want someone to celebrate this big work deal with. If I hop the train this Friday, can we meet up for a drink?” It’s okay to flash the “Hey, I need you!” symbol in the sky. If travel doesn’t work, institute a Skype date or a long gossipy phone call. Email isn’t working, social media isn’t working, gently holding back isn’t working, and you’ve been trying so hard not to impose on anyone that you’ve started to disappear. It’s okay to say, “Friend, I’m a little lonely right now and I need you.” Vulnerability connects us as much if not more than celebrating achievements. You’re allowed to want that and ask for it.
These are three pieces about nurturing friendships among adults that I really like:
My Mother Showed Me How To Hit The Jackpot, by Kate Harding. (You might cry when you read this). I have a group of far-flung friends who make the effort to get together in one place at least once a year, and it is the best. If you can’t visit a friend now, can you try to plan a trip with a few people?
Friday Night Meatballs (about hosting a regular get together, which seems like a weird thing for an introvert to do, until you realize that you control every aspect of it and then kick people out of your house at a set time). To implement: Pick a day, gather your three local friends together at your place, and feed them. “I’m celebrating finishing [MILESTONE], please come join me.“If you enjoy it, try doing it once a month. Every now and then invite someone new and get to know them better.
How Do I Make Friends In My Late 20s, Ask Polly. An excerpt:
“This is the downside of living in a gigantic country like the U.S.: You move away for college, you move away for work, you move away because you meet a great guy or girl, and one day you wake up and you’re 2,000 miles away from anyone who knows you really well. For someone who’s faintly allergic to small talk, who can never quite hit that lowest common denominator of casual chattiness, who can never quite manage to burble happily about the weather and the news and those cute shoes and the new restaurant down the block, making brand-new friends sounds about as appealing as a trip to the podiatrist.”
Sound like you?❤ She’s got some wisdom in there about connecting with people different from you and looking for things to like about people. I know, you said the thought of befriending strangers is literally The Worst. But your distant-yet-beloved network isn’t really doing it for you right now, nor are your work colleagues, nor is the thought of pouring yourself into hundreds more hours of studying. What could you do that is fun (maybe a physical activity of some sort, something that gets you into your body or your hands or your senses in some way) AND gets you out of your office AND out of your house AND into proximity with other people once a week? Join a choir. Try something new, something you don’t have to be good at, or reconnect with an old hobby. Meet a couple of new folks where you live. You don’t have to befriend them, you just have to show up and give it a chance. You need an outlet and a change of pace. I know you hate this advice, but making friends at multiple stages in life is a skill and sometimes there is no substitute for pleasant proximity to other people (even people who don’t necessarily have anything in common with you on the surface) when you’re trying to find your way back to having community.
- Treat yourself.
- Take a small break.
- See or at least call a friend (be vulnerable).
- Do something new that connects you to others, even if it’s just the shared work of petting puppies in the animal shelter.
- Give it time and be nice to yourself.
You’re not weird for feeling this way, and you’re not alone. I hope your friends come through and that you find a place that reminds you that you belong.