What Lives Within Us
Leaving my job and career behind remains one of my bravest acts. As is customary, the benefit of hindsight makes this increasingly clear to me.
I worked as an attorney for sixteen long years. I wish I could say that I only felt like an imposter initially. Instead, I felt like an imposter for the entirety of my career. To make matters worse, I found the work mind-numbingly tedious. Despite positive reviews, early promotions and an expanding client base, I didn’t feel sufficient or comfortable in my role. Instead, I obsessed over my mistakes and perceived shortfalls. I berated myself for not billing more hours, for being inefficient, for my lack of interest, for my shyness at networking events and for struggling with difficult assignments. The panic attack that struck me during my first summer working at a large law firm should have served as a warning signal that perhaps I needed to rethink my career choice or seek out therapy and support for my anxiety. Instead, I interpreted my anxiety attack as concrete proof of my insufficiency. I promised myself to work harder to compensate for my shortcomings. And so that is what I did for many years. Fear of failure and anxiety prodded me to succeed, but my fear and anxiety didn’t leave me when I found professional success. Instead, they stripped me of my ability to recognize and enjoy success. Ultimately, my fear and anxiety overtook not only my career, but my mental well being. I became a raw nerve. My heart-racing anxiety bombarded me with constant reminders of my failings and left me feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, defensive and unworthy. It is difficult to admit that this was my state of mind during major life events that should have been marked by profound happiness and joy, such as my wedding and the birth of my two children. So many of my happy memories are shrouded or blocked out completely by the fear and anxiety that would not release their grip on my mind, even during these joyful experiences.
My decision to quit my job was an act of defiance, a coup within my mind. I finally stood up for myself against paralyzing self-doubt and fear. This act shifted the power balance in my mind in a monumental way. Fear and anxiety were replaced by a sense of empowerment and hope.
There are many lessons embedded in my experience. I am still trying to unpack and learn from them so I don’t fall prey to the same missteps. But I have learned that fear, anxiety and self-doubt are not sustainable motivating forces and that I am so much more the sum of my accomplishments. Twenty-five years later, I am finally beginning to appreciate the wisdom in Thoreau’s quote, which, ironically, I chose for my high school senior year write-up:
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.
Fear and anxiety continue to live within me, but no longer reign over me.
Day 3 of the New Year's resolutions.....is anyone else feeling exhausted already? Back to the grind and the temperature hasn't even hit zero. My New Year's resolutions list is never-ending:
Stop eating sugar! Cut out carbs! Work out! Yell less! Figure out a new career...but work harder at my current job until I find a new one! Save money! Be more patient!
I started off with more, but since I have already broken a few, they have fallen off the list. Above is what remains. They all seemed reasonable and entirely necessary on New Year’s day, but I'm already hankering for the rest of my son's half-eaten chocolate Santa that is lying on the cluttered kitchen counter beside me (maybe I could just have one bite since I am journaling...which, by the way, was another resolution I forgot to list above. Oh, along with getting more organized and meditating).
This was (and on many days remains) the tape circling relentlessly in my mind. This mental tape, combined with my own lack of gratitude and self-compassion, set me up for for feelings of chronic insufficiency, exhaustion and powerlessness for many more years than I'd care to admit. I have willpower and self-control. That much I know. I willed myself through a seventeen-year career in which I felt suffocated and unfulfilled most of the time. My husband once joked that my middle name should be Endure. Although I achieved many of my goals, I constantly felt as though I was coming up short in all arenas. I never felt like I was enough. This feeling made me more prone to giving up on my aspirations and seeking refuge in a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, which only escalated my feelings of insufficiency and shame. After years of this grind, I decided to do something drastic. I decided to quit my job. Given my identity had been so closely tied to my career, this decision was terrifying. I wasn't quite sure who I was beyond my resume of accomplishments, but I knew I needed to change my lifestyle and mindset.
During this uneasy transition period, I relied heavily on a bevy of self-help books, therapy sessions, family and friends (including Ben and Jerry). And slowly their teachings, guidance and support caused something within me to shift in a monumental way. Slowly I came to recognize and appreciate the importance of one simple key (and previously lacking) ingredient in my life: gratitude. I started small and with reservation. I began with a simple journal exercise writing down at least five things for which I was grateful each day. At first, I found this exercise silly and almost trivial. But (because of my amazing will power) I stuck with it. And, in time, I began to notice and appreciate so many aspects of myself and my life that I had come to take for granted. Taking the time to appreciate my blessings not only made me feel more grateful generally. It also made me feel empowered and energized in a way I hadn’t felt before.
I have a long way to go. I still opt for mint chocolate chip ice cream on many more occasions than is likely healthy. I haven’t yet found my perfect career and my kids will tell you I’m a yeller. My list of resolutions remains never-ending and largely unfulfilled. But, the manner in which I react and respond to life’s disappointments has changed. I no longer berate myself in such a hostile way when I feel I’m falling short. I no longer attach my sense of self-worth to the attainment of (or, more accurately, my failure to attain) my goals. At long last, I am okay in my own skin on most days. This simple truth is wildly liberating and has brought me more happiness and peace than all prior accomplishments combined.
My resolutions are inspirational goals. They no longer feel quite as burdensome, unattainable or overwhelming because I know I will be alright if they remain unmet. And tomorrow always offers a fresh start.
I enjoyed the chocolate Santa immensely, by the way. I can always choose to focus on the no sugar/no carb resolutions tomorrow, but today I choose to follow the most important resolutions for me: be kind to oneself and others and practice gratitude.
Happy New Year! Check out the attached article and TED Talk which I hope you will find helpful and interesting!
Achor, Shawn, “Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance.” TEDxBloomington, May 14, 2011. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXy__kBVq1M)
DeSteno, David, “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions,” New York Times, December 28, 2017. (www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/opinion/sunday/the-only-way-to-keep-your-resolutions.html?smtyp=cur)