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.