I think I'm addicted to quitting my job!

Lately my longest stay is about 18 months. At a year I get itchy and start drafting my resignation letter.

Published February 5, 2008 11:18AM (EST)

Dear Cary:

I am closing in on my second year at a really great job, which means, based on the past, that it's a few months past time for me to look for another one.

I think I am addicted to getting new jobs.

This is my fourth job in eight years. Five jobs ago I quit a position I'd held for almost 20 years, a job I really hated and spent years trying desperately to leave. Since then I've picked up and moved on about every 18 months. They've all been good jobs, but after about 18 months I start getting inwardly hostile and resentful over various slights real and imagined. (Mostly imagined.) I don't do anything overtly negative -- mostly I just think bad thoughts -- and by all appearances people like me well enough and think I'm doing fine. But I feel myself working into a "take this job and shove it" mentality, even though I am usually treated very well.

I've come to feel that I am just addicted to quitting and being hired. Maybe it's the special attention I get when I quit. "Congratulations -- but we'll miss you so much!" Maybe it's the affirmation of someone else stating in such a public way that they like and approve of me.

I think, too, that I have an exaggerated need for perfection in myself. I've made lots of small and medium mistakes in this job and no one seems to be holding them against me, but I get this nagging feeling that people are disappointed in me. I find myself wishing that I could start over somewhere else where I can do a fantastic job and will know enough not to make those mistakes again, and a new group of people will think I'm absolutely wonderful -- no fears of anyone thinking, "Yeah, she's good at most things but boy -- there are some things she really sucks at!"

I don't want to leave, plus I'm at the age where great jobs like this one will soon be harder for me to come by. I guess I just need your help in getting over myself.

Quittin' Time One Time Too Many

Dear Quittin',

Many of us change locations in the hope of changing a behavioral pattern. In recovery we call these actions "geographics," as in, "Oh, I kept doing geographics but nothing really changed," or, "Things would get tough and then I'd pull a geographic." One often hears that yes, indeed, changing partners or changing houses or jobs did bring temporary relief. But then the same behavioral patterns reemerge, and one becomes increasingly unhappy and displeased with oneself.

Driving our impulses to flee are spiritual, psychological and emotional phenomena. In order to survive in this world, one has to learn to process, rather than deflect, the day's numerous frictions and slights. One needs to develop a working method for facing and containing feelings of discomfort, anxiety, fear, anger, resentment and so on. And one needs to begin developing a self-concept that places one in the middle of the range of human excellence rather than at the top or the bottom of the range, a self-concept that allows one to excel and also to make errors and to grow. In that way one can eventually experience a feeling of being "right-sized." And then, whether you decide to continue a job or not, you can choose based on realistic goals, rather than in an addictive way.

How do you do this? How do you begin? If you were drinking a quart of vodka a day I could tell you where to begin. But since you do not appear to have that kind of deadly trouble, I can only say that your main area of work would appear be in the area of perfectionism and self-acceptance. There are many books about this thing and I wish I could recommend one in particular but I can only suggest that you begin investigating this phenomenon by reading as much as you can get your hands on; I haven't read these books but they might be a good place to start. Go to a big bookstore and leaf through the books on perfectionism and see if anything in any of them strikes a chord with you. You be the judge. You can change. Books can help. Therapists can help. Groups can help. You can change.

And I don't mean to imply that you have to change because work is a wonderful thing and that if you don't love it, you're sick. Nor do I hold the view that the purpose of psychology is to make people better adjusted so they can better serve industry and the state. Rather, I think if you can learn about your own perfectionism, you can be happier and can better decide what to do next. If that means quitting, fine.

It is also important to consider the workplace setting in which you are having these problems. The cubicle system does seem to increase isolation even while granting no privacy.

Growing up, you spend your time in classrooms where productive activities occur; only now and then, when something is fucked up, do you go to "the office." The office is the place of confrontation and difficulty. The office is where bad things occur, the quiet eddy on the edge of the river where things swirl and get caught, the place where things and people are corrected.

When we think of "an office," we think of the place where productive activity is coordinated. The work takes place in the factory or the fields or the classroom or on the road or in the streets or at construction sites, and then "the office" is where people just keep track of stuff and do the accounting. But these days "the office" seems to be the central location of labor for so many millions of us. How did that happen? How did those of us who do all kinds of work end up working in identical areas, in areas that seem to be designed for clerks, supervisors and the like? Are we all just clerks and supervisors now?

In sports, there are the players and then there are the people in "the office." In politics, there are the people and then there are the leaders who "hold office." The office is the place apart from the real place where the work is done and the lives are lived. No wonder it has metastasized into this monstrous place of existential despair: It is a place of no meaning. And yet it is a place where power is exercised.

So if you are freaking out, join the club. I've been freaking out for years. I never tire of freaking out. I'm one long continuous freakout. But freaking out doesn't create new economic models for sustainable production.

If you analyze the situation, you may realize that you're quitting for a good reason: You don't belong in an office working for other people.

That may mean that the thing for you to do is stop working for other people and start working for yourself. Think of it this way: If you form your own company, you will never again get a memo from the front office. Of course, on the other hand, it makes it a little harder to quit. Like, who do you write your resignation letter to?

Wondering about work? See page 130.

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