I'm writing to you with what is, in my own opinion, a fairly self-indulgent request for advice. I am 25, recently moved to a new city, less recently single. I have always thought of myself as "successful" or a "go-getter" -- but in the past few weeks I've had a revelation ... I'm not actually that person at all! In fact, I think I might be the polar opposite of a go-getter, but it seems that my ability to keep my life together rests on my ability to be that person.
Let me try to explain a little more clearly. I was always a top student in high school, went to a prestigious college, and am now working in a very intellectually satisfying job. The problem is, I feel like I somehow rode the wave of everyone else's (my high school friends, college friends, mentors, etc.) high expectations and just decided to work hard/be successful at things because everyone else was doing it.
I don't think I'm unoriginal, or boring. I actually feel like I have an incredible amount of intelligence and creativity that I want to channel into something productive. Sadly, though, there seems to be something inside of me that keeps me from actually making the efforts necessary to do the things I want to do! The revelation went something like this: "Oh, that's why you can't get noticed at work/lose weight/get a date/do something artistic/(insert ANY life goal), because you give up before you've even started!" I am constantly thinking -- daydreaming even -- about lofty goals for my work and personal life, but I immediately start thinking about all the reasons they won't work and then I never even try.
Since moving to my new city and starting a new job, I've been thrust into a work environment full of REAL go-getters and overachievers who appear to be "having it all." I'm sure I look like I fit in on the surface, but I am panicked, anxious and giving up on myself internally.
How do I reconcile the image of myself I've had for 25 years with what appears to be a completely incongruous reality? I'm afraid I will continue to exist in this tenuous, stressful state until I can figure it out. I'm writing to you because I'm really at a loss -- is this something everyone goes through? Am I supposed to just read inspiring words and fix it myself, seek advice, seek medication? Help!
Leading a Double Life
Dear Double Life,
One time this therapist I was working with told me, "You can't think your way through this." Intellectually, I knew what that meant. I was going to have to feel certain things without knowing precisely what they were or where they were leading. I knew I was going to have to live with that. But it was very unnerving. I was used to knowing by thinking. I thought I knew something if I could think about it and verbalize it. This put me in new territory. It was a feeling revelation.
I know we're sort of talking about "feelings," and yet, don't you feel it's sort of ridiculous to "talk about our feelings"? I do. It's not that I want to hide them, but I just feel it's kind of a lie to say "I am feeling this" or "I am feeling that." Like, the language is not up to the task. Even the language of a professional language user like me. So while "talking about our feelings" isn't exactly what we're after, we're after something that definitely involves the feelings and not the intellect.
So, my friend, you are going to have to go on a kind of journey. You're going to have to do certain things and trust that answers will come to you. That involves letting go of a certain amount of control. It involves not doing what you have been doing. It involves change.
I mean, I'm confident that you're going to be fine, and I'd like you to trust me on that, but I'm not saying it will be easy, because lurking in this issue are some subtle concepts about the self and the world that you can only really get through emotional experience.
Just sit with your dreams and desires. Exempt them from the feasibility study. Regard them with interest. Allow yourself to feel the way you feel about them.
This sounds really woo-woo. But, hey. There is no shortcut. You're going to have to head in a new direction.
Let's try to describe the direction. It is a direction toward authenticity. Right now, you are recognizing that you have acted inauthentically. It worked, for a while, but it was inauthentic. And then it stopped working and started to hurt. This happens a lot. We act a certain way because it meets our needs for a time, but then it starts to hurt. When it starts to hurt, we have some choices. If we don't know what the pain is, or that the pain is a good thing, and a normal thing, and a source of information, we may panic, thinking there is something wrong with us. We may concentrate on blotting out the feeling. And if we don't know how to go through the process of discarding the old way and taking up the new, we can get stuck. It takes courage to set out doing things in a new way. You're not going to know, right away, exactly where you're headed. So I suggest that you visualize, or dream, or speak from the heart, or sketch on a piece of paper, what you actually want -- where you want to be right now, what you want to be doing, what you want to own.
Sit with your ideas and desires. Nix the feasibility study. Just see and feel what you want. You want to be noticed at work. What is that concretely? Is it a promotion? Public praise? Is there one person whose approval you want? What would that person say to you? Do you want a raise? How much money do you want? Name a figure. Do you see yourself on a dais in a large banquet hall receiving an award? Do you see your name on a marquee, or at the top of a roster of speakers in an ad, or in an announcement as having received a prestigious award?
Write these things down. Sketch them. Don't worry about how to achieve them. You just want to know what the new direction is.
Now hear this: It may turn out that you do not want awards. You may want a dog, or a guitar. Who knows. I'm guessing it's been a long time since you could ask for what you want without having a career rationale.
Here are some other things you mention: "lose weight/get a date/do something artistic." Take some time to make these concrete. Do you have a weight goal? How much would you like to weigh? Is there someone you want to have a date with? What is the name of this person? And if you could do anything artistic, what would it look like or sound like? Where would it hang or appear? What materials would you use?
I guess, eventually, if you find that you really want certain things, then you will be allowed to move to the stage of getting them. But for now, my opinion is that you have been doing too much getting and not enough wanting. So stick to wanting for a while. See if that doesn't relieve some of the anxiety about getting. Let go of getting. Just stick with wanting.
Oh, and this final thing: Would it help if I said that you do not have to reconcile the image you have had of yourself with the new image that has emerged? Let them be different. That is fine. That is what change is.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.