Work

Just a year ago, when I talked about work, I meant studying, coming up with new ideas. Developing courses for classes I was teaching, or just as an exercise for a course. Reading dense material, and being overcome by new ideas. Writing incessantly. Writing my ideas and forming them into a coherent narrative. Pages and pages of writing. I was rigorous, disciplined. I worked.

The New Work

Now that I’ve graduated and work full-time in a postacademic job, work has a whole new meaning. It means, get up early, before the sun rises most days, and drive for well over an hour to a j-o-b. A place where I’m expected to sit for 8+ hours, typing away at a computer. Occasionally chatting with coworkers about trivial things. Typing away some more. Work now refers to the act of being in front of a glowing rectangle.

Whether I do work or not is another story. I’m not required to be doing work constantly. At my current workplace, there simply isn’t enough to keep me typing away on specific projects. So I keep typing anyway, spinning that little rollerball on my mouse, clicking clicking, and it looks like I’m working.

Changes

Well, I’m tired of this. I want to actually be working. I am hoping this will be the case at the new job I just landed, to begin in 2 weeks. I want to be occupied with projects that use my brain, that require me to really think about how things fit together. That demand my attention. That cause me to spin in different directions, working problems out in my head.

Of course, there’s a decent chance this won’t be the case at the new job. It may just be the same notion of being in front of a glowing rectangle, ticking away at the keyboard.

The New New Work

In anticipation of this reality, I need to figure out what to do with my brain the rest of the time. When I’m in the shower in the morning, getting ready for my job. When I’m driving. What do I think about? While on my lunch break. At home after dinner. What stimulates me the way school did?

What new new kind of work can I do now?

Success and Shame: Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act II

Not long ago, I talked about shame, specifically around socially expected knowledge. I have long felt a sense of shame or embarassment at the possibility (or reality) of not knowing certain information, especially knowledge linked to cultural expectations. For example, the type of knowledge that leads to appreciating classical music or knowing which fork to use if you’re a member of a certain social class.

Ah, the classic dichotomy: upper versus lower class.

The Pretty Woman syndrome.

These social class issues are often connected to formal education. Someone educated at a university is often* viewed as part of a certain social class, versus someone who never obtained a college education. If that education occurred at an elite institution or the person went on to graduate school, the expectations re: knowledge and social class are even more rigid and specific.

*One of my limitations here is a tendency to overgeneralize; while I acknowledge there are nuances to these rigid views, I want also to point out that there exist social expectations that influence behavior. Nota bene: I have already pointed out that I am acutely sensitive to this issue, which may throw into question my ability to objectively study this issue. Luckily for me, there’s no such thing as objective.  But I know not all audiences espouse this belief, which is why I feel such unease with factual knowledge – I know it’s expected, but another part of me believes it’s bunk.

Stereotypes.

Many people would agree that a person with a Ph.D. conjures up a certain set of images. A Ph.D. is often equated with Professor, academic, scholar. Somewhat elite, old, stodgy, stuffy. Expert. Absent-minded. Nerdy. Elbow patches.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these adjectives are my own, rather than belong to this elusive “many people.”

Imposter syndrome. Again.

I have a Ph.D. It was a long road, and I worked very hard. A part of me is tremendously proud to be part of this elite group.

Yet I am also ashamed at my degree.

I am overwhelmed by the attention I sometimes get. And scared sh*tless that I’ll be found out to not have the knowledge I’m expected to have. Feeling pre-emptive shame at the possibility of being exposed as not knowing things. Especially because now people think I should possess certain knowledge because I have a Ph.D. I have ratcheted up my social capital such that I am more visible, respected, and better regarded because I have this degree. Expectations are now higher for me, the person with a doctorate. I am the doctor, after all.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?”

In social groups, I wither at the thought that I’ll be asked to dissertate on some topic simply because I have a higher degree. That I’ll be encouraged to tell everyone about my dissertation.

This terrifies me.

I accomplished the Ph.D. for myself, for my own edification, not so that I could be legitimized to go on a diatribe about an obscure topic. The last thing I want to do is share my knowledge, particularly concrete or factual knowledge (personal or emotional knowledge, such as what I learned while completing my degree, is another story altogether. I’d willingly “lecture” about the emotional aspects of graduate education – clearly a topic of a future post). I am really uncomfortable sharing specific, factual knowledge.

Maybe because I’m afraid I don’t have any.

I’d rather keep to myself, share my ideas (especially academic ideas) with my close friends. Sure, I write and research, and I have been published. I want to continue to be published, in fact. So I’m not interested in completely hiding. Yet, especially when asked to recount factual information,

I have this paralyzing fear I’ll be found out to be completely incompetent, uncultured, and not terribly smart.

It all comes down to money. And social class.

It occurred to me while discussing financial matters recently that there is a correllary between the embarassment I feel around my “lower class,” poor  upbringing and the shame I experience related to knowledge expectations, my current social class, and higher education.

I feel an Act III coming on.

 

Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act I

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Something I already know just occurred to me again. I love it when that happens (although technically this should be in my Notes to Self since I keep forgetting about it).

It’s the calmest, most comforting thought I could ever have.

I can let myself off the hook.

Sweet. I can relax. I don’t have to be everything. I don’t have to know everything. It’s okay. I’m good just as I am.

Remember this.

Most of the time, I forget all this. I often feel insecure and embarassed because I’m not up on certain things. This could be anything: politics, local news, academic theorists, musicians, pop culture references, math, gardening, dog breeds. Really any topic that someone else covers that I don’t already know.  I have no idea why I demand of myself unilateral knowledge of all possible topics.

I guess it’s because I don’t want to appear stupid. Stoopid. I don’t want people to think I don’t know things, because dammit, I do.

It could be that this all goes back to that pesky Imposter Syndrome – meaning I’ll be found out that I’m really a fraud, that I don’t really know what I’m doing, that I’m not actually smart, but just lucked out with a Ph.D. It just happened, and had nothing to do with me, since I’m clearly not as bright as people think.

Or fear of being embarassed since I should know certain things if I am as “cultured” as someone with a Ph.D. so typically is. What does it mean if I do not know certain information? Certain socially accepted information?

Feminist Sandra Harding calls this information “socially legitimated knowledge.” Knowledge I am expected to possess based on my social class, cultural standing, educational purchase, sexuality, and gender. Women are supposed to be well versed and comfortable in the domestic sphere. Men are great with cars and home repair. A straight woman who lives in a townhouse in Northern Virginia is likely to have a certain type of job and drive a certain car.

Gah, I can see how the more elaborate I make these scenarios, the more likely they are to break down. They can’t sustain the stereotype. Which should be evidence enough to me that much of my expectations around what types of knowledges I should possess are constructed.

Self-constructed.

Sure, these expectations have been reinforced throughout my life by various people who are surprised that I didn’t possess certain types of knowledges. For example, a smart high school friend who is shocked I didn’t know about a recent global political event. A college friend who said he couldn’t believe I didn’t know about that literary theory, since I should already have learned it. These observations are often followed by head-shaking and the admonishment, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that!” The implication is that only a dumb person would miss that. Since you’re educated, you should know this stuff!

Should, should, should. Why are there social expectations around knowledge?

Perhaps more important, why do I have such a rigid sense of what I should know? Sure, there have been external influences, such as those mentioned above, but I really must admit that most of my embarassment around knowing stuff (or not knowing, to be more precise) is internal.

Freedom from shame.

I believe that at the core of my insecurity over alleged lack of knowledge is a deep shame.

Tara Brach explores shame in her Buddhist-inspired book (which I have on CD) Radical Self-Acceptance. She suggests that many of us are walking around every day holding a painful feeling of shame, shame of not being enough. That we’re not rich enough, don’t know enough, aren’t charitable enough. You name it, we’re just not cutting it.

This is such a touchy topic that I believe is at the core of much of my anxiety. I suspect this will have to play out in several acts.

Trying Too Hard

I don’t yet fully believe there is such a thing — for me — as trying too hard.

Yet I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that my tendency to try too hard, to overachieve, to worry every problem to the bone, is probably not doing me any favors.

Don’t tell me how to be.

For whatever reason, I just remember my childhood’s being riddled with:

“Just chill out, would you, Dawnrey?”

When I was younger, my ostensibly relaxed friends often told me to “chill out.” They’d be all like, “just chill, Dawnrey. Relax, would you?” It would drive me crazy because it felt dismissive. That my opinion, my worries, my ideas didn’t matter. That I was blowing things out of proportion yet again. Even that maybe I was freaking everyone out because I was proposing things they hadn’t thought of or didn’t think mattered (but maybe worried did). I would be all, “don’t tell me how to be.”

How to be.

I really hate to admit that even if the delivery wasn’t always sensitive, the message was something I’d do well to heed.

The message, really, was:

“Relax. It’s okay. We got this. It’s going to be fine.  No need to fret or be so serious.”

I would like to remember this message, especially now, when I’m in the throes of trying to establish a career. Whatever that means. And live a happy, satisfied life.

I’ve come through a number of significant life transitions in the past 6 months, transitions that have altered my life’s direction. That have reminded me that my path is not what I imagined a few years ago.

Trying too hard.

What I’m realizing is that these life shifts have caused me to feel more anxious, which for me often results in overachieving. I work harder to excel at whatever I’m doing, whether it’s cleaning the house, doing academic work, excelling at work, or being the best dog mom. Whatever I do, I often feel I have to do perfectly.

I often feel I have to give 100% of myself. I have been attempting this recently, and I’m drained. I’m working too hard, trying too hard to achieve. What I’m really trying to do is overcompensate just in case I can’t manage everything in my life.

I’m overachieving out of fear of underachieving.

And of course because I cannot keep up stellar performance in every area of my life, I often feel overwhelmed and fearful. I’ve been embarassed by these feelings because I feel like I should be able to handle this.

What I’m realizing is I can handle this, my lovely life with my partner, my pets, my job, my home, my creative pursuits. I can totally handle that kind of responsibility and joy.

What I cannot handle – and what I shouldn’t have to handle – is my unending rigor in every pursuit. It’s unsustainable. That pressure. It’s just too much.

“Relax, Dawnrey.”

Where to cut back, or shift the effort.

So now the question is, how much effort do I choose expend in what areas of my life? Will this happen organically?

Guess what? I don’t plan on trying too hard to find out. In fact, I am going to aim for doing a half-assed job.

The Briefing: It’s(me)!

My ongoing self-work of being good to myself and staying in the present (I think they’re related, since future catastrophizing often results in self-disparaging thoughts for some reason) became an important self-care tool recently at work.

I have been assigned the task of Subject Matter Expert (a phrase that is so important around here, it’s got its own acronym: SME). So I’m the SME for a new product that is being launched.

My job was to brief my team in front of the head boss about the product, focusing specifically on action items for which we’re responsible. I created a nice handout for the group and proceeded to summarize the launch meeting I had previously attended. I was frequently interrupted by other people’s needs/demands/random questions. I have in the past witnessed the head bosses’ tendency to obsess over small details that aren’t as relevant when addressing the broader picture, which is what the goal of my briefing was.

When I got the nitpicky questions, a couple of times, I didn’t have the answer. There isn’t a ton of material on this new product, and I’m still learning it.

Not knowing. This is when I start freaking out.

Excellent Fodder for Ego Stroking.

I noticed that when I didn’t know the answer, I started to beat myself up over not knowing things. Over not conducting the briefing with more command and poise. I feared everyone was looking at me thinking, ‘how did this girl get *this* gig?’ ‘How can she not even know the product? – *she’s* supposed to be our SME? Boy are we in trouble!’

Screeeeeeaaaach!

Halt.

Stop. Stop.

Let’s Look at the Facts.

Okay, so what is true here (that is, what would outside observers agree is factual)? That I distributed a well-written, concise handout to the team. That I introduced the product and made several excellent points and observations. I covered all the relevant bases for this meeting. I answered a couple of questions about specific details. I stayed present, focused, and articulate.

Other facts include that I was interrupted frequently with questions better addressed with a smaller group. That I didn’t have all the answers. No one did. It’s too new.

So what’s coming up for me here is feeling like I should have done this perfectly and known all the answers.

Dah Dah Dah! Dawnrey’s  Ego Stroking Team to the Rescue!

This is where ego stroking needs to swoop in and be of service. It will serve me well to focus on what I did right, on how competent I am, on how much I have learned since starting this job, on my eagerness to take initiative and understand the product.  I am choosing to believe that I am viewed as competent, articulate.

That is because I am electing to believe I see myself this way. Fake it until you make it.

And I know, I know that I am competent and a strong communicator. Sure, I’m not a big fan of briefing people about something I’m just learning. That’s always been the case. I’m sensitive about that. And I’m working through it. Part of the challenge for me is that I need time to absorb information, need time to assimilate it before I’m ready to share it. Some people can learning something and are inexplicably and instantly conversant in it. That’s not how my learning process works.

What I am fantastic at is researching, being thorough, and writing. I’ll be bold and brazen in my writing. Not so much verbally. Quite simply, I express myself very well through writing. Which is why my job is a Curriculum Writer, not a public speaker.

That said, I realize that verbal presentations are important in the workplace. And I know from experience, from evidence, that I can be a persuasive and articulate public speaker when I need to be.  At this quiet, small briefing, the job got done. Sure, I didn’t meet my unreasonable standards of perfection. But I completed the task competently and with care. And I learned more about the types of information/questions that this group needs during briefings. That is important information as well.

So I choose to let go of any feelings of incompetency and fears of what my coworkers think of me.* I know I did the job acceptably well and that I will continue to be called on to take the lead on projects because of who I am, not of who I fear I am.

*Although I must admit later I was happy to know people were impressed by the handouts, the fancy paper I used, and that this was viewed as going above and beyond what was expected.

Why I am Lucky

Maybe all that daily writing in my Gratitude Journal is paying off.  Here I am at work, surrounded by frustrated people, at a place full of drama, bureaurocrazy (!), and insecurity. People complaining, dissatisfied. Not a good environment for me. 

Then I see a random news report about unemployed people camping out in the rain in search of a job prospect.

And I realize that even though I am searching for another job as we speak, I still feel grateful for this job.  It pays very well, I have health insurance, and I get to sit inside in a warm, dry office blogging working. While there are people outside praying for a paycheck.

I need to remember this mindset.

Because I didn’t grow up so privileged. Far from it. I grew up on welfare, in public housing, or else in apartments so run-down that we had mice and roaches running all over us at night. My mother used to recount stories of keeping vigil over me and my sister while we slept, flicking those nasty bugs off us.

It’s no wonder I am absolutely, crazy terrified of roaches, right?

We were so poor we rarely had a car. My sister and I had to haul a rusty shopping cart that we stashed under our apartment stairs to the grocery store and laundry mat. We shopped with food stamps (which I found humiliating), WIC, and cashed in soda bottles our dad collected on his “discovery walks” (read: pre-dawn prowls around the neighborhood for stuff to reuse, sell, or steal).

My dad stole food. Steaks for us. Cigarettes for him and our mom. He designed a special trench coat with hidden pockets to stash his loot. For Christmas, dad gave us many a “hot” gift: small items like earrings, fingernail polish, perfume bottles.

“Hot.”

That was his word for “stolen.”

Poverty, despair, fear. That was the life I grew up in.

But it’s not the life I have now. I realize those descriptors aren’t so far from those I attributed to my current workplace. However, while the frustration at work is trivial, easily ignored most days, and largely outside of my own domain, the despair I tasted during my childhood was rooted in survival. The anxiety was based on fear of not getting enough to eat, rather than not getting enough vacation days.

There’s a difference.

And I have a completely different life from that of my childhood (or even of my sister). I have a Ph.D., which I worked my ass off to earn, a respectable job, a wonderful life with my boyfriend. I have a car, live in a safe neighborhood in a townhouse, and buy not only what I need but what I want

Please please please let me always remember I am lucky.

I can’t afford to forget.

In Praise of Gratitude

Well, something’s working. The past couple of days I have felt like my old “usual self,” one that rarely makes an appearance these days. I’ve felt peppy, excited by small things, like the fog rolling around the trees in the early morning, or joy at going out to a casual dinner with my boyfriend. I feel a sense of happiness, rather than dread and a heaviness when thinking about all that has to be accomplished in a day.

Basically, no existential angst. That’s a very good thing.

I have been keeping a Gratitude Journal — ack! The dreaded Gratitude Journal. I tried keeping one for a couple of weeks some time ago. I was instructed to write in it before turning in for the night. It sat by my bedside table, most nights glaring at me when I didn’t write in it. I found that by the time I got to bed, I was already falling asleep, too mentally and physically exhausted to write about anything. So I didn’t use it and actually came to resent that little book. It had became yet another source of guilt and an opportunity to berate myself rather than a happiness tool.

Well, I have a new system now. Systems! I love me my systems. Now I write in it at work. I don’t have much to do during the day anyway, so I figure I might as well keep up on my self-improvement. I already read, journal, keep a food log, blog, write/edit academic work, and manage my budget at work — all while doing work-work and doing it well enough to get my supervisors’ recognition. Might as well add another element, especially if it’s one that makes me happy.

This may evolve, but I’ve started three categories in the Gratitude Journal:

  • I am grateful for…
  • My strengths
  • What I did today

It was important to me to list what I’m grateful for — but then to be more specific about my particular strengths, as they relate to what I’m feeling gratitude for.

Like:

I’m grateful for my garden.

My strengths: having good organizational skills to maintain the garden, and the consistency and diligence to help it grow.

That way it’s not just a haphazard list of what I’m grateful for (my dog, my bed), but it’s more specific.

The last category is quite important to me, as I need to make sure I feel like I’ve accomplished something – especially when my day is measured so differently now that I work a full-time job versus being a grad student. Because I’m still learning at the new job and unfamiliar with its rhythms, some days it’s hard to gauge whether I’ve done anything of value. So the Gratitude Journal is a place to mention what I did.

Gratitude seems to work!

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