'I Quit and Now I'm Panicking'

You value hard work and connection but guilt prevents you from enjoying the rewards.

Pink Ornamental Banana (1939) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

I have recently told my employer that I am resigning, and I have started to panic. I dislike my job, and I have been fortunate enough to build up a cushion of savings that will prop me up while I decide what is next.

I work in the healthcare field as a licensed mental health provider, and it all feels dull, stressful, and crushing. It involves lots of conversations with parents, many of whom have very few resources, about how they simply must do better with the little they have to manage their child’s incredibly complex medical needs, or I, as a mandated reporter, will have to call child protective services. I do not want to be the parent police.

I’ve been told by friends and lovers that I am incredibly insubordinate, but I also crave stability and safety. I can work incredibly hard, but sometimes I struggle with regular bathing and ironing. I long to immerse myself in an incredible project, but I get distracted for years on end by a man who is incapable of commitment and a job that provides a regular paycheck and health insurance but no fulfillment. I’m probably best suited for the type of life in academia (in some ways), but that ship sailed long ago.

Now I’m 40. It’s been much more difficult to reach this age than I imagined. I feel as if all the doors are closed. I’ve only ever been attracted to flighty, emotionally-unavailable men, and unsurprisingly yet painfully, I find myself single with no children.

I am quitting my job because people kept telling me “Leap and the net will appear.” I’m not on the best terms with faith after a childhood of strict Calvinism. I was the model Christian girl in the eighties and nineties, memorizing all of the Bible passages, going to all of the anti-abortion rallies, proselytizing to the cute boys that I knew who may not have been saved. I lost my faith when I was 19, losing a boyfriend and many friends at the Christian college I attended. My parents worried that I would now be going to Hell. I’ve definitely become more humane in many ways since leaving the faith, but it still impacts me deeply. Over 20 years later, I still feel the deep guilt from all of the sins I commit, but I can no longer access the grace that was offered through Jesus. I have no faith. 

I’m giving up a lot of security right now, and I’m convinced that it will result in becoming homeless two days after I leave my job. I believe that at the age of 40, no one will ever hire me again. (But fuck jobs! But please give me one because I need food and shelter and salvation from my own brain for a few hours a day - but probably not eight. Just don’t pay close attention when I mumble about everything that is corrupt about your organization and turn away when I show up with greasy hair and a little hole in my shirt. Getting to work today was a struggle. But I will always, always finish my work.) 

My resume is a little messy. I spent most of my twenties in Europe learning a relatively obscure language in the name of love of an emotionally-unavailable man. I’ve gotten fired a few times for insubordination (despite being one of the hardest workers in the office). I am usually bored in office environments and after finishing my work, I turn to those emotionally-unavailable men who are always around, and when they inevitably crush me (as they always tell me they will do, but I never listen; maybe I want to be crushed), I become a bit unhinged. I also have a tendency to find the Mean Girls and try to go head to head with them, but they always defeat me, too.

I’ve been trying to keep my head down and swallow the murkiness and despair. I have lots of energy, but I’m always telling myself to throttle down, to become more invisible, to keep my damn mouth shut and my hands neatly folded in my lap. I’m white, short, mousy-looking, so it’s usually easy to blend in, but I don’t want to. There are two pictures of me as a child that I keep coming back to. One is the official group picture in preschool where I am standing up so straight and proud, chin lifted. The other is a candid shot in the yearbook in fourth grade. It is of a teacher talking to a student seriously near the blackboard, and I am in the foreground, in profile, mouth wide open in the middle of some kind of exclamation, hair flying, completely oblivious of the camera.

I want to be wild, loud, passionate, committed, loving, and still insubordinate as fuck because so many of our conventions and systems are so binding and dreadful. We are all going to die, so why can’t we live why we’ve got this life?

How can women be wild and loving while living in society that sometimes requires us to get jobs where we have to obey the corporate overlords? (I have no family wealth to speak of, so I will always need to work.) How can aging women who are not conventionally attractive with mommy blogs and dull husbands in polo shirts find a survivable and maybe even beautiful place in the world? Do nets appear if we leap? 

Please don’t tell me to go to therapy! I’ve been to many, many therapists, and I find all that sitting in the office rehashing the shit to be stifling, always making me feel worse. I fully endorse therapy for people, but I don’t think it’s for me. I also have the credentials to be a therapist, and I feel as if I know too much about how the sausage is made.

I’m afraid this letter makes me come across as a dreadful, awful bitch, but I’m often the quietist in the room. I’ve been told that I come across as incredibly serious, calm, competent, and humble. But there is all of this rage inside! When it escapes, my life explodes. And then I pack it all in again, adopt a downward gaze, and push forward. I want to stop this cycle. I want to live, wild and free, and I want to work to make the world into a place where others can do the same. 

Wild and Faithless

Dear Wild and Faithless,

You shouldn’t work in an office anymore, and you shouldn’t be the parent police. You shouldn’t chase men who aren’t capable of loving you or challenge women who aren’t capable of respecting you. You love to work hard more than anything else, but it leads to these dead ends where you wake up and realize that you’re not being rewarded, you’re being punished.

Then you get angry, which is justified! The problem is that you don’t know how to be rewarded. When someone else rewards you, acknowledges you, sees you, tells you they care, you feel a little trapped or uncomfortable. When you try to reward yourself – slow down and fix the hole in your shirt, slow down and protect yourself from going off at work – you get impatient. Some part of you sees cooperation as bullshit and conflict as the truth. Some part of you feels like you don’t deserve rewards, or you don’t deserve love. You only feel deserving when you’re actively working. The rest of the time you often feel ill at ease. Your mind turns to what’s wrong with the world.

 You don’t take care of the little things in your life because you think you don’t deserve to be cared for, plus you hate to slow down and look at where you are. You’re prone to immersing yourself in things that don’t pay off. Punishing work and punishing relationships take up space in your head and prevent you from reflecting on where you are and what you truly deserve.

I’m making you sound like a workaholic, but that’s not exactly it. You just feel best when you’ve got something concrete to focus on and do, with furious intensity, until it’s done. In a way, you feel really good when a man tells you it’ll never work or a woman acts like a Mean Girl, because you know that you’ll get to work way too hard for them, and it will probably be fruitless. So you’ll have to work even harder! Delicious! At least they’ll never want something from you or act soft or see you clearly or even see you at all. You say you feel like you have to stay invisible, but you also feel at home in situations where you’re invisible. That’s how you were raised. That’s what’s the most comfortable for you.

This is also why you stayed at your current job for so long. You’re basically looking for big, big problems to focus and fixate on so you don’t have to look at yourself. THE LAST THING IN THE WORLD YOU WANT IS TO LOOK AT YOURSELF. That’s why you dislike being rewarded, too. Doing something to care for YOU is indulgent and kind of slow and pointless, in your mind. It makes you feel impatient. When you sew your shirt or wash your hair or clean your bathroom, you have to slow down and admit that you don’t take care of yourself, that you’re sloppy. Your neglect of yourself is a form of insubordination – “I don’t value what other people value!” – but the fact that you mention it makes it obvious that it also bugs you a little.

I know that makes me sound like a therapist, making the sausage in ways that make you roll your eyes. I mean, mad respect there. I agree with you. Therapy can feel pretty tedious when you’re just sitting there, detached, hearing the same old shit over and over again that you already know, feeling uncomfortable, not wanting to waste the time and the money.

But… you know how they always say it’s about the connection, about the relationship? It is. When you trust and connect with your therapist, the process changes. You don’t feel impatient or self-conscious. You aren’t anxious to leave and do something else. You aren’t privately rolling your eyes at their tired paradigms. You feel good.

CONNECTION MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD. Small ideas look beautiful when you’re connecting. Little jokes are more hilarious. Shared insights seem brilliant.

It kind of makes sense that you didn’t end up pursuing a career that depended on feeling connection. Because you don’t always know how to feel connected, and you don’t even know that you value connection A LOT. You’re not always sure how to slow down and let people be who they are. You can’t let yourself be who you are, so how could you possible let someone else be who they are?

I want you to understand that I’m not implying that you don’t know yourself at all, or that you never feel connected to anyone. I’m not even saying that these things play out in obvious ways, and everyone around you can see them clearly but you can’t. What I’m saying is that you might think you know a lot about yourself, but there’s a lot more to know. You have a great deal of discomfort with your insubordinate soul. You’re starting to stand up for who you are, but you’re at the very beginning of that path. YOU’RE IN THE SHOUTING PHASE! You’re announcing things like I CAN’T DO THIS JOB ANYMORE and I WANT TO BE WILD, LOUD, PASSIONATE, COMMITTED, LOVING, AND STILL INSUBORDINATE!

There’s a preemptive defensiveness there, a preemptive dismissiveness, a cringing before the next blow comes. You are in a self-protective stance. You’re anticipating rejection and judgment and also insolvency – in some ways, rightly so, because our world is incredibly rejecting and judgey and economically brutal! But you’re not at peace with what you want yet. In fact, you’re not at peace with wanting things at all.

That’s why you’re panicking about leaving your job. The Shouting Phase – “This is who I am, goddamn it!” – is also a Panicking Phase. The shout says LOVE ME FOR ME, MOTHERFUCKERS! The panic says I KNOW YOU’LL NEVER LOVE ME FOR ME, BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL JUST A BUNCH OF MOTHERFUCKERS!

The next phase is slower and more patient and more rewarding, though. It has to be. Because you need a little time to figure out what you want to do next. But the very first thing you have to do, before you decide or even try to decide what to do, is this: You have to stop treating everything like work. You have to let go of your productivity fetish and sit with yourself and learn how to connect with yourself again.

You have to refocus on real connection and real rewards: Seeking real connection with people who are looking right at you. Seeking real rewards for yourself and tolerating the discomfort of thinking “I deserve this reward.” Noticing that your hair is greasy and washing it. Noticing that you have no faith and reflecting on the things you *do* believe in. Understanding that a part of what you’re struggling to find is a new kind of faith and belief – in yourself, in your lasting appeal as a woman, in the value of your thoughts and feelings, and in the possibility that you’ll be able to reach for a new kind of joy during the second half of your life.

It’s probably painful to think about faith and beliefs, even though you have such strong opinions and beliefs already. See, this is the grime of therapy and of strong connections with smart people. This is the stuff you won’t learn unless you’re truly connecting. I’m not saying this is some brilliant revelation. I’m saying it takes feeling connected – to yourself and to others – in order to feel how deeply you’re ruled by guilt.

Because you’re not just guilty over being a sinner. You feel guilty about leaving your job, guilty about fucking up your life, guilty about growing older (you blame yourself for it!), guilty about not knowing what comes next. But you also feel guilty about your greasy hair and you feel guilty when you take time to wash your greasy hair, too.

Do you follow? You are always wrong inside your head, every second of every day. Working too hard is wrong and spending leisure time by yourself doing nothing is wrong. Loving the wrong dude is wrong and not having anyone to focus on is wrong. Playing parent police is wrong and refusing to work in a bad office is also wrong.

Listen up, because this is important: You could become a magical fairy princess who is perfect, rich, gorgeous, lovable, and bend the laws of time and space from this point forward, and guess what? YOU WOULD STILL BE DOING EVERYTHING WRONG!

Maybe you don’t need to see a therapist. That’s your choice. But you do need to understand that you are occupying a space of always, always being wrong and bad and worthless. You need to get to know some recovering fundamentalist Christians, who grew up in a similar punishing matrix to yours. Many of them feel guilty and ashamed at such a deep, deep level that they absolutely cannot make choices that serve their needs. They have to do things that involve tons of unnecessarily hard work and tons of struggling and a lot of chasing a tiny light at the end of a long hallway that eventually disappears and leaves them bereft.

They’re very romantic people, and often very creative. But it takes a lot for them to understand that they deserve things. It takes a lot for them to give themselves love and serve their own needs. It takes a lot for them to stand still and ACCEPT LOVE FROM OTHER PEOPLE. They are afraid of people who simply want to connect. They feel jittery when they’re faced with people who are available and willing and waiting for them to just take what’s being handed to them, without strings attached.

I understand because some deep piece of me is the same way. I feel guilty about working too hard and not working hard enough, settling and reaching for more, rewarding myself and not rewarding myself. (I bought a good frying pan yesterday, something I badly need and will use every day, but I still felt guilty about it for three hours, and felt guilty this morning when I remembered that I’d ordered it.) And I forget, over and over again, how much I care about connection, because, like any reward, after I connect deeply with someone, I like to decide that something went wrong, I fucked something up, someone doesn’t feel the same way, or someone isn’t really that important (they can’t matter! it’s too dangerous!). Connection conjures a lot of emotions and sometimes I move away from connection JUST TO AVOID ALL OF THE STUFF THAT COMES WITH IT. So sad!

You’re like that, too. And I want you to dare to understand, at a deep level, just how erosive it is to feel guilty about everything and to not be able to slow down and reward yourself. I want you to understand that your feelings about work are also about connection and love at some level. You believe that you don’t deserve enjoyable work, or love, or connection. You only deserve working to the point of suffering. That’s also why you’re panicked about leaving your job. It’s not just about the money. You’re afraid of seeing yourself clearly and FEELING YOUR OWN FEELINGS instead of hurtling yourself forward toward a new goal.

If you don’t go to therapy, then you have to dig very hard for these kinds of buried conflicts inside you, on your own. You have to slow down and experiment with giving yourself things. You have to figure out how to connect with yourself and others at a deeper level.

Personally, I don’t think you should work in any office. I fucking hate offices myself, and I don’t love collaborating that much, and I don’t see that as insubordination. I’m a creative person who likes to work alone, that’s all. I don’t feel guilty about that anymore, in part because I can get along with people now, so I know it’s not about that. It’s about WHAT I WANT, that’s all. I think you have to retire this notion of yourself as difficult or as an awful bitch. I don’t think you’re a bitch at all and I definitely don’t think it’s unusual to lash out after doing a thankless, intensely impossible job for years, likely for people who are also burnt out and therefore a little punitive. I think you’re smart and stubborn and you have a vision of how things should be. Those are good traits. I don’t think you’re old and I want you to stop calling yourself old or saying that all doors are closing. Men don’t talk that way the second they hit 40. Men don’t have endless conversations about how to handle aging in their fifties. It’s fine to grapple with how you feel, but treating arbitrary numbers like a sign that you’re unattractive now and all possibilities are drying up is a very bad habit that will make you miserable. My advice is to generally throw age to the side and focus on the activities that make you feel vibrant and interesting. Resist boring and resist being bored. Aim higher.

I don’t want to get too granular about your career, but you obviously need to work for yourself, as some form of teacher or counselor or artist or combination of those things, fostering the sorts of connections that you’ve been craving. You need to be WILD, LOUD, PASSIONATE, COMMITTED, LOVING, AND STILL INSUBORDINATE. Maybe you want to teach art to kids, or run group therapy sessions for former fundamentalist Christians, or become some form of artist who also waits tables. You won’t think it’s possible to do these things and enjoy them without becoming a reckless fool who’s at risk of losing everything. You’ll worry that you’re asking for too much, trying something too wild, being too unrealistic.

THAT’S YOUR GUILT TALKING.

Take some big risks for a change. You may value security — most people do — but you haven’t avoided risks just because you’re too afraid. You’ve avoided them because you think you don’t deserve the big rewards that might come with them.

But you do deserve rewards. You deserve to feel good. You deserve to know your own desires, to let them show, to be a colorful creature who’s not ashamed of herself anymore.

You deserve to have a new kind of faith - faith in yourself and faith in this world. It’s finally time to take what this world is offering you. You have credentials and experience. You have passion and an ability to grab new ideas out of thin air. You know how things should be done and you know how to work hard to make them a reality. You can build whatever you want.

Build something. Trust your instincts and your work ethic and build. Don’t panic. Immerse yourself - in work, and also in still reflection. Slow down and give yourself the time to connect with your new enterprise. Notice how rewarded you are by the small joys of building something you actually believe in.

Dare to believe in yourself and believe in what you’re building. Dare to make deeper connections and dare to feed them what they need to grow. Dare to love yourself NOT IN A SHOUTY WAY but in a quiet, consistent way, every day. And soon, you won’t feel mousy and small and invisible and old. You’ll feel pretty and big and youthful and fully alive. Trust me, you really will. You will be in the foreground, mouth wide open in the middle of some kind of exclamation, hair flying, completely oblivious of the camera. You will be wild and loud and passionate and insubordinate and deeply, truly loved. Believe it.

Polly


Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Need advice? Write to askpolly at protonmail.com. This newsletter will publish twice a week for subscribers only, so: