‘I’m Embarrassed by My Once Thriving, Now Stalling Career!’

Stop blaming yourself for events that are out of your control.

It Was Green and Blue (1960) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

When the pandemic hit, I was sure I’d lose my job. I was a new hire — I moved here for this position months prior to COVID escalating — and I felt immediately vulnerable. Surprisingly, I was kept on through the first three lay-offs at my company, which provides tourism services. However, my department finally succumbed and I was let go.

The year since has really disrupted my sense of stability and security. I felt more uneasy in social environments, or even just alone with my own thoughts. I avoided bringing up my professional status around new friends, I turned down more and more social invitations. And after months of interviews that went nowhere, my spouse and I had an honest talk about finances and rent payments, and I agreed to widen my job-prospects net. 

About three months ago, I finally accepted a position which pays decently and has benefits (real blessings!), but it’s a dramatic departure from my previous line of work and my aspirations. To be honest, I feel demoralized and ashamed. Relative to my successful spouse and former colleagues, I know I’ve fallen far — and I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to where I was. I don’t want to walk around in this self-loathing and self-pity forever, but I don’t know how to feel good or hopeful about myself again.


Dear Struggling,

Oh boy, do I get it. I know that uneasy feeling in social situations. I also know the humiliation, self-loathing, and self-pity that get kicked up when you think you’re on a tear for a while and then you trip and fall and slide down a rocky slope into some weedy gulley.

Writers tend to perform this breathtaking maneuver once every two to five years. You get laid off and no one will hire you. No one wants the novel you wrote. Your new book gets a scathing review. Your editor at the fancy magazine stops responding to your pitches. You drift around in a haze of self-recrimination, and in this state, guess what? YOU CAN’T EVEN DO YOUR JOB.

Because your job depends on believing in yourself. You need to trust your weird leaps and follow your moods wherever they lead in order to be honest on the page. Even if you’re in a funk, you need to just tell the truth about where you are, so you can get back to work.

Honesty is the cure to writer’s block. And in my experience, it’s the cure to most other obstacles and blockades that stand in the way of hope. Unfortunately, when something discouraging or devastating or depressing happens to most of us, the last thing we want is to be honest. We want to pretend everything is fine or retreat into a safe cave inside our minds or just flat-out hide from the world, no angles, no plans, no hope involved, until things improve.

When you’re failing or you feel like you’ve failed and you’re ashamed of it, you just want to FIX IT SOMEHOW, grab the steering wheel and right the ship, SEEM better than you currently are, SOUND better than you currently feel, LOOK better than you can currently manage. You want to privately crawl out of that weedy gulley before anybody sees you there, and climb back up to the flat ground and pretend it never happened.

Last week, a friend of mine told me that when she trips and falls, a voice in her head growls “BIG GIRL GOIN’ DOWN!” I couldn’t believe it. I mean for starters, the voice in her head has a way better sense of humor than my voice does. When I fall, my voice says, “LOOK WHAT YOU DID NOW, YOU IDIOT!”

I’ll bet you’re the same way. And now you’re walking around talking like that to yourself all day long: “Look at you! What a loser!” “You belong in this gulley, you piece of shit!” “Fix your life, you worthless ween!” When you make frantic, private efforts to fix everything while continuing to beat yourself up for fucking up, it only makes you more anxious and depressed. You’re all locked up and you can’t do a thing to change it.

So let’s reframe your current situation. Let’s turn “LOOK WHAT YOU DID NOW!” into the more forgiving “BIG GIRL GOIN’ DOWN!” Because Big Girl Goin’ Down! suggests the inevitable. You managed to hold onto your previous job through three rounds of layoffs. You were working in the tourism industry at arguably the worst moment in the history of tourism. (Okay, sure, maybe when the Huns invaded Gaul…)

Instead of seeing yourself as some proud, successful professional who botched everything and became a whiny little subhuman half-person with a more tedious, less interesting, less prestigious position, I want you to imagine yourself as a Big Girl who put on her Big Girl Pants and went to her Big Girl Job and did not get laid off for a long time. And then Big Girl tripped and fell and slid into a ditch. Big Girl tried to pick herself up but she had mud on her big pink ribbon and rips in her Big Girl Pants. She cried for a while in the ditch. And then what did Big Girl do?

She climbed out of the ditch and got another job. She patched up the holes in her Big Girl Pants and faced her life.

And that’s brave, okay? It’s brave to listen to your wife and then compromise for the sake of both of your sanity. You could’ve told her no way. You could’ve started drinking more. You could’ve let your pride stand in the way of making mature choices. I’m not saying it’s always the right thing to do, to take a job you don’t totally love. But there are times in your life – and I’m gonna say the middle of an unprecedented pandemic is one of them – when you’re forced to compromise. There are times when the ability to set aside your fantasy of Proud, Successful Professional and be a Big Girl instead is the best, most courageous thing you can possibly do.

Big Girl got a steady job, which is a true victory. Your job takes the pressure off your current existence. Presumably you can show up, punch that clock, do your shit, and not overthink it. You’ve bought yourself some time to look for something you actually want. So give yourself some credit. I know people who’ve been out of work for three, four years. It suuuucks to live that way. Your ability to face the reality of your situation demonstrates that you’re flexible and pragmatic. You’re employed and your job sounds stable. Again, that might not feel like a big win at the moment, but I think you need to acknowledge how much bending and almost breaking it took to pull off that maneuver.

You’re a Big Girl now. *sniff*

I’m a Big Girl, too. That’s why I’m grinding this metaphor into the ground. I know a good thing when I see it. And when you see a good job, one you actually want, you’ll go for it. So keep your eyes wide open and keep your Big Girl Pants pressed and ready for interviews.

I also want you to notice how, right now, you’re doing important job training for the next chapter of your career, training that will allow you to understand the experiences of your coworkers a little better and also give you a more balanced, more humble approach to management or leadership or just plain work moving forward. You’ll soak in the lessons here because you’re open to feedback, you’re into learning, and you’re confident in your abilities. You might have to dig for that confidence because it’s hiding under all of these layers of panic and self-doubt and self-hatred and (unfair!) self-recrimination, but it’s there. So look for it.

But here’s the most important thing you need to do: Forgive yourself for falling.

When I was younger I dated a few stoners, so I went to a few Dead shows, since that’s what stoners did in the old days instead of playing Borderlands 3. I was not so into the Dead, but there was one song called ‘China Doll’ that I loved. I loved it so much that I’ve definitely mentioned it before in this column, but this Big Girl believes in repeating herself occasionally, when the mood strikes. The song is just this long verse that’s in a minor key — “pistol shot,” “the bells of heaven ring” — very 1974 in its dark grandiosity and faintly medieval undertones:

Yesterday I begged you, before I hit the ground.

All I leave behind me is only what I’ve found.

If you can abide it, let the hurdy-gurdy play,

Stranger ones have come by here, before they flew away

The song feels pretty bleak for a long time. But just when you think you’ll be stuck in this murky Led Zeppelin Battle of Evermore place forever, there’s an unexpected shift to a major chord and a heavenly chorus joins in:

Take up your China Doll,

It’s only fractured, just a little nervous from the fall.

And at every Dead show, every time I heard that part, I cried. I mean I might’ve been half asleep, waiting to leave, but that part, whew. Go listen to the song and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like the sound of forgiving yourself for fucking everything up. Back then I couldn’t forgive myself for anything, a state of affairs that lasted well into my early forties.

Don’t be like me. Learn to forgive yourself for stumbling. Learn to surrender when events are beyond your control. Learn to reward yourself for your small victories. Learn to applaud yourself for knowing how to compromise. Learn to love yourself for being a Big Girl and putting on your Big Girl Pants every morning.

Because Big Girl is goin’ down again, for sure — that part is inevitable. Everyone stumbles and falls, but when Big Girls go down, they cry. They don’t mind indulging a little dark grandiosity, whether they’re sitting in a weedy gulley or standing on a stage with a guitar strapped across their burly, gray-hair-covered Big Girl chests. They grieve and hesitate and feel small sometimes but they don’t blame themselves for that. Self-pity isn’t just natural, it’s necessary when you tripped and now you’re broken.

I want you to take a minute right now to feel sorry for yourself. I know that sounds perverse, but this is a rough moment for you. You need to feel what a shitty place you’ve been in, and you need to forgive yourself for landing there, too. This twist in fate was out of your hands. Dare to get a little melodramatic about it. Did you know that Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics for China Doll, had an alcoholic father and spent years in foster care? When you go through hell as a kid, you have to acknowledge it throughout your life, in small ways. Even when something that seems relatively small trips you up and pushes you down into a gulley, you have to make some room for the darkness and sadness and panic that flow out of the past, into your current moment of reckoning. There are probably pieces of past losses and disappointments and fears in here. Be romantic about those connections. You might think it’s weak to notice those things or indulge them, but do it anyway.

This is a good time for you to practice being vulnerable instead of ashamed. That requires a kind of surrender, a shift from a minor key to a major key, an admission that you’ve been humbled. You have to stop insulting yourself and start accepting the sweetness and light that’s lurking in this humbled place like wildflowers scattered among weeds in the gulley. It’s time to see the blessings packed inside of this curse.

In order to feel your feelings, you have to respect and honor and even admire your feelings, good and bad, positive and negative. Honoring your feelings is honoring yourself.

Once you do that, you’ll find it easier to talk to your wife about where you are. You need to admit how ashamed you feel and how stupid that feels but how stubborn that shame can be. It clings to you and it doesn’t want to let go. You need to admit that you feel weak and worthless. It sounds terrible, I know, but it will help. Your wife will understand. If she doesn’t want to understand at first, dare to explain it to her. Dare to feel it while you’re explaining it, even when it sounds a little overblown and exaggerated coming out of your normally-understated Big Girl mouth. Letting other people know how bad you feel deepens your connection and clues them into some reasons for why you’ve been acting weird or defensive or uptight or just depressed.

Once you start being a tiny bit more honest with a few people — admitting how deep your hurt and your shame and your urge to hide from other people go, you might start feeling more optimistic. Once you forgive yourself for things that were out of your control, you’ll have the will to look at the things that are in your control. You’ll savor your day a tiny bit more, and you’ll start to imagine new paths back to a career you love.

Be patient with yourself, and remember that no one else cares about this sudden lapse in status. The people who loved you before still love you now. They can sense how hard this has been for you. Admitting how hard it’s been is actually a way of letting optimism back into your life. This event is not a verdict on your character or a sign from the heavens that you’re doomed. Being humbled can be an enormous gift to any career, to any marriage, to any life.

Surrender yourself to this inevitable twist of fate, and then watch as this strange, sparkling day picks you up off the ground and dust you off and kisses you on your Big Girl face. When you let yourself feel devastated and forgive yourself for it, hope seeps in.


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