I was in the middle of my twenty-fifth year of life when a well-timed phenomena occurred: I was thrust into a quarter life crisis. There was a world of complicated grief from the sudden loss of my birth father, along with heaping spoonfuls of elevated stress and anxiety that was taking a toll on me mentally and physically. I questioned what I was doing and what I wanted out of my life, and was fearful that I’d made all the wrong decisions leading up to that point.
At the time, I was about ten months in to my first “big kid job” since graduating with my master’s degree, running a violence prevention and response program on a college campus. When I started the job, it was a dream. I felt accomplished for getting such a high level position right after graduation (a true measure of success, says society). I was overcome with excitement when I started, but certain unfortunate elements of it became jarringly visible, and fast.
By the time my quarter life crisis was in full swing, things at work had taken a turn for the worse. The expectations placed on me made it impossible to be thorough and effective, and the university politics created tension and crossfire that I was directly in the middle of.
Although I had a high level position, I had no real power, and being a young professional created a “stay in line and earn your keep” dynamic between myself and those with power.
I was being told (both directly and indirectly) that if I wanted to be respected, I had to “cooperate” -- which ultimately amounted to being repeatedly bullied, scapegoated, and undermined by my colleagues. There was a culture of shame (you’re not enough) and scarcity (there’s not enough for all of us) that permeated my day-to-day because of the system I was in. And it hurt. I felt inadequate, helpless, and like a completely different person.
The reality is, it was a “good” job in a bad environment, and it wasn’t safe for me at all. So you know what I did?
I assumed the problem was inside me, and that I just needed to tough it out and deal with my own stuff if I expected to get anywhere in life. I assumed that this was what I signed up for, and that if I gave up, I would be found out as a weak and incompetent fraud. Sounds dramatic, sure, but shame has a way of digging in to our oldest wounds. I think this is a byproduct of being a self-growth oriented person, looking to yourself as the cause of all things before seeing the whole picture and possibilities, both internally and externally.
The fact of the matter is, this job was a direct line to all of the harmful stories I’d made up about myself. Is that the college’s fault? Not entirely. It’s true that I do have “stuff,” and being in that job created the perfect conditions for that “stuff” to bubble up to the surface and make a mess of me. It was a breeding ground for shame, and given my history, I was vulnerable to it.
But...does that make me inadequate? Absolutely not. It makes me human.
Sure, I could keep fighting. I could keep denying my vulnerability. I could develop Teflon (as my supervisor recommended). I could harden. I could hope things will get better. I could try not to take it personally. I could fall in line. I could quiet down. I could bend myself into a pretzel to prove my capability -- and what an old and familiar shape that is. I could prove it. I could. I could. I could.
That’s my M.O., folks: To face something that’s hurting me and say, “I can handle this. Watch me,” with no regard for the consequences. Because you know who loses in that equation?
I do (and you do). Every time. Even if I earn the respect and power and trust and notoriety and success, I will have earned it at the cost of my integrity, my passion, and my spirit. What’s more: The external conditions will not have changed.
I will say this one time: Nothing is worth that.
It took me two years to finally leave. I found a job that paid better, but didn’t leave my counterparts ooh-ing and ahh-ing at my success. I realized that my well-being was more important than looking like I had it made. I learned that my ego can push me right to edge if I let it. Instead of continuing toward the edge, I let myself recover from that wild ride.
The moral to this story?
If something is hurting you and making you feel small and insignificant, you have the right to leave with your dignity intact. The people who matter will support you. The people who don’t matter will say whatever they are going to say.
Contrary to popular belief, this is the absolute most adult decision you could possibly make. Knowing how to take care of yourself is the only true measure of being a “big kid.” Everything else follows.
Within a month at my new job, the residue from the previous job had gone. I was happier. I was remarkably more present in my life. My stress had nearly evaporated. I felt like myself. I felt balanced. I could focus on my “stuff” intentionally and with care. I started writing poetry again. I had few things to complain about, so I complained way less and loved way more. I started a social media management side gig. There was more room for the full scope of who I am, and more room to figure out exactly who I wanted to be.
It’s not easy to take the leap, to trust that the next thing is better. Unfortunately, I think that’s why we stay in harmful situations for so long. We trick ourselves into believing that this is as good as it gets, because we don’t know what better looks like, and we don’t know that we are worthy of it.
One of my favorite quotes is by Marianne
Williamson, and it goes like this: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
I would add that it is our light that most frightens the shame and scarcity-minded, too. Because if we can embrace it, they can too. And with all that choice in front of us, there are no limits to the life we are capable of living.
Let your light in, friends. Try faith on for size. Trust in what’s next. Know that you can and will survive it, even if it sucks. And as always, you are not alone.