Seeking Self-Worth in Unemployment

Watching something you created come off a giant printing press is pretty thrilling.

The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.

Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!

Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.

March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.

Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.

So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.

After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.

But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.

I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.

As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.

And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.

I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.

Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.

Rooftops and Control Issues

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I used to visit friends in Brooklyn. This couple lived in an apartment building that was about five or six stories tall, and they had access to the roof. Hanging out on their roof offered a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline.

Whenever we were up on that roof, taking in the towering skyscrapers, I kept my distance from the edge of the building. If I stood within a couple feet of the edge, I felt as if I might go flying right off.

I had no desire to jump, and my friends weren’t prone to violence or stupid stunts, so the chance of falling from their roof was remote. But it terrified me, nonetheless. If I did inch toward the edge, my heart started thumping and my stomach twisted, as if I were on a tightrope instead of a solid surface.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of my life spiraling out of control. For decades I struggled to feel secure about my safety, health, finances, friendships, relationships, even my mental stability.

My mind would go from zero to 60 in an instant. A sharp pain in my back was probably cancer, an overdrawn bank account would lead to financial ruin, a missed deadline meant I was about to get fired.

Clearly, I had issues with control. My brain always craved more.

No one wants less control over their lives, right? We expect a certain measure of control over the basics—where we live, what we eat, whom we love, how we dress, what we read, when or if we have a family, how or if we worship. When those options are blocked, we get our backs up, and rightly so.

But for some folks, a generally accepted level of control is inadequate. It’s too slippery, too treacherous.

Control is a funny thing. I could argue that we have way more control over our lives than we realize, and I would be right. I could also make a compelling argument that we have far less power than we think and be correct. Like a kaleidoscope, our ability to control our lives is constantly shifting due to all the moving parts.

How can we panicky people accept the randomness of human existence? I’ve decided to focus on the control that I do have. I am scouring my days, looking for parcels of time that I can affect. The simple act of pausing and choosing one thing over another instead of running on auto-pilot is surprisingly empowering.

Instead of watching cable news, I can read. In the first 62 days of 2021, I completed six books, which is the same number I read all last year.

Rather than getting lost in YouTube videos, I can write in my journal. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper, but this year I am using a book with prompts and have filled 40 typed pages thus far.

When I have 10 minutes here or there, instead of scrolling through social media, I can meditate.

Instead of doing busywork (like organizing my closet or writing out detailed to-do lists), I can take a walk or do yoga or brainstorm small business ideas.

Big actions can help clear the decks for the smaller stuff. I chose to quit drinking nearly four years ago, which was a huge power move. That decision opened up vast amounts of time in my life.

The results have been promising. The more control I exert over my days, the less I worry about my life blowing away from me.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

The Tyranny of Numbers

The balance in my bank account. My body weight on the scale. The percentage on the Kindle screen that shows how far I’ve read in my book. The number of “Zone Minutes” I’ve achieved according to my Fitbit app. The clock, reminding me that I better finish up one task and get started on the next. The current tally of posts I’ve published on my blog so far this year.  

Numbers are everywhere, and if you’re like me, you can get really hung up on them. Paying attention to the time of day, dollar amounts, and other calculations seems like a responsible thing to do. You don’t often hear people warning you off from counting.

So, I was surprised a couple years ago when I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” (written with Mark Reiter). I’ve probably mentioned this before, because it really stuck with me: In the book, among other helpful suggestions, Tharp writes, “For one week, I tell myself to ‘stop counting.’ . . . The goal is to give the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does the counting—a rest and let the more intuitive right hemisphere come to the fore.”

For me, resisting the pull of numbers goes beyond freeing up the right side of my brain (which it absolutely does). You see, I use counting the way I use busywork and worrying, as a form of procrastination. Sometimes numbers become a deep forest where I let myself get lost while creative endeavors starve.

Lately I’ve been testing out a tracking system I developed for establishing new habits. The key to the system is to keep it as simple and pleasant as possible. At first, I was writing down way too much detail, as I am inclined to do. I became preoccupied with setting time ranges for my walks, which then led me to fixate on my watch, instead of just enjoying that I was getting outside and moving my body.

Numbers are deceptive like that. They promise to lend a helping hand, and before you know it, they are using their power to take up real estate in your head. Sometimes numbers are tools and sometimes they are tyrants. I’ve been known to spend an hour choosing five words to pluck out of a piece I’m writing so it doesn’t exceed some arbitrary word limit I set for myself.

But I’m here to tell you that the power of numbers can be restrained.

I’ve started stripping numbers from my life wherever possible. Obviously, you can’t do this with all figures. You need to make it to your doctor’s appointment on time, and you don’t want to overdraw your bank account. But there are lots of places where focusing on measurement does nothing but feed self judgment and obsession.  

For example, I have stepped on the scale every morning for a very long time. Eight days ago, I decided to take a week off from weighing myself. It was easier than I thought it would be, but you better believe I stepped right back on that scale this morning once the week was up. I’m hoping to take longer and longer breaks in the coming months. And I’m looking for other areas where counting is truly gratuitous.

Wondering where to start? Take a day when you don’t have to be anywhere and try not looking at the clock. It may just blow your mind how little the time matters.

A life with fewer numbers can be a less stressful, more expansive existence.

Coaching Myself through Fear and Discomfort

A constellation of ten acupuncture needles surrounded the knobby bone of my right wrist. After four or five acupuncture sessions, my shoulder pain was subsiding, but my wrist pain refused to budge. So, my practitioner had increased the number of needles he was using on my wrist and tweaked their placement.

This more aggressive configuration of needles was uncomfortable. As I moved my hand in search of a better position, I experienced a tiny lightning bolt inside my wrist.

Before the next session, I mentioned this jolt to the acupuncturist. My wrist had shown progress with the new needle placement, and neither of us wanted to mess with that, so he made only minor adjustments.

Each week, I would lie there face down on the table, with needles in my back, shoulders, and wrist, fearful of moving a fraction of an inch. What if the shock was worse next time?

I started coaching myself not to be so anxious. I noted that pain is our body’s way of alerting us that something may be wrong. In this case, my body didn’t understand that I was not under attack, so I reminded myself that I was voluntarily welcoming a small amount of discomfort to heal an injury.

While undergoing acupuncture treatments, I was also developing a daily meditation practice. One of the suggestions in the 30-day program I was following was to sit completely still during my ten minutes of meditation.

My first instinct was to write off this idea as impossible. I am a fidgety person who moves around a lot, and I’m always touching my hair or pushing up my sleeves or scratching an itch. How could I remain motionless for ten whole minutes?

I decided to take on the challenge anyway. Initially, I had to coach myself like I did with the acupuncture, noting that an itch or a slight sense of unease did not need to be addressed immediately. My body would not suffer great harm if I did not scratch that itch.

When I reported to my brain that I was not in real danger, during both acupuncture and meditation, the pain or itch would often recede into the background or disappear entirely. I might forget about it without realizing I had done so.

Big deal, right?! Well, yes, actually. As the weeks went on, it occurred to me that I was developing a skill that could be applied to all types of circumstances. Dealing with these little annoyances was allowing me to stare down bigger and bigger provocations.

Even my fear of death started to retreat. Since I was a child, this existential dread would grip me as I tried to fall asleep. Out of nowhere I would think, what if I died in my sleep? Then, it would feel like someone was clutching at me from inside my throat. I used to surrender to that fear—the thoughts and sensations feeding off each other. Now I focus on breathing slowly and deeply, usually interrupting the cycle within minutes.

At first, I was afraid to stop being afraid. My decades-long anxiety around discomfort, pain, and my own mortality felt like a part of me. I identified with it. Who would I be if I let it go? Would I still be me?

The answer is yes, I am still me. My fear is a bad habit, a security blanket studded with thorns. Once I recognized that my panic is not intrinsic to who I am, the work of letting it go could begin in earnest.

Lessons Learned From My Media Break

During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”

I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:

Silence Equals Discomfort

While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.

I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.

Cable News Makes Me Anxious

One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.

With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.

Media is Like Pecan Pie

We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.

Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.

But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.

Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.

Moving at the Speed of YOU

The internet is overflowing with motivational quotes. I often take screenshots on my phone of messages that speak to me. As I was transferring a batch of these images to my laptop recently, this one came up: “Be the Kind of Woman That Makes Other Women Want to Up Their Game.”

(Note: A Google search revealed that this quote has been shared countless times in numerous designs and with a variety of attributions. I tried to identify the original author, with no luck as of yet.)

I can see why many women would find these words inspiring. But I saved the quote because it provoked complicated feelings that I wanted to explore later.

We humans frequently compare ourselves to each other, and we like to compete to determine who’s the best at pretty much everything. Social media platforms take advantage of this inclination. They pit us against each other in a battle of likes and follows and retweets.

As someone who grew up feeling like I was “less than” my peers, and who still struggles with my inner critic, social media is like thumbing through a catalog of successful people—every one of them apparently working harder than me to get ahead.

The self-interrogation starts: Did I do enough today? Did I do the right things? Did I do them well? Am I smart? Interesting? Highly competent? Better than average? More than mediocre?

For decades I wished that I were more self-motived, ambitious, driven. But when I left my last full-time job a couple years ago, I did so with the knowledge that I no longer wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I had ascended as high as I cared to on my office’s organizational chart, and I was surprisingly ok with the fact that I would never hold a VP or executive director title.

Ok, it stings a bit, but I’m getting used to it.  

In our culture, we often look down on those we think aren’t living up to their potential or to society’s expectations. I’ve been guilty of this myself—guilty of thinking people are being lazy and taking advantage of others.

Now I’m unemployed and looking at this from a new perspective…

We already know that people are different in all kinds of wonderful ways. Maybe we are also different in our ability to grind away.

Three questions come to mind:

1) What if there is a wide spectrum of how much physical and mental energy humans are capable of exerting on a regular basis over an extended period of time?

2) What if our society does a poor job of providing people with the opportunity to identify the kind of work that suits them best?

3) What if getting frustrated that not everyone is busting their butt equally is a pointless and unhelpful endeavor?

Maybe some us were meant for a slower life.

Maybe some of us get stressed out easier than others.

Maybe it’s ok if we don’t all work at the same speed and intensity.

Maybe some of us take longer to accelerate in life, while others decelerate sooner.  

Maybe some of us need longer sabbaticals in between periods of steady employment.

Maybe I don’t want to push myself in order to make another woman feel like she needs to do more.

Maybe, just maybe, our cultural standards don’t work well for everyone, and we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we can expand our definition of work and achievement and contribution to family and society.

More on this to come!

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making lists—particularly to-do lists. Those empty little boxes next to each task thrill me, and I can barely wait to fill them in with triumphant checkmarks.

Over the last couple years, my to-do list habit grew and morphed into something a bit more obsessive. The items multiplied and branched out into sub-categories. I experimented with keeping a Bullet Journal and settled on a variation that required me to rewrite the list over again every morning in a steno book.

Then I left my job and COVID hit, and suddenly I didn’t need such elaborate lists (if I ever did). And yet, I remained in thrall to those little suckers. They appeared on post-its and scraps of paper in my kitchen, in notebooks of all sizes, typed up in my phone notes, and in files on my laptop. I started to suspect that all this documenting and tracking of everything from trivial daily tasks to big life goals might be contributing to my anxiety.

Then, I got a brilliant idea, which I must credit in part to dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp. In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” Tharp shares her practice of temporarily removing the biggest distractions from her life in order to boost creativity and focus. For a week, she steers clear of multitasking, movies, numbers, and background music.

Tharp writes: “Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

She’s right, of course. Quitting to-do lists for a short period of time felt so freeing that I’ve chosen to strike them indefinitely—maybe forever.

What am I getting out of it?

Once I stopped writing down all my tasks, I started to get a better idea of my true priorities. Apparently, in my haste to check off items on the list, I had been tackling the easy tasks first plus the ones I wanted to get out of the way. Consequently, the things I really wanted to do kept sliding to the bottom of the list and then on to the next day, and the next, and the next.

With no list taunting me, I’m able to ask myself, what do I want to do right now? And then I do it. It’s sounds ridiculous, but for someone like me, it seems to be working.

For important items, like doctor’s appointments, I schedule them in the calendar in my phone and set a digital reminder to make sure I don’t miss them. But I do this only for appointments that must not be missed. Everything else is up for grabs.

This hasn’t been easy. My hand wants to grab that pen and paper. My mind wants to see what all is on my plate. But I stop myself and move on. And it gets easier every day. My mind feels more spacious and fluid.

I also decided to stop mentally ticking off all my accomplishments for the day. I used to do this in bed at night, and though it sounds like a nice way to pat myself on the back, in practice it functioned too much like a nightly meeting with the judge who resides inside my head.

Maybe one day I will try making a simpler version of my to-do lists; or maybe, like alcohol, my life is better without them.