While this blog normally focuses on the style, mechanics, and practices of good, expert writing, I decided to share an article I posted on LinkedIn. Why? Because becoming a good writer involves a lot of failure, heartache, and disappointment. Knowing you’re not alone when things go wrong (and stay wrong) can help sometimes.
When Things Aren’t Getting Better
A couple of months ago, I applied to a writing position with a digital publication and content company. They were looking for people who had experience with academic essays and online or archival research. I’m not always confident about the positions I apply to, but I felt extremely comfortable saying I met or exceeded all the qualifications they were looking for in a writer.
Two advanced degrees in history? Check.
Academic publications and presentations? Check.
In-person and online curriculum design and instruction? Check.
Extensive grading experience for academic writing? Check.
So. When I got an email a few weeks later saying they were pursuing candidates who better matched the job posting’s criteria, I was perplexed. They didn’t even want a phone interview with me? And if they wanted candidates who better matched the criteria, who in the world had applied? Harvard’s entire humanities faculty?
I had no idea if the presentation of my credentials was the reason for this company’s lack of interest or if a cadre of Ivy League professors had decided to take up essay consulting in their spare time. I probably wasn’t ever going to find out either; if you’ve been job hunting long enough, you know getting any response—even a rejection—is just as likely as never hearing anything at all.
As I moved the application update into my “Job Search” folder on Outlook, I tried not to feel too discouraged by the “no thanks” email. I may have simply gotten their version of “We’ve decided to pursue other candidates,” and the rejection was not personalized to me.
Plus, I told myself, you’re going to hear “no” more than “yes” when looking for a job, so I had little reason to dwell too much or for too long. I’d find something eventually, and as I kept hearing from family and friends, things would get better.
When Things Aren’t Going So Well
Job hunting is a difficult and often confusing process, even under the best of circumstances. When you’re trying to find your next career opportunity in the middle of massive upheaval, the search becomes that much more fraught with stress and fear.
And that’s been the story of my life for the last 10 months. The dreams and future I had hoped for in my personal life came to a sudden, brutal end last summer; worse, I didn’t have much say in the matter as I had to relocate…then relocate again…and attempt to rebuild my life into something that was at least functional.
I’ve had a little more success professionally. I’ve published my research findings with reputable organizations, got a great part-time job as a content writer for a company I love, and started my own writing blog.
But I have yet to secure a full-time employment offer, and despite my best efforts to forge my own path, the lack of direction I feel sometimes is overwhelming. I want to work, and I want to contribute something meaningful.
Figuring out where things have gone or are going wrong is a constant struggle; there are some days I’m so discouraged, getting dressed feels like a major victory. I’ve sought professional help for my mental health and for my job search, but the sense that things just aren’t coming together is pervasive and exhausting.
It’s also heartbreaking.
Sometimes You Just Can’t Shake The Feeling It’s You
When you earn a PhD, you learn to not take rejection or criticism personally. Being passed over for research and publication opportunities or having your ideas critiqued into oblivion is just part of the game. Eventually, you develop the ability to take in what helps and discard what doesn’t.
Much to my dismay, this particular skill I cultivated in the crucible that is a doctoral program has faltered, again and again, over the last year. If my circumstances keep going poorly and I’m not making substantive progress toward any of my goals, what’s the common denominator? Well. It’s me.
I’m doing something (or many things) wrong. It’s my skill set. It’s my attitude. It’s a million different things that all lead to the same conclusion:
It. Has. To. Be. Me.
I know, I know. Defeatist thinking doesn’t help, and it’s not something most people—myself included—particularly enjoy.
My family and friends have reassured me I’m not some broken, unemployable disappointment and that life will get better and I will find a job and I will feel happy—even joyful—again. They’ve all promised me I will begin to thrive rather than simply survive.
And I try to listen to them, as much as possible. After all, they’re not just relaying sappy, Hallmark movie sentiments to me.
Scientific studies have shown learning to shift negative thinking patterns can have substantial benefits. Heck, that’s basically the entire premise of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is one of the most demonstrably effective types of psychotherapy we have.
Religious faiths like Buddhism have similar perspectives—the mind becomes preoccupied with negativity or attaches to specific but non-likely outcomes, thus resulting in unnecessary suffering. Once you learn to let go of your insistence about how things should be, you’re better able to accept (and appreciate) how things actually are.
Sounds great, huh? I thought so too when I added meditation to my daily routine back in December, and the practice genuinely seemed to help. For a while anyway.
And The Hits Just Keep On Coming…
Despite the roller coaster of despair, hope, and apathy I’ve been on for the better part of a year now, I don’t know how to quit trying. Some days, though, the idea that my persistence will lead to nothing but survival can leave me crying in public.
Like yesterday, for example. I very, very carefully plan all my expenses every month and take great care to avoid buying anything I don’t really need. Of course, life is nothing if not full of the unforeseen. A fact I was reminded of when I received an unexpected bill for $150 at the vet.
Now, I couldn’t have predicted this particular incident since the mistake had been made by someone in their office months earlier, but that didn’t really matter right then. I had a choice: pay the money or don’t pay the money and risk exposing one of my dogs to ticks.
I paid the money, trying to hide my embarrassment and my tears. All the while, Joe the Vet Tech was being very apologetic that there was nothing they could do.
I mumbled my thanks to Joe-Not-His-Real-Name and hurried to my car, where I piled my two precious dogs into the backseat. And reminded myself that I have a lot to be grateful for.
I have family and friends who love me. I have my health. I’m not in danger of being homeless. I live in a country where I can criticize politicians with little worry and take comfort that thousands of Twitter users also hate the final season of Game of Thrones.
In short, it’s not as bad as it could be. Lots of other people have been through far worse than I have, and they made it through okay. Many of them made it through better than okay.
As I slid into the driver’s seat and clicked my seatbelt into place, I repeated “I have so much, it could always be worse” over and over. And over.
Well, At Least The Apocalypse Isn’t Happening?
When you realize you’ve accepted “It could be worse” as your primary mode of thinking, you experience this weird combination of guilt and liberation. Guilt because hey, it really could be worse, so focusing on what you’ve lost or lack can feel self-indulgent and shameful. Liberation because well, you’ve survived thus far—you can handle whatever else happens. Bring it on, Life!
I’m a major proponent of being grateful for what you’ve got, but let me tell you, trying to live your life when you’re thankful it’s not as bad as homelessness wears you down. Especially when you keep hearing that things will get better or that you’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to build a new life on your own terms.
It’s not that I don’t believe people who keep telling me those things, it’s just that those outcomes are weeks, months, or years away. If they happen at all since, you know, I’m not special; I don’t deserve happiness or stunning kitchen cabinetry just because I’m very sad about my very bad year.
Besides, knowing I could have a good, happy life in half a decade doesn’t really help me now. And “now” is where the hopelessness, fear, and self-doubt reside.
Even with my repeated, albeit imperfect, efforts to address those negative, awful feelings, they’re still there. And I don’t see them going away anytime soon.
I imagine I’m not alone. We put a great deal of emphasis on powering through problems with boundless optimism, but life isn’t that simple. It’s messy, complex, and rarely as easy as merely willing ourselves into a better place emotionally, professionally, or otherwise.
If you are currently walking, or perhaps crawling, your way toward something better or if you’ve sat down on the side of the metaphorical road because you just don’t feel like you can go on, please know that I see you.
You’re not alone. You’re not losing your mind. You’re not a wimp. You’re human, and you’re hurt and angry and sad. Things really are that tough, and life really can feel endlessly hopeless despite your best efforts.
What To Do When It’s Not Getting Better
I don’t know if or when things will turn around for me or for you, but I can offer you some suggestions for how to cope with persistent discouragement and instability. I hope they’ll help.
1. Know It’s Okay to Have a Mix of Emotions. Whether you’re struggling to find long-term work or recovering from traumatic personal events, there is no “right” when it comes to feelings. You can feel happy. You can feel sad. You can feel angry.
You can feel all of those things (and more) simultaneously. Feelings don’t have to make sense, and they don’t have to define you. They’re clues about what you need or want, but they’re not the only thing you are.
2. Make Decisions Based on Your Values. If you’re going through a tough time, make decisions—especially major, life-altering ones—based on your values, not your feelings. Your feelings are valid, but they also aren’t particularly reliable.
Our emotions can change drastically in a matter of days, weeks, or even hours. In contrast, values are more stable and more likely to support decision-making that leads to positive outcomes down the road. Or, at the very least, they help you protect your integrity and self-respect.
3. Talk to People Who Can Listen and Empathize. Sharing your struggles with others is invaluable, and you should absolutely do it. Just note you will inevitably find people who want to offer you advice. Lots and lots of advice. Either because they’ve been through similar troubles or because they just want to help you.
But when you need someone to listen and empathize with you, it’s totally okay to say that and expect others to respect your boundaries. It’s also totally okay to talk to mental health professionals who are trained to help you help yourself and not to give you advice.
4. Just Keep Trying Anyway. When you get to the point where you don’t know how you’ll make it any further, that’s okay. Simply getting out of bed and breathing may be the best you can do some days. You might not heal your battered heart or land a stellar job during those moments, but the fact that you’re alive and willing to try again as soon as you can is enough.
Life can be arbitrarily or relentlessly difficult, and sometimes things don’t get better for a long, long while. It’s okay to acknowledge that fact and not put an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself to pretend otherwise. Trudging forward, especially when doing so feels impossible or pointless, is a painful but beautiful act of courage.
More to Come!
Join me next week as we continue to explore good and expert writing! We might even get a little existential again. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter.