Tag Archives work stress

Post Traumatic Stress from…Work?

My career counselor told me she thinks I have post traumatic stress from my last two jobs.

I laughed when she said it. The past two years have been intense for sure, but post traumatic stress? Isn’t that usually reserved for soldiers, victims of violence – you know, real trauma?

I knew my sense of confidence and self-efficacy took a serious hit with the job I left in 2013. I admittedly felt a bit raw going into the next place. Like jumping into another relationship when you’re on the rebound. However, unlike a relationship, working to bring in an income is essential to my survival, since the only person taking care of me, is me.

Photo cr: lifecareeroptions.com.au
Photo cr: lifecareeroptions.com.au

My career counselor also astutely assessed: “You probably felt increasingly anxious when asked for things.” How did she know?!

Due to the nature of my last role, I received many requests (or “demands” depending on who did the asking) to the point where when my phone would ring or chime, even outside of work, I’d sigh wearily and wonder, “Who wants something from me now?” I am fairly certain I experienced my first anxiety attack at that place, so…maybe she was onto something with the post traumatic stress. She does have a psychotherapy background, after all.

She presented this unofficial diagnosis after I shared with her that while job searching – feeling as though my life were in limbo until I secured a new job – when I reviewed job descriptions and envisioned what the day-to-day work might look like, I felt such an intense aversion. Worse than my revulsion at the idea of spending an afternoon with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Elizabeth Hasselbeck. As though one of those positions might beguilingly lead me into the arms of an invisible boogeyman, its massive hands slowly tightening around my dainty lady throat until I can’t breathe. Squeezing the life out of me.

Eep. So, maybe I am a bit burned out.

Cracking under stress
Photo cr: Bernard Goldbach, flickr.com

One morning, a few weeks after I lost my job, my youngest sister, C___, called me and when I answered, her words rushed out before I finished saying “Hello,”

“Keisha, omigosh! Ok, I know this is going to sound ‘all about me’, but can I just tell you? The best thing about you not having a job is I can reach you whenever I want to now!”

I chuckled. She was right. In the short time since I’d become a woman of leisure, she and I had spoken more often, almost daily. We even Facetimed! What is this magical world where one has time to face…time?

I traveled to Austin a couple of weeks ago for a needed vacation. Yes, you can need a vacation from the exhaustion of cycling through what I term “The Five Stages of Layoff Grief” and worriedly wondering what you’re going to do with you life. I also wanted to reconnect with another part of myself.

Having moved around a bit, people sometimes ask me, “Which place feels more like home to you?” Every place feels a bit like home to me. Each place I’ve lived and where I’ve experienced life in new and unfamiliar ways, has helped to shape who I am. The me that I am in San Francisco, the life that I live here, only represents one part of me, it’s one view of my world. Austin represents another. I have family there in the way of close friends and now my sister C___.

Importantly, in Austin, I’m more easily able to relinquish the fear of being vulnerable, fear of having my insecurities and weaknesses exposed. The walls that we gradually stack up as adults are more permeable in this place where I lived as a college student. There’s no putting up fronts with my Austin family. To boot, the town is friendlier; I could shed my tough city armor. I needed time away to breathe; to let the waist out.

IMG_20140817_ACL

I stayed with my sister, whom having newly graduated from college, just began a new job and rented her first non-college apartment. My last evening in town we assembled her new dresser while Mork & Mindy (RIP Robin Williams) and then The Cosby Show played in the background.

I loved being able to spend time with my little sister, doing nothing more than setting up her apartment. With our 13-year age difference and living so far away from each other, I miss/ed out on the chance to do some of these simple activities with her.

I also met up with several of my friends from college, including former roommates, my best friend and a friend, F___, with whom I keep in touch on Facebook, but hadn’t seen since we graduated over a decade ago.

Over breakfast with F___ – the food in Austin is excellent – we caught up on the goings-on in our lives since college. She’d worked for nearly a decade as a CPA until one day realizing she didn’t like it very much and didn’t want to do it anymore. As she described her emotional evolution, I identified with almost everything she described feeling.

So great to catch up with my friend F___ after all this time!
So great to catch up with my friend F___ after all this time!

I told her I felt like I’d become a robot. It happened gradually enough that I didn’t notice the spark fading from my smile, the twinkle from eyes. She nodded as I shared that working in the environments I did forced me to repress so much of my natural self.

Whether it be stifling my creativity and humor in writing a report – gotta be professional, no quips allowed! Or something as basic as adapting to the fact that a lot of people don’t say good morning to each other at work (or other social niceties) and you need to calm your friendly Texas ass down.

Simply not being able to say of the lazy, pompous blowhard with a penchant for taking credit for other people’s work and throwing others under the bus (and there are always these people), “This guy is a poison to the team. At least five people have left because of him, yet you guys are steady promoting this fool. If the company goes down, you have yourselves to blame for being blinded by bullshit;” or when you want to shout in a ridiculously contentious meeting, “We’re not curing cancer people, calm the fuck down! No one is going to die!”

F___ is currently exploring an interest in the film industry on the business side of things, and encouraged me to take some time to consider what’s I want to do next. As she smartly said, “Working for years and taking a couple of weeks off every once in a while isn’t long enough to get re-acquainted with who you are.”

She’s right. I’ve been out of work for almost two and a half months now and it’s not until just recently that I’ve felt even close to being me again. It’s as though I’ve been unwittingly enrolled in a crash course called: “Revisiting Keisha: 101.” I returned from Austin reinvigorated.

Perhaps my career counselor exaggerated a bit when she said I have post traumatic stress, perhaps not. I certainly don’t think my situation compares to more typical PTSD cases. I do know that I haven’t felt this free and light in a long while. I smile more, I laugh more, I write more, I read more and I have more time for the people I care for. Sunday night thoughts are no longer sullied with the pallor of the impending Monday morning. I’m enjoying seeing the world from a different perspective – it’s different with the daytime free! Even my career counselor, whom, up until a couple of weeks ago, hadn’t seen me in almost a year – since I took the most recent job – commented when she greeted me, “You look great! I can see it in your eyes.”

I don’t want to return to the way things were before.

Sister selfie at Mt. Bonnell in Austin
Sister selfie at Mt. Bonnell in Austin

Waking Up From a Bad Dream: Job Nightmares

I’ve been living in San Francisco for 9 months. I genuinely like San Francisco now (no one say, ‘I told you so!’). I realized a few months ago that I like the city. At the time, I’d add the caveat: “But, I’m not sure about the people.” Now I just like it. No, it’s not the city I knew it to be when I first visited over a decade ago. Yes, as a new friend lamented “Strangers don’t talk to strangers here” and “Men [seem] too afraid to approach women.” I’m adapting to the culture and the norms. I even trained myself not to make eye contact with people on the street.

I appreciate that San Franciscans are generally polite, willing to stand up for things they believe in, love their pampered pooches and have a great fondness for whimsy, celebrations and dressing up in costume with or without reason. It helps that my new friendships are settling comfortably. I still don’t have last-minute “join me at the bar” buddies or “Hey, its Saturday. What are you up to?” level friends. But, I feel less lack in that realm now. I’ve started dating and am pleased to say there are many ambitious, accomplished and interesting men here. I am more comfortable and settled now. I am intensely happy that I made the decision to leave L.A. I needed to.  This is the right place for me right now. This is home.

WILTING FLOWER

photo cr: chad_k, flickr.com
photo cr: chad_k, flickr.com

Unfortunately, the past few months have been really challenging for me. I really grew to hate my job. Hate. Like “I don’t want to go, please don’t make me!” or “I wonder if I can get a doctor to write me a note declaring that the job is bad for my health and I need disability,” or even worse “Drinking before work wouldn’t be so bad, right?” Before work many mornings, I’d begin with a pep talk, “You will have a good day. You are lucky to be employed. This is only temporary.” Some days out of sheer silliness and desperation, I’d borrow a line from The Help, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” Usually within minutes of walking into the office, all that sunshine, roses and ponies, would fly right out the window. Or more appropriately, absorbed into the walls of my boring brown cubicle in a part of the office that received no direct sunlight due to the view being blocked by a neighboring office building.

I knew two months in that I was dissatisfied with my job. I spoke to my boss and few peers about it, but, unfortunately, that didn’t really help. I tried several things to improve the situation, but ultimately as each day passed, I grew to dislike it more and more. I even called my dad and asked for his advice and that almost never happens. I didn’t know what to do. This is real life. It’s not like when I got a job in high school at Bed Bath & Beyond, knew I hated it after a weekend of work and said, “Deuces, BBB! Keep your cookware and your bedding!”

My spirit was slowly dying in the eight months I spent in the job. I was bored; I felt unchallenged; I didn’t see much room for growth or learning opportunities. The culture felt staid and isolating. Most of all, I didn’t feel like my position was seen as valued or that people recognized my skill set. An astute co-worker (who internally transferred out of a similar position months earlier) even commented “You are so smart and so underutilized here.” Who you tellin’? I felt like an overpaid admin. I respect the hard job admins have especially having worked as one for a bit (and being highly allergic to the position), but I didn’t sign on to be an admin and I didn’t spend years developing a career to be an admin. I lost interest in my interests.

I didn’t read. I didn’t write (sorry blog readers). I didn’t take photos. I lost the energy to continue my friending frenzy. I was cranky and solemn. Even my guilty pleasure Housewives shows were less entertaining (although the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were on some seriously boring BS. No one gives a shit whether or not Adrienne and her frozen plastic face tried to sue Malibu Barbie Brandi. Show us the riches: beautiful clothing, fancy cars and real estate porn).

I began to doubt my skills and self-efficacy for the first time in a long, long while. It’s akin to being an ‘A’ student and getting your first ‘D’. Your view of yourself cracks and may even be shattered depending on how closely tied your academic success is to your self-identity.

photo cr: Jan de Graaf, flickr.com
photo cr: Jan de Graaf, flickr.com

In May, I flew to a conference for a work. For three days I was in sessions learning new things from peers and leaders in my field and most importantly I was using my brain, which had become a novelty. It was noticeably different from my normal work day. How deflating. I had the rest of the week off to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding in Los Angeles, which was beautiful and a ton of fun. Returning to work after a week away was intensely painful. I had hoped to stick it out with the company for at least a year. However, when I returned after a week away, and the dark cloud that’d been amassing around me was right there waiting where I left it and seemed even more consuming, I knew I had to get out for the sake of my sanity. I was sinking into a depression.

I felt guilty complaining about my job knowing how many people are unemployed and wish not to be. It wasn’t like I was being abused, harassed or overworked. When I told a friend that I felt bored and unchallenged and wasn’t interested in having a job where I could surf the net all day she said with some amusement, “Um, so what you’re telling me is you’re getting paid not to do much and not really think? This is a problem?” I know.

HELP IS ON THE WAY

On a first date with a guy named, let’s say, Sam, he inevitably asked the questions I’d grown to dread answering, “What do you do? Do you like it?” By then, I’d given up trying to be positive about my job and would readily tell people that I didn’t like it when asked. He shared with me that he’d gone through something similar in the past couple of years and realized he hated his career as a TV sports reporter. After seeing a career counselor he decided to work toward becoming an elementary school teacher. Talk about a career change! It was clear how happy this career switch made him, despite the drastic difference in income. He recommend his career center to me and I made an appointment with a counselor immediately the next day. The date was fun and Sam was cool, but he didn’t ask me out again and I didn’t feel strongly enough to pursue it.

photo cr: marc falardeau, flickr.com
photo cr: marc falardeau, flickr.com

My career counselor was a breath of fresh air. She immediately became my favorite person. I wanted to pocket her and carry her around like a lucky rabbit’s foot. She is brilliant, encouraging, supportive, sharp and has an impressive and varied career background of her own. She is amazing.

Career counseling feels a lot like therapy (er…not like I would know what that’s like): there’s self-reflection, talking about your childhood, discussion about how your parents influenced your choices and maybe even some tears. While I thought I knew why I hated my job, seeing a career counselor helped me better understand the underlying reasons and allowed me to articulate my thoughts and feelings better. After taking several assessments she remarked me to me with wonder, “It’s amazing how you’ve been able to work this long in a job that is practically the antithesis of who you are.”

HOW DID I GET HERE

I fell into my career. Yes, it is in line with my business degree. But, I didn’t deliberately choose it. When I graduated from college, I wanted nothing to do with business. I wanted to be an actress. I missed expressing my creative side and acting always made me feel awake and alive. Ultimately that wasn’t the right path for me though. Thus, I fell back on my degree and my career chose me based on that degree and my skills. I didn’t spend much time nurturing it or thinking about what success would mean to me because I always figured I’d do something else. I assumed I’d eventually discover my passion and it would all be smooth sailing from there. Time sped by and before I knew it, due to a confluence of my need to be a high-achiever and to progress. I accidentally developed a career.

I cared about promotions because I value being rewarded for my efforts. But, it’s never been “exciting” for me. I’ve long been envious of people who speak of “loving their jobs.” Or people who eat, sleep and breathe their careers for one reason or another. I wonder what that’s like. Why couldn’t I just have a burning desire to be a teacher or an architect or a doctor? But, as I discovered during my sessions with my career counselor, it’s in my nature to have varied interests. For me, it’s not so much about what I do as it is for me to have variety and feel like I’m learning and experiencing life anew.

LESSONS LEARNED

I learned so much in the sessions I had with my career counselor / saintly woman sent from the heavens, and it’s not over. Three of the most important lessons for me:

1. Don’t get good at things you don’t want to do.

If you’re the person who’s great at picking weeds and no one else is around to do it, guess who’s getting asked to pick weeds? You. And the more weeds you pick, the better you get at it. I don’t want to become an expert weed-picker, so I need to stop picking these damn weeds! Let someone else do it. There are people out there who looove maintaining gardens. I am not one of them.

2. Take charge of your career.

This isn’t news. People say this, but I didn’t really get it. I let things happen to me without realizing I was doing it. I didn’t stand up for myself enough. I didn’t push hard enough for that promotion or the raise or ask to do the work I would have preferred to do. As professional and assertive as I learned to be, I realized I was still guilty of employing some of the behaviors that do a disservice to women. I don’t toot my own horn; I find it tacky. I don’t ask for gobs of money because I don’t want to be greedy. Still, you best believe someone else is doing these things and making much more than I am and doing work they want to be doing.

photo cr: Enokson, flickr.com
photo cr: Enokson, flickr.com

3. Take time to nurture your natural interests and skills.

Almost all the assessments I took during career counseling pointed to my creative skills and interests. Growing up, I was really creative. Aside from business, my other interests were all artistic. I wanted to be an actor, a writer, a dancer, a comedian (don’t laugh), an artist. As each year of my life goes by, I take on fewer and fewer creative endeavors. I used to love doing arts & crafts! No wonder my spirit was dying. I was focusing all of my attention on things that do not generally interest me and not doing the things that feed my soul. (I hate that phrase, but it’s very much applicable in this case.) Creativity, much like other skills, needs to be nurtured to grow and flourish. But, somehow I convinced myself that because I wasn’t great at it, I shouldn’t be doing it. I need to be doing it though. I may never be a top photographer, but if taking photos and capturing images of the world as I see it brings me joy, I should do more of it. It doesn’t have to be a career, it just has to make me feel happy.

WAKING UP

I started a new job on last week. It’s not a career change, but it is a role change (and a career advancement). Thanks to my career counselor, I know better now to focus on honing the skills and strengths that interest me most and that may be transferable to other roles. I feel optimistic that this position will allow me to do that. The company itself could not be more opposite the place I just left. I’ve been welcomed by my new co-workers with excitement and genuine interest. I feel like I’ve joined a family.

photo cr: Rhys Asplundh, flickr.com
photo cr: Rhys Asplundh, flickr.com

I wish I didn’t have to go through the frustration of my previous job. I’m sure I’ll look back on that time with the same derision I do the year I lived in San Jose. Nevertheless, in some ways, I am grateful for the experience because it propelled me to take action to make serious changes in my professional life and do some intense self-reflection. I even rediscovered what appealed to me about business in the first place. Additionally, I have an even greater appreciation for the great jobs, managers and mentors I’ve had in the past.

I don’t know what the future holds and what my next career may be. It could be in business after all, just in a different role. After all, as I remembered in career counseling, at 6-years old I was starting my own businesses in my bedroom, building storefronts out of construction paper (creativity) and “selling” products to my mom. I look forward to approaching my new job with a renewed fervor. That dark cloud is dissipating and I’m seeing larger and larger slivers of the sun each day.

America: Land of No Time Off, No Fun?

A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.
A good book, a beach and a hammock: this is the life.

In Tanzania this summer, I had a stimulating conversation with an Irish woman who had taken a break from her teaching job to manage a resort in Zanzibar. When she discovered that I’d been in Tanzania for three weeks, she was in shock. “I thought Americans didn’t get much holiday time?”

“I work for a company that provides really good benefits in the hopes of retaining employees.” 

“Lovely. My American relatives come to visit us in Ireland and they only stay for six days. What’s the point? Stay home! There’s no time!” Imagine this said with a delightfully animated Irish accent.

“I know.”

“Why don’t Americans fight for more time off?”

I gave a heavy sigh and answered, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

A few months before my trip, Jack Cafferty of CNN asked in a short essay, “Why don’t most Americans take all their vacation time?

Personally, I don’t feel I have enough vacation time. In fact, I have a Pinterest board titled, “I need more vacation time.

The article sourced a recent study that found “57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of last year. “ Reasons given for this varied: some feel they have too much work to afford to take time off, others are afraid to take time off for fear of returning jobless and some just feel they can’t afford to do anything.

There was a time when I worked for a large insurance company as a contractor (because they were too cheap to hire me and many others full-time; of course, the execs got nice fat bonuses most years and they can afford shiny commercials with a celebrity endorser). I was only a few years out of college and didn’t have enough saved to afford to take unpaid time off. Even calling in sick wasn’t an option. No work, no pay. So, I get it. But, I didn’t like it. Working days on end with no break in sight. At a job I hated. With no health, dental or vision insurance and a micro-managing mid-level boss spying on everyone’s move. Another who kept calling me by the name of another black girl. I needed a break. We all do. Taking time off can have a beneficial impact on our physical and mental health, as well as our productivity at work. While according to the study, the average American employee gets 13 paid days off, the United States doesn’t mandate it (and I’m not sure how I feel about government intervention in this realm).

Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul
Costa Rica was REALLY good for my soul

However, according to CNN Money the UK mandates employers give employees at least 28 paid days off, France decrees 25 and Japan 20. If vacation time is good for the body, good for the soul and good for the business, why don’t Americans fight for vacation time?

Cafferty’s question generated a (mostly) healthy debate.

Patrick from Oregon said,

“Many who work making minimum wages or near it are unable to afford a vacation. heck we can barely afford to buy gas to get to work.”

A more cynical MnTaxpayer commented,

“Because most corporate drones think they are more important then[sic] they really are.”

Quite a few chalked it up to our strong American work ethic. Guy Williams summed up the recurring themes nicely,

“Reasons: (1). Americans, for the most part, have very strong work ethics. (2). We fear losing our jobs if we aren’t at our desk every day other workers see our absence and maneuver for an opening. (3). We barely keep our heads above water with the work load we have; setting it aside for 2 weeks or longer means an unconquerable mountain of backlog when we return. That’s why we don’t take vacations.”

On Friday, CNN Money posted a somewhat related article: “One in three U.S. workers has no paid sick days” which similar to the vacation post received a large number of responses. This time some of the responses were a little sharper in tone.

J. Medford replied,

“I live in a 3rd world Caribbean Country and we have that right…America is weird.”

To which Burns8282 responded,

“Says the guys in the 3rd world country. Ill take the American work ethic and the title of most powerful country in the world.”

Ouch! (As of this writing the response had received 6 positive votes, 14 negative votes.)

In an unrelated comment, Waytooold2 chimed in,

“when your[sic] worried about being outsourced you don’t worry about sick days”

The eye-rollingly named liberlmedia added,

“They should move to Europe if they want paid vacation.”

Others worried about the increase in malingerers (one woman worried about an uptick in drunkards taking the day off to nurse hangovers). However, many were sympathetic to the plight of those without paid sick days. As Nick Knight commented,

“America, slowly becoming a right wing toilet.”

And the battle between the 1% & the 99% continues as Madisontruth stated,

“Welcome to the new normal. The 1% who control the game board see us all as pawns. This is why government intervention is necessary.”

Why don’t Americans have as much time off as other countries? Is it a strong work ethic? Is it that we’re pawns in a game played by a few, dazzlingly wealthy people in charge? Are we just so used to it that it never occurs to us to ask for more? Even when people do take vacation, some end up working anyway!

Paris, je t'aime
Paris, je t’aime

I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that I choose to live my life with respect to my future self. When I make important decisions, I ask myself: will I feel it was worth it; will I feel good about it? If not, it’s probably not the right decision. When I look back on my life, I don’t want to lament all the time I spent not making the most of it, not enjoying myself, not doing something meaningful. As I lay on my deathbed, I surely will not regret spending too much time working as I reflect on my life choices. I work hard during work hours, I play during play hours. When I’m on vacation, don’t call me and I’m not checking work emails.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. I’ve progressed well in my career. I have chosen to work in a field where the smart employers – as in employers that realize employees are their best asset –  fight over employees by dangling tantalizing benefits in our faces. I have the option of saying “Hellllll to the no” to jobs with shit benefits. But, that could change: I could lose my job, the debt ceiling could finally crush us and work “perks” like sick days and vacation time could disappear. However, I’ll do my best to live a life to love and in any case, liberlmedia has a good point about moving to Europe…I did love France when I visited.

As far as we know, we get one life to live and I want to enjoy the hell out of this one!