Last week I wrote this post pondering the reasons why we might stay in a job well past its sell-by-date. I looked at the shame that might keep us in a role, or the will to please parents. I talked about burnout in teachers, and how so much of our self-esteem can be wrapped up in the thing that we get paid to do.
That's where I'd like to go back to this week - considering the impact that our jobs have on our self-esteem in terms of status and the lifestyle that they afford us. Specifically my experience of doing so. I hope that some of it will be relatable.
When I was working in London I earned a lot of money. That's not a boast. I'm ashamed to say that I spent most of it. And not on things that I could present to you now and say, this is the culmination of seven years of living away from my home and then-husband. These are the spoils of being the last person in the office on a Friday night after a 10+ hour work day when you know it will take you four more hours to drive home. I have nothing that I can show you and be proud of. It was the bribe to buy my happiness. And given how unhappy I was, it had to be fairly sizable.
What I do have though is who I became through that process. At a certain point, I had a life-changing experience that meant that I had more autonomy than I had ever had before in terms of choosing the next step in my career and in life. Newly divorced I was able to make a choice about how I spent my days without worrying about being the breadwinner - how the bills would be paid for myself and another person while maintaining a certain lifestyle, or whether I would need to be financially reliable for another.
I decided that money wasn't buying me happiness.
I knew then that my career was over.
And I was elated.
It's amazing, the level of endurance that we can summon within ourselves both physically and psychologically when we need to. I had reached the point where I was almost unable to walk with crippling back pain and sciatica after years of undiagnosed slipped discs. But the 14+ hours of commuting that I was doing by car each week forced me into a position where I could no longer carry on, even if I had wanted to. Fortunately, something as serious as potential long-term immobility was enough to encourage my head to catch up with the rest of my body. And so I decided to retrain as a therapist.
I hadn't bargained for there being another casualty of this process, much aside from the considerable difference in pay. That casualty was my self-esteem. This would require reflection and work to rebuild, and it wasn't something I could easily do alone. So wrapped up in my role and job title as it was. So wrapped up in my management of other people and attendance at senior meetings with people who dressed well, spoke intelligently and were - almost painfully - ambitious. My self-esteem was so interwoven with the job that I detested that I could see no way out of it. I realised that I would need to untangle this before I could ever fully leave and pursue my dream career as a private talking therapist.
I spent a long time working on my self-esteem with my therapists. I had a few throughout the course of my training because I wanted to try out different styles and see which fit me best. But I distinctly remember one who really "got" me. I would encourage you to do the same in your own counselling.
I identified how I had replaced parental approval as a source of validation and bolster for my self-esteem - for the approval of my management team. For promotion and increased pay scales. For a company car and a title. For the ability to delegate work to others. For material things that weren't actually anything to do with me at all. Leaving it behind was harder than I thought it would be and I remember clearly saying to my own therapist with a startling lack of tact or self-awareness: "Who am I if I'm just a counsellor?", (forgive me, reader, this too was a subconscious last-ditch attempt at a defence mechanism for the preservation of the status quo...).
Fortunately for me, my therapist's own self-esteem was so wonderfully intact that she didn't make this about her - and we continued to re-evaluate and re-establish who I was in the world without the things I thought that I needed to be in it.
I'm sharing this because working on self-esteem is one of the most vulnerable and open things that we can cover in therapy. This is my attempt to normalise it. To explain it. To let you know that we can all be fooled into thinking that we are what we do. If any of this resonates with you, or you are interested in working on your own self-esteem then I would be glad to meet and discuss options with you.
After all, I have experience.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.