For many people, their job is central to their identity. For others, it's education. Losing either one of these things - an increasingly common experience in the era of COVID - feels synonymous with a loss of self.
When I type, "Am I a failure?" into Google (I promise, it's not a daily occurrence), the following is how Google attempts to auto-complete the search:
Dropping out of college. Not going to college. If I drop a class. If I quit my job. It's notable that most of these auto-completions are more professional than relational in nature. The closest thing Google suggests to a more relational "failure" is Am I a failure to my parents? And I would bet even that search is inspired by a "failure" to be professionally successful.
It seems that we are less preoccupied with how we treat others, and more preoccupied by whether our life trajectory is intact.
This past week, I received the following e-mail from a blog reader.
I'm not a young sober person, as you state in your opener...I'm an older person who was searching answers for my question "Should I quit being a therapist?" I found your blog and your answer to why you quit. It helped me, and I have a shortcut to it on my screen so that I can read it again...and again. I found a couple other answers also that will help me. I've been a therapist 7 years, and I am unhappy - and growing moreso by the very thing that I thought would make me happy!
This is my third "career." The first was a mom and farmer's wife with an English/writing degree for many years; the second was a high school English teacher for 5 years; and the third (following jobs in human services and a college success center) was a counselor, after working 3 years on my master's degree...the answer to my search! Not so. I'm done with this in my heart, but filled with guilt and plagued with questions... your blog article gave me a spark of hope.
In Laura’s email, I immediately saw myself. Most obviously, I too wondered if being a therapist was the right fit. I too have bounced between jobs and places and even entire belief systems, waiting for something to feel right. I too have spent a long time searching for answers, and the answers have continued to disappoint.
As Laura notes, it isn’t just disappointment. It’s guilt, it's self-criticism, it's sometimes even hopelessness. It’s the feeling that, if I were only more competent or more consistent or more courageous, I’d have my answer by now. These are the feelings that, I suspect, first inspire the Google search.
I don’t know if I was born or raised with this belief, but somewhere within me is the notion that Good People are consistent. Good People know what they want. Good People work longer and harder than anyone else. The lives of Good People are seamlessly integrated, with no hint of incongruence between the professional and the personal, the relational and the spiritual. And when they fail, Good People feel guilt. A lot of guilt.
Part of me believes that. Another part of me is in charge of responding to e-mails. I knew as soon as I read Laura's message that she may not check these boxes of a so-called "Good Person," and I knew just as surely that my boxes are all wrong. Simply by creating this kind and authentic relationship with another human, by searching tirelessly for answers and sharing about her search, she was a success. She was a Good Person.
It's wonderful to hear from you. I'm glad that my article about why I quit being a therapist spoke to you. It's by far my most-read post, which means there are lots of therapists finding themselves in the same position as you and me.
Knowing that you are done is a gift. In my experience, knowing is so much less painful than being 90% sure.
I don't think there's anything wrong with having many careers, so I hope you don't perceive it that way! I can't speak for everyone, but I know for me I go through seasons (some of them very rapid) and committing to one thing "forever" feels fundamentally incongruent with who I am. I hope you are able to see your own perseverance and commitment to exploring different parts of yourself, even when it has meant upheaval and risk-taking. There's bravery in that.
Thanks again for your kind note. It made my day.