Stockholm syndrome is kicking in
July 18, 2011 8:10 AM   Subscribe

How do you reconcile your private and professional selves?

A few years ago due to the pressing need for financial security I left my free-wheeling creative career for a high-stress corporate job that was intellectually demanding but viscerally moribund. It was a huge culture shock and the first year was miserable, at the end of which I had a minor breakdown (taken as vacation so no-one from work knew what was happening). The next year was still bad but I knuckled down. Four years in I'm running my department and it's no longer hell but I've changed an awful lot and I'm scared. I no longer do any of the creative things I used to do, I haven't written a song or painted a picture or geeked out with arty types in about three years.

I have a lot of responsibility and while I've enjoyed the intellectual stretch work has now become all-consuming and I'm obsessing over the slightest detail. I find myself saying 'we' rather than 'I' all the time at work - I'm even directing the groupthink. It feels like the mask is fused to my face the rest of the time too. I don't go to see bands, I don't even shop for clothes any more because I feel aukward and fake. I'll play instruments or listen to music by myself but I've got so good at suppressing my instincts I can't physically bring myself to take part in, or be around people who are involved with creative activities because I keep having these mad emotional responses to the slightest trigger - at the urging of my SO I recently tried out a taster session for a choir and as soon as I started singing I burst into tears (at the back of the room, no one saw). Weird crying jogs happen almost daily. On the plus side I'm financially secure, on the minus side I feel a shadow of my former self.

How do I reconcile these different bits of me? Clearly I'm good at my job, but I've been conflicted for so much of it I can't remember life in colour. I'm an all-or-nothing kind of person (and an extreme introvert which doesn't help) and I can't seem to get any kind of balance. Has anyone else out there been through this? What did you do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I have an extensive collection of idiotic T-shirts. I wear one every day under my dress shirt. In the parking lot at the end of the day, I take off the dress shirt and toss it in the trunk. My work day is over. I am no longer Work Person. I am now Inappropriate T-shirt Person.

Get some sort of ritual to draw a line between Professional and Personal. When you're on Personal time, don't think about the things that Professional you thinks about.
posted by Etrigan at 8:21 AM on July 18, 2011 [33 favorites]

I do it by walking away from jobs that require me to sacrifice my integrity.
posted by flabdablet at 8:25 AM on July 18, 2011 [15 favorites]

On the plus side I'm financially secure, on the minus side I feel a shadow of my former self.

You're right, you do seem to be engaging in some all-or-nothing thinking, but that doesn't really necessarily make you an all-or-nothing kind of person.

Maybe you could be a bit less financially secure and a bit more creative. It doesn't have to be a choice of extremes so intense you're either roaming the street in rags and playing a lute or you're trudging through life weeping like an unhappy lord of the manor.

Maybe start thinking about getting a job that doesn't make you feel like less of a person and under what circumstances you could compromise a little and have a reasonably secure life and still be pretty happy.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:40 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

What did you do?

Oh, and: occasional vandalism, bad attitude, phoning it in. I recommend a more grown-up approach.

Also: you sound depressed. I think you should probably address that as a separate issue with your doctor. It could be coloring your thinking and preventing you from either taking action or looking at this with a more nuanced eye.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:43 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Man, that's rough.

Could you transition into doing related work as a "consultant" so you'd be freelancing and on your own time? Should be easier to let yourself be the self you want to be that way. Obviously not without its own set of tradeoffs.

And always remember: nobody ever laid on their deathbed and said "I should have worked more" (but when my time comes, I may be the first).
posted by adamrice at 8:44 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is very smart, competent, and organized. She's very dedicated, very hard-working, and has work-life balance difficulties. Last year, she took a job in a high-pressure organization and felt a lot like you seem to.

Two things helped:
1. She had one session with a therapist and was prescribed anti-anxiety medications. She felt a difference in the first week - even her interactions with others improved. This is a temporary fix, but it might set a person on the right track.
2. She took a new job when her contract ended. (She had other things going on that made this a good decision for her.)

I might also suggest, as sort of mentioned above, finding some time that's just for you to do some specific thing. Is it reading for two hours on Sunday morning? Going to a yoga class at the gym? Cooking for friends?

Also, can you just take a week off and get some fresh air? Maybe you have friends or family in another state you could visit.
posted by jander03 at 8:47 AM on July 18, 2011

I'm so sorry you've found yourself in this situation. It took me many years to figure out how to do this myself. The issue for me was that I felt as if I were two different people, high-powered manager during the day, nurturing-giving-creative human at night and weekends. I would "flip the switch" in the morning on my way to work, and again when I stepped inside my home at night. When I stopped doing that, I became a much better manager and a better person, too. I started out by making a practical list of my best qualities at work and at home. And then made a very conscious effort to overlap them. Simple changes, such as the wardrobe thing mentioned above, really did help. Applying time-management skills at home to accomplish personal goals also worked. Basically, I blurred the lines between the two personas. It took some time, but every little step helped.
posted by raisingsand at 8:50 AM on July 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was in a similar situation about three years ago. I thought that there was no way out, and that for the financial well-being of my family, I had no choice but to stay. Then I started looking for jobs in a different state. Now I'm working a far less stressful, less toxic job for more money. The trap only existed in my mind.

Even now, much later, I'm still mildly euphoric at being free.

I don't know your situation, but I can only advise building up reserves of cash and applying for jobs in different cities. Ask creative people in your life how they would go about looking for a new job.
posted by John Farrier at 9:09 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar position to you. I tried to make it work for years, all sorts of different strategies. After about 4 years I finally left. After I left it took me about a year to shed the anxiety issues and regain my normal personality and self-image, and it took a good year to realize how severely the gig was affecting my physical and emotional health.

Please do try to make it work, but make sure to set some kind of cutoff and if you're still not happy, walk away - it is possible to be incompatible with your work. I am much poorer than I used to be and the insecurity is no fun at all, but I'm still happier and healthier than I was.
posted by tempythethird at 9:23 AM on July 18, 2011

Almost 4 years ago I did the same thing - took a corporate job for the paycheck rather than out of any love for the work. My first year was much like you describe - absolute personal hell. The second year, I realized that as long as I didn't set myself up to move ahead position-wise, i.e. become a manager, I could do my corporate job for 8 hours a day and do it well, then come home and spend time enjoying my corporate paycheck doing what I really love (which, like you, is music). I've had my ups and downs since then, but for the most part, the crying jags and that awful feeling that I've lost touch with who I really am have gone away. It helps that I have a boss who was fine with my declaration that I like the job I currently have, and that I am not looking to be promoted.

One thing that really helped me reconcile all of this this was committing to play music with a group regularly, so I think your SO was giving you some good advice in urging you to participate in that choir. I wish you the best of luck.
posted by chez shoes at 10:50 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't see why the two selves can't co-exist? TS Eliot worked as a banker, Charles Ives in insurance. You don't have to be the manager after-hours, and the musician can come out and play the rest of the time.

Do you commute? If so, you could seek out new music for a playlist. Or listen to books or podcasts that expose you to new ways of thinking.

You don't have to break out the oils and the easel on Saturday morning--carry a sketchbook around and doodle at lunch or at odd hours. I think you should take the baby steps back into being creative and not beat yourself up because you're not plunging into the deep end of the pool. I know you claim that you're an "all or nothing" person, but do you have to be? What's the worst that would happen if you weren't an "all or nothing" person? What if you took up something completely different--bonsai, cooking, knitting, wood carving, trail running--something that isn't in your current creative resume?
posted by Ideefixe at 10:58 AM on July 18, 2011

Welcome to the pendulum swing!

This thing you're feeling is totally normal. Ask me about my creative output in my first two years of corporate work (ha!).

First: Stop hating your corporate self. That's you too, you know. Reconcile means having them, you know, like each other. Work is about groupthink. That's how organizations work. The fact that you're saying "we" is healthy and reassures people that you're in for the org good, etc. You're able to manage people and get things done. That's something that I've seen a lot of creative people totally fail at. Thus, you're awesome.

Second: It's a role. It's a mode. Find a (BIG DRAMATIC) way to switch gears. This is why I like wearing dress pants and a suit jacket to work. Mister Rogers taught us how to do this. Come home and switch from the coat into a sweater, from dress shoes into me shoes. This is why I HATE working at home now. It's OK to play a role because that's part of the job. But at home, you get to set the mask aside, breathe out and have a "welcome back, creative me" ritual. (Mine involves different playlists, a particular kind of tea and often an IBM Selectric.)

Third: You're rusty. So it's OK to be afraid of your creative side disappearing, or sucking or the worry that "OMFG I'M NOT CREATIVE ANY MORE I DON'T DESERVE TO BE HERE." in creative endeavors. While choir sounds good, if you're an introvert, maybe a group activity ain't the way to refind the creative you.

I'm an all-or-nothing person and I actually found that working in a creative field made me less happy than being in a corporate role where I'm not creative and switching gears DRAMATICALLY, exhausting myself creatively and then returning to the corporate world where I get to use another part of my brain is a huge relief.

I've had a lot of the "this job is not me" conversations with people, and cried at Weird Al's "Skipper Dan" in the car on the way to work, so I don't have it all worked out, but I've managed to swing it for many years and, while I could have more creative output, I feel like I find balance overall.
posted by Gucky at 11:26 AM on July 18, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm thinking about posting a question from the opposite perspective - I've been an office worker for over a decade and I'm trying to go creative after keeping it as a hobby/spare time thing. I've had to do these things as sanity keepers:

- schedule time to be creative and honor it. Be as serious about blocking out free time for creative stuff as you are about blocking out 8-5 as work time. Defend that creative time against other commitments.

- in conjunction with the above: don't let your job become your life. Make sure you have good job boundaries and aren't carrying around job stress 24/7. It is very difficult to be creative if your mental space is filled with corporate job issues. Mindfulness meditation is helpful.

- make some friends who are in similar boats and meet for creative project time. Be a mutual audience for each other. I've done some really fun group projects.

- spoil yourself a bit with supplies. If you feel the inclination to play around with a new technique, happily encourage that by buying the good supplies your corporate job lets you afford. Don't be all, 'but I don't have the time to do justice to expensive XYZ' - poppycock. Treat your creative side to luxuries without strings. This is part of what you're working for, after all. Be proud you can buy these things for yourself.

- avoid negativity towards your creative side at all costs. Don't get on yourself for not producing or being out of practice. Try to clear out any expectations and let yourself have fun.

I suspect your intense emotional reactions stem from suppressing or dishonoring your creative side. It is like a child - it doesn't react well to abuse. Make a space so it can play and treat it like it is important. Some people get a lot out of The Artist's Way books to reconnect and refresh. Good luck.
posted by griselda at 11:48 AM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Humans are social; we develop our values and thoughts in the social environment. It's a general statement - there are lots of exceptions.

1. Sock money away. Don't be spendy. Think of this job as a way to insure your financial freedom in retirement. Drive your car for 8 - 12 years. Buy good clothes and wear them out. Don't go nuts on lunch at restaurants, etc.

2. Don't let the job have all your time. Limit your hours to, say, 45/week. Give them your full attention and energy for that 45 hours, and No More.

3. Don't BE the job. Change your mindset about work/life/self, and define better boundaries.

a. Schedule attendance at concerts and museums or whatever events will get you back in the groove.

b. reconnect with your art buddies.

c. as an exec-type, you probably schedule your life. Schedule time for art/music/creativity.

I think you might be surprised by how many people have a secret life in the arts.
posted by theora55 at 12:49 PM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's entirely possible that there isn't a long term way to reconcile your personal and professional lives. You seem like someone who is mourning the death of someone – in this case what you may call your authentic and creative self. The important thing is to make a conscious decision about which part of your life you want to nurture. You have to be the one who controls the direction you move in. Inertia is so easy in the types of jobs you describe. The days lead to years and you effectively make a decision by not making a decision.

Assess your life, make a decision, move forward and don't regret.

I've been there; if not the same place then somewhere close by. I chose to leave the job and take a year off. It wasn't easy. It required planning and support. But it's doable.
posted by quadog at 5:50 PM on July 18, 2011

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