Necessarily insincere...
August 12, 2011 8:26 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with needing to live an insincere life when doing so cuts to the bone? (in work and in school)

At my previous job, I had to smile, be nice, be politically correct, be agreeable, talk about the work I was doing, talk about why I was doing it, talk about why it mattered, talk about what its purpose was... and I mostly didn't feel that way or agree with what I was saying. It's the same with my current graduate program.

At work and at school, I feel like I'm in enemy territory. I'm almost completely disenfranchised. And it hurts terribly to live a lie.

Semi-concrete examples: In overly broad strokes, I genuinely believed the work I was doing was ill-advised, not in the company's or the customer's best interests. I genuinely believe that the direction my graduate school research was shepherded into is arbitrary and of little consequence.

Why am I doing this to myself? I need health insurance, and I need to eat. I did my best to humbly and effectively articulate my perspective, and I believe I succeeded in that I was not branded as being insubordinate or having a bad attitude--over a period of weeks, I was simply overruled by boss, graduate school advisor, graduate school committee, etc.

But my mind wasn't changed. Surely these people all have more experience than me, but, nonetheless, I am typically left, not just agnostic (wait and see), but in active disagreement about the best way to proceed. (These are less nuts-and-bolts issues but more about values and priorities.)

In the long term, of course, I will keep working to be more articulate and persuasive, and I will continue to do my best to be humble and keep an open mind. (People get me to change my mind all the time, in all sorts of little, medium, and sometimes even big ways. It just rarely happens where I receive a paycheck, for reasons that are not yet clear.) And I will keep looking for people and organizations that share my values and see things the way that I do.

My questions: But how do I (how do you) deal with this in the short term? Smiling, saying the right things, going along agreeably, digging the holes and filling them in again?

What are your personal thoughts, book/author recommendations (classical and contemporary), anything? How did you or do you live your life when you were strategically, ethically, or philosophically opposed to what you were participating in? When, for whatever reason, you haven't (yet) been able to surround yourself with people and goals that are congruent with self and personal agency?

It literally hurts, and when I mouth the right words and smile, I feel like I'm betraying myself and hurting that still small voice inside me when I should be nurturing it.

(I have a great therapist who I'm picking all this apart with. I'm pretty content in hobbies, love, friendship, and family. I feel understood by the people I care about. People, even in the workplace, don't seem to think I always need to be right or anything like that. People, including coworkers, typically seem to like me and like being around me.)

Bonus question: I know the above is vague and this sort of thing is very personal, but how did you get from the above to where you are now? What would you do if you were me? I only have about four months of savings, and, unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I'm living slightly above my means instead of well below my means.
posted by zeek321 to Human Relations (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you've found yourself in this situation, it's a terrible way to live every day. I'm glad you have a great therapist, and I'm sure this will help. You're not going to change this very quickly, but you can take small steps along the way that will help. Everyone deserves to be happy and live the life they want. First, I would suggest that you find a hobby that you really enjoy, so that your spare time is filled with a rewarding activity. It might take a few false starts, but keep trying. For some reason, the day gig is easier to take if you have something else to look forward to. Second, this question is somewhat similar and has some good practical advice on how to be happier and more true to your real self during the day. And last, you don't really have to LIE or be untrue to your real feelings. Try to just not say anything, instead of saying things that go against your nature.

Look at these things as practical ways you can change in small steps every day, instead of "OMG I have to make huge changes to be happy." You kinda have to practice, and build these skills just like career skills.
posted by raisingsand at 9:14 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I have been really unhappy at jobs that required me to do customer service or otherwise put on a happy face, I was (sometimes) able to handle it by treating my demeanor as an entirely separate thing than my personal mood. It helped me to think of politeness / base level of friendliness as a facet of professionalism, rather than anything having to do with my feelings.

If you can manage this a few times, being at work might become a little easier in general, and you may not have to push yourself to fake it.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:28 PM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

What helped me when working at a defense contracting job was focusing on my professional goals rather than on the organization's work...I needed to do the job and learn certain things to get my next job, and I did. But, I think it made me more distant...I should have left sooner.

When trying to persuade people about an approach to solving a problem, I've found that finding facts that both people agree on is most effective, and also shows me if I'm wrong. When facts are clear, so are answers (math) but when facts and reasoning are not clear, the answers are emotion-driven (politics).

What "worked" for me in a similar situation was getting kicked out of the grad program that was a terrible fit, frantically searching for work, and then finding a much better job in industry.

As far as book recommendations...I don't feel I'm qualified to advise, but possibly "Siddhartha" or some other Buddhist or even religious ideas (to get better at being unhappy) or "Influence" by Cialdini (to get better at persuading people).
posted by sninctown at 9:31 PM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

My questions: But how do I (how do you) deal with this in the short term? Smiling, saying the right things, going along agreeably, digging the holes and filling them in again?

Honestly, this is what a lot of life is. We don't always stumble into our dream jobs (I'm not even sure, from your question, what your dream job might be), and plenty of people spend a lot of their life doing a job that is not their favorite thing in the world but pays the bills. Plenty of people find their real life enjoyment from vacations, hobbies, family, etc.

To be blunt, you sound like one of two things from this post. You sound, perhaps, seriously depressed. The vagueness of your post makes me wonder if you just don't know what you want to do with your life or what makes you happy.

On the other hand, you also sound like you are possibly casting yourself in the role of some romantic, tragic figure who simply can't deal with the great burden of life rolling by your stationary body and not showering you with the things you desire. Often, we have to take a leap in order to reach those things. Do you really want to be in grad school? If not, leave. (you say you need insurance, but unless you get a way better stipend than I ever got, it doesn't make financial sense to make peanuts when you could make an actual salary and buy your own insurance?)

Maybe it's because you're depressed, but it sounds like you're vastly discounting your own agency. Your post is vague, so flesh it out for yourself: what are your values? This post is long on examples of how your school/work forces you to do things you just don't care about, but very short on telling us anything you do care about. Is grad school helping you get to somewhere that will enable you to fulfill your goals/values? It doesn't sound like it, if you've been shepherded into research you don't even like. So see if you can switch advisors. See if maybe a different graduate program/discipline is a better fit for you. Quit altogether and get any job you can until you figure out what your values/goals are.

When you're depressed, it can be very easy to fall into a rut of learned helplessness, thinking there is nothing you can do to change your situation until "life" just sorts something out for you. Nothing could be a better way to keep trapping yourself into a depressed, 'victim of life' role.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:43 PM on August 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

You're not living a lie. For a couple of hours a day, in exchange for money and benefits, you perform various tasks that you're not 100% engaged in doing. So, in order to be a person of integrity, you either (1) quit or (2) commit to doing the best job you can. Do what neefs to be done. Bloom where you're planted. Fake it til you make it.
Unless you're trying to convince people to BBQ family pets or have sex with children, get over your feeble scruples and do your job or find another one.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:05 PM on August 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

I don't have a solution for you. I'm going through the same thing. I feel like I'm losing a bit of myself every day. I wish you the best of luck.
posted by Polgara at 10:25 PM on August 12, 2011

I worked at a job several years ago that was a terrible fit for me. I had been through some personal changes around that time, so it took a while for me to realize that I opposed what I was doing (defense contracting) and that working these made me desperately unhappy (a few nice people, some I didn't have anything in common with, and a few actively mean people). So i jumped. I found another job that was a slightly better fit, and I was able to figure out what sort of work and environment made me happy.

Some people know what they want out of life, while others know what they don't want and have to funnel their purpose down by eliminating options one by one. At any rate, you need a change and more experience to be able to whittle down what makes you happy. Don't accept any advice that says to just suck this up forever, or you will never be fulfilled. In the short term, stay focused and do the best job you can. Create positive connections, build references, and diversify what you're doing so you have some good bullets on your resume. Then LEAVE.
posted by mochapickle at 10:46 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Volunteering in something you really care about can help with feeling like the rest of your life is a worthless fraud. And it can give you a sense for else you might do with your life besides this path.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:55 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, I think most of the advice thus far wildly misses the mark. What you describe is not just about having to do some tasks you're not totally into. This: "I genuinely believed the work I was doing was ill-advised, not in the company's or the customer's best interests" is the description of a job that is slowly killing your soul. DO NOT listen to the people who say to suck it up and be an adult because hey, this is what life is.

You say you need to do this because you need to eat, and yet you have so much excess money and time that you can afford therapy and hobbies. You need to be more honest with yourself about your reasons for staying in these situations. Take that extra time and look for a better job/school. Save up that extra money and quit if you need to before finding something else, to regenerate a sense of self respect.
posted by parrot_person at 4:01 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

It seems to me you're having your mid-life crisis rather earlier than usual; I commend you. You mention the reason that you can't stop being involved with these soul-killing organizations is the need to pay your bills. I therefore suggest you find some way of minimizing your bills. Realign your expectations of an acceptable standard of living with the level of pay that comes with doing non-soulkilling work. You seem like a person of integrity: find work that rewards your trait rather than is sabotaged by it.

You may wish to make a dramatic, dramatic change, such as chucking it all and teaching in a foreign country, or sleeping in the back of a rescue mission and preparing food for the homeless all day, or being an itinerant craftsperson or musician. Look, you only get one whack at life, right? Success isn't gauged by the chintz on the curtain rods. It's trite but: feed your soul and the rest will come, as long as you are open to all the wild possibilities that present themselves. (But don't be stupid about it; integrity means dealing with your responsibilities, too.)

Good luck, and keep chatting with your therapist.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:29 AM on August 13, 2011

I genuinely believed the work I was doing was ill-advised, not in the company's or the customer's best interests

I supervise some employees who sometimes voice concerns like this. IME
- Sometimes this kind of concern is a result of only having a small window on to the total process - yeah, it doesn't make sense up close, but there are other less-obvious reasons (auditing, data management, long-term considerations, new developments on the horizon, etc.) why the policy or procedure really is in everyone's best interest.
- Sometimes my employees are right, but we're not in a position to make the needed changes (for me, this is usually due to cost constraints and complex reporting structures) on the timescale that they'd like.
- Sometimes it's a result of having a different definition of best interests. (For us: balancing one department's definition of professionalism with another's definition of marketing, etc.) Sometimes the gulf in best interests is too big - I mean, lots of bad behaviour is in someone's best interest.

It can be hard to get this information/context, particularly if everyone is busy. I had similar struggles in a few of my first jobs, and it would have been so much easier to work there (or quit sooner) if I had known this stuff, or even if I had these questions on my radar. Piecing together these things helped me finally got to a job where my considerations are valued, or at least heard.
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 6:31 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with parrot person. I've personally never lasted in situations like what you describe very long. Eventually, it becomes a lot harder to be who you aren't... it becomes scarier to continue doing what you're doing than to face the challenges (financial, etc) that might arise if you stop.

If you insist on staying in the situation, the only way I can imagine surviving is by looking at it as a means to a very specific end and keeping your eyes on that goal at all times until you can extract yourself.

One more thought, although due to your intentional vagueness in your question, I am not sure whether it applies to you exactly, but just something to ponder: the whole system that's currently in place of people working full-time jobs and having health insurance and graduate degrees seems like a cultural imperative, but in reality, just because it seems like everyone around you is doing something, that doesn't obligate you to live the same way. I've followed an extremely unconventional "career" trajectory, and so far everything has worked out fine. I am NOT trying to suggest you do something irresponsible or rash, and I don't know the details of your particular situation, but four months worth of savings might give you the proper time to reinvent yourself, reevaluate everything, and come up with a new strategy for your life that doesn't involve daily erosion of your spirit.
posted by pupstocks at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I substitute teach at a school system I fundamentally do not believe in philosophically or pedagogically. I have to enforce rules I don't believe in, and be subordinate to people I do not respect even a little bit.

I do so because I need to eat, and my partner and I are still pulling out of the bottom-hitting of a bankruptcy.

One way I do this is to treat my job as research. If I get really frustrated, I can write a blog where I do an expose about all that I see on a daily basis. I haven't done this because I'm managing and I have better things to write about, but when things get bad, I consider it again. There's a book in it somewhere.

Also, buddhist principles are an excellent aid in the day-to-day coping. I try to get better at being calm in mind and relaxed in body. Accepting that I can't control everything, but I can control my reaction. Realizing that everything won't be this way forever. Meditation helps.

Also, having a meaningful life outside of work.
posted by RedEmma at 9:00 AM on August 13, 2011

You need an endgame in a situation like this. When will you no longer have to lie?
posted by salvia at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2011

But how do I (how do you) deal with this in the short term? Smiling, saying the right things, going along agreeably, digging the holes and filling them in again?

Me? I don't, and I feel scorn for people who do. It's called being inauthentic... only semantically different from being a liar. Why can't you get a different job? Why can't you change the course of your study?

What would you do if you were me?

I'd quit. I'd do what I felt was right. You seem concerned about making changes because of the money. If you're comfortable with lying to yourself and others because you need the money, then why not steal when you need money? Is lying better than stealing?
posted by cmoj at 5:10 PM on August 13, 2011

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