Confrontational Work + Low self-esteem, Body Image Issues = ???!
December 8, 2014 9:58 PM   Subscribe

How do I navigate an environment where I'm expected to challenge power and authority constantly, while struggling with my own deeply-rooted issues with body image, self esteem, depression and anxiety?

I'm an early twenties woman and investigative reporter working for a local nonprofit news outlet. I cover government and politics for a couple suburban city halls and in the last several months (also: my first job) my coverage has resulted in the departure of several top officials in a city due to public corruption scandals that finally boiled over. There has not been real media attention for more than two decades -- so not only are people getting in hot water for the first time in a long time, but they don't react to it well.

So 'yay' for good clips I suppose, but I'm dealing with a lot of depression, anxiety, an ongoing eating disorder (bulimia) and very painful feelings about relationships with men, problems that sometimes get activated when I am at work.

People react badly when exposed, and often this anger has been directed at me. This isn't everyday, but as things reach a tipping point, some weeks have been really intense.

-city officials using their physical presence to try to intimidate me (5'3'' petite Asian woman) out of asking questions
-elected official who berates me on a fairly regular basis ("you're a horrible little girl" "how do you sleep at night," "why don't you write something nice," "I pray you'll find a man patient enough to marry you")
-sexual harassment from sources (ie. solicitations for sexual relationships)
-various insults about my professionalism and demeanor

I work in a small office with a very supportive group of journalists, but they are almost all men. I just graduated from college, so I don't have any friends. I work a lot so I just feel drained on the weekend, and general social anxiety keeps me from trying to make new ones.

I am reserved but put on a tough, assertive face for work. People usually don't sense that I have self-esteem issues. But then I do things like drink a lot, weep before bed, and throw up my lunch.

When people react to questions by getting ugly, it can pull me out of my professional context and make me feel incredibly small, unsafe and vulnerable. I really hate it; I get frozen and can't react. The little comments here and there don't bother me, it's more stuff like, a city official getting very close to my face and staring me down and treating me like I'm a little girl. I remember being a kid and my dad making me feel the same way.

I get filled with this overwhelming and primordial feeling of worthlessness and that it's all my fault (and in a twisted way, it kind of is). My dad, a traumatized and very conservative immigrant, was very violent and angry when I was young and it really engrained in me this feeling that all the conflict and hurt in the environment was coming from within me. I've since obviously grown a lot and tried to overcome these feelings, but it still returns. So even though I can say to myself, okay XYZ official abused public funds, hid things from the public and approved illegal contracts, but you wrote all these things, and CAN'T YOU SEE THE PAIN ON HIS FACE, THE DISCOMFORT OF ALL THESE EMPLOYEES, THE DISRUPTION YOU'VE CAUSED? WHY WON'T YOU STOP? DON'T YOU HAVE ANY DECENCY?

I am struggling to cope with is this crippling self-doubt and self-hate. Some days are fine. Others are soaked in this helplessness and doubt and anxiety: I'm just this pathetic little girl surrounded by powerful people and I am ruining everything. I spiral and get very depressed, struggle and hate my body, wonder why no one loves me, wonder why I can't do something simpler and nicer and sweeter for the world. "Why can't you write something nice?"

Obviously it's not this simple, I know I shouldn't take this stuff personally, but that doesn't stop me from feeling what I feel. Reporters might feel a sense of triumph or something when they get a corrupt city official fired, but go back to my car and weep.

It's absolutely infuriating, because here I am being a respectable lady doing all these things totally within my job description as a reporter. I hate that I have these feelings and that they affect me so much. It makes me feel even worse.

I'm really trying to get help and cope with my depression/bulimia/anxiety. I graduated from undergrad six months ago and haven't been able to find a therapist that I like yet. I'm on new medication that has helped a lot with daily depression. So I'm seeking professional help -- I just don't have a social network right now, and I don't know many people who are going through the same thing.

Maybe it's just that I'm really young -- smart, intelligent, and put together, but still young, so all my feelings are just very raw, and I'm in a vulnerable place right now.

So I'm looking for advice/anecdotes/reminders about the worth of challenging the powers that be, while dealing with a pretty broken sense of self.

How can I make these interactions feel less personal when the physical and political dimensions are so present?
How can I protect my emotional well-being when people are trying to wear me down so I'll back off?
Is it possible for me to get stronger in this kind of environment?
How can I stop feeling vengeful and hateful toward people who are directing anger at me or try to make me feel humiliated?

posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm an introvert, and I've gone through a long career as a consultant and executive doing a really similar cycle of success/drained weeping. This wasn't occasioned by fighting the power, as such, but by trying to accomplish success and change in a corporate environment. Being a tough broad ran counter to my nature, or so I thought. It took me quite a bit of time to embrace both sides of myself as okay.

This said, your situation is really specific, and I hesitate to draw parallels given that I've never had that degree of public prominence, and I don't know how that changes the mix.

But a few practical points:

I've learned to make sure I take care of my social needs during the weekend, and because my tendency would be to sit at home with low energy and lick my wounds, I have to do this in a structured way. So I make sure I never spend any weekends without social contact. No matter what. This means I've joined hiking groups, book groups, running groups and ended up making appointments with people I might not have otherwise considered as friends. This was really really hard in the beginning, but it probably opened doors for me I wouldn't have opened myself and it built an emotional buffer I need to go on in a good way.

I might also say that ACT therapy might be something for you to look into-- I had a lot of luck with it as method in similar sounding situations. Don't know if they have anyone working with these models where you are, but something to consider.

Good luck to you.
posted by frumiousb at 12:37 AM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I get filled with this overwhelming and primordial feeling of worthlessness and that it's all my fault (and in a twisted way, it kind of is).

No, no, NO.

No, you are not worthless. Beyond the fact that every human is intrinsically unique and meets the world as someone capable of changing it, it seems to me that you have embarked on a very courageous path early in your career. You are actively trying to change the world to make it a better place and that has immense value. I'd be willing to bet that there are a lot of people who would want to shake your hand and say, "Good job."

No, the feelings that you get are not your fault. I don't doubt that those feelings are real because you are cracking eggs and scrambling them as a regular part of your profession. If you are being honest and diligent and careful as a journo--staying within the ethical bounds of the profession, then the responses you get from people who are shit-bags of greed and impropriety are reflections of their character and NOT yours. YOU can look in the mirror and say, "I'm being the best person I can be."

NO, there is no "twisted way" of fault here. The turbulence generated by your efforts are a natural by-product of your work so please try not to interpret your agency as a journalist who reports stories that are out-of-kilter with accepted norms of lawful and ethical human behavior as a matter of guilt. You are not the one doing bad things. You are doing a good thing by shining a light on some dark places. It isn't always pleasant, I'm sure, but it is important that you try to separate the wholesome social wheat of your work from the unbalanced, selfish chaff of the people you expose. As a practical matter, unethical and immoral people are generally jerks and quite often are also self-righteous, too. It's part of how they justify their behavior. When you expose them they won't be contrite, they'll be the mean, vicious creeps that they are, dropping their false veneer of civility. The more embarrassed they are, the worse they can be. That has no reflection on your essence as a human being. They are just lashing out and you are the target.

As a practical matter, maybe try to find something social to do that isn't related to work in any way. Playing a sport and/or having a genuinely fun and happy hobby can act as safety valves to let you blow off steam. And don't be shy to seek out a professional therapist to talk through the really serious issues.

Most of all, be who you are. People who can balance being tough and being sensitive are special. Never forget that.
posted by CincyBlues at 2:34 AM on December 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

I really want to reach out to you as a person similarly hard wired by experience, and publicly armoured by my talents. It is kinda pathological to struggle with the split between public and private personae when you have been so impacted by early violence. Plus, empirically- early abuse aside- you are being verbally assaulted and physically threatened. Anyone would struggle, without the double whammy of re visitation of early wounds.

You are a figure of towering Self. Your youth is almost to be un believed against the phenomenal insight and sensitivity you've captured in this post. Even as a young, vulnerable girl surrounded by violence and disruption, you had the strength and determination and the unstoppability of a fucking Marine crawling through mud and fire, dragging herself over dead bodies because this is not where Life stops her. And with abuse and crazies and being enveloped in dysfunction you keep on walking forward. And through numerous confrontations, any one of which enough to ensnare and ruin and stop many a woman. And through the sickness, combined with and simultaneous with the relationship with Work that panics you instead of giving you the reward of good feelings.

But this Self keeps moving forward.

So you begin therapy, and you start to learn about how to avoid that Split in public/private. You keep telling your stories, trusting your professional instincts and your Voice. If you're like me, you join a gym and take up weightlifting. Then some boxing. You'll gain physical self esteem that gets to your brain which tells you how strong you're becoming. You find one social thing to do each weekend, without fail.
You do one or two things ritualistically when you get home from work. Not drinking. Mine is dog walks and cooking a good meal with lots of veges.

You will get stronger through finding personal mantras. I get the Lebowski Dude's voice in my head: 'That's just, like, your opinion, man' when other people's unregulated emotions impinge on my being. When someone physically gets in my face I say firmly 'step back!'

Therapy, weights, mantras, therapy.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:54 AM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

A thought: can you create a mantra where you tell yourself that what you're doing is worthwhile, important and a necessary good for the community? Model yourself as Wonder Woman or Batman or whichever hero floats your boat? Put on your imaginary Spiderman (why are there so few female superheroes?) outfit and go out to save The City?

In other words, can you pretend? You have a special suit where evil words are deflected?

Like, sometimes when I'm facing a particularly brutal group of teenagers in my English class, I make up the narrative where I'm Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers and I sing a little theme of "Rocky" in my mind and psych myself into this "I am changing the world, one verb at a time" mindset.

When I do that, I often find myself internally laughing at my own ridiculousness, especially when I think, "Damn, if the kids only knew what I was doing right now..." and I can get back to the business at hand.

I say give it a try. Make a gigantic story in your mind. It helps me deal with the nefarious teens who live to destroy proper sentence structure and propagate illiteracy.
posted by kinetic at 2:57 AM on December 9, 2014

I have lots of the same reactions to people getting loud and in my face, and I don't know if it comes from the anger, violence, intensity in my childhood / young adulthood or whether it's just my personality. A difference? I'm 6'5" tall, white male, and I'm positive that a lot less people have gotten into my face, at least since I got away from my family.

Therapy is going to help you in a lot of ways, from finding coping stratagems to use when these little jerks get into your face -- these people doing this, they really are scared, you've got them on the run -- so therapy will help with that and help begin to deal with the bulimia thing. One of my best friends has worked in treatment centers around Arizona, the two big ones that every movie star and rock band goes into and out of but also she spent a two year stint working in a treatment facility dealing with anorexia and bulimia.

They are a totally different animal than compulsive over-eating, which is about being out of control, like an alcoholic or a drug addict etc. Whereas the person suffering anorexia and/or bulimia is so in control that they're out of control with it; that is how they are out of control. Generally women -- the facility she was in was all women -- generally a few bucks in their background. Incredibly strong people, strong-willed people. My friend told me how difficult it is for them to "get it" IE you tell them that they are out of control and they'll show you exactly how in control they are.

I once sat at a table with an anorexic and watched her push the food around her plate the entire time we sat there at table. She ate one olive. If you hadn't been watching closely, you'd think this woman had just had a meal with a friend. I took her to the hospital that night -- she was dying, incrementally, and was aware enough to see it -- but she just flat could not / would not accept their help. A painful night, for her and for me; I wonder what's ever happened to her.

ANYWAYS, you're tougher than an old boot. You don't feel like it -- weeping yourself to sleep just cannot Be Fun in any way, shape, or form. Done it. But damned if you don't go back and dig in again. You're super-cool. I think you recognize that, I think your inside mirror is reflecting that back to you, I think you can see that. If you can't, oh man -- take it from me: you've got real jam. You're really admirable.

Find a mentor. You're going to say I'm ridiculous here, and of course I am, but use Craiglist to find a mentor, like under Situation Wanted or some such. It's just crazy enough to work; someone will read it and if they're not your mentor they'll know who she is, and get her in touch with you. Someone wants to mentor you. I mentor younger guys, I just love it, and so do they; we really have a time. If not a mentor then at least find a sounding board but a good mentor is that.

I'll finish with this: You're doing really good things. You've got courage. You've got snap. You've got drive. You're admirable as hell; if you lived here I'd buy you a hat, or some gourmet ice cream that's so good it's rotten, almost, some of that stuff that's got perfectly ripe cherries in it, and pecans, and strawberries, and crunched peppermint bits, and little bits of insanely rich chocolate, both white and dark, or we'd go to one of those places where they put the stuff together and you could have them make it exactly how you'd want it, every ingredient you'd want, and I'd buy.

You're so fucking cool.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:35 AM on December 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Having a very clear sense of your moral centre, I agree, may set you on firmer ground when you're being stared down by one of these apes. There isn't a more important job than calling out those in power who threaten civil society. Holding on to that abstract idea in the face of not just ordinary harassment and abuse, but real abuse by the 'pillars' of your community, and by the very people you need to take them down, targeted right where it hurts - few of us have an understanding of what that could feel like.

Draw from your fellow journalists when you question the importance of your work - from your immediate colleagues as well as ones who are further away.

I agree with dancestoblue - reach out to mentors, I was going to suggest through professional associations or by direct email. I'm sure some women reporters have felt as lonely as you do, and would want to share their experience; they may be more open to contact than you imagine. Or perhaps you could try to talk to women in other professions that deal in human ugliness. I'm thinking that maybe women working in some areas of law, or forensics, might be placed to understand some of what you're dealing with. They might be able to offer insight around thinking through how to feel about some of the nice people (caught up in ugliness) who are affected by your investigations.

Women are socialized to seek approval, and to want to be liked. You need a way to fight those instincts. I agree with finding a physical practice - I was going to suggest self-defense. Something that can teach you some ways of receiving aggression when it's directed at you, and how to feel and then control it yourself when you have to.

How can I stop feeling vengeful and hateful toward people who are directing anger at me or try to make me feel humiliated?

Look at them analytically, with the coolness of a surgeon. Step back and ask yourself why they're saying and doing what they're saying and doing. I think it's ok to hate them a little, though.

You are amazing. Thank you for standing up for us.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:45 AM on December 9, 2014

I can't do much to help you, but I appreciate the work you do. It sounds like you're gaslighting yourself, internalizing the cruel words others hurl at you. Just tell yourself that if these assholes didn't abuse their positions, your job wouldn't be necessary. It's their fault, never yours.
posted by starbreaker at 7:04 AM on December 9, 2014

Here's a mental image that helps me. When people do things that make you feel like their bad actions are your responsibility, they are tracking dirt into your house with their boots. You can sweep up behind them with a broom just as fast as they walk, dump the dustpan full of dirt in a plastic bag, and as you escort them out of your house (when the conversation ends), you hand them the bag full of their dirt for them to deal with.

Things to think to yourself but probably not say:

-city officials using their physical presence to try to intimidate me (5'3'' petite Asian woman) out of asking questions

Picture yourself as the gnat that the elephant just can't swat. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

-elected official who berates me on a fairly regular basis ("you're a horrible little girl" "how do you sleep at night," "why don't you write something nice," "I pray you'll find a man patient enough to marry you")

You're a horrible man; how do you sleep at night?
Why don't you do something nice, and then maybe I'll write about it.
Don't pray for me; I don't worship your god. (Implying that their god is money and power.)

-sexual harassment from sources (ie. solicitations for sexual relationships)

This is real life, not House of Cards. Go f--- yourself.

-various insults about my professionalism and demeanor

Wow, insulting someone's professionalism and demeanor is setting such a great example of professional demeanor.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:25 AM on December 9, 2014

Do you exercise regularly?

My recommendation: drop $40 on a copy of Convict Conditioning. Prison-style body weight calisthenics. The level 1 exercises are "so you just got out of the infirmary" stuff. Standing push-ups against the wall and the like. Then progressions are all baby steps, but it's baby steps up an impressive mountain. Also, fully doable at home/one's office in privacy.

As Henry Rollins once opined, "Strong bodies thing strong thoughts". Exercise releases endorphins, helps fight depression, and primes the brain to develop new neurons and brain cells.

Get strong. Because feeling physically competent will help you stand up to the bullshit assholes who wanna put you in the "nice little girl" box to defuse your inquiries into corruption and malfeasance. A strong back will hold you upright while saying "Excuse me, the subject at hand is corruption and misappropriation of public funds. Getting back your involvement in all this, what I want to know is..."

You are a big-game hunter tracking destructive prey who are getting rich while making things suck for everyone else. Those who hunt dragons Are gonna face the claws. But all Dragons have a weak point in their hide, and bathing in the spilled blood of a slain dragon makes one even stronger for the next hunt.

Get strong. And no, unless you consume massive amounts of calories and supplemental testosterone, you won't become some bulky, over-muscled freak on CC. You will become firmer and fitter and more confident.

Go forth, kick ass, take names, and REPORT THEM PUBLICLY!

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:29 AM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Email me on here - I work in due diligence, so I understand. You're in touch with what injustice is, because you've witnessed it and survived it yourself. Other people can't handle that anyone would call them out on their s*** because it's rare. ordinary people can't be bothered to stick their neck out for society at large lol; you are special. I would suggest the following 1 - exercise more 2 - remind yourself with tangible proof of your skills (re-read your +ve performance review daily or your own articles) 3 - listen to hip hop to hear about other disenfranchised people articulating their grievances to their oppressors (Nas, TuPac, outkast) and memorize the lyrics that resonate with you. 4 - therapy or read feeling good by David Burns. 5- when someone gets up in your face you stare them down right in the eye, and keep your body completely still. Practice in the mirror. And tell them to fuck off with your eyes. No one is going to get physically confrontational with you. They have way bigger fish to fry, they aren't your dad, and there are camera men by your side. 6 - take a self defence class just in case. Now go be the biggest bitch possible. You are a Survivor. (Oh that's another good song...)
posted by treadstone11 at 3:06 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know everybody here is cheering your on and telling you you're doing a wonderful and important job and that the people you're writing about are the ones doing wrong. That's all true. But, and you knew there would be a but coming, I think you really need to take a good hard look at what you do now and think about what you want to do in the future.

Is there even a little part of you that's happy (not weepy) when you expose one of these guys? Do you enjoy the thrill of the investigation at all? Do you find yourself wrapped up in the research? Does part of you go "squee!" when somebody says, "I read your article. Nice job taking down Mr. Smith"? When you finally get that quote/find that evidence/dig up that smoking gun, does your heart skip a few beats from the excitement?

You really need to answer those types of questions honestly. At this point it sounds like you've been highly successful in your new profession. That's great, but it is only the start. If you keep at it, and you keep getting better, you are going to be confronted with more and more situations like the ones you've described here, and if they don't give you any joy and instead cause you nothing but stress, then the job isn't worth doing--at least it's not worth it for you. No job is worth making yourself ill. No job is worth destroying your mental health and happiness. No job is worth living under constant fear and threats if you're not getting something positive from it in return.

And please don't delude yourself: getting better at the job, and more famous in the job will not prevent these situations from occurring. When powerful men (and women) think they are under attack, they will lash out with any means they have, including physical intimidation. They will threaten to use whatever societal tools they believe they control in order to get you away from them. That's just their nature. If there isn't some part of you that enjoys the idea that these pillars of the community and captains of industry have to pull out every big gun they have just to throw little old you off their trail, then it's time to reconsider your career path.

Out of all of the different branches of journalism, you've found yourself in the hardest and deepest when it comes to having to having a target on your back, but even if you wind up on the garden beat or covering the goat milking industry at a trade publication, you'll still find yourself in situations where people don't like/want/understand your presence and will throw their weight around in an attempt to prevent you from being a professional and doing your job. That's just the way it goes, and eventually you'll need to come to terms with the situation and either embrace it or decide it's not for you.

The same thing goes with critics and the public. Everybody you meet will have some opinion about the story you wrote or the story you didn't write. They will also have (and share) their opinions about you as a person, you as woman, and journalists and media outlets in general.

I'm sure you're thinking that I'm being really hard on you, and that's not my intention at all. I'm trying to save you from committing yourself to something that is a bad fit--that is if it is a bad fit--and that's nothing I (or anybody else on the Internet) can decide. It really comes down to you, and to a lot of soul-searching. Maybe it is just that you're young and anxious. That's perfectly understandable. If that's the case then pick a hero (fictional or real life) and pretend you're that person. Imagine yourself as Lois Lane after Lex Luthor threatened to buy up the paper and fire you because you're on the verge of exposing some illegal experiment he's performing on underage orphans. Imagine you're Hildy (from His Girl Friday) chasing after the convicted felon determined to get the story and show your editor (not to mention the entire male press corps) how it's done and standing up to anybody who's in you way. It's very similar advice to what you got up above--have a mantra, or 'fake it 'til you make it' whichever motivational method works for you.

If, however, the stress and grief is more than just a bit of first-job jitters--if it really is triggering deeper-set emotional scars and digging up old issues you thought were deeply buried--then please give some consideration to why you're putting yourself through all of this torture, purely for the sake of a job. There are likely other ways you can make a difference in the world and improve your community that won't drive you into a hospital/psychiatric facility/early grave. You're more important than the job, so please take care of yourself first, then worry about saving the universe.
posted by sardonyx at 8:52 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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