I used to work 40 hours a week in an office surrounded by something like 35 people. I wouldn’t call more than a handful of the middle-aged women in the sea of cubicles around mine genuine friends. And we weren’t exactly the Beatles. We didn’t hang out after hours. I ate lunch in my car every day because I enjoyed stealing time for myself. I had a j-o-b, not a career.
When I dreamed of working from home, I dreamed of relief. No more indifferent bosses! Goodbye, office politics! Silence for the interminable yammering of office gossips! But I had absolutely no concept of how just being among a flock of people satisfied social requirements I didn’t know I had. When I left the j-o-b, I realized something I never expected: I missed parts of it.
I didn’t expect I’d feel so alone.
I’m single, shy and quiet. I’m used to being something of a loner. It’s where I’m most comfortable — or, more accurately, least uncomfortable — and I was fully unprepared for how my new lack of face-to-face interaction would grate on me.
Yes, I’m in constant communication with my coworkers, but I learned rather quickly that e-contact is a poor substitute for genuine social interaction. Being able to read someone’s tone or interpret body language is always preferable to guessing emotions from instant messages. At my most timid, my mind shamefully interpreted every bit of text in the worst possible light.
As I struggled to navigate the currents of my new position, I started to feel more than alone. I started to feel isolated, and that fed an anxiety I’d been fighting my entire adult life. In one of my classic behavioral paradoxes, I wanted people to understand me even as I failed to charitably understand them. And with every foolish interpretation, I increased the distance between me and everyone else around me.
None of this is easy to acknowledge or admit. I feel something like nuts when I finally suss out myself and my motivations, and airing this shame publicly feels like a mix between catharsis and vulnerability. If I feel nuts, what is everybody else going to think about me?
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t get to where I am — working my dream job from the comfort of my pajamas if and when I please — by hiding who I was. I spent a decade at a professionally meaningless job, unable to muster the strength or self-confidence to be honest about who I was and where I wanted to be.
Call it fear paralysis, and use it as the explanation for my lost decade among the cubicles. It was only after I confronted that that my life’s trajectory changed. The day I got passed over for a promotion I’d talked myself into believing I wanted was the day I began fighting my worst self. Less than two years later: dream job.
And yet there I was at my dream job acting like the guy who was paralyzed at the bank.
That’s why I’m here, doing what I’m afraid to do: because even though my fear rages against it, that’s the zone that produces the best results. I had suspected that truth for years, now I have proof to back it up. (See: *Dream job*, *Pajamas*.)
A rising tide lifts all boats, as President Kennedy said. My peers — the hardest working people I’ve ever met — inspire me to do more, work harder, be better. That’s a blessing and a recipe for achievement. But you don’t need to to be a baker to understand that the recipe also makes heightened anxiety. If you don’t have a mechanism in place to deal with those challenges, you’re going to ache. God knows I did.
By admitting that, we’re not complaining. We’re just being honest about the challenges we face. Pretending otherwise is little more than an excuse to silently suffer and perpetuate pain.
I knew that I needed a balance between work and quite literally anything else. Left to my own devices, I hustled so much that and weeks slid by before I took account of the emerging patterns, both good and bad.
I had to be deliberate about living. Getting out of the damn house, for starters. If I’m not deliberate, weeks will slip away without meaningful human interaction, and I’ll inevitably feel the weight of isolation pulling me down like an invisible anchor.
I soon learned it was a necessary but insufficient component. It’s good to be out, to be within a group. But it’s better to be honest in a caring group. As with this writing, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to be less than honest.
So I’ve also opened up. I decided to be honest despite the fear. After far too many hours in silent seclusion, I sought out people in my life who are willing to try to understand and listen when I talk. And I’ve talked, no matter how difficult or dumb that makes me feel.
I’ve also fought the urge to shut up when things don’t go my way. As I’ve come to understand myself better, I’ve realized that I don’t have to believe everything I think. And I assure you I think the worst things.
None of these coping mechanisms solves a problem immediately, but each allows me to scratch a psychic itch that, unchecked, can become my invisible anchors. Used properly and exercised regularly, they have the potential to work toward a more comprehensive mechanism to deal with my loneliness and its accompanying anxiety.
I struggle. I am not alone. I need outlets. I’ve found some.
I’ve got my dream job, and I’m immensely thankful for it. But I now know that my dream job isn’t easy and that it alone isn’t enough. Life would be worse if I were to pretend otherwise.