I’m the Peggy Olson of my office

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Dear Cary,

I work for a small office in a large organization. I like my job and I believe in the work we are doing. The problem is, I don’t like my co-workers. Or rather, they don’t like me.

I work in a male-dominated field, so I’m used to being the odd woman out. That wasn’t a problem early in my career when I was a junior employee working with people my own age. But my work has been good and promotions have brought me into areas dominated by older workers. As a result, the cultural differences have become much more noticeable.

The men I typically work with now don’t really DO anything that I can point out—they just give me a perpetual cold shoulder. Their days are filled with private jokes, communicated via email or social messaging, that I’m not part of. When I make jokes, they fall flat. In some cases, I think these men don’t “get” all of my cultural references (never a problem with people my own age). But sometimes, it feels passive-aggressive. I mean, I don’t “get” their obsession with sports, but at least I’m polite enough to make small talk or laugh at jokes. I don’t stop and stare them into an uncomfortable silence.

After trying far too long to be accepted, I came to believe that these older male colleagues are probably—though maybe unconsciously—uncomfortable with a somewhat younger female (15 to 20 years’ difference) succeeding mid-career at the level they’ve worked their whole careers to achieve.

In other words, I’m the Peggy Olson of my office.

It’s 2014. I’m neither interested nor equipped to spend my life waging office warfare.

Should I stay in this job I like, with these people I increasingly don’t, grit my teeth and wait 10 years until these “old guys” start retiring? How do I resolve this without getting promoted past them—or at least avoid this problem in my next job?

PS: The answer can’t be “talk to the boss.” The boss—whom I otherwise like working for—has made it clear that employee socializing is not his department. He simply expects us to work as a team. If I’m complaining, then I’m the one who’s not fitting in and that makes me the problem. Or maybe he’s right—I’m not sure I know anymore.

Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer


Dear Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer,

I think you should look for another job.

If your boss wanted to address your grievances it might be different. But look at the situation. Consider the possible ways it might improve and think about their likelihood:

1) Your boss changes and decides to take an active interest in team-building. An outside consultant takes you on a team-building retreat to the Idaho wilderness and your co-workers’ attitudes suddenly shift. They see that they’ve been unfair and realize what a marvelous and talented person you are.

2) All on their own, without any outside consultant or team-building exercises or pressure from management, your co-workers change and make an effort to include you.

3) A catastrophic event pulls you together as a team.

4) You magically and unexpectedly gel as a team for no apparent reason.

5) Your boss promotes you over their heads quickly and you don’t have to deal with them anymore.

Are any of these events likely enough that you would stake the next 10 years of your life on them? The last one is at least something you could work toward. But in none of these cases is there a clear path to an achievable goal. It’s all out of your hands.

Here are two things you can do in the here and now. 1) work to get promoted out of this boomer network and 2) at the same time, conduct a vigorous job search.

Then, when you find something that looks promising, if you still haven’t been promoted, have a frank conversation with your boss. Ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, then take the other job.

Now, on a personal note, intuitively speaking, being expected to work as a team with people who obviously don’t like you, and having no support from your boss will take its toll on you emotionally. You don’t need that. What you need is to feel secure and respected and liked. Furthermore, the higher you go in this company, the more dependent your success will be on the subjective assessments of your superiors. The more important it will be to belong the network. So it just feels like you should get out and seek employment at a place where you fit and are happy.

After all, what did Peggy Olson do?


My business trip ended with me in four-point restraints!


Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 5, 2008

I drank some wine, took my pills, boarded the plane and woke up on a gurney!

Dear Cary,

I am writing to you because I have been through what feels like a very traumatic experience and I need to find a way to put it behind me. Recently, I was on a flight from my local airport to another destination for work purposes. The flight was to be three hours in duration. As is my normal pre-flight ritual, I took two Klonopin (strong tranquilizer also known as Clonazepam) of a low dosage prescribed for anxiety around flying, and I had two glasses of white wine at the airport bar. Aside from drinking before a flight, I drink rarely. This is my ritual every time I fly and I never veer from it. I also take a daily anti-anxiety medication to help address this same flying issue. Lastly, I take Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.

Historically, I have been unable to fly due to an intense phobia. This debilitating phobia presented around the time I was 24 and was intensified by the close proximity — three blocks away and 30 stories up — from which I witnessed the 9/11 tragedy. Prior to that I had no issue flying and enjoyed travel immensely. A year ago, I took a job with a minimal travel requirement. As a longtime non-flier, I have always gotten where I needed to go by other means, so that was no problem, but my new boss insisted on air travel after I accepted the job and started the role. She even threatened to fire me if I didn’t plan to travel by air. Not to be beaten, I consulted the appropriate professionals, and began regular treatment by medication.

With that history in place, allow me to revisit the date of my most recent travel. I performed my pre-flight ritual, went through security and boarded the flight. I must have fallen asleep immediately in my seat and the next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair outside the plane with police officers who were handcuffing me. I demanded to know what happened and was hysterical. I slipped my left hand through the handcuff on two occasions. I asked to be released several times, and was permitted to phone my husband, who said he could barely understand me due to my crying. He asked the police to wait for him to arrive, but I was then transported to a local area hospital. I am informed that I kicked hospital security as they tried to move me to a bed. I was then tied down in four-point restraints, with one arm pinned above me. I know that I screamed to be let go. I was never arrested.

My husband and parents arrived shortly thereafter. I was not charged or arrested and was immediately released from the hospital. My family is full of well-connected attorneys, and though my body is bruised, particularly my ankles and wrists from the restraints, legal action is not an option — according to some very astute resources we have consulted.

I fought for the emotional strength to get back on an airplane. I performed my pre-flight ritual no differently than I would have otherwise. The airline had every right to remove me if they believed I wasn’t fit to fly, and I do not disagree. The trouble started after I was removed from the plane, handcuffed and physically thrown down on gurneys and then tied up in four-point restraints. My problem is that I now have this horrible feeling about myself. Am I a crazy person, or was I just treated like one? How do I make peace with flying again? Not suing anyone is fine by me as it means the whole thing will be over faster. But I need help putting this trauma behind me. I’m a pretty stoic person, and that allows me to deal with a lot of the pain and frustration that I feel at work. I need that stoic person back ASAP.

No Longer Afraid of Flying


Dear No Longer Afraid,

I hope you will forgive me if I just talk freely about what I feel, for I sometimes feel before I think, and my feeling leads me to thinking before I know what it is that is being thought.

So what bothers me is how your boss coerced you into flying and you went along with it in order not to be “beaten.” I don’t like that.

I don’t like this whole business of your agreeing to fly because you did not want to be beaten by your boss. What you call stoicism sounds to me like acquiescence in your own mistreatment.

I mean, you have been through hell, and I sympathize. It’s not your fault. You were victimized and traumatized. But I think, at the same time, crazy as it sounds, your unconscious was trying to protect you by sabotaging your flight.

But let’s back up. You took a job with the understanding that you would not have to fly, and then after you were hired your boss pressured you to fly anyway, with the threat of termination. Basically, your boss lied to you and betrayed you.

And then, rather than protest and risk losing your job, you attempted, on the advice of professionals, to chemically short-circuit your own perhaps well-grounded fears. And things went haywire. It sounds like you had an overdose or you mixed medications that had dangerous interactions.

So, again, pardon me for just following my instincts on this, but it feels like you introjected, or took into yourself, the mistreatment by your boss. And this is what you refer to as trying to be stoic.

Let’s talk about your stoicism for a moment. When legitimate demands conflict with our own desires or plans, sometimes we have to suck it up. That is a good kind of stoicism. But should we be stoic when people lie to us and mistreat us? I do not think so. I think such stoicism is a betrayal of the innocent person in us who believes what he or she is told, and trusts others, and feels deeply and rebels upon the shock of recognition.

In fact, maybe I am stretching here, but isn’t it possible that underneath this traumatic event is a hidden wish to prove that you can’t fly, to be prevented from flying, or forced to not fly? I mean, I don’t want to push my theory, but neither do I want to minimize the power of this trauma and fear you have about flying. It’s deep down, right? It’s a very powerful fear. And because its actual mechanism operates below your awareness, it is capable of arranging events below your awareness, that is, by causing you to take too many pills.

The result is in certain ways positive: You now have a very good reason not to fly. You are now saved, in a way. You are safe. You won’t have to get back on that airplane.

I do not mean to minimize your trauma, but to suggest that unconscious forces sometimes succeed where more above-board methods have failed. Is it not possible that working its subterranean routes your deep, primal, unconscious fear pushed you to overdose and wrought, in its own crazy, anarchic way, the very result that you wished for?

Of course you also suffered real trauma. That would be the price your unconscious was willing to pay to achieve its objective. And the trauma is now affecting you and you would like to make your peace with it. If I can be of any help at all, I would urge you to be calm and systematic about seeking out a therapist to help you get over the trauma, to accept what has happened and to examine the forces in your life that brought about this calamity. You were tied down and manhandled. You have been mistreated and taken advantage of. Such treatment does not have to be unlawful or unjustified to be traumatic. Nor does the fact that there is some meaning to it mitigate the effect of the trauma.

I suggest being calm and systematic because while there are many therapists and many therapies, you strike me as someone who has been through a lot and may feel compelled to seize the first option that becomes available.

But let me spell out this unconscious thing a little more.

If you have a primal fear, then your instincts are going to try to protect you. There is no bargaining with this fear. It will do everything it can to protect you.

Your unconscious thinks it sees the future. It thinks it knows. It thinks it is protecting you. It’s like a dog. I spend a lot of time with dogs, and they do not fool around with what they fear. If they fear it, they fear it. Your unconscious is like a dog. You can explain all you want, but if it’s afraid to get on a plane, and you get on a plane anyway, it’s going to tear shit up. That’s what dogs do. They tear the place up. They’re like our unconscious minds.

So I’m not blaming you for this, or saying you set it up. I’m saying: Do not underestimate the power of your unconscious mind to manipulate events. Respect it. Respect your own fears. Do not underestimate the power of the unconscious to achieve what it needs through subterfuge if it cannot achieve what it needs through rational, verbal channels.

Look what happened when you made a rational, businesslike deal with your boss, agreeing to work there with the understanding that you do not fly on airplanes: You got betrayed. You got lied to. Telling your boss honestly, in a rational, aboveboard way, that you don’t fly did not work. You told them that you don’t want to fly. You were aboveboard about it. They disregarded that. How would your unconscious interpret this? It would see that rational, verbal, aboveboard behavior is not heeded. And so it would say, OK, if they aren’t going to listen to rational, reasonable information and talk, watch this! It found it necessary to precipitate a breakdown. And now you are safe.

There are numerous treatments for the aftereffects of trauma and stress. As I said, I suggest you carefully evaluate the doctors and the available treatments, paying close attention to your own feelings about it. Take notice that your stoicism may minimize the wisdom of your feelings. Put your stoicism on hold and go with your instincts about what you need. Find a therapist who you know in your heart is the right person.

And tell your boss you really, really, really do not fly on airplanes.



My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy


Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Jan 26, 2012


She berates! She glares! She makes backhanded comments about your lunch selection! Shouldn’t I, uh, say something?


Dear Cary,

My boss is insane.

I know people say that a lot but I’m pretty sure I win. I recently started working for someone who I thought was an extravagant and eccentric designer, but instead I find out that she is an unprofessional, spoiled, dramatic, self-absorbed, abusive, venomous … the list goes on … nut job.

I am realizing that there is probably no changing this woman but maybe I can learn to work around her moods … OR at least keep the peace in the office. Every time she enters the room, gushing with feigned merriment, the atmosphere sours.

She is self-aggrandizing. “I have such great taste, I am so amazing, I do everything around here, I’m the only one who works, I’m so smart …” Literally, those phrases spew from her mouth daily — to an office of intelligent and hardworking people. She throws herself on the floor when she is unhappy about something — actually on the floor — and whines dramatically. She lashes out at the staff, then cries (tears) and apologizes. She berates people in the office or over the phone while prancing around the workplace like it is performance art. (Oh. I forgot to mention she is a failed dancer/actress.) She glares at the staff and makes backhanded comments about their outfits or their style, even their lunch selections.

Recently a woman quit, claiming a hostile work environment. The rate of turnover in this small company is unbelievable. No one stays for more than six months, and the most senior employee on the current staff is nearing five months. She seems perpetually displeased with everything and complains incessantly to everyone about anyone not in the room. It is really exhausting. Sometimes she talks to her cat about us in a silly playful voice, but with an evil, maniacal face. It’s really creepy.

And her friends just placate her. They come into the office regularly to baby her and coddle her in soothing voices, as if her behavior is even remotely appropriate. Yesterday she called in a Zoloft prescription on speaker phone and told us she only takes it when she has a bad day! WHAT?!? She should be on anti-psychotics!

I don’t even pretend that her behavior is acceptable and I think because of my disapproving tone I am now a target. I don’t want to encourage her unprofessional and abusive behavior so I am OVERLY professional when around her and I try to keep our interactions solely business related. But now everything I do is criticized (although, after her long, strange, silent pauses punctuated by yelling, it is usually agreed that my ideas/methods are best.)

I would love to cut and run but in this economy I’d like to be smart about my next move. I also really LOVE the rest of the staff!! I want to see THEM every day.

How can I deal with this? What is wrong with this woman?!?!?!

Help… I don’t know what to do with this crazy lady!

The Only Sane One Left


Dear Only Sane One,

Yep. Sounds like your boss is insane all right.

This is probably not be the last crazy person you will have to work for. So use this as a chance to practice and learn. Observe. Think like a psychiatrist. Is she crazy like this every day, or does she go through periods of relatively normal behavior? Do you notice extreme ups and downs? Will she go several days seeming very up, and then disappear from work, calling in sick or taking vacation?

Think like an anthropologist. Why is she the boss? What hidden social system is operating? Does her family own the company? If her family owned the company that might say something about kinship practices in the modern economy. Or if she herself owns it, it would say something about the magical powers we grant people who have money, that for some reason, probably having to do with our irrational belief systems, money buys people exemption from the consequences of acting crazy.

I’m just saying, use this rare chance to observe something strange and wondrous firsthand.

This is also an opportunity to learn something about yourself. How does your reaction to her differ from the reactions of your co-workers? If you had to work with her for the next five years, do you think you could do it? How? What would make it possible?

Also, to venture even farther afield, I suggest that you treat this rather fiction-like situation as though it were indeed a work of fiction. That is, look for the thematic patterns in it, the hidden subplots, the orderly magnetism of narrative justice, and the way in which her behavior mirrors behavior you have encountered before, which would raise the possibility that this is some kind of coded signal to you. I’m not saying it is; I’m just saying, to make it more interesting, imagine that it might be.

By the way, it’s interesting that she has been a dancer and actress. Maybe she would respond if you were to play against her, like a character. What if you were to do something really outrageous? What if you were to scold her like a little girl? I wonder what would happen. Would she slap you? Would she get violent? Might she pout? Would she fire you on the spot? That might be the best thing that could happen to you. Yes, I know the economy is not good. But it might not be good for a long time.

What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to spend it tiptoeing around vicious, crazy, immature egomaniacs? Why not call her on it?

As you can see, I’m not really giving you much practical help. All the employment gurus will say I’m harming your career prospects. But you’re an adult. You don’t have to do what I suggest. But think about it. What’s going on is a form of group madness.

There is something compelling about her, isn’t there? Be honest with yourself: Is she completely repugnant, or are there aspects of her that you find interesting? Does she have artistic talent? Is she sort of a crazy artist type, a diva? Or has she gotten where she is more by political talent, undermining those who would threaten her and befriending those who can help her? Or, as I say, did she come into the situation with resources of her own — family money or money of her own? What has she got? Is she beautiful, charming, smart, talented? What? Take notes. Film her. Study her. Years from now you may find it utterly amazing.

It’s really weird how there’ll be this one crazy person and no one person is powerful enough to stop the crazy person from being crazy. You’d think that “sanity” would prevail. But the crazy person has been granted magical powers. No one can touch her. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is “being pragmatic,” when really, they are being damaged. And a pattern is being set. The group is failing to to take effective democratic action. What if you were in a lifeboat? What if she were a terrorist? What if she were abusing children? Where is the dividing line? What is this terrible passivity that settles over people in the presence of the deranged?

Don’t you wish, in situations like that, someone would be the hero? It might mean sacrificing a career. But is a career sacred? Is there nothing more important than one’s career prospects? Is self-esteem and dignity not more important than getting a bad reputation in an office that appears to have gone collectively mad?

I’m not suggesting you film her and put it on YouTube, though that would be amusing. I personally was very happy to be able to write the headline, “My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy.” So there is that, too: How we turn mental illness into an occasion of glee. I know, it’s maybe not funny.

My main point is that this is not just about career. It is about moral choice. You have a chance to do something or do nothing. Years from now, if you play it safe, you may wonder why you didn’t act.


Unemployment is making me depressed

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Cary’s archival column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 4, 2012

Unemployment is making me depressed


I lost my job, came back to my hometown and now I’m lost


Dear Cary,

I’ve been reading your column for about a year now, and really believe you might have some words of wisdom for me. I hardly know where to begin in describing my situation. I am single, no kids and 52. Two years ago I lost my job as a professor in a field that is now archaic, that field being Russian language and literature. And so I found myself not only unemployed, but, at the age of 50, seemingly unemployable.

At first I reacted to all this in the worst possible way. I drank too much and experimented with pot for the first time in decades. I also moved back to the closest thing to a hometown I’ve got (my mother moved us to this liberal Oregon enclave in 1977). However, I did get a grip on myself, quit the pot, which, anyway, only increased my anxiety, and cut out the excessive alcohol intake. My problem is I thought I would enjoy being around my family again. In fact, it’s complicated. My mother is in her late 80s and I do get something out of helping her out, but I have real difficulties in living in the same town as my “identical” twin sister. “Mary” just loves my being back in town, has never minded the twin thing. I have always hated it, even though I have always loved my sister. I didn’t think it would be much of an issue when I decided to move back, but forgot how much the stupid comments bothered me (e.g., “You guys sure look alike. You must be twins!!”)

Mary dropped out of college, and subsequently led an alternative, tree-hugging kind of lifestyles. She smokes prodigious amounts of pot and is an alcoholic. She is married to a man, “Mike,” who I think of as a real brother, but he drinks a lot, too (although he does not smoke weed). They seem to have a master/slave type dynamic. Mary would cut her arm off for him — and for me, for that matter. He often is irritable with her. And it’s hard for me to not be, as she is, well, almost childlike and, frankly, boring to talk to after she’s swilled several beers and gotten good and stoned, which is every night. Literally, she talks about yard work, what she ate for lunch, what mundane things she’s going to do or did do, and so on. She isn’t into reading, seems to have almost no curiosity about the world. I often don’t know what to talk about with her so I find myself sitting in stupefied silence while she babbles on. To compound matters, I am renting a small studio apartment from the two of them, as I can’t afford anything better, and if I can’t make rent, they let it slide.

Even worse, my sister runs a landscape maintenance business and I have been working as her assistant about once a week as I struggle to launch a translation business (takes a lot to reinvent myself in this new profession and this also is very discouraging — to be mowing lawns after struggling so hard to attain that damned doctorate). In my first year here, when I was drinking heavily myself, I often felt suicidal, but what stopped me was the pain that would inflict on my mother, and also on Mary. I have, thankfully, pulled out of that dark place and am now “merely” depressed. I miss the identity my former profession gave me, and I hate Mary’s neediness. I had to really work to create some personal space for myself — Mary and her husband would love me to hang with them virtually every night as they are largely bored with each other. Mary makes noises about cutting back on drinking. The pot is something I don’t see her ever giving up. I doubt if she’ll go very far with the cutting back on drinking because it’s what she and Mike do. He even distills whiskey. And he’s big and can drink without getting as drunk as Mary, who is slender and pot-addled, as well.

I think I could deal with all this, though, if I had a job that provided me community. I miss teaching. I miss being independent. I am not a gifted technical translator thus far and have tried to get work at the local community college and in various staff positions at the local university. I’ve tried for several office jobs and nonprofit jobs. I think my three postgraduate degrees and my age make me unemployable in this economically distressed area. I feel like I have no identity of my own, and that I am living in some kind of nightmarish limbo. Most of all, this situation with my sister oppresses me. I never realized how much socialization I used to get from my work. I am, in fact, a social person, outgoing and personable. But without going to bars and drinking, I don’t know how to get that fix and so now I spend a lot of time alone, and while I like my own company I feel like part of me is withering. Yes, I am tutoring on a volunteer basis for the community college that won’t hire me, and I’m working out at the local recreation center. These help, but I don’t have friends of my own. I never thought I would be in this situation. I never thought I would find it so hard to branch out.

I guess what I’m asking for is how to deal with this? I halfheartedly fantasize about moving to China and Korea and teaching English as a second language, not because I want to teach English as a second language (which I did for a couple of years way back in my globe-wandering days). I would miss my two cats, and I’d feel bad for deserting my mother and Mary, who are both so thrilled that I moved back here, but that’s about it (not that that’s a small thing). But I miss teaching, I miss having colleagues and a professional identity and a life of my own that has nothing to do with my family. I could also try to find something of a writing/editing nature in a bigger town — Portland or Seattle. I also think, well, if I could be successful at this translation gig, then that might be enough — especially if I could attend professional conferences now and then.  In short, I don’t know what to do about my current lot in life.



Dear Floundering,

It sounds like you are experiencing depression and a kind of “social death” as a result of your unemployment and return to the family. So your life task now is to regain your social life, to locate, in this temporary wasteland, people among whom you can again exist vividly. You need people who can actually see who you are. Since you are largely about ideas and knowledge, you must be around people who can see those ideas and that knowledge. The way you accomplished that in the past was to have a job, but you may have to find other ways to accomplish it now. That is OK. Many people are having to do this. Our culture is being rearranged in certain fundamental ways. There will be much support for this, as millions like you rearrange themselves culturally and geographically. We will see in the years to come a new definition of “job” as we find new ways to acquire necessities and also new ways, outside of “jobs,” to define ourselves socially and “be seen for who we are.”

Here is the bottom line: The people around you now do not see you. You have become invisible. That is the source of your anguish. It is also your existential condition, but we will get to that. For now, it is vital to note that your family cannot see you. Your twin cannot see you. You do not exist in their eyes. What they see when they look at you is something of their own creation.

Deprived of your social identity by unemployment, exiled from a place where you had standing, you have returned to the condition of childhood and its murky, undifferentiated selfhood.

You have disappeared.

It’s weird, isn’t it? We return to the family, thinking we will be seen, but we are not seen. Rather, we disappear.

I must say, I think part of the reason we resort to alcohol and drugs in such situations is that the threat of nonexistence causes us to panic. Ideally, we ought to understand that this panic is merely the recognition of our essential condition. We need not panic. We are merely being brought back to reality — the reality of our groundless, shifting, temporary existence; the reality of our mortality and smallness. Our panic is occasioned not by some calamity but in fact by the arrival of truth and the loss of an illusion.  So, while you fight to regain your social identity and find some comfort in it, do something else as well: Welcome this groundlessness and discomfort; make friends with it; meditate upon it; it is your existential condition.

The world of languages is the land of the traveler. So in a more practical sense, here is what I suggest: Seek out other language people. Seek out people who will get your Russian puns. Go to movies in Russian. Place ads in the paper for work as a Russian tutor.

Also: Define your mission. Give it a clear purpose and an end date. You have come here to help your mother in her final years. That is why you are enduring this. With your mother’s death, your chief reason for being here will also disappear. So plan for that. Begin looking in Portland and Seattle for jobs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to take a job yet. But begin looking.

What makes it so hard to be seen today? Does it not seem to you that our world is one of constant distraction? Does it not seem that the attention of people is not on us but on their devices? As they peer into their devices, do we not lose something of their attention? Are we not jealous of all that attention being sucked up by devices? Do we not mourn the death of their seeing us, the death of being vivid and central in others’ sight on the street?

We wish to be seen and now we are competing with many devices for the attention of the passerby.

So we post videos of ourselves on the Net. If the Net is where the attention has gone then that is where we must go to be seen.

Those are some things to think about.

Now, as an addendum, here are some things I read as I was thinking about your situation. I found them interesting, so I’m just putting them here at the end. Perhaps you will find them interesting too.

On the effects of unemployment and depression

Here is something interesting on  the Loss of Work Contacts and Depression:

“According to an Institute for Work and Health Issue Briefing, researchers conclude that the loss of social contacts with colleagues has a more harmful effect on the unemployed than the loss of income (Helliwell, J.F., Putnam, R.D.,September 29, 2004, “The Social Context of Well-Being,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.) Workers who have abruptly lost their jobs have also lost their social support system and are forcibly isolated with their stress.”

Also this on Unemployment as social death: “Long-term unemployment affects many facets of a person’s life besides their income. According to Ernest Becker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Denial of Death, losing our role in our culture is a kind of social death (1973.) In a culture that values hard work and believes that anyone can get ahead who is not lazy, long-term unemployment is a shameful prospect. The person has lost the social contacts once enjoyed in the workplace and has lost the sense of playing a role in society at large. Besides the self-doubts raised by rejection after rejection from employers, the long-term unemployed person faces rejection from society as a whole. Accusations that the unemployed spend their days loafing on their couch and collecting unemployment checks are not uncommon and are a defense of the American core belief that people who are poor only have themselves to blame.”

An interesting text called So, What’s Work? (See the section on “connectedness.”) It comes from Dr. Elijah Levy  of the Thinking on Things Institute.

Though this may seem a little tangential, I was touched by this and it made me interested in seeing the movie “Losing Tom.”

And finally, though this may seem even more tangential, here is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing on  “psychological death.”

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I’m going crazy in my job

Dear reader, Below is another archival column from Cary. He’ll be publishing a brand new column next week. As always, if you would like advice, please write to advice@carytennis.com. Happy New Year!


Classic column from October 17, 2012


I’m going crazy in my job

I’m anxious and insecure and paranoid and bored — but it’s such a great job!

Hi Cary: Two reasons I’m writing to you specifically: a) you’re an advice columnist, and b) I have a feeling you might have dealt with exactly what I’m going to ask. I’ve just got a new job. It’s an office job, but it’s for an interesting company, it’s young, it’s safe, it’s comfortable, it’s even fairly moral(ish). As far as corporates go, it’s pretty right-on, if you know what I mean. It’s my first job since I went traveling a while back, and herein lies the problem. I don’t like work. I never have. There are three brief parts to this. First: It might be partly because I’m lazy, and almost certainly because I’m immature, but it’s something about turning up to work every day and being expected to do the same set of actions, have the same attitude and belief systems, have lunch with the same people. It seems crazy to me. I know this is hardly unique to me. The second part is that I hate business-speak. Even light references to competition, beating out the other players, maximizing profits, make me feel awful. Don’t they realize they’re talking about putting other people out of jobs? Don’t they realize that all we’re doing is taking people’s money for things they probably could live without? I cringe every time someone whoops about getting bigger numbers than the other guy down the street. The third and final part is this: For some reason there’s nothing like a business environment to bring out all my insecurities. I constantly worry that I’m doing OK. I constantly assume that every meeting by every superior is in regards to how disappointed they are in the new guy. Every time I look over at a conversation between two people, and one person’s eyes flick over to me … I have to spend minutes trying to calm myself down, reeducating myself on failure schemas, social anxiety schemas. It seems like modern office jobs, particularly those involved in the communication of information rather than the construction of goods, are impossible to self-gauge your performance in. You might be making one manager happy, but the guy above him may hate you! At the moment I’m involved in a project that is just under-resourced, everyone seems to know it is, and yet I can’t help but feel that they’re still disappointed — or angry — that I’m not able to do better. Maybe I should be staying later? Maybe I should be less honest about how difficult the current situation is when they ask? I feel guilty and inadequate all the time, even when I’m doing my best. In my last job, it lasted the entire time I was there, so I know it’s not a new job thing. Now, if I may, I’d like to cast free from the idea that I seek other work, or make do with a more nomadic, freelance lifestyles: I’ve tried these, they don’t work. I’m in my 30s and the idea that a perfect career will happen upon me has been shelved for reality: I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work, I just need to figure out how. My current job is good, I was lucky to get it, it’s in a field I like, it has a good coffee machine, I like having a paycheck every month, people “oooh” when I tell them who I work for. If I quit this one, I can promise you I’ll just quit the next and the one after. I know, Cary, that you’ve worked office jobs in the past, and found them less than fitting in all ways. What I’m asking then, is this: how do I reframe my thinking to a) be OK with routine, b) be OK with corporate ideologies, and c) how do I get over the constant, nauseating feeling that I’m not doing well, that I’m screwing up, that everyone secretly wishes I wasn’t there? And does anyone else ever feel this way? Any clues?

Thank you, Cary.

Employed But Uneasy

Dear Employed But Uneasy,

Yes, other people do ever feel this way! And they find a way to keep sucking it up and doing the job day after day. But why?

I suppose there are good suggestions about how to make your days bearable, and I guess you really want this job and it is a good job, but frankly, as one human to another, I don’t want to tell you to just suck it up, work hard and be a part of the company.

I want you to find what you are looking for. This is alienated work and alienated work sucks. That’s no mystery.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You are just in the wrong job.

Until you somehow find the work you were destined to do, no amount of status is going to erase your nagging insecurity.

You feel like you don’t belong there because you don’t belong there. That’s not to say you can’t do the job. Of course you can do the job. But life is short. Every year is a year of your life. You can do it. We humans can put up with just about anything, from boring jobs to torture cages. But should you? Why?

Unless not doing this job is going to cause the death of a child or put you in starvation, I think you should plan to keep looking into your soul for what you are really driven to do. Sure, keep working and save some money. But don’t pretend that there is some magical way you’re just going to “adjust.” The reason you’re not comfortable is that this is not the right job. It never will be. I know what you are saying about the difficulties of drifting from job to job, how the insecurity of not having a paycheck or a place to live can paralyze you and make you literally sick with worry. Yet I know that there is some greater truth in your discomfort. There is something else you really belong doing and it is your larger purpose to find that thing. You may have to do more wandering. Maybe not now, but when you have had your fill.

Save some money. Tough it out for a year, save your money and then leave and wander some more.

I mean, you are a citizen of the world and the world is hiding your prize somewhere in its skirts, but not at this job. Welcome to the reason people start revolutions. Welcome to the reason people used to grow their hair long and get in vans and drive to California not having a job or a religion or even any relatives to stay with. Welcome to the reason that every day in America someone somewhere gets up from his desk and walks out and gets drunk and calls in and says he’s had an emergency and can’t come back to work that day. Welcome to the reason that every day someone looks for a job in the arts or becomes a police sergeant or a lifeguard or a taxi driver because our technology has allowed us to create these penal colonies of cubicles where spirits rot and emotions die and penises sit limp in the pants of avid young men and women’s breasts fall and their tight asses go saggy and their makeup runs and their bodies grow encased in useless fat from sedentary disuse and anxious eating and blood-sugar highs. Welcome to the reason that Prozac has become the new sacramental wafer. Welcome to the reason that so many of us are wandering around looking for a new car. You know this. I know. You have wandered. You want to settle down. But I don’t think you’re truly ready to settle down yet. If you were, you’d know it. So your discomfort speaks to me. I’m sorry if you just want to be shown how to fit in. If you stick around you will sort of fit in a little bit. But I don’t want to see you just fit in. I want to see you find your destiny. That’s not crazy talk. It’s very real, down-to-earth talk. It’s just that your destiny may not be some world-shattering discovery. Your destiny may be something quiet and true, but you will know it. It won’t make you insecure. It will come with a kind of “aha” feeling, and a sigh of contentment. Meanwhile, your story gets my ire up: What are we doing in this country about building a culture? What are we doing about building the kind of cities and towns where children can look around and say, Daddy, I want to do that! If the choice is to be Derek Jeter or a telemarketer, one will choose to be Derek Jeter — broken ankle or no — but there is only one spot for Derek Jeter and he’s already in that spot. So what is left are these prairies of desolation where human heads are fastened to glowing screens by stroke-counting software and surveillance is the norm, where phone calls are recorded and video cameras watch over the workers as though they were cattle in pens, where you wonder when every now and then one worker is singled out and culled from the herd, you wonder what they did with her until you see her installed in the marketing department with a new title and an Audi. Why do we live this way? Do we have no choices? Is making a living the most important thing in life? Why don’t more of us just give up and sit in the street? Is it any wonder that to many, many of us, it recently made more sense to encamp outdoors and call ourselves a movement than it did to continue to work day after day in these apparently clean and comfortable environs? Clean and comfortable? What is clean and comfortable to the questing soul? What is clean and comfortable to the spirit that needs adversity and difficulty and triumph, that needs the sun and wind and the hard muscling work of ranches and the digging of meadows, that needs to be in the body, working under a car or hailing a cab or making cheese? What does it mean to be clean and comfortable if you are dead in the spirit?


It takes a lot of courage to have no program and no plan for economic security and to trust your heart, to know that you might not have all the answers but that this shit is just wrong and go outside and sit in a tent near Wall Street or in front of the Federal Reserve Building for months at a time, to not know the answer but just to know that the answers given are not sufficient and to have enough faith in humanity, in our innate sense of need and desire and truth, to just say, Man, this is not it. This is not what I need. It takes a lot of courage or maybe you could call it cowardice, sometimes they look like the same thing, depending on whether you’re walking toward something or away from something, so I think the essential thing is just to be walking, and it takes courage to get up and walk. But sometimes you just have to walk out. You just have to say I don’t know what it is but this is not for me. And walk out. And maybe you spend a lifetime leaving this and leaving this looking for the one place where you feel at home. And maybe after a lifetime of leaving you say, well, you were a little irresponsible gutter punk is what you were. And yet I had wisdom! I had the wisdom of the stars! I had the wisdom of the poets and of Jesus and Mohammed, who never would have sat in a cubicle selling time shares in Waikiki, who would have gathered in the lobby and said enough is enough, my spirit says to go now so I’m going. So, listen, my man (or woman?!), you have articulated the angst and terror of our age and I just want to say it is real, and there really is something wrong with our culture and the way we live, and nobody has to live this way. My mother, bless her heart, said she had had enough and just packed up and bought some land way up off the road and lived up there in blessed quiet and solitude for 25 years. You don’t have to just do what they say. You can be a punk and move to San Francisco and get a mangy dog and live on the streets until you figure it out. You can go down to any marina and hang around until somebody will take you on as crew and you can sail around looking for your reflection in the water, waiting for the moon or the fish to speak to you and tell you what’s your next step. You don’t have to do this. So keep being discontent and keep trying to figure it out. Take your own discomfort seriously. Don’t just stuff it down. You’re uncomfortable there because you really don’t belong. You are going to have to get out of there eventually. Eventually. Go somewhere where you meet people who seem just a little crazier or just a little less crazy than you and make friends with them and follow them around for a while. Maybe they’ll be following a band like people used to follow the Dead, or maybe they will have some magical way of making money by selling people dreams. Go deep into your heart and ask what you want. Follow the waking dream that is your active consciousness. Who you are is what is going on in your head from moment to moment, and what is underneath that, and underneath that, and underneath that. Follow that. Narrate it as it speaks to you. Speak into a tape recorder what is going on in your head from moment to moment. That is who you are. Be like one of the ancient saints. Listen for the voice that tells you where to go and just pack up and go there. Your life might end up as a ragged mess but it will be a beautiful mess. My travels often ended me up as a ragged mess, but it was where I had to go and I am glad I did not stay home counting my vacation hours on my time sheet, waiting for my 401K to vest, hoping for a good golf game. © Copyright Salon Media Group Write for Advice