I’m going kind of crazy right now.
A year ago, I quit this job that I mostly enjoyed and was good at after three years in the same position. I quit because I wanted a promotion and suddenly it felt masochistic to keep waiting for that to happen.
I want to emphasize this: I really, really wanted a promotion. I wanted a promotion because I was undeniably successful in my role. I wanted a promotion because I had a lot of ideas how we might do things better but I had absolutely no authority to implement those ideas. I wanted a promotion because I wanted the external validation of a fancier title and a bigger paycheck to confirm that I really was as good at my job as I felt in my head.
I wanted a promotion so badly that I kept working and working longer hours and taking on more and more projects until one day I realized that not only was I trying to win a race that had no finish line, there was no one else competing in this race but me, and I was running myself ragged for absolutely no reason. I mean, I had talked with my boss about my desire for a promotion. But there were no opportunities available, and though there was a lot of talk about maybe promoting me, after more than a year, nothing happened.
Quitting was a good decision. For one thing, I’ve had cancer and it’s not unreasonable to assume I don’t actually have all the time in the world to wait around for good things to happen. Quitting gave me the freedom to move closer to my family. Quitting gave me more free time. Day to day, I’m a much happier person.
But here’s the thing: There have been some personnel changes at the old organization, and now there’s an opening for my former boss’s position. And I want to apply for it. I don’t actually want to move back to the old community. I don’t think I actually want the job; I’m well aware of the frustrations and challenges of that particular role. What I want is for them to want me.
Which they probably wouldn’t! There’s an obvious internal candidate. I’d really just be giving them another opportunity to say, “Sorry, you’re not good enough.” But I can’t stop thinking about it. Today, I actually wrote out a cover letter for my application. I am like a slow-motion car crash.
Can you help me stop obsessing over this old, perceived slight? I’m by nature a resentful, grudge-holding person; I’m still angry at the company that laid me off years and years ago even though I can rationally argue that laying me off in particular instead of any other employee was actually the most compassionate decision. I don’t want to be that kind of person, but you know: I really, really wanted a promotion.
You didn’t get a promotion because there was no way to promote you. Also? You had a lot of ideas how the company might do things better. You were passionate about those ideas. You took the inefficiencies and inconsistencies around you personally. And while it’s easy to believe that these things make you an ideal candidate for a management role, you’re wrong. In fact, in 9 out of 10 workplaces, these things make you the least likely person to be promoted.
Generally speaking, managers are not people who fixate on how the company might do things better. Managers simply run things. They perpetuate the status quo, and they are hired to do just that. Sure, there might be a superstar CEO or business owner who rains down hellfire and damnation (or muffin baskets, or bonuses), and then all the managers inform the plebes of the new policies and initiatives that are going to streamline everything, usually in asinine, out-of-touch ways that fuck everything else. But managers are not the source of these initiatives. The manager’s real talent lies in his/her ability to pass along bullshit initiatives WITHOUT letting on—in longwinded emails and longwinded meetings—that those initiatives are fucking bullshit. The budding manager is promoted not based on long hours, vision, and passion, but on an ability to encounter hilariously ill-considered directives with a quiet shrug of resignation.
Most people who’ve been in the workplace for more than a few years will recognize that I’m not exaggerating. In fact, the workplace comedy didn’t reach its full potential until writers recognized that they could only capture the stunning stupidity and willful mediocrity of most workplaces by embracing farce. (See also: “The Office” UK, Office Space, and Dilbert before them) The same is true for depictions of Hollywood. The industry is run, generally speaking, by such unenlightened jackasses with such gargantuan egos that if you tell simple, true stories about them, people think you’re working on a hilariously over-the-top “SNL” sketch.
And if you’ve ever actually been a manager, you understand why people with initiative and passion, who take their jobs very, very seriously, are exactly the sorts of people you don’t want around. Because they take up your fucking time. You’re a survivor, after all. You know the culture of the office will never fucking change. So when someone sends you a 1,000-word email about how this or that system is inefficient and there’s a much easier solution, it takes too much time, and it stirs up emotions about what a jacked up joint you’re working for, emotions that you worked hard to bury long ago. Instead of seeming like a real go-getter, the email writer is identified as a giant fucking pain in your ass.
But let’s move past the built-in indignities of any workplace, shall we? Let’s just assume that you bit your tongue repeatedly and played your cards perfectly. In addition to working long hours, let’s assume you turned in clean, exceptional work and wowed everyone with your great attitude and cooperative work style. So you wanted someone to show you that they noticed all of this hard work. You wanted to feel wanted.
Instead, they said “Sorry, we just can’t promote you.”
Here’s what they DIDN’T say: “Sorry, you’re not good enough.” That’s what you HEARD, but that’s not what they actually said.
Now I want you to think about who actually did say that to you. Who sent you the message that you would never be good enough?
Maybe no one will come to mind. Maybe you watched that scene in Election where Tracy Flick is lying on her bed after losing the school election and her mom comes in and acts all nice and then says, “Maybe you didn’t make enough posters,” and you DIDN’T feel a weird shiver of recognition. Maybe you just thought, “Fuck, maybe she really didn’t make enough posters!”
And maybe you’ve never seen a therapist. Maybe you’ve resigned yourself to the identity of Grudge Holder instead of asking why you return to old slights as if there’s some important mystery to be solved there, as if the more you dig up buried disappointments, the more you’ll learn about what you did wrong. You figure you fucked up something, or maybe there’s something off about the people involved, and if you look really hard at the mess you left behind, you might figure it all out.
This digging up old shit and sifting through it obsessively is a very close relative of Explaining Yourself When You Don’t Fucking Have to Say a Word. In order to address the world’s repeated assertion of “Sorry, you’re not good enough,” or “I don’t understand you,” or “No, I’m just not interested,” you have to whip out charts and graphs and correct the essential injustice of the situation.
Think about that “Sorry, you’re not good enough” moment at your job—the emotions that got kicked up there, and how you reacted. What you did. What you said. Now I want you to dig up 3 or 4 memories that involve you doing or reacting the same way to personal circumstances. Who took all of your hard work and the case you made that you were worthy of being heard, and said to you, “I don’t fucking want to hear it”? Who sent you the message that you were thinking too much, trying too hard, and that somehow made you unworthy?
Once upon a time, I had a job and I was really good at what I did. I wanted to be acknowledged for it. And I was. But then, later, times were tougher, and it wasn’t really possible for me to be acknowledged for it anymore. It was a structural issue, not a personal one. But because I would sit down every day and dig deep to produce good work, and because my managers were smart, good people, I became fixated on their inability to acknowledge or reward my hard work.
Why did I become fixated? The easy answer is that I’m a Grudge Holder. The more complicated answer is that I have a very deep, intractable need to be understood and appreciated for exactly who I am. This nugget of high expectations exists at the center of my psyche. Now, sure, everyone wants to be understood and appreciated. But exactly how much energy will most people expend in order to be understood and appreciated by people who either don’t have the time or don’t have any concrete reason to express such things? Personally speaking, I will work tirelessly to be understood. I will explain and re-explain. And at some level, I am absolutely certain that, with enough explaining, I will be understood and embraced—at long last!
It sounds kind of comical, but trust me that there’s heartbreak there. And this is where your digging should lead you (but it doesn’t): to some central injury that needs to be addressed. This obsession with your old job is asking you to excavate something important, some operating system buried at the center of things, fueled by pain and rejection.
Yes, of course we can step back and say “Fucking get over it already.” That’s easy. America is the land of Fucking Get Over It Already, and the Don Drapers of the world, who appear on the surface to function the most smoothly, have ten thousand leagues of rejection and fear under their tumultuous seas. These are the managers. They do what’s needed. They calmly maintain the status quo. They swat away challenges to their authority like pesky flies, even if there’s something important and true there.
The essential Don Draper-like nature of American life, in other words, is custom-made to make a lot of us crazy. As much as we have gotten over it, as much as we do our best to sally forth without overanalyzing or overexplaining, there’s a daily madness that unnerves us, a feeling that everyone else has been stricken with some crazy viral infection that we’re not allowed to acknowledge.
And look, I’m not that enlightened, and maybe I don’t even want to be. I don’t lead encounter groups on weekends. Like most fallen romantics, I’m one half soft, confessional teddy bear, and one half macho asshole mouthing the words to “Can I Get a Fuck You?” every few minutes. Maybe that’s just what survival looks like, when you’re not living in some deeply feminine socialist democracy where the government gives you an allowance for red wine and soft cheeses.
That necessary bluster shouldn’t tell you you’re a Grudge Holder, though. And most of all? You really have to be careful. Because when someone or something kicks up that old message of “Sorry, you’re not good enough,” you need to monitor your reaction and resist the urge to move closer and stick your hand straight into the center of the flame.
Obviously this means you shouldn’t apply to that job at your old workplace. You don’t want to move back there or take that job or work with those people again, and FOR SURE they don’t want you there. You may see this as an opportunity to hear “Yes! We do want you! We never appreciated you enough, and we see that clearly now!” Maybe in your fantasy, you get the job, and then tell them, “Naw, I can’t move back there! Too bad for you!” But some sick part of you knows that this is also a big chance to hear “Sorry, you’re not good enough,” yet again. And some sick part of you wants to hear that, too, because it validates something deep and true about how you see yourself. You are not good enough. Somewhere at the center of your psyche, those words are engraved.
Listen to me: Don’t let yourself write this off as a silly workplace fixation. There is heartbreak here. You have been working too hard your whole life just to fix this. The energy you’ve expended on this is unfathomable, and still, it seems like the answer is always the same. You are tirelessly fueling the blinding brightness of a thousand suns, and still, the world seems to say, “No, thank you, we’ll pass.” And also, “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
This isn’t about victimization. This is about what we, in our hearts, feel as we step out into the world, and what we’re looking for. For a long time, it was as if I was crafting gorgeous miniature houses, and then scanning the horizon for someone to give them to. But did I look for someone with a real love of gorgeous miniature houses? No. I looked for someone wearing industrial work boots. I looked for the kind of person who was sure to smash my house into a million splintery pieces. Build, present, smash. Build, present, smash.
And here’s the confusing thing: The people who smash what you build? Some of them are employers and friends. Some of them are blood relatives, with perfectly good intentions. You can’t just send them all packing and be done with it. But if you hand them your pretty little house, YOU NEED TO REMEMBER what will happen. Don’t do it. Keep your soft, confessional teddy bear self safe from these people.
But create a safe space for the teddy bear, for the miniature houses, for the heart and soul of who you are. This is what I keep saying about putting up signs (Write down: “You are good enough right now, BEYOND good enough” and tape it to the wall.) This is what I’m saying about doing silly, small things for yourself, and working on projects and creating things that have nothing to do with work or other people’s approval. This is what I mean about being vulnerable. Because if you swallow down your pain and put on your work boots and go all Don Draper and “Can I Get A Fuck You?” on the world, that’s what makes you a Grudge Holder. And that’s also what keeps you pandering to the Don Drapers out there. That’s what draws you to the flame, for more of the same old pain.
Even though I feel great these days, I still sometimes notice that I’m a real sucker for rejecting or withholding personalities. Sometimes it’s just the faintest whiff of narcissism, or the slightest, unexpected scent of Mean Girl that does it. I work harder. I say too much. I insert foot into mouth. Most of the time, I’m not even invested. I don’t even like the person that much, or I have absolutely no skin in the game. But on the wrong day with the wrong kind of person, old synapses start firing and I want to prove—to the exact people who are guaranteed not to give a shit or understand a thing—that I matter. I want to work hard to show that I deserve love, goddamn it.
And when you stumble on a microcosm of people who seem restless and impatient, who can’t hang out with people who aren’t hip enough, and can’t go to places that aren’t cool enough, and can’t talk to people who aren’t rich enough, or stylish enough, or important enough, what you’ll find at the core of their operating systems is “I deserve love, goddamn it.” When someone can’t listen closely or can’t stop scanning a crowded room for someone else to talk to, when someone can’t talk to you because you don’t seem important enough, there’s a sickness in play. The irony is that the damaged are both seeker and rebuffer, rejecter and rejectee. There is no distinction between Don Draper and his awkward, striving underlings. They’re all locked into the same feeling of needing more understanding and approval from a cold, cruel world. But they are addicted to the chase, so they never really want to arrive anywhere.
You have arrived somewhere. Don’t let this vestige of a past chase ruin what you have. Some workplaces, some bosses, some friends, some relatives, some exes will never want you, and will never appreciate all of the amazing qualities you bring to the table. It has nothing to do with you. Forget them. Build those parts of you that make you feel peaceful and accepting and satisfied and soft and vulnerable. Make a religion out of letting go. You do great work, and everyone knows it. Don’t fixate on the indifferent. Keep yourself surrounded by people who look you in the eye, listen closely, and really seem interested in you as a person. Try to do the same for your friends. Stop working so goddamn hard for once in your life. You are already good enough.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.