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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I have a friend who is middle-aged and in a job that makes her unhappy. Rather than looking for a new job that would be more in line with what she would like to be doing, she says she is “comfortable” and probably couldn't get a job in X position anyway. Yet her attitude at work is suffering and her unhappiness is growing into other areas of her life. I don't want to push or meddle, but I don't know that it is right to stand by and not say anything either. Help!
We all know someone like this, or a few people like this. In fact, when you really do the cruel math of Capitalism, how many of us can say that we’re doing exactly what we want to be doing, and feel deeply fulfilled by our jobs? (Let me pause briefly here to sob.)
So the first thing to recognize here is that “job happiness” operates on a spectrum. The second thing to recognize is that the lousy job isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that your friend is psychologically and emotionally stuck.
She’s unhappy at work but refuses to admit this to herself, though it’s obvious to those around her. She knows she’d be happier in another position, but makes excuses rather than taking constructive action. We all do this to some extent. It’s part of the human arrangement. We’re always struggling to change, to grow and evolve. And at the same time, we’re struggling to not have to change, to avoid challenges that destabilize us and incur the risk of failure. And thus we get stuck in ruts — professional ruts, social ruts, erotic ruts. We’re like giant ambivalent isotopes, frankly.
...the lousy job isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that your friend is psychologically and emotionally stuck.
In the case of your friend, it sounds like her professional rut has gotten pretty deep. So do you, as her friend, have the right to say something? Yes. Beneath the lesser defense mechanisms on display here you see a friend in pain and want to help. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, there’s a lot right with it.
But a couple of cautionary notes are in order. First, I’d avoid focusing on practical stuff, which she can — and has — resisted thus far. The point isn’t to get your friend to apply for a better job. It’s to acknowledge that she’s struggling right now. She’s sad. She wants to change but doesn’t feel powerful enough to try. It can be awkward to put things in such blunt emotional terms. And your concern has to be genuine, or it will risk coming off as pity, which is condescending. But it’s also harder for someone in a rut to turn away when they are offered the hand of compassion, rather than advice.
Second (and this is really the most important thing): You have to recognize going in that there are limits to how much you can do, even as a good friend. Your pal isn’t fresh off the farm. She’s reached middle-age, which means certain habits of thought and feeling are pretty deeply ingrained. My hunch is that her professional block is symptomatic of struggles in other areas of her life, that she’s got a whole complex ecosystem of fears and thwarted desires to contend with. In such cases, my hope is always that people will find their way into good therapy, where they can begin to sort out the more fundamental whys and hows in an atmosphere of self-forgiveness. But that’s just me and my medicine.
You have to recognize going in that there are limits to how much you can do, even as a good friend.
For what it’s worth, I have a good friend who sounds a lot like yours. Because of my own pathological need to regard myself as noble, I spent many years trying to offer him counsel of various sorts, most often professional. None of it took. And so a few years ago, I stopped trying. I surrendered to the truth that his struggles with his own ambition were deeper than any resume, or unsolicited job coach, could reach. It’s made our friendship healthier, actually, because neither of us feels the unspoken pressure of my expectations. Instead, we just focus on enjoying each other’s company.
I say all this not to undo my earlier advice, but to re-emphasize the limits of what even a well-meaning friend can do. Remember the larger goal: to help your friend find her way back to happiness.
Do what you can, and forgive yourself the rest.
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the forthcoming book Against Football.
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