When the Shoulds Keep You Up at Night


We do so many things because that’s what we’re “supposed” to do. We go to college, look for the smart career with the steady salary and room for growth. We get married, get a pet, a house, have a kid or kids. But what’s the end game? What do you do when you tick all the boxes? What if you don’t want to tick all those boxes? So much of what I’ve wrestled with this year has centered around these kinds of thoughts. Do I want to do what’s expected of me? Do I continue down this path? Or do I veer suddenly and violently in another direction entirely, upending my narrative in an attempt to figure out what the hell I want to do with this finite and undefined amount of time I’ve been given?

This has been an in between year and a year of transition. My husband and I are saving for a house we hope to buy next year. We are biding our time on this momentary plateau. I was laid off from my job in May. It was a good thing in many ways. I was not satisfied. But I never settled into unemployement and a routine of trying to figure out what my next step should be. It was all panic and flailing resulting in what by all accounts is a very good job. I am making the best money I have ever made. I am being pushed and challenged. I have been here a month and I already know that I am vital and valuable and a great deal is expected of me. There is room for growth and learning. And yet, I am not happy. The prospect of paying my bills makes me happy. The idea of having extra money for the things I want, having money to save, and pay off debts, that’s wonderful. But coming to work every morning, sitting at my desk, and accomplishing those tasks I have been assigned. There’s not much I want to do less.

We are a generation that was raised on the mantra that we could be anything we wanted to be. To paraphrase Rocky Horror Picture Show, if we could dream it we could be it. I could have been a soap opera actress, a veterinarian, Indiana Jones, or a rock star if I wanted. My parents said so. So far I have worked in advertising, online retail, construction, solar, and now technology consulting. The closest I’ve gotten to digging up a fossil is visiting the Museum of Natural History. The closest to a rock star? Wednesday night karaoke and the one time I convinced my friends to form a cover band for one show before we left for college. Are we unfulfilled and forever searching for our “dream jobs” because of these childhood promises and fantasies? Is this job actually not the right fit for me? Or has my brain been wired for dissatisfaction doing anything that can simply be labeled as “paying the bills”?

These are privileged thoughts; believe me I know. I grew up knowing that my parents would have and in some cases did do whatever they had to in order to provide for themselves and me. There are plenty of people who don’t have the luxury of wondering how fulfilling their job should be because they’re too busy working two of them to keep the lights on. That knowledge definitely affects my endless debating as well, the idea that I should just shut up, keep my head down, and get the work done because everyone has to do something for a living and I’m lucky to have a job and luckier still to have a good one. It feels shameful and self-indulgent on some level to pine for something else, especially when that something else is not as financially sound.

I am standing on the precipice of an opportunity to do something altogether different with my life. It’s quite possibly my version of quitting a corporate job to sell ice cream in an exotic locale. It would afford me other opportunities to explore freelance writing in my downtime. It could provide less stress and more happiness (of course for much less money). And here I am agonizing over it. My brain is wired to evaluate things in terms of success, climbing the ladder, doing something “important” or even “impressive” with my life. My thoughts are so conflicted and mixed up with what I should be doing, what I think I want to be doing, and guilt for any number of reasons linked to those two things, I don’t trust and continually second guess myself. I make up my mind every hour and I’ve played out enough hypothetical scenarios in my head for 10 people. But in the end my brain keeps circling around one thought in particular, who am I living my life for?

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