Discover more from Slouching Towards Blok M
#14: I'm trying to not be so embarrassed
About being tired, wanting time off, and most of all, wanting to write.
I didn’t know I had it in me to write beyond 2,000 words but here we are. It’s one of those things I just needed to write in order to move on to other things.
My last paycheck as a full-time employee was … delicious. When the transfer notice came in by text, instead of ignoring it like I usually do, I read and savored every word and every digit.
Getting that paycheck felt cozy. Crisp new sheets cozy. Pulling the covers at 10pm on a weeknight and turning on the TV to “Princess Diaries” cozy. Empty streets on the first day of Lebaran cozy, when going anywhere takes just 10 minutes and for a minute you forget Jakarta was ever hard on you. That paycheck felt like problems were going to be solved, and good things were going to keep on happening. So tasty; a Michelin-starred meal. Girl dinner of the year.
In the month that followed, I lived peacefully, happy in the knowledge that I had fresh money. One would think money is money. It wasn’t until my last paycheck that I realized fresh money was superior. Fresh money feels good to spend. Something about it makes you feel like you will always have it. Like abundance was the natural state of your life; the default factory settings. You’re convinced you’d easily make that money again, except in the case of final paychecks, you won’t — not in the same way anyway — and actually… maybe… I should worry?
Spending old money (i.e. money that came from your savings) on the other hand, feels like a punch to the gut. Almost illegal, even though it’s your money, saved for the very purpose of being used on days when you have none. Like when you stop getting monthly paychecks.
I’m not put together enough to be leaving jobs without the guarantee of another one lined up. I’m probably the last person who should be doing that, to be honest, but that’s the kind of turn things took last July.
You are either the type who thinks having money to survive without work for three months is luxury, or the type to whom having only enough to survive three months is insane. The Tiktok financial gurus, online life coaches, and some friends would suggest I save more. But, not used to having much money in the first place, not enough anyway to ever register the idea of not working as a possible choice in life however briefly, I couldn’t help but see the glass as half full. Perhaps even a luxury. I felt the sudden need to do this now because somewhere in my mind I thought I’d never find myself in this position again.
There are days I look at my bank account and the idea of not having a full-time job would sound completely unhinged. But there are more days where I wake up and the whole thing would feel like a gift. I knew I’d eventually panic about not having money, but for once I wanted time more than a paycheck. I chose the lens through which all of this was privilege, even if only for a few months, and trusted the universe and my gut feeling that the rest will work itself out somehow.
There is nothing sexy about my full-time-to-self-employed arc. No LinkedIn-worthy epiphanies, or anything like that. The easiest way to put it is that my anxiety had gotten the best of me these past three years, and I needed distance from other people’s ideas — of the world, of myself — to once again believe in mine.
I don’t know when it started, really, but by the end of 2021, what was initially just whispers of “maybe I’m not cut out for this” had grown into a massive tumor of a false truth than I’d fully embraced: “I am incompetent”.
The thought haunted my every waking hour. At work, I was purposely shrinking myself to avoid having to perform competence in front of an audience, thinking I’d fail and embarrass myself. The collaborative working environment meant to nurture open communication instead amplified my anxiety. I’d delegate decisions out of a distrust towards my own understanding of complex problems (“others understand better”). I’d withhold opinions because others surely had better ones (“I don’t know enough to have a say”). When quarterly planning season came around, I tried being as invisible as I possibly could to avoid being assigned to lead projects (“I can’t fuck up if I don’t take any responsibilities”). And as for the projects that inevitably ended up on my lap, I’d have panic attacks before meetings, shaking and hyperventilating, then join calls, speak in my work voice, act like my internal walls weren’t collapsing. When people spoke highly of me, I’d smile a nervous smile and a timer would go off in my mind, counting down the day “the truth” will reveal itself and I would disappoint them (this is who you are).
I’d especially flinch when anyone at work would bring up the idea of “self-advocacy”, which used to come up a lot. The idea is that if you aren’t advocating for yourself, others aren’t going to see your work, and your work will not be recognized, let alone appreciated. All of this, of course, was especially relevant if you wanted to “advance”. I’m not entirely opposed to the idea, but my main gripe with it is that it’s hard advocating for yourself from a place of self-hatred and self-doubt. I’d look around and feel crazy. Everyone else seemed to be doing just fine, many even seemed to thrive, so I volunteered to take the blame for my own failures, feeling like a weak little loser for not being strong enough to get my shit together.
I write this now from a place of self compassion, which I am only able to develop years after the fact. Of course, to one one’s surprise, a big part of it was the pandemic, which was inevitably followed by a series of unfortunate events that in so, so many direct and indirect ways amplified my cynicism and eroded my enthusiasm towards towards the path that I was on. I struggled a lot with working from home, mainly with how extremely transactional and devoid of humanness the culture that came out of that ended up being. Constant organizational changes made me question my purpose, which at the time I heavily attached with my livelihood. The pandemic changed my mind about a lot of things, including and especially work. And while I get to easily say that now, processing the weight of that shift while continuing to perform myself like I wasn’t affected was tough.
Towards the end of 2021, my manager suggested I extend my end-of-year time-off to get proper rest. I took a whole month off. It didn’t do much. It would be another 1.5 year, a whole new workplace, and months of therapy before I finally decided to properly give myself this gift of time.
When I decided to leave my last job, I told myself that for at least three months I was going to live my life as a Jaksel nepobaby, despite having neither the financial cushion nor the social currency.
What I had was an open mind, an experimental spirit, and a vague outline of a plan.
On the finances front, I had some work coming my way and I swore (to myself) to actively chase potential projects. I wasn’t going to “not work”, this wasn’t going to be “unemployment”. It’s work, reframed, for my benefit.
But what I really wanted to do with this time was write. Or more like, reset my relationship with writing.
Initially, I wanted to write because my boss, who I deeply respect and look up to, seemed to believe that I had it in me to write. Eventually — encouraged by that endorsement — I wanted to write because the idea that I wasn’t going to take my writing seriously was becoming silly.
I don’t even mean “take my writing seriously” as in “write a book”. I mean “take my writing seriously” as in… just fucking write, bro??? It was becoming ridiculous that I had no problems being a writer on my resume (where writing meant speaking on behalf of other people about their corner of the world), but actively denied myself the possible joy of writing from my own corner of the world, torturous a process as it may be.
Hmmm… Maybe I like self-advocacy more than I let on? After all, what is writing, what is this newsletter if not an experiment on telling my side of the story (what story that is remains to be explored).
This TikTok, basically:
“I don’t like that there’s such a negative connotation towards oversharing because I don’t overshare because I like to talk about myself. I overshare because I think I’m more tolerable with context.”
I love this take on the idea of putting yourself out there through whatever means you feel works best for you (“oversharing” on TikTok for this creator) because really the stakes aren’t that high? Some of us aren’t trying to be an intellectual and just want to be seen; be as close to being understood as possible.
All this time I’d been so afraid of writing badly that I’d settled for writing occasionally, getting high on the “approval” of people whose social media likes probably meant more “happy to see you alive” than “cool work with the words and the thoughts and stuff!” (I can never tell, and honestly there is nothing wrong with the former other than my own inclination to depend on it for validation).
I had approached writing with a sort of “cool girl” mentality, where I pretended not to care and believed it was cringe to try so hard. I wanted to be an effortless queen who produced magic on little to no planning at all. I had the audacity to think writing had to be easy flowing to be worth it. In my cool girl bubble, not practicing my craft was self-preservation and mystery, two essentials in the cool girl starter pack. Everything has to be chill and no big deal.
It should be no surprise that, like anyone stuck in this cool girl mentality, the fear of being caught caring is really just (gasp!) insecurity. In my mind I wasn’t good enough. Not funny enough. Not informed enough. Not original enough. My vocabulary not vast enough. My diction not fucking “English” enough. Everything I have to say has been said better. I wanted to buy myself some time to “magically” develop all of the wisdom and live all of the lives that I thought would make me the perfect writer before I surrendered myself to the page. Lately I’m accepting that who I am right now is pretty much all I am ever going to be, at least for the foreseeable future. And really none of this should be that deep anyway.
I know now that the only prerequisite to being whatever writer I wanted to be was to keep writing in the direction that my gut feeling compelled me to. Writing didn’t have to be this big lofty dream that died with the collapse of the media industry as we know it. It could just be a thing that I do, however imperfectly. I just need to stop being too cool for bad sentences and cringe takes. I also need to stop seeing intentionality as something that takes away from the work and acknowledge all of the ways it adds to it.
By the end of October, it will be three months since my last full-time paycheck.
Things were weird at first, I’m not going to lie. I slept a lot. Pretty sure I was asleep more than I was awake in all of August. Some days I slept 16 hours on-and-off. I’d eat lunch and sleep again. Have coffee and go back to sleep. I “listened to my body” and my body said “no thank you”. Part of me knew I needed the rest, part of me was overwhelmed with options of things to do. I also wondered if I was maybe teetering on the edge of depression but took my self-awareness as a sign that I was probably not. Rest felt good until it didn’t. While I like being ruler of my own time, I didn’t like it when weekends would arrive without a sense of relief. When friends ask me out, I’d stay in feeling like I didn’t deserve to have fun.
You know how people say if you don’t know what you want, flip a coin, and you’ll know when that coin is up in the air? I like to think of August as that coin, flipping in the air, full of possibilities, some obvious, others less so. As I watched, I was hoping it would land on the obvious. Not because I was scared of the unknown, but because I know sometimes it’s easier to say I’ve walked boldly into the unknown rather than to say I’ve walked boldly to do the thing I know I have to do but am too scared of for totally made up reasons.
I was supposed to publish this piece last week, on my 4th week of publishing 3x a week, but my self-consciousness got the better of me. Talking about workplace anxieties makes me feel like a walking cliche. I also still feel a tinge of embarrassment from so boldly wanting to be a person who writes. I wish I could be cooler about it. But I’m also trying to be more forgiving about all of these feelings, and the resulting failure to send this out last week.
Earlier in therapy for (what turned out to be) perfectionism OCD, my therapist advised me against committing to treatments that required daily commitment (e.g. daily journaling). Her concern was that it wouldn’t be sustainable, as any minor failure to commit to the routine would triggering my compulsions and I would end up falling off the routine completely. Later on, she would introduce me to what they call ERP — Exposure and Response Prevention — where, with guidance, facing some of those failures would save me from myself.
Well, at least we know now that therapy works, because even though this voice in my head won’t shut up about how I missed publishing last week, telling me this is all just a phase, questioning if I’ll even show up to the page next week, telling me I probably wont, I’m determined not to let it win.
“Writing 3x a week for a free self-published newsletter” doesn’t make monetary nor career sense to my parents, obviously. When ex-colleagues or acquaintances ask me what I’ve been up to lately, I compulsively tell them I’m on a “sabbatical”, which feels kind of reductive but it’s also easy. I mean, I’m not saying I’ll never go back to a 9-to-5, — maybe I will? Who knows. I sometimes wonder what recruiters looking at my LinkedIn profile thinks, though I have some ideas on where I might be lacking appeal. My friends get it though, and that’s already more than enough for me.
My three months is about to be up and I’ll need to start worrying about sustaining myself beyond it soon. I’m less aimless these days. I even feel good? Excited about the path I’m on, the way I haven’t in a long time. This peace I find from reclaiming my time feels so unoriginal and that’s ok. I’m so tired of fighting against the current of cliches, I might as well swim in it.