Underearning and the power of shame

There’s a really well-written post about being the low-earner and the power of shame here.  It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since I left the practice of law, back in 2009 when I had my Big Fat Nervous Breakdown.  Managing a bookstore is not mucho moola (frankly, it is a joke, and I wasn’t a manager all that long, either), so while new job is a raise, I’m still not even close to what I made as a law clerk out of law school.   It is, though, a much better way out of being underpaid and living for the rest of my life with my dad– it’s a more solid career path/skill set, as well as work at a company with real, solid growth and demonstrated commitment to internal promotion, not to mention actual morals and, y’know, customer service.

I was ashamed to have quit my job, to have quit it unprofessionally, to have not understood why I hated it so very much, to have not been understood by anyone who was
“supposed to” instinctively love and support me and maybe shake me by the shoulders and say “OH MY GOSH, YOU’RE DEPRESSED, TAKE SOME TIME OFF, I’VE GOT YOUR BACK” in the midst of my panic when it was something I didn’t get and was trying so damned hard to hide because– who’d love a failure?

I was ashamed that I was depressed and not earning money (for all of three months) and not going to work when I had all of this college and (now essentially useless) graduate school debt.  I was ashamed that I might turn in to my mother, who used her own depression and divorce as an excuse to not work most of my life, a fact that is a huge barrier in my relationship with her, and a huge trigger for me in my responsibility kinks, because I feel like I have to be the grown-up all of the time because my Mom never was.

Formative Childhood Traumas (TM) aside, though, I was ashamed that my husband had to pick up my slack (what kind of feminist was I?), even though he’d been un- and under-employed for several years of our marriage, during which time I’d been the bigger wage earner– and at no point had I felt too resentful toward him because eh– shit happens and we didn’t live in an economic boomtown/boom-region.  I did have the occasional what, you couldn’t have at least cooked me dinner, if you’ve been home all day kind of feeling.  I’d like to think I didn’t voice that feeling too often, I know I didn’t push him too much or pick fights just because he was underemployed.  Maybe I should have.  Who the heck knows.

TL; DR: I was ashamed to have failed at my legal career, just like my parents had failed at their academic careers due to their depressions/etc., and panicked that I was never going to find my way out or be worthy of regard or merit.  (By my husband, who had had his own period of unemployment, which I didn’t fault him for all that much, and by my parents, whom I sometimes faulted and sometimes didn’t and yet, still held their opinions important.)


I was nevertheless proud, in the midst of my shame, that I was getting my ass out of bed to go to my bookstore, and proud that they basically hired me the minute I walked in the door.  I was proud that for all that my pay was shit, I could help people, was the smartest girl in the room (Emotional Trigger #2),  and was making it through every day pretty soon without feeling like I was a complete useless sack of shit whose depressive and suicidal tendencies made her utterly worthless and unworthy of love.

Except, well, you know, when I was frustrated with work and wanted to vent, I got shut down because I was “stupid” to be frustrated about it.  Because, you know, crazy people aren’t allowed to have feelings of annoyance and frustration, because they’re being unreasonable.  It’s a fallacy of logic by the non-crazy, by the non-underpaid– if we “accept” shitty pay at shitty jobs, we are required to suck it up and be quiet, because if we aren’t at a place of complete, total mental health like every one else to get out of our shitty jobs, then we should just shut the fuck up, because the frustration is only what we deserve for our craziness, laziness at not going back to our real vocation, or whatever other faulting-thought-process is going on in our own minds or that of the people who judge us– not just ourselves.

I’ve always held the “you never know peoples’ story” party line, and never tried to judge my bookstore coworkers, many of whom are as smart or smarter than I.  If they lacked ambition to start with, were disorganized or addled or as burnt out or sad as I ever had been?  I got it.  I wasn’t going to call them a slacker.

But all things come around to Monty Python, and I wasn’t dead yet.  I got better.  And as I got better, my frustrations with the mundanities, the mediocrities, the inanities that were part and parcel of the job got to me because– I might not be the most emotionally level of gals, but I have an idea about the right way to do things most of the time, and if you just let me at a problem, 95% of the time, I’ll solve it, the right way, on time.  Ride my ass about it and insist I do it the One Corporate Bullshitty Way?  Yeah.

I lost patience, in short.

I lost patience, too, with all my fellow smart/depressed/unambitious/slacker/burnout fellow underearners, and started to feel very much as though I was not only not getting paid enough for this shit (all too true) but that I hated all my coworkers because none of them were doing their jobs and I had to pick up all the damned slack.  It’s not a good place to be in, both for me and my responsibility kink, not to mention anyone who wants to avoid acting like a defensive jerk to their coworkers;  plus, as I must always remember, because this is my Golden Rule, you never know everyone’s story.  If you can’t confront/fix other people, and you can’t fix yourself to fit the situation, there’s only one answer.

(Cue George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers guitar track…) “And out the door I went.”

It took me four and a half years to get to that point, and only after working myself up to ask for a promotion to shitty retail manager pay (GO, ME, I CAN MANAGE GERBILS ON WHEELS) and then running around being pulled in 60 directions for two years, feeling frazzled and under-appreciated, not just underpaid– and all the while, feeling ashamed at doing something below me and angry at everyone who was telling me it was below me because– they had no idea how hard it was to go to work some days instead of just slitting my wrists– not to mention?  Retail is hard, because people?  Are fucking moody assholes.

Getting promoted to manager was a pretty big fucking deal, even if the pay was bupkiss.

It took almost two years as a manager before I “learned” (got mouthy about) to stand up for myself because other people weren’t doing their share, and I deserved to work at a company whose larger management structure (not my store team, per se) was less brain-dead, more interactive, more customer-friendly, more interested in the employees as actual people and not churns through the mill.  It wasn’t graceful, and I wouldn’t do it this way again– but this was literally the first time at work where I’ve stood up for myself and said– “Um, no.  This is crap, what you’re pulling, I’m going to find something else and go there.”  Will I avoid the what I suspect was a retaliatory “performance” IP the next time by being more gracious in my 360-degree feedback, or just learn to keep my mouth shut?  Maybe.   The fact still was, though, I managed to say ENOUGH without blowing everything up at the same time.

That I’d been meaning to get the hell out, anyway, and lit the fire under my own butt in the process because I was/am TERRIFIED of doing “real” work in the “real” world with people who have expectations of me beyond the minimum competent threshhold?  Eh.  I’m not forty yet.  I’ve still got time to learn to stop flailing.

And I’ve got a few more pennies in the bank account.  Not a lot, but a few.

I’m still underearning, but I no longer feel– underdeserving.  And I can only feel joyful for that, at that release from that shame, and the relief at knowing– I did that, all by myself.

It would have been nice to have had some help on the way– to have had encouragement and belief from others before things got to an almost-crisis, and not some sheer dumb luck and flailing and the lucky fact that I’ve got some raw talent around the crazy, but– I’ll take knowing, for sure now– that I did it all by myself, and now I know– I can do it again.  (And, again, my coworkers have their own stories, some of which have nothing to do with me at all.)  And while yes, it sucks that I am currently having to live with my dad because I made the Classic Stupid Married Woman’s Mistake (no separate savings, no emergency fund) and I have a shitload of educational debt to pay down– there are worse things.

I might have to mostly do it myself, but by the same token, there’s no one to tell me I’m doing it wrong because that’s not the way they’d have gone about things.

And that– that’s both priceless, and mine.

3 thoughts on “Underearning and the power of shame

  1. amandamschuster

    Hooray! I love how boldly you talk about the shame you experienced and the process of overcoming it. We need more voices like yours ❤


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s