If You're Unhappy at Work, You Might be at War with Yourself

Every summer until I was a teenager, I would spend a week at Camp Christian with my church group. It was a sweet little place with cabins, a pool, a big lodge with a communal kitchen, and of course a fire pit where we’d sing songs every night.

One summer when I was around ten years old, I was there again, enjoying a week with my friends, many of whom were part of the “in-group” at church. These were girls who wore lip gloss, painted their nails, and were just all-around “cool.” I never felt completely at home in this group, but I acted the part and did my best to navigate the unspoken rules about what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Almost everyone at camp did the same, and if you could see a picture of us, you’d see a uniform set of white kids tanned by the summer sun, too many of whom were wearing those awful puka shell necklaces, all smiling at the camera.

That year, however, there was a new boy attending camp - someone I hadn’t seen there before. He was sort of a loner, wore black a lot, and seemed exceptionally uncomfortable at our boisterous and sunny camp.

The first thing I was drawn to about him was the long, velvet, completely-out-of-place cape that he wore.

Being socially hyper-aware and wanting to maintain my “status” as a “cool” kid, I kept my distance at first. I ate with my friends and dared not approach him in public. But I kept wondering about him, wondering how he had the gall to wear a gothic cape to camp. Wondering why he didn’t try to look more like us, or fit in, or just drink the fucking Kool-Aid.

As the days went on, our paths crossed more and more, and we eventually got to talking. I remember feeling a sense of kinship with him, sharing thoughts and jokes in the shade of the maple tree on the big lawn overlooking the lodge, he in his cape and me in my sweet new Adidas sneakers.

Throughout the camp activities each day, I would volley between my group of friends and this odd duckling I felt so intrigued by. Toward the end of the week, I’d mustered up the courage to ask him for something I so badly wanted but had initially been too afraid to say:

Could I wear your cape for a little while?

Gleefully, he said “yes,” and I tied that dirty velvet thing around my neck, and I ran around the lawn letting it billow behind me. I felt ecstatic as it caught the air and then enveloped me softly when I stopped. I felt magical and wild and like it was the most natural thing in the world to wear a cape at summer camp.

After a while of running around carefree, I thanked him and gave it back. He draped it over his pasty white skin and seemed grateful to have his velvet shield around him again.

I’ve never forgotten that experience, and it always reminds me that there is a girl inside of me who wants to wear a cape and run around in the woods, free of any social considerations or material limitations.

For my entire life, I’ve felt caught in this liminal space between “mainstream” society and the quirky, vague wilderness of the outliers.

My sense is that everyone, when they really sit with themselves, feels caught in this in-between space, too.

I work with people who want to make a meaningful contribution in their worklives but don’t (consciously) know how to do that. They’re unhappy with their work and they usually want something drastic to change in their careers.

Without exception, as we start the process of unpacking what it is that’s gotten them to this point, one thing becomes clear: there is a part of them that’s been cut off and ostracized from their inner and outer lives.

And it’s usually the part of them that wants to run around in a cape.

It’s the weird, unusual, and socially questionable part of them that’s been stifled, squished, and silenced for most of their adult life. It’s the part of them that gives them the most creative juice, which is why they feel so depleted and exhausted by their lives.

Since childhood, most of us have been rewarded for falling into line and looking like everyone else. We may say that we value originality or innovation, but the truth is that we’re hardwired to prefer social sameness and cohesion, so when someone in all black wearing a cape shows up to summer camp, most of us will probably feel uncomfortable.

In my own life and in the lives of the people I get to support, there’s a clear theme of being at war with the parts of ourselves that defy social expectations. We’ll try anything to squelch them: we’ll wear “professional” clothes, we’ll talk like everyone else does at the water cooler, or we’ll do work that’s safe and predictable.

Unfortunately, though, this only amplifies the cries from the part of us that we’re trying to smother out of existence.

“What you resist persists,” right?

When I was working in an organization in Boston I was at the height of my battle with my cape-wearing self, and I was miserable. But the girl who wanted to run outside barefoot wouldn’t back down. She came to me in my dreams, in my longing for the woods, and in the emptiness I felt each day in that office.

Your wild, weird self - the part of you that feels like home - will never stop trying to get your attention. It will always call to you, even if you’re doing everything you can to make it shut up so that you can just get to work and have all the social status and prestige you think you want.

If you’re unhappy at work, I invite you to ask yourself some questions and let your body give you the answers:

Is there a part of me that feels trapped, suffocated, or denied?

Chances are, the answer is “yes.” And if it is, that’s great, because now you can get to the work of making a peace treaty with yourself.

Next, you can get still and ask yourself, What does this part of me need right now? See what words or answers come up. You might be surprised.

It’s a long, arduous process, but it’s your only option if you want to feel whole and do work that’s meaningful to you.

For me, this has meant incorporating my cape-wearing self into my coaching and writing work. It means reading about email marketing one minute and lighting a magic candle the next. It’s networking with a peer and then heading to a Reiki session, or doing a Tarot card reading before I write a blog post on LinkedIn.

It’s a dance we have to do: to become aware of the battle raging within and choose to make peace with ourselves every day.

That may not mean that you change careers or sell your house and go live on a commune in Costa Rica, but it will change things, and that’s scary.

It’s much scarier, however, to envision a society where no one is truly themselves. Where we’re cloaked in socially acceptable words, thoughts, and behavior - all at the expense of who we are.

So I hope today you’ll choose to be weird, because the truth is, you already are. I hope you’ll choose to be wild, because you already are. I hope you’ll choose to put on that flowing velvet cape and let the wind run through your hair, not giving a damn about anything except how amazing it feels.