Vulnerability, Perfectionism, and the Job Search

I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and even though I know what it’s all about from following her TED talks and podcasts and Super Soul Conversations with Oprah, reading it is still mind-blowing.

I’m starting to realize why the job search is so hard and uncomfortable: it’s all about vulnerability.

Applying for a job is literally putting yourself up for judgment.

On a recent Unlocking Us podcast episode (linked below), Dr. Yaba Blay said she had found academia “the least affirming space” for her, and I felt that in my soul. Looking for a job in academia is incredibly painful and soul-destroying–every job posting is for a niche topic and requires relocating and demands an extensive track record of excellent, world-changing research, etc. I can scroll through pages and pages of academic job postings without finding a single thing that I can apply for–and I come away thinking it’s because I’m not good enough. I haven’t had enough publications or research experience or funding awards. As Brene Brown terms it, I operate from a place of scarcity.

The job search is all about scarcity (lacking qualifications/experience/money) and perfectionism (fear of judgment and rejection, trying to please and impress at the interview), and it requires you to be vulnerable. Nightmare.

This is especially true if, like me, you associate your self-worth with your accomplishments. Your CV/resume is a list of your accomplishments, so if you put it out there and it gets rejected, you feel worthless. Even worse, if you get shortlisted and get your hopes up and go to an interview, you can get rejected by people who actually met you and talked with you. How do you go through that without feeling worthless?

Brené Brown’s answer is that you don’t attach your self-worth to your accomplishments, to a job, to a relationship, etc. You just stand in the knowledge that you are enough. Right now, as is. If you can separate those things and know that whatever happens, you are enough, then you can withstand disappointments.

I’ve had the hardest time wrapping my head around that concept. If you don’t prove yourself with achievements, then how do you? It made no sense to me. Growing up, I only understood my worth in terms of achievement, specifically academic achievement. I was motivated by it, and now Brené Brown’s telling me I didn’t actually have to get a PhD to be worthy? That the overweight, crooked-toothed, frizzy-haired 13-year-old in a baggy t-shirt in my 8th grade school picture was good enough just as she was? Believing that requires a wholesale rejection of everything society has taught me all my life.

And that’s just it. You don’t prove yourself–you can’t and you don’t have to. You are just inherently worthy of love and belonging because you are human. It’s completely at odds with the world around us, with advertising and tv and movies, etc. But there’s also something very obvious about it. Of course everyone has value.

I struggle to accept this lesson for myself and my own self-worth, but one day I realised that I already do accept that people have inherent worth–when it comes to other people. When I was doom-scrolling job sites, it occurred to me that I don’t know what careers our old friends at church had before they retired, but I still think they’re wonderful people. They’re friendly, kind, funny, generous, community-minded. I see them as “contributing members of society,” a designation I won’t give myself until I have a “proper” job.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around vulnerability and trying to muster up the courage to put myself out there (blogging is part of it), but I think it’s all part of the need for self-compassion. Acknowledging that this is hard, recognising that nobody gets it right all the time, and standing firm in the knowledge that you are already enough, just as you are.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, March 3). Brené with Dr. Yaba Blay on One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Uswith Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-dr-yaba-blay-on-one-drop-shifting-the-lens-on-race/

What I’m Reading: Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff

I’m not even finished reading this book, but I’ve found it really helpful and wanted to share it now because I know it’s such a difficult time of year for so many people.

I found Kristin Neff’s work through another favourite author, Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, which could be the topic of at least 10 blog posts (maybe a project for next year?), Brown directs her readers to Kristin Neff’s website for a Self-Compassion Test. I took it when I was reading Brown’s book, and my results were so low and sad, I immediately ordered Neff’s book.

Self-compassion is basically treating yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat other people. One of the early practical exercises in the book is to write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to a friend. Objectively, I can recognise that I would never be as critical or judgmental towards a friend as I am towards myself, but the letter exercise really did shift something in my perspective. I beat myself up so much about my career failures–my self-talk goes something like this: “I’m 35 and I’ve never had a full-time job. I apply to jobs and don’t even get shortlisted. My CV is apparently not marketable and nobody wants to hire me. Nobody thinks I have anything to contribute. I’ve wasted my entire adult life in grad school accumulating massive debts that I can never repay because I don’t have any marketable skills or experience.”

Now, if a friend came to me with news about getting yet another job rejection e-mail, I would not even think any of these things–much less say them out loud! I would say comforting things, tell them I’m sorry to hear it, remind them how lousy the job market is right now, buy them a coffee, remind them of all of the good things they have going on in their life, etc. I would be compassionate.

Before reading The Gifts of Imperfection, I wouldn’t have considered myself a perfectionist, but I actually am–it’s less about being “Type A” and more about fearing judgment and linking self-worth to accomplishments, which I 100% do. This past year of being unemployed has forced me to work through my perfectionism, because being unemployed is the most imperfect thing in my view. I would be more compassionate towards people with drug addiction, failed relationships, etc. than I would to myself and my situation. Getting a PhD and failing to get a job feels shameful. And I’m sharing this because as Brené Brown tells us, shame cannot survive being spoken.

Still working through things and trying to be more self-compassionate, but it feels good to have Neff’s tools as we go into the new year.