The Anxiety I Feel When People Ask, 'So, What Do You Do?'


I truly dread meeting new people. Small talk and idle chit-chat usually lead to being asked anxiety-producing questions like “So, what do you do? Where do you work? Are you working full-time?” Where is a trap door when you need one?!

I never ask anyone these questions because I don’t want anyone to ask me these questions, because I don’t have an answer – well, not a good one anyway. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve always had at least one job. I haven’t had steady work for about six years now and I really don’t like to talk about it all that much. As a person living with chronic illness (that sometimes needs a two-hour nap after a trip to the grocery store), I just don’t have the stamina for a job or the conversation.

When I meet someone new that asks me about my work, I usually say something like, “I’m between gigs right now.” If they press for details, I start stammering a long and turbulent story of my work history (a.k.a. my resume) in a desperate attempt to let them know there is nothing “wrong” with me – I am employable! I usually leave my medical resume out of my ramblings. I’m not sure, but I bet there is probably some Emily Post rule out there somewhere about the timing of introducing the topics of brain surgery and bowel habits into a conversation with someone you’ve just met.

It’s when we part ways that I beat myself up, wonder why I said all the dumb things I said. I get caught up in comparing myself to others, thinking I’m not good enough or worthy of their time because I am not gainfully employed. I find myself projecting what they may be thinking: Are they judging me because I do not have an employer? Do they think I’m lazy? If only I tried harder? Am I too picky? I berate myself for not having a job; if I had a job, I’d have an acceptable answer. Over-thinking: 1, Kelly: 0.

I’ve tried making my employment status into a joke by giving clever yet evasive replies. After a few chuckles from the crowd, I somehow end up apologizing for being flip and go back to my old spluttering script. Here are a few of the responses I have tried:

Self-unemployed: One time someone responded, “Oh, an entrepreneur, how exciting!” I’m not sure if they missed my joke or if they were playing along and I missed their joke.

Domestic Goddess: I stole this one from Roseanne Barr. Usually makes people laugh but I think most don’t know of its origin. I’ve actually had to explain who she is and it kind of takes the fun out of it.

Alchemist: I can take ordinary water and make the most fabulous soup you have ever tasted. And at Thanksgiving, give me the picked-over turkey carcass and I can feed you for days. Actually, I’m very much like Jesus; water to wine, loaves and fishes? Please!

Professional patient: While true, it does catch people off guard and can make them feel uncomfortable and head for the hills. Essentially it gets me the result I claim I want: to be left alone.

Seriously though, after some much needed self-reflection, I’ve come to realize that yes, I indeedily-do have a job; it’s called taking care of myself. What I don’t have is a paycheck.

The other day, I decided to test this new response out. I was attending a conference and someone asked me one of the million dollar questions, “Do you work full-time?” I calmly answered, “Yes, I work full-time at Taking Care of Myself and waited for her reaction. She didn’t ask for details so I offered none (I thought my head was going to explode!). She just smiled at me and said, “Good for you!” Over-thinking: 0, Kelly: 1.

This post originally appeared on Write Down the Middle.

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Thinkstock photo via Szepy.

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