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I Work Part-Time for My Mental Health and Shouldn’t Be Ashamed

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I work part-time.

There, I said it. Now, I need to own it.

About a year ago, I switched my employment from a full-time position to a part-time position. I work 20 to 25 hours each week, depending on the volume of projects assigned to our team. I love my co-workers and what we create together. I get to use my skills and draw from an oddly expansive compendium of knowledge to make our community a better place.

Overall, I’m pretty dang content. That is until someone asks me where I work or what I’m doing these days. At that point, irrational fear and embarrassment take over and I do my best to avoid any mention of my schedule. Do I mislead people into thinking I still work a full-time job?

Probably, but only the casual acquaintances I bump into at the grocery or school function. What about the other people, the ones I know pretty well? Do I quickly change the subject from work to kids or why braces are so expensive? Absolutely. Then, as soon as the encounter concludes, I walk away and get this icky, unsettling feeling.

It took me quite a while to name this feeling. At first, I thought it was regular old anxiety or maybe anger because people were being too “nosy.” I knew it wasn’t a positive feeling but it wasn’t sadness either. After running into an old friend who knew me in my teens, it finally dawned on me that what I was really feeling was shame. I was ashamed to tell people I didn’t work a full-time job.

I really reflected and thought hard to figure out why I felt ashamed. It turns out there were two main reasons — I did not want to be viewed as lazy or incompetent.

My family comes from a rural, farming background. Everyone worked and they worked hard. I worked hard, too. As a matter of fact, I put so much into work that it had a detrimental effect on my health and well-being. That’s the primary reason I dropped my hours to part-time… but I couldn’t tell people that. All they would hear is, “She is lazy, has no work ethic, and contributes nothing to her family or community.” They would whisper this fact to each other and eventually my entire family would be shunned and dishonored and run out of town! (OK, that’s a little extreme, I know. Remember, this is the voice of fear and anxiety talking. They are not rational.)

The incompetent part comes from my history of being a fairly intelligent person who succeeded in school and other academic pursuits. A huge chunk of my high school reputation came from being a smart kid and I liked living in that space. It felt good to be considered capable and ready to take on new challenges. As an adult, I convinced myself that, if I didn’t give 100 percent at all times and adhere to the standard Monday through Friday 8 to 5 work schedule, how could I claim success? Not working a full-time job means you failed. You were supposed to be smart but clearly you are “stupid” because you can’t do what everyone else is doing. (My inner voice can be pretty vicious.)

Now that I understand what I am feeling and why, it’s time to take ownership of my choices. I am choosing to work fewer hours each week because it makes my life better. I am choosing to limit the amount of time I spend consumed with my job because I need room to breathe. I am choosing a path that suits me, my skills and my personal needs because I can’t neglect myself anymore. Overall, I am choosing to do things my way, not the conventional way, because in all honesty, that’s my space. I’ve never wanted to conform — my mother will attest to this. I always felt my best and did my best work when I could relax and let my inner weirdo run amok.

But knowing this and showing this are two different things.

I may have the words in my head to address people’s questions, but will they come out of my mouth the next time someone asks me about my work? Will I be able to tell them how I am choosing a better path for myself? I doubt it.

I think, for the next few months, I will rehearse some scripted answers. With a little practice, I should be able to use them confidently in a conversation with real people and keep the shame at bay.

1. Yes, I still work for that health system. I’m so thankful they allow me to have a good work-life balance.

2. It’s true that my work responsibilities shifted. Now I get to focus on creating materials to help our community. Having a flexible schedule gives me time to do great work but also take care of myself and my family.

3. I am not working as many hours as you and I’m terrified you are judging me for that and now you think less of me as a person and crap, was that out loud?

This is a work in progress.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Originally published: June 19, 2019
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