Unemployment revealed how much my self-worth is defined by my work

Every morning around 7:30 a.m., the sunlight spills across my bedroom and I take a few moments to wake up and acknowledge the onset of a new day. Next, I fight the urge to scroll through Instagram (this is not always successful), change into loungewear, and make coffee. Finally, I sit down with my laptop to “work” in spite of the fact that currently, I don’t have a job. 

I’m not sure what to call the content that fills my days. The activities of my unemployed workload typically include answering “hey, how are you?” emails from former employers and potential clients, updating my LinkedIn, writing for pleasure, pitching articles to editors, editing freelance stories, reading the news—anything to foster a sense of normalcy or productivity, which are two things that I find I need during this time. The former makes me forget that I’m unemployed during the global pandemic, and the latter increases my self-worth. Like many people my age, my validation and creative output are dangerously intertwined. 

In the process of staying busy, I notice that the Internet is riddled with “work from home” articles: How to work from home and stay focused. How to work from home and not go crazy. I appreciate that these stories are helping others, but I also can’t relate to them: I don’t have a job right now, but I still feel the pressure to work from home and accomplish something. And so I wonder: How do you work from home if you don’t have a job?

Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, I worked as a freelance writer and in the entertainment industry—two fields that have taken a major hit due to the pandemic. Production for many film and television projects has been halted (it’s not super safe to have a crew congregating around a catering table and probably won’t be for a while), so I’m technically furloughed for the next few months. In the meantime, I’m freelancing—which yes, technically is a job—but because so many publications and companies have frozen their budgets for freelancers and so many of my clients have said they’ll “get back to me when things mellow out,” unemployment and self-employment are becoming frighteningly synonymous. 

I acknowledge where I’m fortunate; I still have a small handful of writing gigs, and I’m profoundly grateful for those opportunities. Plus, I’m not super financially stressed. And yet, things are still different, and my free time has suddenly skyrocketed in a way that’s more intimidating than it is exciting. Without the distractions of work, an active social life, and a handful of freelance assignments, anxiety takes over, and I become indecisive and restless. I want to make use of this time, despite all of the memes telling me to relax—but why is that so hard?  

When I was unemployed in the past, my job was to search for jobs. I spent my mornings writing cover letters and sending in applications and my afternoons setting up networking coffee dates until something stuck. But with no coffee dates, no networking events, few companies hiring, and the self-imposed pressure to do something profound, I’m constantly debating what to do next. Should I be starting a blog, a podcast, or a novel? Should I apply to places that are hiring but don’t fit my chosen career path? Should I make a pretty pie chart of all of those aforementioned activities and balance them out equally?

While I’m well aware of the “don’t worry about being productive” messaging circulating the internet right now, it feels like this only applies to the people with jobs, as they still have some sort of structure and direction built into their days.

For those of us currently unemployed, it feels foolish to not be productive. I feel purposeless, hungry for a reason to climb out of bed in the morning for something other than coffee.

The lack of productivity makes me feel parasitic, like I’m mooching off of the world rather than contributing to it. I realize that it’s not just a job I want: It’s purpose. Thus my question isn’t so much how do you work from home without a job—but more how do you feel like you have a purpose when you’re unemployed and your chosen industries aren’t hiring? 

This is perhaps capitalism at its finest: telling me I don’t deserve rest unless I’m creating something worthy of consumption. I live in a world that constantly pushes for self-improvement, that wires me and the rest of the population for optimization. Throughout adolescence and beyond, my accomplishments were met with praise, which I quickly interpreted as love and worth. I think many unemployed people feel pressured to use this time as an opportunity to get ahead or create a masterpiece (rather than a time to mourn the collective grief that’s traumatizing our country), because, without that sense of accomplishment, we feel empty. But maybe that’s the attitude worth questioning. 

Instead of engaging with a fruitless inner dialogue, I discussed my feelings with my boyfriend, my friends, and other creatives. Giving a voice to the anxiety I felt within gave it less power, and I was able to identify the areas where I was being too hard on myself—there’s only so much a person can do in a day, especially when we’re riddled with the anxiety that accompanies a pandemic.

It also helped to learn that a handful of my unemployed creative friends felt a similar pressure to what I was feeling. When I connected with them, they informed me that they struggled to feel accomplished, no longer thought they were doing “enough,” and found it challenging to stay focused when it came to writing. Seeing that I wasn’t alone and that everyone is a bit fragile right now fostered a sense of camaraderie. And once I was able to be kinder to myself, to acknowledge the things I had accomplished, and to put less pressure on my unemployment, inspiration flowed. I started writing and creating because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to. 

A new sense of normalcy has risen: It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, indecisive, and unfocused. It’s okay that we don’t know exactly what to do with this time.

So I’ll spend some afternoons sending emails, writing and updating my website; on other days, I’ll water my plants and watch TikTok videos. I go on walks. And I even launched a newsletter in an effort to better understand and communicate my feelings. Most importantly, I’m telling myself that what I’m doing is enough. 

Perhaps my job at this time isn’t necessarily to create something profound but to exist without feeling as though my purpose is directly correlated to what I produce; to remind myself that productivity was never my purpose but a side effect of passion. And in order for the fire of passion to stay aflame, it requires space and the opportunity to breathe. I welcome those breaths and the moments I spend looking at the flowers rather than at the computer keyboard. It may not be work in the traditional sense, but it feels right. It feels like growth.

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