anxiety, career, random thoughts

Speed Bumps

So here’s a question:

Is it normal to open up your email, see a message that could potentially contain unpleasant or disappointing information, and…decide to just not open it? And then continue to just not open it for hours? Am I the only one who does this?

I’m kind of at a career crossroads these days, so I’m applying to lots of different types of jobs and opportunities, and emailing people asking for leads and letters of recommendation and that sort of thing. And this means there’s been an uptick lately in the number of potentially scary emails in my inbox. Some examples of emails that I have delayed opening for hours or even an entire day include:

  • A reply about a potential job opportunity I’ve inquired about.
  • A reply from someone I’ve asked to write a recommendation letter for me.
  • A decision letter from a journal letting me know that they are or are not interested in publishing the paper I submitted.
  • Literally any email from my PhD advisor, who has very specific ideas about what I should be doing with my career.

I completely understand if you are reading this thinking, What are you talking about? Wouldn’t you want to know what these emails say? Just open them already!! Well, yes, I mean, I do want to know what they say. Sort of. But here is what usually happens: I check my email on my phone and catch a very, very quick glimpse of a potentially scary email. My heart starts racing and instead of clicking on the email to open it, I immediately…close the email app. Because yes, this email could contain good and/or helpful and/or exciting information, but let’s face it, it could also contain disappointing and/or depressing and/or anxiety-inducing information. So instead of clicking on the email and running the risk of getting unpleasant news, I instead spend the next hour or four hours or fifteen hours trying not to think about the unpleasant information that *might* be in the email and telling myself I’ll open it when I’m “ready”.

Wow, now that I’ve written that out, it sounds pretty ridiculous. Right??? Waiting until later to open an email won’t do a thing to change whatever’s in it. Might as well open it and be done with it.

But still, it still feels easier and less scary to just…not open it. Not right now, at least. Later. Sometime.

Funnily enough, I’ve actually written a post on roughly this topic before, back in the early days of this blog when I was still a grad student and had just managed to gather the courage to find out exactly how much I owed in student loans. I guess that must mean that this whole Putting Off Finding Out Important But Possibly Bad Information is kind of a theme with me.

Part of me is saying, hey, who cares? What’s wrong with putting off opening emails for a bit? After all, I always open them eventually. And anyway, it’s normal to want to avoid doing things that are hard. It’s perfectly natural to prefer the quasi-comfortable purgatory of the unknown to the big scary reveal. No big deal. No harm done.

Well, perhaps not. But pushing something difficult further and further off into the future just because it’s difficult to face kind of suggests that I think I have lots and lots and lots of time to deal with it. Unlimited time, even. And that’s simply not the case.

I just started watching This is Us the other evening, based on the recommendations of about a billion and a half people who all fervently claim that it’s the greatest show on television. I can’t really comment on that yet since I’ve only seen a few episodes so far. However, I was pretty excited to learn that the pilot episode takes place on the 36th birthday of all of the main characters, because I’m 36 too! I was sitting there watching it like, cool, these interesting people are all 36, I’m 36, 36 is great, this is us, we’re all in this together!

But then about eight hours later I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic because I had somehow realized in my sleep that in fourteen years I will be FIFTY. Fourteen years ago I was 22, and that pretty much feels like it was just last week. So to sum up, last week I was 22 and next week I will be 50.

Not that I’m down on 50, ok? Lots of awesome, amazing people are 50, or much older than 50. This isn’t specifically about being 50.

I just mean that time is slipping by.

Clearly this is not an original thought, but it’s one I’ve been fixated on a little more than usual lately. This is partly due to the nature and setting of my current job: I spend most of my workday with very sick people, which serves as a constant reminder about how fragile we all are and about all of the things that can and do happen to human bodies, and about how limited our time here is. It’s also partly due to hearing about all the violence and tragedy in the news this past week (and, let’s be real, most weeks), and remembering that time is short and all our lives are precious and nobody really knows what’s going to happen.

It’s comfortable to stay where I am. It’s comfortable to keep going to my same job, coming home in the evenings and watching TV, waiting for the next paycheck. It’s comfortable to assume that everything will keep on going indefinitely the way it’s going now. It’s comfortable to try to keep things the way they are by avoiding potentially unsettling information and situations, for example by leaving scary emails unread for hours and days.

But if I want to do something important with my life and career, if I want to try to make an important contribution (and I do), there’s no time to lose. If time is slipping by so quickly (and it is), why would I knowingly procrastinate for even a few hours about anything important, even if facing it *could* cause me a few brief moments of anxiety or distress? If an email in my inbox could lead to a new opportunity, a new experience, a new insight, or heck, even just new information, good or bad, exciting or disappointing, then why wait to open it?

So I’m going to try to open the emails this week. Right away. No waiting. Because the prospect of moving forward is worth a little speed bump of fear.

6 Comments on “Speed Bumps

  1. I can’t resist opening emails but I put off listening to voicemails from my dad since they’re almost always upsetting in some way. It’s not like waiting will make me less annoyed or make the message less problematic! But whatever it is, you’re right. Better not to waste time stewing over what it COULD be. We don’t know how much more time we have so there’s none to waste.

    My fingers are crossed for that good-scary email to hit your inbox!

    1. Thanks, Revanche!

      And that definitely sounds like the same type of avoidance with your dad’s voicemails. I’ve done it with personal emails as well when I’ve had something difficult going on with someone and just didn’t want to face the next episode of whatever was going on. It’s so strange how our brains think that pretending something isn’t there somehow makes the situation better.

  2. How interesting that you are talking about this today. I just listened to this podcast last week dealing with the same information avoidance topic:

    I am also currently job searching, and I definitely do this too! Job searching is so difficult – the lack of good feedback on your applications, application rejections, or simply the void of not hearing back after you apply! Gah! It makes my heart race just to think about it, and I’m not even facing any unopened e-mails today. =)

    Best of luck in your search, and welcome back to the blogging world!

    1. Oh wow, no way! I will have to listen to that podcast — thanks for the link! And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has this habit; it makes me feel a little less crazy. 🙂 I hope you find something good soon in your search. My feeling these days is that job searching is somewhat of a numbers game: the more jobs we apply for, the more likely we are to get something…it just takes a while because the rate of return is so low.

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