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Escaping the "Validation Vacuum"
on managing the uglier parts of life abroad
Last month, I wrote about a few lines about figuring out who I am outside of work. That seemed to resonate with you, so I am exploring the idea more fully this week. You can read my prior writing on this topic here.
About six months into my jobless life in Cairo, I made the mistake of opening my professional inbox for the first time since leaving DC. It was full of announcements of “I’ve joined the Biden Administration!” and of classmates winning prestigious career awards.
I took these messages as a personal attack. They were concrete proof that my peers were moving on without me, of how far I’d fallen, of how out of control my life was.
So I tore through the kitchen, angrily poured myself a daiquiri, and sat back down to hate read the rest.1 This was at 9:30 a.m., by the way. Why suffer in the knowledge that you’re a loser without the benefit of acting like one, right?
As I sat alone, sipping my poison and indulging my own pettiness, I asked myself, how in the world did you end up here?
My days in DC were structured: full of meetings, think-tank events, networking cocktails, to-do lists to be satisfyingly checked off. I wore stiff professional clothes that made me sweat on the metro. I carried two iPhones at all times. I marched around the city with the haste and determination of an Olympic speed walker. When people asked me “what do you do?”—the only question that matters in DC—the business card I produced impressed them, so they listened to what I said and cared what I thought.
In Cairo, my days have been different. There are no to-do lists, no professional events, and definitely no cocktails. From the minute we arrived, I was stuffed into the role of “
trailing supporting spouse,”2 and I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do all day or who I even was anymore. For months, I mostly sat on the couch, knitting, sipping tea, and re-watching The Crown. Instead of asking me what I do or for my take on the latest headline, new acquaintances would ask me, “do you have kids?” (Conversations quickly trailed off when I answered no, I didn’t.)
I craved intellectual stimulation. I was desperate for recognition as an equal from my husband’s coworkers, whom I feared would see me first and foremost as “Nick’s wife.” And worst of all, I had infinite time to ruminate on how crappy I felt my situation was. I had found myself in a “validation vacuum.”
I don’t mean to sound bitter. Moving to Egypt made practical and financial sense, and I agreed to it willingly. Nick and I are incredibly privileged to support ourselves on one income.
Still, our move forced me to take indefinite leave from a job I loved, after I’d spent years establishing myself and believing that professional success was the key to happiness. My career, my raison d’être, was suddenly out of the picture, and without it, I was lost. I had always perceived myself as ambitious, a winner—my resume is a record of me jumping from one insane challenge to the next, constantly upping the ante just to prove I could.3 But with no professional life to speak of, my momentum came to a grinding halt. I suddenly felt like the world’s biggest loser.
That feeling turned me into a less than pleasant person. One night over dinner, Nick mentioned that he thought Cairo had been good for us, that we were settling in well. Without thinking, I snapped back, “of course you would say that! This move hasn’t turned you into a shell of a person!!”
I was shocked at the force of my own words. As soon as I heard them leave my mouth, I knew there was a problem. I’d accidentally divulged a belief I hadn’t even recognized I held: that I could not possibly be a complete, fulfilled human if I didn’t have a fancy job title.
Yet as I sat in the awkward silence that followed my outburst, I knew I couldn’t honestly say that I missed working, even though I genuinely loved what I did. What I missed was feeling needed and important. I felt like an empty shell because I had let work become my only source of validation.
I wasn’t just lost because I didn’t have a job—my entire sense of self was distorted, misplaced, and I didn’t need a therapist to tell me that wasn’t healthy. I knew if I didn’t change it, I would feel like a loser for the foreseeable future.
So I set out to fix it by finding new sources of self-esteem. I would reclaim my self-worth from the “validation vacuum” by finding validation within.
That process was neither quick nor easy. I won’t pretend that I have become perfectly self-actualized, or that I no longer care what anyone says or thinks of me. My desire for external validation was, and is, human; we all need to feel that we belong and that others value us.
But I couldn’t snap my fingers and get my job back, so I decided to focus on what I could control. I would salvage the remnants of who I was outside of work by doing things I enjoyed and that made me feel good, rather than sitting on the couch, rage-scrolling through LinkedIn, and fixating on what made me feel useless.
I picked up Pilates because it made me feel strong and tenacious as I fought through the shaking pain of slow, controlled muscled movements.
I started tennis lessons so I could slam the ball as hard as I wanted and find satisfaction in pushing myself to improve.
I took a painting class where a fellow student looked at my canvas and asked if I was an artist, and though I am not, I almost blurted out “yes!”—her comment had reminded me that I naturally favor my creative right brain, and that it had taken a back seat to my logical left brain for far too long.
Little by little, I began to enjoy my freedom rather than curse it. The more energy I poured into things I intrinsically enjoyed and cared about, the less I compared myself to others. I wasn’t envious when I got LinkedIn notifications about former colleagues’ successes. I had found a sense of purpose, however small, inside myself. That was enough.
Then I started writing again after putting it aside for years. Writing has come naturally to me since I was a child, and leaning into that innate strength was a life-affirming act. I recovered my creative power. I became surer of myself, clearer about my ideas. I felt more and more that I was doing what I was born to do, and best of all, I didn’t need anyone’s permission. If there is anything more internally validating than that, I’ve yet to experience it.
It’s now been months since my dinner table tantrum. I am still the same old Sam I’ve always been, but I no longer feel unworthy just because I don’t drag myself out of bed every morning, struggle to pull on uncomfortable, constricting pants, and sprint to catch the train.
I will eventually go back to work, and when I do, I’ll feel secure in the knowledge that it does not define me as a person. Maybe line items like “increasing strength and toughness through Pilates training” or “honing a writing practice” don’t belong on my resume, but for now, they’re everything I need.
Have you ever taken an extended break from your job? Did it change how you view work, or how you view yourself?
P.S.—A few weeks ago, I interviewed Egyptologist Emily Smith-Sangster about antiquities trafficking and theft in the art world, an issue I’ve developed a mild obsession with. David Frum wrote a fantastic piece for The Atlantic about the repatriation of artifacts stolen from Nigeria, in which he asks two critical questions: 1) when an artifact is repatriated, to whom, exactly, should it be repatriated if there are multiple claimants in the country of origin, and 2) from an ethical standpoint, should museums consider the likely fate of artifacts when deciding whether to repatriate them? I don’t agree with every point Frum makes, but he argues them thoughtfully while weaving an elegant story. You can read the piece here—it’s long, but worth it.
See you next week!
My mother will hate this anecdote. She thinks my morning cappuccino habit basically makes me a drug addict. (Hi, Mom!!)
I really, really hate the term “trailing spouse,” so I’m coining a new one, State Department tradition be damned!
I’ve always been like this, especially when people tell me I can’t do something. I joined a boys’ Little League when I was 11 just because all the grown-ups said I couldn’t. My coach picked me for his team because he said I had “moxie” and I treasure that compliment to this day!!