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Leveling Up: Avoiding the Downfalls of Upward Mobility

The scene has been set: Enter The Jefferson’s cast. “Weezy,” the gently wise family matriarch and Florence, the sassy, quick-talking maid decide it’s time to take a CPR class. After all, goes the exposition, knowledge of first aid is essential for the kind of folks who live in the ritzy Upper East Side.

After Weezy and Florence successfully revive the CPR dummy through mouth-to-mouth, replete with camera-mugging and gamey one-liners, the teacher invites the next set of volunteers. Silence. He then calls on a middle-aged man and his son to step on up and take their turn. The middle-aged man adamantly refuses, tensions mount. Finally, this middle-aged fellow smiles and firmly states, “We don’t touch anything that’s been kissed by a nigger.”

Cue audience: gasps, shocked cries, angry hollers.

Needless to say a whacky hoopla ensues as it is revealed that the KKK has infiltrated the building! Oooh, Lordy!

Chances are, you’re not likely to run into any Klan members as you rush into your meeting at Zynga, balancing your Ethiopian pour-over in one hand and your copy of Lean In in the other. As an urban professional living and working in one of the most expensive cities in the world, however, you will encounter many of the difficulties that come with moving up the ladder of economic success.

Sure, there are those of you who were raised with a silver spoon in your mouth, delightful childhoods spent summering in the Cape and wintering in the Alps. This article is not for you.

Today, I’m speaking to those of you who come from families that coupon-clipped, perhaps spent some time sucking on the government teat and hit the jack-pot when the local church adopted your family for Christmas. Time and again, both inside my therapist office and out, I encounter young professionals who straddle the line between the vastly different lives.

We hear endless stories about the joys that come with economic success – fast cars, scantily clad men, trips to Egypt (What?), but we don’t often hear about the negative psychological implications of moving up the professional ladder. Many of us are unaware of the stress that results from the subtle ways we are called upon to shift identities in order to meet the expectations our external environment. These constant demands to blend in take a toll on our mental well-being.

Some of the negative impacts of leveling up include:

Fearing that attaining success means leaving your family behind
Feeling like a fraud when among your professional friends and colleagues
Experiencing shame when you don’t get the cultural reference
Constantly worrying that you’ll mess up and lose all that you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Most of the time, these thoughts are happening just outside of our awareness. They show up in the form of strange symptoms that we cannot quite make sense of.

Jesse responds to her promotion to Senior Director by binge drinking, leading her to show up late to her first day in her new position.

Ramit blows through his money, opting to spend lavishly on clothes, dinner and drinks, ignoring niggling anxieties about contributing to his savings.

Austin has worked her way to the top, but she has done so by sacrificing her investment in relationships, physical health and avoiding those pesky feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm.

Despite outward trappings of success, those who have become the first in their family to achieve a college education and financial stability, often feel caught on a hamster wheel with no idea about how to get off.

One of the clever solutions of the unconscious mind is to find subtle ways to sabotage your success. Like the examples above, your reasoning may go something like, “Sure I’m the head of my firm, but my romantic life is a mess” or “Yeah, I’m making a six-figures, but I can’t save, so I’m just one injury away from financial ruin.” This is the compromise that allows you to maintain the achievements that are expected of you, while maintaining your allegiance to your family roots.

Internal conflicts about leveling up can lead to exhaustion, addiction, isolation and despair. Yet, the idea of getting help from a psychotherapist simply adds to this conflict. Spending time in therapy feels like a luxury for the rich, something that those in your family neither respect nor understand. So, we often avoid getting help, and continue living in the unfulfilling limbo of straddling multiple worlds.

Though difficult to begin, therapy is an effective way to navigate the complicated experience of increased success. Unlike your workplace or your family home, where you have to swallow your feelings of frustration, guilt, and loneliness, therapy is a singular place where you can rail against the very thing that is allowing you to thrive. In the right therapist, you can find someone who understands this unique journey and has found ways to effectively move through this dilemma.

You’re not alone in this struggle. With effective support, you can discover a community of like-minded folks who can help you to balance all of your part, to find ways to pursue your aspirations, while also staying true to the parts of you who still occasionally check in on the zany antics of The Jefferson’s.

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities, be this professionally, ethnically or economically.

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