Unemployed With A Princeton Degree: How I Learned Self-Love In A Year Of Uncertainty

Life & Travel

This past year has been the most trying year of my life.

It has been filled with insults, mockery, discouragement, and verbal abuse, and the worst part is that I am the perpetrator.

I didn't need a man, friend, or some other outside force to make me feel low. I was taking care of that all on my own.

Out of college for months and still unable to land a full-time job, the wide-eyed enthusiasm I'd experienced during graduation quickly wore off.

I had a degree from Princeton University, the well wishes of loved ones, and the promises of, “I know you'll do great!" from friends and peers, but no job to show for it all.

While I kept myself busy with several internships and hobbies like dance and beauty, feelings of inadequacy grew and festered into what felt like a hole inside of me. I withdrew from friends, worried that I'd be unable to maintain even casual conversations without bursting into tears. I also slept a lot. The more hours I spent sleeping, the more time I had free from the stress of not feeling good enough. Though I still had my internships and sent out countless resumes and applications, my fire had pretty much burnt out.

One night, I was sitting in my living room with my laptop, prepping for a huge networking event the following evening. As I researched all the companies and listed the representatives I wanted to meet with, I suddenly shut my computer off and started to cry. Though I tried to be optimistic, reading the stories of all these professionals and their paths to success just made my own dreams seem futile. I was nowhere near what these people had achieved. Sure, I'm young, but even by my age, it seemed that they had accomplished so much more. Was I just wasting my time?

Was I destined for mediocrity?

I didn't know what exactly I wanted to do, or why my tons of emails and applications were going unanswered or rejected. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to make it so that no one else would have to feel the stinging pain of inferiority that I felt. I wanted a career where I could inspire women and grant them the kinds of opportunities that should be afforded to qualified, hard-working people. Sitting there on the couch in tears was a turning point for me. It was then that I realized that before I could want so much for other women, I had to want all that and more for myself. More than that, I had to believe that I could make my dreams attainable.

I went to that networking event the following night and again, nothing came of it. I didn't get a job offer, but instead I got just what I needed – a reality check. I realized that by berating myself, by expecting to be rejected and passed over for jobs and interviews, I was creating a toxic self-fulfilling prophecy. Since then, I have made it my mission to exercise self-love.

Here are some personal creeds I've learned along the way:

1. Don't say anything about yourself that you wouldn't say about a friend.

During this difficult year of self-examination, I've noticed that I tend to give others all the credit, and myself none. If a girlfriend would come to me upset about a failure, I'd reassure her that she was only one step closer to success, that she is perfect flaws and all, and that she shouldn't let anyone dim her shine. When it came to my own self-perceived failures, however, I was an idiot, a fool, unqualified, and absurd for thinking I could ever get that job, attract that guy, or meet that goal, whatever it may be.

We have to stop tearing ourselves down and start celebrating ourselves for the good, just as we do with others.

2. Never stop being a student. 

After graduating from college, I began to freak out. What had I really learned? Late night cramming sessions and skim-reading became habits for me (as they do for many students). I let that somehow convince me that I was undeserving of my degree, and my inability to get a job was the proof.

That's bullsh*t. I put in the work and earned the title of "ivy-league graduate," just like my peers had done. If I have remorse for all the books I didn't read, nothing is stopping me from reading them now. Education doesn't stop within the walls of a classroom or a lecture hall, and I had to remind myself that I am a student for as long as I have the will and desire to learn.

3. You can't hate yourself into a version of "you" that you love.

I gained weight during college and by the time I graduated, I had reached the highest weight I've ever been. Not only did I feel gross, I felt stupid for letting my weight get so far out of control. My weight became just another thing to beat myself up about, and as if that weren't enough, the last guy I was involved with only played on those insecurities when I learned that he was embarrassed that he liked me. I didn't fit the mold of the type of woman he thought he "should" be attracted to.

In the year after college, I threw myself into dance as a happy distraction and a genuine source of fulfillment. I joined a dance team and began taking additional classes in the city. Before I knew it, I had lost close to 35 pounds and I had fun doing it! Yes, I felt fat, but why did that mean I couldn't still feel fabulous? It doesn't help to look in the mirror and insult your body. If you don't like something, make an effort to change it, but love yourself along the way. Your body has carried you this far in life, so give it some credit!

4. Stop trying to find yourself, and define yourself.

The job-hunt is a struggle; we all know it. Part of the struggle is the anxiety and uncertainty that come with waiting, but a big part of it is having to adhere to someone else's definition of what it means to be qualified. I would look at the bullet points listed in a job description and convince myself that I was unqualified if I didn't meet all of them. Did I have 1-3 years of experience in my dream field? No. Does that mean I wouldn't rock it if given the opportunity? Hell no! A person's abilities aren't summed up by how closely they meet the job description. If you feel you really lack some critical experience, create it for yourself.

The night before the networking event helped me find new purpose. After I had a good, long cry, I had the idea to start a female empowerment blog through which women could share their stories. If no one was going to hire me to write, well then, I'd just have to create the opportunity for myself. While the blog, called Blank Woman, Phenomenal Woman, is still in its infant stage, it has been met with nothing but positivity thus far, and has reignited my fire. It taught me that you can't always sit around and wait for the perfect, right-up-your-alley job to fall into your lap. Sometimes you have to create it!

The title of this article is "How I Learned to Self-Love," not how I achieved it. Self-love is a noun, but it's also a verb, an action that must be practiced daily. I still struggle with feeling good enough: qualified, attractive, worthy, and all the other things that fall under that umbrella. I'm not there yet because self-love is not a destination; it's not a "there" that you climb to, stake your flag and live happily ever after. Every day I'm writing, applying, reading, but everyday I'm also dancing, smiling, and living. When your life isn't where you want it to be, it can get easy to cast aside your passions and even friends.

It can seem frivolous to spend time dancing or going out when you have pressing, real-life concerns weighing on your mind. I'm here to tell you that it's not frivolous to spend time on you. Take that dance class, watch that movie, and catch up with friends and family. It is not until you learn to self-love that you can truly prepare yourself for the opportunities and blessings you seek. I started by saying that this past year has been the most difficult of my life. It has also been the most valuable, because I'm learning to love myself.

Featured image by Getty Images

I am McKenzie Dawkins, a Princeton grad and writer based out of Hackensack, New Jersey. I am moved primarily by issues related to women, blacks and other minorities, and the intersectionality of those groups. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter @kenzie_kenz1 and you can follow Blank Woman, Phenomenal Woman on Facebook, or IG @bw_pw.

*Originally published on August 14, 2017

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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