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Golden Handcuffs

by | Sep 2, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Today I am going to talk about what it means to be in a Golden Handcuff. What are Golden Handcuffs?

Did you ever stay at the job because of the benefits even though you didn’t like the job? If so, you are not alone.

Last year, I met with a professional woman who was very successful at her career but she wasn’t happy. She wanted to be doing something else but she felt that she couldn’t leave the benefits that came with her leadership position. Following her passion meant starting all over again and that was scary.

She was suffering from the golden handcuffs syndrome. It happens to many who decide to stay with jobs they don’t like, just because of the benefits and the security it provides. It is what many of us have been taught to do.


See, she has a big house (read: big mortgage), a husband and two children. They have a cabin in Northern MN that they needed to pay mortgage for as well (that they maybe used once a year) and other assets that they just couldn’t let go off.


She is working very hard for these things thinking that these are the things that will make her happy and yet they don’t. It is one thing to support your family and do whatever you need to do short term to weather the storm, but what happens when you find yourself doing the same thing decade after decade?


Short term, we are able to live with just about anything. Long term, situation like this can make us feel dead inside and then – you are not of service to anyone at home or at work.


Primary reason for the golden handcuff syndrome is fear. We are afraid of failure, of the unknown and that the future might not hold the same security. So we stay in these situations until our physical or emotional health starts getting affected. In the end, life goes by and we have to live with regret.


I am not saying everyone who is suffering from golden handcuffs should walk away. But it is important to become aware and to make attempts to turn the situation around. Even if leaving the job is not an option now, could it be possible to introduce small doses of those things that make you feel alive so that you don’t live with regret and unhappiness?


One of my former clients, Melissa, is an incredible writer and she was telling me how she observed many people in her office “sticking it out” despite the fact that it might have been the time for them to move on. I asked her to write a story about it and that is what I want to share with all of you today. It is a story about friendship, incentives, economy, fear, passion, playfulness, and courage.


I have incredible appreciation for writers and Melissa is a true craftsman with words. I sincerely hope you enjoy and find some inspiration in it.



Golden Handcuffs by Melissa

     I loitered outside my manager Joel’s office for my afternoon appointment, listening for clues.  Cynthia, my sole work friend, gadabout and general busybody, had been in there a while, it was past three-o-clock.  I heard muffled voices, and I expected a serious tone, but they sounded matter of fact, and there was even a soft laugh or two, like a restrained but pleasant social visit.  Down the hall a woman from Clinical Affairs, whom I didn’t know, carried a vase of dried flowers over to the wastepaper basket and dumped the flowers, her eyes damp and red-lined.  My face must have looked bewildered when Joel’s door clicked open and Joel and Cynthia emerged.


“Come on in Noelle,” Joel said.  Cynthia looked at me as if she were going to offer up an explanation, but then changed course and told me she would come over to my desk afterwards.


“Noelle, I am so sorry, I’ve been tied up all day.”  Joel motioned me to the guest chair and shut the door.



That morning, the division Vice President strode over to the podium, his face set in appropriate countenance.  In four swift moves, the audio-visual specialist clipped on a lapel microphone and signaled for him to start.  Dr. Townsend didn’t need to quiet the crowd, but paused dramatically first nonetheless.


“I’ll get right to the point.  Times are tough.”  He said, glancing at each of the auditorium’s four corners.  The auditorium and building were vast beyond necessity, the fraction of people per square foot a factoid undoubtedly already calculated by one of the occupants during allotted ten percent personal technical time.  Despite there being over eight hundred employees at Simsi Scientific Company, I consistently walked through the corridors alone.


“We are doing well.  We are weathering the storm.  But inevitably.”  A pause, two beats.  “We look out for the future health of the company.  We tighten up.  We make cuts,” he said.


My brainwaves synched to the rhetoric, the pacing, the perfect British restraint and sensibility.  I rather enjoyed this as an out of body experience; it was unlikely the cuts would apply to me.  Cynthia already filled me in that historically, perennial December staffing reductions always spared the in-demand technical positions of our floor.  A good thing, considering that the departure of my latest boyfriend, Cecil, left me with one Siamese Fighting fish, an itemized restaurant receipt for two at La Belle Vie for a late night dinner I did not attend, the receipt left in plain view on the coffee table, and a monthly rent I couldn’t quite afford.


Cynthia wasn’t in yet.  She got in precisely at nine, and once she did the air surrounding her would pulse and spark for exactly the following eight and one-half hours.  Instead, I sat next to the rest of my department, Jill, Kent and Mai Ling.  When I first started ten months ago, I would say good morning to them, my voice thin and hopeful under the pumped in white noise.  I eventually decided these immediate neighbors, not ten feet away, couldn’t hear me, and I reconciled to the customary morning non-greeting.


Dr. Townsend reported that the pension benefits would not be affected to which Mai Ling and Kent tried hard not to smile, their collective service years approximate the age of a septuagenarian, and there was a flash of mirth before they pasted back on their somber faces.  There was a clatter at the back door aisle and I didn’t need to turn around to know it was my partner in crime.  The first time I saw her — a fabulousness of thick bouncing hair and dark roots, scuffed 80s style cream heels, her khaki trench sailing out behind her — it was a shot in the arm.  I went into a hypnotic trance and decided I would make her my friend.


Cynthia took the seat directly behind me and gave my chair back a swift kick.  “Hey darling,” she stage-whispered as she leaned in.  Jill, Kent and Mai Ling didn’t turn around.


“Do you already know the details?” I said.


She knew for a few weeks, a perk of her sleuth-like curiosity and tenure of eighteen years. “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe,” she said, rubbing my shoulder.  She already had her daily menthol cigarette, unusually squandering it in the morning.


In the meantime, Dr. Townsend segued to levity.  “When we arrived for the partner meeting, there was no Milk Tray box.  That’s when you know times are tough.  No Milk Tray,” he said.


“Good Christ.” Cynthia said.  Although of all people, she should appreciate the eccentricity.  Her office contained a wallpaper of New Yorker magazine covers, Nature Conservatory calendar pictures, and her daughter’s Hot Topic discards: a pair of Day of the Dead sugar skull hair bows, a green glow in the dark alien sticker, a bike chain previously attached to a wallet, now strangling the neck of her lamp.  Stacks of paper in parallel piles were next to an absurdly tall tower of napkins.  Behind them sat a serpentine row of soda bottles used to contain berried branches or garden flowers she thieved from neighborhood lawns during lunchtime.  At regular monthly intervals, she’d sweep up everything from her desk, place it on her guest chair, open up a Perrier from the case under her desk, and with a benediction and with the can held at eye level, pour the contents all over her desk, a cleaning method she attributed to a deceased fashion icon.  There was the usual family photo, framed, her husband a burly man who owned a carpet cleaning business, her daughter, grinning and hugging her displeased Holland Lop.  At the base of her monitor, next to a lined card of passwords (lockNload, AnaConda4, dieSallieMae!die) and only visible to sleuths, sat a new picture.  A small horizontal picture of a lion in profile, his mane swept back as he faced into a sunset sandstorm.  There was a fortune-sized message taped to the bottom of the picture.  The message was handwritten, the cursive deliberately tiny and private.


Dr. Townsend shifted tone now, it was a compelling performance, and part of me would not have minded suffering the consequences of clapping.  “Reductions will be made according to job function and seniority,” he said.  This was unexpected.  I swiveled around.


“Sorry, sugar, but you are still safe.”  Cynthia rolled her eyes at the podium.  But there was something in the air, a barely perceptible shift.  I tried to find Joel, assuming he was up towards the front.  He was not.  He was in the back also, on the opposite side.  I leaned over to catch his eye, his expressions were always as transparent as a young child’s and I telepathically willed him to look at me, but he stared straight ahead.


After the meeting, Joel walked towards the podium.  The rest of our group shuffled out with the masses.  Most of the crowd was subdued, except Mai Ling.  “Every year, just a little bit gets chipped away,” she said.  Mai Ling had a tendency to repeat herself, and her words stuck in the brain, each repetition hammering the phrases into the temporal lobes just one bit farther.


As we rode up the escalator, Mai Ling turned to me; she was still pension-obsessed and smug in the assumed security of her position.  “Our pension payouts, each year they accrue with each year served, but it’s low and flat for many years.  Low and flat.”  Her hand demonstrated, slowly slicing the air in a horizontal graze.  “Then once you approach your numbers, age plus years of service, then it rockets up.”  Her hand took a sharp trajectory into the sky.  “See, like a hockey stick.  Long wait.  Long, long wait.  Then boom, you are golden.  Golden years.”


“Or golden handcuffs.  Depending on your point of view.” said Jill.


“Yeah” Mai Ling said, drawing near, “I mean I’m just about reaching that turn in the stick.  No way am I looking around.  Thought about it once, but nah.”


“Golden handcuffs,” said Jill.  I look over at Cynthia and it jarred me to see that her inscrutable smile was a little bit sad.

*   *   *

Each of us received an individual afternoon meeting appointment with Joel.  I didn’t know why this should be the case, and I twice walked over to his office, but he was ensconced and his door was shut.  It was approaching lunchtime and Jill’s utensils clanked as she prepared to eat at her desk.   Cynthia’s murmurs cut through the soft grey wall.  “Yes, honey, I’ll order you a pizza, what do you want on it?  No, not all that meat.  Choose a veggie.  Mushrooms then.  Let your dad get the door when they arrive ok?  That’s alright, just wake him up,” she said.  After she placed the delivery call, I heard pen tapping against Formica desktop, then nothing for such a long time that I was startled when she appeared at my doorway.


“Let’s go to the Schiller Zoo,” she said.


“It’s 24 degrees out,” I said, the first excuse that popped out of my mouth.  It was a short drive away but I was anxious about leaving for a lunch break.


“Excellent, I’ll take that as a yes.”


“We’ll be gone way longer than an hour.”


“Allow me to get your coat,” Cynthia said, reaching towards my chair.


Our long coats swished as we ducked our heads just low enough to be undetectable through the cube farm.  There’s nothing I could do about my three-o-clock appointment with Joel, she said, so I might as well embrace this.


“No, this way,” said Cynthia, grabbing my wrist, as I turned, on autopilot, toward the front door.  She yanked me towards the back stairway and after we pushed open the heavy door to the concrete stairway, the door gave a definite metal clang as it closed behind us.  We pitter-pattered down three flights.  At the landing, Cynthia giggled to herself, deciding to become a Secret Service Agent.  An exaggerated sweep of her arm barred me from pushing through the door.


“Not so fast honey,” she said.  She peered through the door’s small and smudged window.  She was in full performance mode now and she knew I was watching as her eyes shifted exaggeratedly left then right, then again out the window.


“Coast is clear.  Shocking, positively shocking.  Coordinates 44° 58’ 48” N, 93° 15’ 49” W.”  She spoke to her wrist.  “Clocking countdown now: 3-2-1, go,” she said.


It was a good bet that the ground floor hallway would remain empty and it was as we burst from the door, laughing and red cheeked as we sprinted to our next cover.  A handmade mitten dropped out of my pocket.  “No time!” Cynthia shouted over her shoulder.


We tore around a tight corner, past the company gym.  I lost pace with Cynthia, who charged through a narrow service pathway behind the gym.  We decelerated when we reached a concrete plank.  The plank led up to an emergency exit door, its red-push bar a foreboding barrier.


“Looks like we’ve hit a dead end, partner,” I said.


“This door says Emergency Exit,” Cynthia said, turning to me and leaning against the wall with a little flourish.  “But I’ve never failed on a mission,” she placed a firm hand on the bar, “Any mission.”


I braced myself for the ensuing red-light shriek.  “Things aren’t always what they seem,” she said, raising her eyes at me.  The door popped open with barely a protest and the blinding white reflection off the snow was silvery and shimmering.

We settled down a bit as we walked towards the domed glass slats of the Schiller Zoo & Conservatory.  “Junior year, I wanted to change my major from Chemical Engineering to Biology.  I’m on the phone with my dad and I tell him, hey dad, I’m gonna switch over to biology, ok?  And he says, get this,” Cynthia says and waps me on the arm, “Biology?  Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, what are you talking about?  Unless you want to shovel elephant shit all day, you get goddamn back into engineering.”  She looked sideways over to the empty carousel.  “Well, that was a long time ago,” she said.


It started to occur to me that this field trip wasn’t just Cynthia’s attempt to distract me and cheer me up.  Despite Cynthia’s usual joie-de-vivre, I noticed a recent half-hearted affect and signs of restlessness.  Even with Cynthia’s care and contributions, she was overlooked at Simsi, she hadn’t been promoted in a while and likely never would be, stymied by her cackles and questions during meetings, her artistic affect, and her inability to not quite keep it buttoned down.  She’d been gone on random days, a Tuesday here, a Wednesday here, a pattern that I hoped for my sake didn’t mean she was interviewing.  Over the past few months, we bonded at work over the unspoken knowledge that unlike the other ninety-eight percent of the building’s occupants, we didn’t quite belong.


We entered the Visitor Center foyer and walked up to the desk, a glass donation box was perched in front of a uniformed volunteer.  Steam escaped through the rubber doors of the adjacent Tropical Encounters Exhibit making the foyer warm and soft.   I folded the five dollar bill I was planning to use for lunch and dropped it into the box.  Cynthia peered into her black and white vinyl wallet, printed in a chevron pattern of Boston Terrier heads.  She crumpled up a bunch of receipts and banished them to the bottom of her purse, where they would stay until their print became shiny and illegible.  She tossed her currency, a button, a couple Skittles and possibly a lozenge into the glass box; the sound of her donation not entirely soft paper.  “All in,” she said, as the volunteer handed her a zoo map and daily newsletter.


The newsletter highlighted the newest animal in the marine conservation program, a baby sea otter, Monty, from the San Francisco aquarium, a distressed orphaned pup found squeaking and stranded on the shore.  He was at Schiller to attach and bond to Emme, a senior sea otter, who would act as his surrogate mother.  Cynthia already knew about Monty’s arrival.  We headed outside and planned a roundabout route to the Aquatic Animals Building.  I’d never been to the zoo in winter before, having mixed feelings about zoos in general, but now I knew a secret: winter is the time to go.  Gone are the wall to wall crowds, the bumping of strollers and the sticky, smelly, squealing hallmarks of a summertime visit.  Unlike the languorous summertime lounging and sleeping seen in summer, the animals were active and in glorious form.  The bison, absent of their summertime dreadlocks, stood in three mounds of beautiful brown-black winter coats, hair blown out at the salon and on display, chewing cud in blissful oblivion.  Neighbors, two Caribou, played or fought or play-fought I couldn’t determine, their antlers locked and clicking away like pick-me-up sticks.  I asked Cynthia if they were stuck and she told me I was a ding-a-ling.  She knew all things flora and fauna, her face lit up as she pointed out Diervilla ionicera andAsclepias tuberosa partially covered in snow.  We crunched along the pathway, past the boarded up Safari Station concession stand.  In the distance a snow leopard sat sentinel on a manger of straw, scanning the terrain until he fixated on Cynthia’s untied boot, sensing easy prey.


We opened the door to the Aquatic Animals building and the smell of shellfish smacked us full-on.  Inside, a loyal cadre watched the polar bear sisters, Betty and Wilma.  Wilma knocked over a potted Christmas tree to the delight of her fans.  Betty stayed still, gazing over at Wilma, deciding whether or not join in.  When Wilma ambled towards the trout pond, the crowd followed.  We strolled through the dark carpeted hallway, past Blackfoot penguins, stingrays, and a couple of exhibits we determined were empty.


Ahead a small gathering lingered to get a glimpse of Monty.  Josh, Senior Aquatic Zookeeper, according to his name tag, recognized Cynthia and said hello.  He explained to the crowd how Monty would learn everything he needed to know from Emme in order to survive in the wild.  He’d learn to forage for mollusks and to crack them open with rocks.  He would practice diving and directional swimming.  He would groom himself.  In a few months he would be ready.  The Schiller Zoo’s dedicated truck would drive him back to the San Francisco Aquarium where staff would release him into the ocean.  Cynthia and I looked through the newly cleaned glass.  There he was, small, spiky and wet, hiding in the floating seaweed.  Emme glided through the water, in elongated figure eights, slowly twisting and rotating.  She was older, her head and muzzle highlighted grey and white.  On a couple passes, she flipped her enrichment object, a red ball floating on the surface.  Josh stepped over the hoses and floor drain, lanky and agile in his Wellingtons.  He tossed small fish from his bucket into the tank.  Emme slurped a fish as she rounded the turn.  Monty didn’t budge.  Cynthia settled into a high-backed bench across from the tank, took off her boots and tucked her feet into modified lotus.  An older couple with grandkids nodded to Josh then wandered off.  Cynthia and I and few other adults stayed.


Josh explained that it was taking a while for Monty to attach to Emme.  Attachment usually happened pretty fast, but had been seventy-two hours for Monty and no luck.  “In the wild, the pup needs to attach to his mother.  Their fur is so waterproof and buoyant.  If the pup doesn’t attach, he’ll bob away into the ocean like a damn cork,” Josh said.  Monty emitted a small chirp.  “Come on little man, you can’t stay at Schiller forever.  Let’s see what you can do.” Josh said.


Cynthia was entranced, as was I, but the prime viewing seats were taken.  I wandered over to a machine that looked like a juke box.  It was the Mold-o-Rama Automated Mini Plastic Factory, an original issue from the 1960’s, decorated in primary colors and offering a clunky quarter slot, the plastic injection molding machinery in full view under a plastic dome.  If I inserted four quarters, the machine would spurt and hiss and clamp down its metal molds and in less than a minute eject a hot plastic curio, which in this case would be a blue seal.  I contemplated the investment when Josh came up behind me.  He was heading to the janitor closet, but stopped and rested his hand on my arm.  “You think too much, just put the quarters in,” he said, nodding towards the machine.  I knew he was right and I rummaged through my coat pockets for coins.


I turned the warm seal over in my hands, when Cynthia called to me, “Noelle, come here.  Get over here,” she said.

I missed the tipping moment, as I often did, the hit of the home run unnoticed until the ball bounced in the stands, the spark of instinct before the neighborhood falcon swooped down for a mouse, the inner ruminations of Cecil, snapping shut as he reached for his telephone to make the fateful restaurant reservation.  Monty nestled face up on Emme’s belly, her flippers embraced him.  They glided, slowly, in a magical large circle around the perimeter of the tank.  Visitors rushed back.  Cynthia stood at the glass and saved a spot for me.

*   *   *

     As we drove back, it started to snow, large, gentle, heavy flakes.  Before we snuck back into the building through the errant emergency exit door, Cynthia spied a pristine slope of snow and she couldn’t resist.  She jogged over to it, flopped down on her back and made a snow angel.  She moved unrestrained and her limbs made wide deep arcs in the snow.  She could probably be seen by the managerial occupants of the northern facing window offices, but she did not care.


*   *   *


Instead of taking his customary seat across the desk, Joel slid a chair next to me. “I trust Cynthia has filled you in,” he said.  I remain silent.  Joel folded his hands in his lap and sighed.  He told me the cuts are deeper than they’ve been in recent years.  Each department asked to make at least one reduction in headcount.


“I’m afraid several members of your project teams have been let go,” he said.  He named the names.  My ears rang.  These were technical people that worked here a long time.  I made a mental inventory of my savings account.  I wondered if I could sell my rusty car.  It was so hard to get this job.  I’m not prepared to leave.  Joel continued about reassignments to be determined in the near future, not everything had been figured out yet, but I half listened to this preamble which took a long time.  After a while, Joel rested his elbow on the desk, chin cupped in his hand.  He patted my knee.  “Any questions?” he said.  I realized we were done.  I had been staring at the swirled glass paperweight on his desk, trying not to blink.  I looked up at him.


“I don’t know what’s happening with our department,” I said.


“Oh goodness,” he said, realizing that Cynthia had not in fact filled me in.  He stood up and walked over to get a tissue for his smudged glasses.


“Well,” he said, looking at me strangely. “I’m hoping you can organize the going-away party for Cynthia.  She volunteered to go.”


*   *   *


One day when I thought about Cynthia, it occurred to me that while I couldn’t get Perrier in the vending machine, they sold it in the company cafeteria, and so I grabbed my wallet and headed downstairs.  The day we went to the zoo Cynthia had interviewed two weeks prior at the adjoining Schiller Conservatory and that day was mulling over whether or not to accept the offer of Donor Relations Specialist, hoping the visit might solidify her resolve.  But in the visit, I also know she wanted to show me something mysterious and under the surface.  The deliberation process as forward momentum: walking right down the concrete plank and pushing open the door.  It wasn’t her dream job, but it was, as she put it over white sheet cake, a step closer.  When positions opened up at the Schiller Zoo, she’d know about them, and for the time being, she was happy.  She told me colorful stories about Josh and his antics, and the other colleagues she was getting to know.  I saw her for lunch once a month, but it was not enough, I missed my friend.


When I returned to my desk and opened the green bottle, I realized with a start that I wasn’t supposed to drink it.  There weren’t too many papers or personal effects on my desk and it took only a few seconds to clear.  When I picked up my keyboard to clean underneath, there was the picture of the windswept lion.  The fortune still attached, the tape starting to curl.  I finally read Cynthia’s ornamental writing: you will find the power and courage to change your life.




  1. Wow! I got lost in the details of the story, but the end was the best. That fortune cookie. I find myself wanting to change. Trying to not be afraid of taking risk by putting myself out there. Knowing hat you want and having the courage to take steps toward it. It is not easy to do. It’s easy to know what you don’t want, but to know and take step towards why you do want isn’t easy. I don’t think I could speak my honest feelings about my job. I’m afraid it would come true.

    • Jasna Burza says:

      Dear Beth, thank you so much for sharing. Yes, the ending is so poignant and so important to the lesson of the story. Melissa really trusted that her character would tell a story and make an impact on us all.

      Making any kind of change is not necessarily easy, you are right. As humans, we resist change because of the unknown yet change is the only constant. I like to think that, often, if we don’t make the change ourselves – Universe will make us:) Story of my life.

      You also mention something very important: once you speak your truth, then you have to act on it and many of us resist doing that. You have to trust that you have special gifts that are meant to be used and shared. Sometimes, all it takes is making one small step in the right direction. So, what can you do today that would signify that small step? Remember, every journey begins with a single step.

      Thanks again for sharing. Jasna

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