For more years than I care to admit, my relationship with work had been fraught with pain, disappointment, frustration, and a huge dose of despair. I was a classic textbook case of a damaged relationship with work.
Let me tell you what I didn’t know when I entered the workforce:
- The True Nature of Work. I didn’t know that work could and should bring me joy and fulfillment.
- That work could be a source of inspiration, challenge, nd excitement.
- That I should look for work that was aligned to my gifts and talents.
- That I could have the lifestyle I desire through work.
I entered the workplace with a boatload of erroneous beliefs:
- I believed that one went to solely work to earn money. The only reason work existed was so that we can pay our bills.
- I believed that I had to sublimate my wants and desires in order to have that paycheck.
- I believed that the company and/or the boss was entitled to have more power than I did.
- I believed that there was no place for my voice in my work.
Add to this, a complete lack of expectations. I truly had no expectations for my career other than to be able to support myself.
So let me tell you what happens when you enter the workplace with this mélange of ignorance and false facts.
*Gifts and talents is a term I use throughout this book. Your gifts and talents encompass the unique expertise, faculties and the ‘You-ness’ that you incarnated with to share with others. Each of us possess gifts and talents that we are meant to give to the world. When you are sharing your gifts and talents, they bring you great joy, inspire you, and bring you vast amounts of fulfillment. Your gifts and talents are not simply things that you are good at but those things that your soul cries out for when you are not doing them. For example, you might have a special talent for training animals or for computer programming or for cooking. While other people might be sharing similar gifts and talents, no one will quite do it like you do. Your gifts and talents embody your essence, your authentic self, your truth.
Notice that I’m not using the term skills and abilities. We all have a multitude of things that we’re good at. We all have certain skills and abilities that we use on a daily basis. For example, a doctor might have the ability to understand chemistry and use that ability in the course of her daily activities. But, she went into the field of medicine because she has a gift for healing, for helping people to feel better physically. There is a stark difference between what we feel when we utilize our skills and abilities versus our gifts and talents. Skills and abilities help us get the job done. When we are expressing our gifts and talents, we experience joy; we experience a sense of wholeness and completeness. There is a feeling of confidence that we feel when we in alignment with our gifts and talents. It has been referred to as “being in the zone.”
I started out my professional career as a paralegal. Within months I knew the field was not right for me. In hindsight, I can see that I wasn’t a good fit for the hierarchical and patriarchal style of law firms in the late 80s and early 90s. But at this time, I did not have the self-awareness to be able to express what I did not like about the work. So what did I do? I made a completely inaccurate assumption. I assumed that because I was not enjoying work, there had to be something wrong with me. Without the knowledge and tools to understand why I was unhappy, I pointed the finger at myself and made myself to blame. I set off on a path of trying to make a square peg (me) fit into a round hole (the legal field). For seven years, (yep, seven long years) I tried so hard to make it fit. Of course, when you’re not working in alignment with your gifts and talents, when you have inaccurate beliefs of what work should be doing for you, nothing is going to fit. And nothing fit for me.
My relationship with work continued to fracture. Work became a necessary evil. I got to the point where I dreaded each morning, I dreaded having to get up and put on the business suit and get myself to the office. I felt oppressed. I felt as if I was a prisoner being held captive by my employers and my paycheck. I felt resentful towards the workplace, and this morphed into resentment towards my employers and coworkers. The more oppressed I felt, the more I developed a victim mentality. The more I saw myself as a victim, the less I could see opportunity and possibility, and the more hopeless I became.
One day, I simply quit. I put in my notice although I did not have a plan. Although I didn’t have a lot of self-awareness at the time, I just knew something had to give. Some part of me knew I was heading for a nervous breakdown if I did not make a change.
I wish I could say that after I quit being a paralegal, I had some sort of wonderful epiphany and my relationship with work was miraculously healed. But that is not my story.
My next job was working as a manager for a legal staffing agency. After the honeymoon period wore off, the same dread, the same dislike, the same resentment for work I had felt when I was working as a paralegal came creeping back into my life. And like any pattern that repeats itself, I blamed myself again and I stayed, forcing myself to make it work, for five years.
I do not consider any part of my journey a mistake, nor do I have any regrets. However, there is one action I took during this time that, in hindsight, I wish I had done differently because what I did next had devastating repercussions.
I allowed all the blame that I had heaped upon myself for my damaged relationship with work to turn into shame. Lots of shame. Oh, how I beat myself up. Why couldn’t I make better career decisions? Maybe if I was smarter things would be different. Maybe if I was more successful, I would like to work. Why couldn’t I be like everybody else? My coworkers appeared happy. They seemed successful. What was so wrong with me that I couldn’t be like them? Then, there was my brother who was happily building his own successful business. Heck, we came from the same family – why couldn’t I be more like him? And since I wasn’t like him and I wasn’t like my coworkers, it had to mean there was something even more wrong with me than I could imagine. And the shame multiplied.
I never told a soul how I felt, thereby exacerbating the shame. As the years pass, the truth became harder and harder to admit because I so diligently built a happy positive facade. I began to need to believe the façade was real. Years later, when I finally started to tell my story to others, those that knew me “back when” were flabbergasted. They had no idea about the struggle I was going through. I hid it so well.
The first glimmer of hope for my relationship with work happened a few years after I left the staffing agency. I was working as a Director of Recruitment for a law firm. I had worked hard for this company (with little satisfaction, and was miserable most days). After about a year and a half, I was laid off by this company. This was my first “done” moment. I wasn’t winning at the game of work. I was unhappy, unsatisfied and on top of all of that, I was out of work. I knew I had taken as much as I possibly could. Basically, I had no more suffering in me.
I have to tell you, at this point, I was down on my knees. My relationship with work was in a standoff. I hated it, and it seemed to hate me. Did working mean that one was sentenced to joyless suffering all for a paycheck? On top of that, the shame I felt at not being able to enjoy the work was a dark invisible presence that permeated my being. But yet through the haze of resentment and self-loathing, I was able to have one moment of grace, a moment of pure clarity. I promised myself that I would never allow myself to feel unfulfilled and miserable at a job again.
Although I didn’t know it at the time. I had just set my first professional boundary. This declaration, this simple statement of what I would and would not accept made me feel powerful. As if I had the power to chart my own course and to trust in myself.
This boundary led to additional boundaries. These boundaries became the litmus test I used for future offers of employment.
After establishing my boundaries, I started asking questions. Lots of questions.
- Why am I so unhappy with work?
- What lies underneath my unhappiness?
- How can I feel whole?
- What is missing?
- What am I here to give?
- I want to crawl into bed at night feeling as if I have experienced a day well lived. How can I make this a reality for me?
Healer, heal thyself
The next 10 years were revelatory for me. I took a role in management and HR at a Fortune 500 company. I did the hard work necessary to answer those questions. These years were spent giving myself the gift of understanding what I needed and desired in my relationship with work. Beyond finding the answers to these crucial questions, I was also learning. I was learning the strategies and tools needed to create life changes. I was learning about the True Nature of Work and how to use it effectively to succeed professionally. I was learning about the value of boundaries and how they can stand in service to one’s career goals. Most importantly, I learned how to change the foundation and nature of my relationship with work.
Next, I decided I would no longer suffer in silence nor would I allow others to suffer. So, I took what I was learning and turned my “learnings” into techniques and strategies that I could give to others to help them heal their relationship with work and achieve their professional goals. That is how I ended up here. Writing about and sharing my passion for healthy relationships with work.
My journey in the darkness of a damaged relationship with work was long and circuitous but I finally made it into the light. Today, I am dedicated to building awareness of the impact that damaged relationships with work have upon us, and committed to providing solutions. With this awareness, we can all begin to move towards knowing and experiencing The True Nature of Work. We can all begin to use work to provide the professional, personal and financial rewards we seek.
For better or worse, this has been my journey. And it is my pleasure to share the fruits of it with you.