After two years in the position, I found myself standing in the bathroom with a tear-stained face... again. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I make this work? I'm not a particularly emotional person and yet, here I was with swollen eyes and runny nose... again. Why was I letting my boss get to me like this?
This wasn't the first time I found myself struggling with an abusive boss in a bad environment. Just two positions before this one I had another abusive boss. As I stood looking in the mirror, my reflection said it all: You've been in this position before that, too.
I started to think back on all of my jobs, all the way back to serving at an IHOP in college. There were some exceptions; there were positions where I was valued, where I thrived and became the professional person I am today. Looking back though, there were far too many similar situations. This was a pattern.
It took some real introspection to come to this conclusion, the most humbling and difficult moment in my career.
I had some complicity here.
What an awful realization. Who wants that kind of answer to a question? No one I know wants to admit they did something wrong or that they played a part in what was wrong with a relationship or job.
There wasn't an easy solution to the problem I faced. Not only did I have to spend a lot of time remembering difficult situations, I had to remember them differently. Pulling myself outside of the situation to see it from an alternative perspective was the most important part of the journey. I had to figure out how I was complicit in these abusive situations.
Yes. Yes. Yes, and yes. So what's the next step? Finding ways to change the pattern.
A related pattern I noticed was that I was reluctant to ask for - or to take advice.
When I was finally at my lowest point at work, I reached out to mentors I thought knew me pretty well and understood my strengths at some level. I was very selective in the people I contacted because I wanted to ask specific questions about what jobs and environments they thought I would thrive. One offered me an analogy, another offered me this piece of advice: "Find something with 'special projects' in the title or description." He knew I had a tendency to learn something well and then get bored with it. I'm not a maintenance kind of employee. He suggested that whatever I did next had to be more project related, something that I could set up, create, manage, and finish.
Here's my most important advice to others: Take a few days to imagine your best work day. What would you love to be doing on a daily basis? Dig into this, all the way to specific tasks you enjoy and that you're good at. Don't focus on your strengths so much as your interests. I'm really good at some things that I don't enjoy doing!
It may take you a few hours to figure this out, or maybe you already know. When you have your vision pretty clear, figure out the professionals who really know you and make an appointment to see them. Ask them about how they see you, their perceptions of what makes you tick. You might be surprised, so make sure you are REALLY LISTENING.
Ask them for specific ideas about where you should be looking for your next adventure. Ask them for names of other contacts they think could help you bring your vision to life, and ask them if there is anything about your vision that makes them think you have adjustments to make in order to achieve it. The questions won't be awkward but your answers might be - be prepared to walk away and absorb for a while.
There are no easy answers.
Be kind to yourself while you work through this. And know that you are a work in progress; what makes you happy and content today will probably change in the future.
And then the hardest part begins; figure out how you might be complicit in your own patterns of frustration in jobs and relationships. Because until you identify your patterns, you will continue to face similar situations. As my mother once told me: "Every obstacle is like a trial. Until you figure out the lesson you are supposed to learn in a trial, you will continue to experience it, over and over again in different situations. Don't be fooled, it's the same trial no matter the context."
*It has been a gift to receive many messages from people expressing their appreciation for my posts, particularly the ones about difficulties I've faced. Stories related to my eclectic career have resonated with a lot of people; I attribute that to the fact that stories help us relate - and apply - our own experiences, practically living them through someone else. Thanks to Elizabeth Chee for inspiring this post.*