I am not referring to the discomfort of sitting in non-ergonomic chair for too many hours each day. Although physical pain associated with our jobs is an important issue, what I am talking about here are the deeper psychological wounds that we suffer at work.
We suffer when we are laid off, fired, or even when we quit of our own accord. We may also suffer from different forms of harassment. I have had a few run-ins with toxic co-workers. Women can be incredibly mean to one another. Workplace bullying is a pervasive problem.
And then we have horrible bosses. Bad bosses can range anywhere from evil incarnate to narcissistic egomaniacs to unenlightened fools. I have worked for three, what I would call “dispassionate leaders.” These are the bosses who are initially drawn to our spark. They seem nice enough but they make a habit of using people then casting them aside like so much trash.
More than once I have felt exactly like the butt of a cigarette. The light was sucked right out of me and a twisting toe attempted to grind me into a bit of worthless ash. Yes, that is what it feels like to be discarded.
I am a slow learner. It took several of these experiences before I realized a pattern. It took many years before I was able to see myself as a willing partner in this misery. Eventually, I made the choice to move beyond being a victim to being responsible. Response-able.
My clients share stories of workplace suffering. I can truly empathize with the pain they are feeling. The tricky part for me is resisting the urge to “fast forward” the process of someone’s healing. I cannot “transfer” my way of processing painful career experiences to someone else. It is a very personal journey.
There are often underlying issues that make some people more susceptible than others to workplace bullying and suffering. Early childhood experiences, previous trauma, and one’s current emotional health and wellbeing are just a few of the complexities that come into play. Still, I wonder about the best ways to help clients.
Many of my clients are in psychotherapy to deal with the underlying issues. They often confess that mental health therapists don’t really understand the workplace. And not all career counselors have the therapeutic skills or “real world” experience to effectively work with clients on a deeper level.
It can be a catch 22. On the one hand, getting to the root of our issues is important. On the other hand, we need to be able to get through the workday and collect a paycheck. Most of us cannot suspend earning a living until we are all healed up and strong.
I have no quick fixes. But I have learned a few things that may be helpful to you as you move through career pain and suffering.
First, in order to grow, we must accept responsibility for what we have done to contribute to where we are at in life. If we have no responsibility, then we have little ability to change. And, I fully realize that this may feel like a slap in the face, like salt to your wounds.
In the therapeutic setting I work hard to know when someone is ready to go deeper and consider this possibility. In a trusting counseling partnership, clients can feel my unconditional appreciation and genuine empathy. In a blog, I am pretty sure I am just pissing some of you off.
Still, this approach can help us move beyond being the willing victim. Once we accept responsibility we can focus on our desired responses to the complex people and situations we encounter.
The other day I was hiking in a nearby wooded area. I frequent these trails many times each week. On this particular day, an off leash pit-bull came running out of nowhere towards my dog and me. The pit-bull grabbed a hold of my dog’s neck and I stood by screaming helplessly.
Eventually the pit-bull’s owner was able to pull her dog off of mine. I was angry. I felt victimized by the completely unprovoked attack. I checked my dog and thankfully discovered no puncture wounds. The pit-bull and owner hiked down the trail and I decided to continue up the mountain.
As I walked, I replayed the incident in my mind. As the shock and anger subsided I realized that I needed to be better prepared. This was not the first time I had encountered dogs off leash. This time it could have been a fight to the death. What could I do to avoid this in the future?
I went back to the “scene of the crime” and re-wrote the final lines. This is an exercise I often have my clients do as they process their workplace suffering.
In the case of the pit-bull encounter, I envisioned a can of pepper spray attached to my belt. As the dog ran towards me, I aimed and fired. The spray landed right in the dog’s face. The pit-bull immediately stopped in its tracks to shake off the poison. The owner got to her dog and attached the leash. I had a sturdy walking stick in case the dog continued towards me but I did not have to use it. The pepper spray did the trick.
As I reimagined this version of the encounter over and over in my mind, I felt strong and protected. I felt responsible to my dog as well as to myself. Rather than feeling like a victim, I felt empowered to handle future incidents. Fear and anger were replaced by a sense of calm assurance. I was not preoccupied by what I thought someone else should do. I was keenly focused inward on how I wanted to behave.
Granted, there are dangers and risks that I may encounter for which a can of pepper spray and a stick are simply no match. There is no way to completely protect ourselves from all predators in the woods or in the workplace. Still, I can be more mindful of my surroundings, more self-aware, and more prepared for situations. I can be strong and powerful and stand my ground. And, I can always choose my response.
One thing I know for sure is that eventually, if we allow it to be so, the most painful of experiences can lead to personal growth. The more difficult the challenge, the more likely it is that we can experience true transformation.
I could write for hours and hours about this topic. Maybe a book will be born. In the meantime, I will end with this quote:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl
P.S. Pepper spray is not intended for use on horrible bosses or workplace bullies!