#641: “The Eli Roth-level torture of interacting with former coworkers.”

Dear Captain:

Earlier this year I was asked to resign from a job in my preferred niche area of my profession, which was a devastating experience. About a month ago I started a new, different position for a new agency, but in the same area as the old job, both geographically and professionally.

So far the new job is working out well, which is great, because I’m proving to myself that I failed at the old job because it wasn’t a good fit, not because I’m a bad person. However, there’s a lot of interaction between agencies in my field, so I have to communicate with people from my former company on occasion. Usually it’s by phone/fax/email to people I didn’t work with directly, but there are pending meetings where I will be in the same room as former colleagues I did collaborate with. My former coworkers are friendly enough, but I was working solo most of the time in my old job and didn’t socialize with them. I was very withdrawn and depressed for the last several weeks of my term there, and didn’t really give anyone notice that I was leaving until my last week.

I’m still feeling a lot of shame over being fired. I’ve avoided places and events where there were chances of running into old coworkers, plus I generally tend to avoid people and situations that didn’t work out for me, such as not keeping in contact with exes. But now, these interactions are inevitable, I’m not sure how to navigate them, and thinking about it makes me pretty anxious. Any advice/scripts you could offer would be incredibly welcome.

Yours truly,

License to Fret

Dear License:

I’m keeping your email subject-line as the title because it was funny and illustrative of your state of mind.

Sometimes there is a delayed reaction when you leave a toxic or ill-fitting job situation and start something new, and I think that’s what’s going on here. Treat your anxiety and depression, if you’re not doing that already. That’s part of the delayed reaction. How much of your bad feelings were work struggles, and how much of them were your jerkbrain? Sort out the jerkbrain things: Call your new employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you’ve got one, make an appointment for a physical, seek out a counselor if you can. Employ all the self-care measures of regular sleep, regular food, routine maintenance like haircuts and moving your body in some way that feels good and reaching out to people who make you feel good. It’s normal to feel some shame after a big upset like getting fired, so I’m not going to go all “turn that frown upside down” on you. But if the shame is having a lasting effect, sort that stuff out, ok?

Your former colleagues harbor feelings about you that most likely range from “who again?” to neutral to vaguely sort of liking you and being happy you landed somewhere new, or, at worst, relief that you are no longer in your ill-fitting job and glad for you that you found something else. They aren’t thinking about you, your failure, your shame, your creeping sense of dread, etc. When you left, they thought about it for approximately 1 business day, like, “Oh, was that License’s last day? Should we have had a cake or something?” and “Is License’s stapler up for grabs, I wonder” and then they mostly stopped thinking about you unless they had to specifically dig into your desk or take over a project from you. The only thing they want from you now is timely communication when you are sharing projects and basic work levels of friendly interactions when your paths happen to cross. They don’t want to talk about feelings, or resurrect old zombies of dread and failure. This “Eli Roth-level badness” thing is something you are doing to yourself. They don’t want this for you.

So, go to work, be good at your job, go to meetings where you will see your former colleagues, say “Hi!” and stick mostly to work topics. If anything related to your former employment vs. your new employment comes up, here are some scripts;

  • “Hi, so nice to see you. I’m glad we get to work together again.”
  • “How am I enjoying the new job? Very much so. I’m happy to be able to keep working in (subject matter) but in a position that’s a much better fit for my skills.”
  • If you get an awkward “You didn’t even say goodbye!” response from someone you used to work with, it’s going to land on your depressed ears like “You did everything wrong, including leaving!” but really it means “I missed you when you left.” Try to rephrase it in your head that way, as an expression from someone who likes you, and then answer in kind. “I was so very busy and not really feeling my best at work during that time. But I’m very glad to see you now!” Don’t apologize, just acknowledge the nice sentiment from a nice (if overly enthusiastic/familiar) person.

If they harbor any awkwardness about the past, they will gratefully take any and all cues from you about how to act. The more relaxed and confident you can be (or fake being), the more relieved they will be, and the easier everything will become. It will be weird the first time you see people. Then it will be fine as things resolve to a new normal.


61 thoughts on “#641: “The Eli Roth-level torture of interacting with former coworkers.”

  1. Totally agree. In quite a few professions, it’s the reality that people move around for various reasons that have nothing to do with the inherent goodness or badness of them, their skills, their work style, or their employer. Maybe it’s a bad fit, or maybe it’s a good enough fit, but another work environment is a better fit. Who knows? Maybe one company was overstaffed and another one was understaffed. Bottom line – don’t take it personally.

    With everyone moving around for various reasons, people WILL run into each other again, and they tend to follow scripts that are very much like what the Captain suggests. Approach the interaction assuming cordial professionalism.

    Good luck!

  2. People will take their cues from you. It is only awkward if you make it awkward. The first couple of times might be hard for you, but in a month or two even you will have forgotten it.

    Also do some self-care before those meetings. You say you were depressed your last two weeks, make an effort to differentiate your new self. This effort is for you, not to prove you’re changed to former coworkers, but it will give you a boost of self-esteem and happy positive endorphins. Go to your favorite coffee shop and get your favorite drink. Wear your favorite piece of clothing that makes you feel like a million bucks. Get a new lipstick (if applicable to your gender and preferred style of self-expression). Listen to your power song on the transport over to the meeting.

    A power song is that song that makes you feel good, makes you want to dance, and that you use to psych yourself up, to celebrate good news, etc. Mine is “Cheap Sunglasses” by Z. Z. Top. When I have to do something hard, I put it on and have a dance party. When I have done something amazing and celebrate, it is the first song in my celebration playlist. When I’m down/low energy, it helps too. You may need a power song if you don’t have one already. It’s helped me regulate moods and get a boost of confidence a lot. (Again, this is not professional advice, just personal experience that works for me.)

  3. Are you feeling ashamed about something that wasn’t your fault because you expect perfection from yourself?

    Not. Gonna. Happen.

    Whether it was critical parents or not getting enough guidance about setting goals or even a smooth route up to now, perfectionism (which often comes with its good buddy procrastination and can manifest as the cousin, social anxiety) all comes from unreasonable pressure.

    If they are nice people, they will be happy you got a job that works better for you. They will be glad to interact and hear a happy ending. And you should be confident because you did land on your feet.

    If you haven’t had much experience with handling awkward situations, this is a golden opportunity to get some. And you will need it, always.

    Here on in, there will be many more. Because that’s inevitable. We’re human. Not perfect.

  4. I was fired. It was awful. Initially, I planned to leave town and start over again somewhere else. As it happened, we stayed in the area. I run into my old colleagues on a regular basis, sometimes at meetings and sometimes in the grocery store. At first it was AWFUL. My heart would pound and for a few nights after each encounter, I would wake up in the middle of the night and replay the whole terrible time in my head, like an endless video loop of misery that I couldn’t stop. After a while (as in years), I realized this was PTSD and I was having flashbacks. Once I figured that out, I was able to slowly start changing my response to the inevitable anxiety. I needed to learn that my body was giving me inaccurate data – even though it felt like I was in danger, that wasn’t accurate. My body also thinks that shaking floors are an earthquake when it’s not, since I no longer live in earthquake country.

    The Captain is right about caring for yourself, and also right about your ex-coworkers. If you’re calm and cheerful, they’ll be relieved of any potential awkwardness and they will follow your lead. For me, it’s now been over 10 years. Two years ago, I actually went back to my old place and ran a workshop. I rocked it and it felt *great*.

    1. Also – some of your former coworkers may feel guilty about not being more supportive while you worked with them, or not reaching out to you after you were let go. This happens to me often when I run into someone who was fired or laid off from a job where I stayed – massive survivor’s guilt. Either way, being calm, cheerful or just professional is the way to go.

  5. Dear License: A couple of years ago one of my co-workers was let go and those of us who stayed felt pretty good about it because that co-worker was REALLY not a good fit for that role and also had a very challenging personality that caused a lot of us a lot of stress. And then a couple weeks later that former co-worker got a job with a firm that does a lot of business with ours and, in fact, this co-worker was now the official liaison between their firm and ours. When we found out in my department we all collectively rolled our eyes, shook our heads, chuckled at the way the world works and then LET IT GO. None of us on my side bear them any lingering ill-will, none of us have any issues with working with them now, none of us wish them anything less than the very best of luck, and, honestly, from what I’ve seen of them, they are SO MUCH HAPPIER now.

    Win for everyone!

    1. LW this is basically what the worst case scenario looks like. Your former colleagues might roll their eyes back at their office when they hear and then move on with doing their jobs. It sucks to think of people not liking you, but you can survive that – there were reasons you struggled in your last job, and when you’re struggling at work depression and anxiety are not far behind and they make everything even worse in a vicious cycle.

      Probably your old colleagues won’t even be thinking negatively of you at all. There won’t even be secret eye rolling. Seriously unless you were bullying people or being really mean and horrible any incompetence you displayed was probably not that memorable. And it was probably completely invisible to all but the people you worked with most closely.

      I was made redundant from my previous job – my job went with a lot of other people’s but I also suspect they used it as an opportunity to get rid of me because I was really struggling. I was thrown into a new very technical role with no experience or training and when I unsurprisingly failed to perform I was bullied by my coworkers. By the end of it I’d become a completely useless lump of depression. And when I see them around conferences and professional meetups now it’s weird, yes, but everyone is friendly (I haven’t seen the bully thankfully, but I bet even he would be friendly) and I’m happy in my new role and they’re mostly in different places too. All that past BS doesn’t matter. And sure, sometimes I feel pretty keen to show people that I’m in a new role and I’m successfully doing the thing I sucked at before. Entirely self tought and unsupported. Because I’m only human. But once we start talking I forget about that and it’s just a normal professional interaction.

      You will be fine LW. Deep breath, go to the meetings and do your job and you will see that it will all just play out in a normal boring way.

      1. This. The only former co-worker from my current office I wouldn’t be vaguely pleased to see again is the one who tried to physically intimidate me into taking her side on a meeting room scheduling dispute (along with other, lesser, overtly nasty behaviors).

        If they remember you acting depressed and withdrawn at all (and they may not — sometimes that can look similar to “really really busy, no time to socialize”) they will probably feel relieved and happy for you to see that you seem happy with your work.

      2. I worked for a toxic organization that had a habit of restructuring departments and people into positions or schedules they would hate in order to encourage resignation. These were all good people who simply wouldn’t let themselves be exploited in the ways that was required for our ridiculously high-expectations/low-pay environment. I thought highly of all of them, even in the cases where someone had made a mistake or weren’t perfect (which in most organizations, as I’ve learned, would be a comment on a yearly review and a professional development goal/additional training–not a forced resignation). Several were friends or at least kept in touch with through FB. They all went on to have happier lives and jobs where they were valued and/or rose through the ranks–their examples have provided me excellent perspective when I’m in professional troughs. I was (or would have been for those who didn’t stay in the region) happy to continue to meet them/work with them in their new roles. We all knew this shed light on “toxic organization” far more than any commentary about the people forced to resign, but at least one of them felt enough shame and weirdness that led them to avoid those of us who stayed–and I was sad to lose someone I considered a friend.

        1. After I was let go from my previous job under some suspicious circumstances (including documentable transphobia from my boss) a couple of my colleagues had me to lunch. They could be a lot more candid at an off-site location, and so the conversation flowed. I learned a lot about how things at our office was more dysfunctional than I knew and how much our boss was despised by everyone who worked there. (Side note: said toxic boss mysteriously vanished about six months after I left.)

          It’s been long enough now that most of my former colleagues have forgotten me, but I do know one of them got a new job about a year after I left. Once he was out of there it improved his life a lot, just as mine got a lot better when I started my new job.

    2. I had a similar experience just this summer. This particular person was difficult to work with at times, which frustrated me, but I was also aware that she was really unhappy with the job, for a lot of reasons. When I heard that she was leaving (and I don’t know for sure but I’m about 90% certain she was asked to resign), I was both unsurprised and relieved for her. I know wherever she lands, she’ll be much happier. And it would actually be nice to run into her professionally sometime, without our mutual frustrations hanging over us.

      All of which is to say – this happens a lot. Sometimes the job isn’t what you were promised, sometimes there are management issues, sometimes it’s just not a good fit. People come and go for a lot of reasons, and unless you really went all out with an epic rage quit, people are generally not going to think too much of it.

  6. I haven’t been in a situation exceptionally similar to the LW, but I have noticed something general about brain weasels that may be in play here.

    Something I’ve noticed in therapy about my own anxiety is how it can be oddly self-centered. I’t’s not the way we usually think of “self-centered” – with connotation of being conceited or selfish – but it’s the best word I can think of at the moment. Anxiety weasels seem to believe that we are being scrutinized and evaluated A LOT, sometimes constantly. But in reality, and I mean this in the kindest, most uplifting way possible, we are just not that important to most of the people we interact with on a regular basis. Most people are actually pretty bad noticers.

    1. Dang, I forgot my last paragraph – if this sounds at all familiar, or if you feel anxious a lot and it’s limited your life, maybe that’s something to work on with a professional. It isn’t something you have to live with forever.

      1. ooh, I feel smart because I know why that is, thanks to a recent metafilter thread: spotlight effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_effect). And if you’re feeling anxious about seeing these people around, maybe you could just treat it like stage fright? It’s probably totally fine, due to the (lack of) transparency effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_transparency

        Which is interesting, because I guess the transparency thing also explains why people might be surprised if we mention we have a crush on them, even though it seems like THE MOST OBVIOUS THING IN THE WORLD… to us. (Hello, Andrew!)

        1. that’s very interesting, thank you for the links! I always assumed that my depression came with a large side-order of paranoia, but this makes a lot of sense. 😀

    2. I think this is a really great point. We do often feel like everyone is thinking about us and judging how well we’re meeting any number of standards, but we’re actually not that interesting or important to most people. They are more worried about themselves. When I realized that, it was one of the most freeing experiences. Not that I don’t sometimes still slip into that mindset occasionally.

      1. This right here. We all assume everyone else thinks about us as much as we think about ourselves, and the truth is they’re thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about them. Very little.
        How you handle being fired is much more important than being fired, LW, and it sounds like you’ve handled it great.

    3. Yep. I know all kinds of psychological theories for this, but in my mind I still call it “remembering too clearly what it was like to be a child.” Maybe ONCE we were constantly monitored by people who judged us all the time and saw right through our attempts at pretense–but those days are over.

      1. YES. And taking up the role of that child (in thought, posture, speech, acts) is sometimes all too easy.

      2. Oh, interesting – I felt constantly scrutinized as a child, but my therapist has pointed out a few times that it sounds like the opposite and I was actually sort of neglected. But I remember *feeling* scrutinized as a child, and that feeling came up more often as I got older and my anxiety got more unmanageable (I didn’t start getting treated until my mid-20s).

        1. I know I’m wandering a little off-topic, but I think that scrutiny can feel a lot more negative when it’s coming from people who aren’t in sync with us, who are watching to judge but not to nurture. A parent who’s always watching to make sure you take a nap before you get super cranky or who gives you a hug and a cheerful word when you get a little discouraged can give you a sense that being watched is a good thing.

    4. Oh god YES.
      About ten years ago, when I was a young teenager, my fringe got long enough to clip it back on the top of my head (I have very thick hair and having it in my bussiness constantly started to annoy me) after having had the same haircut for years. This is a super minor change but to me, it felt like everyone would look at me and point at me and laugh (can you tell I have a history of being bullied? Because bullies DO see changes like that) and I put it off for several days before I finally found enough courage to do it. And then, when I was in the train to school… no one looked at me. No one was interested in my fringe or not-fringe. Even at school no one said anything. I felt kinda stupid but also very relieved. And I always think back to that situation whenever I come across something similar nowadays.

      1. Seriously huge moment of recognition here. I wear essentially the same thing to work every day and treat it like a uniform for my job. Sometimes people will ask me why I don’t change it up, and it’s because one way I was bullied growing up was being teased when I’d do something different. I’d put a lot of my heart into wanting to look a certain way that I thought would be great. Instead I got made fun of, and it’s because the bullies in my life saw what was different and picked on it. To this day if somebody compliments me on some aspect of my appearance, I struggle with my feelings. My heart desperately wants to embrace the compliment but force of habit gives me that “you’re being teased” feeling, and I hate that struggle.

    5. LW here: your point very much resonated with me, Muddie Mae. My brainweasels are very insidious like that. I also get shy at karaoke for the same reason: everyone else can sing off key and drop words and it’s not a big deal, but everyone in the bar is expecting a Carnegie Hall level performance from ME! I have been seeing a therapist, but it’s a work in progress, as therapy tends to be. 🙂

      1. Ha! I’ve never done karaoke except once, in a group, having had a bit to drink so I wouldn’t be too anxious. I’ve only recently gotten to the point where I’ll sing softly in the car if there are no radio stations and my BF is reading or resting.

        Therapy is definitely a process, even with the best therapist and most motivated client. It might be worse before it gets better (I didn’t have a full blown panic attack until I started therapy) but just bring that shit to therapy. Also, a meditation or mindfulness practice is a nice supplement. There’s lots of beginner info online.

    6. I have seen this described as “I am the piece of shit the world revolves around”, which think may be from AA (I can’t remember where I read this, though, so might be wrong).

      Edit: it appears to be a quote from a book by Anthony Kiedis:

      “There’s not alcoholic in the world who wants to be told what to do. Alcoholics are sometimes described as egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. Or, to be cruder, a piece of shit that the universe revolves around.”

      Not that I’m suggesting everyone who feels this is either an addict or an egomaniac! I suspect it’s part of being human – we make ourselves the centre of our own narrative, so we tend to assume other people are paying far more attention to what we say and how we behave than they actually are.

  7. Dear LW

    You may be feeling something like “I bet they blame everything on me now that I’m not there, and they will show that when they meet me.”

    Even if the first part were true, it’s the second part that matters for your future encounters. The second part isn’t true.

    The nice ones will be glad that things are working out for you (if they remember you), the nasty ones will be too busy thinking nasty thoughts – unrelated to you – to have time to remember you, let alone be mean about something that didn’t happen recently.

    No one will bring up that you were fired. They want the encounter to go well. You’re proving that they will continue to have to work with you, and that being fired just positions you at better jobs.

    If anyone brings up the old job all you’re required to say is – nothing.

    But here’s a script for “I heard you were fired.” (Which won’t come up)

    “Yes I was, and it was painful at the time. Now however I’m happier with the new position, and with myself.”

    I mention this script that no one will ever force on you, because actually it can feel really good to say “yep, I was fired. It really sucked. Now, back to work”

    It feels like you’re in charge and not scared. Try saying it to friends.

    They will love you anyway.

    1. Acknowledgement works to kill so many brain weasels. “Yep, I was fired.” “Yep, I really screwed up right then.” “Yep, I’m not very good at X task.” It’s like how if your name is Richard Head, you introduce yourself as Dick on purpose, and then no one can make fun of you.

  8. In addition to the helpful things that CA and the commenters have said, I will add one more thing.

    Sometimes when I’m anxious about something, it helps me to do two things: (1) remember that worrying has no power to change anything and (2) imagine how I would deal with my fears if they came true.

    What if these people all were glad you were fired, or look down on you for getting fired, or are laughing at you back the office? That’s really unlikely, but let’s say that’s true. What does that change? Absolutely nothing. You still have a job, you still have the opportunity to rock at your new job, and the people at your new job are going to judge your ability to do this job not your old one. The worst that could happen is that someone from your old job says out loud to you, “Oh, I’M SO GLAD YOU WERE ABLE TO GET A NEW JOB AFTER YOU GOT FIRED.” You can come up with a way to handle that. And you really wouldn’t need to say anything more than “Ok.” Because anyone who would say something like that to you is an asshole who is making everyone else in the room uncomfortable, and now that guy’s the one people are judging, not you.

    Getting fired is something that happens to many, many people. I’m thinking of the part of the movie “Til There Was You” where Sarah Jessica Parker’s character fires the main character, who gets up. When SJP says something like “Have you never been fired before?” The main character says “Lots of times, but it doesn’t get easier” or something like that. Lots of people have been fired, it’s never easy to take, and 99% of the population isn’t judging you for it. I really hope you can find a way to not feel anxious about it because feeling anxious about things we can’t control is doubly awful.

  9. Ignore this if it is not relevant, but I’m guessing for you to get this new job in a nearby agency someone at your old workplace must have said nice things about you when they called for a reference. If you are pretty sure this is true, it might just help to remember that at the old workplace some people thought highly of you and wished you well and spoke well of you “behind your back”, as it were. I read once about public speaking that basically, your audience is rooting for you and wants you to do well — that they are an essentially benign force even if they make you nervous and you are worried about potential embarrassment etc. etc. I’ve always kept this in mind and found it really, really reassuring whenever I face an audience. Thinking that basically the people with whom you have to interact from the old place want everything to turn out happily might help make those interactions feel less daunting?

    1. That’s a good point, Polychrome, I’m pretty sure they would have contacted my previous employer, given it’s not uncommon for employees to go from one agency to the other over the course of their careers, so it probably would have not boded well for me if the previous agency hadn’t given a referral (or had said more negative things than positive). I’ll try to keep that in mind when my brainweasels are on the prowl. Thanks!

  10. If you can manage the mental gymnastics, you can turn this situation into an advantage. You are helping your new company collaborate with your old company. Bonus: You know how things work at Old Company! This gives you an edge.

    Instead of the neutral responses the Captain said your former coworkers would possibly have, there is also the possibility of a positive reaction: “Oh, thank goodness! A former coworker! This project just got so much easier because we don’t have to spend an hour explaining how everything works at our company!”

    My employer has high turnover of the “burnout or bad fit” variety. It’s common for people to not be at their best during their last days. Many of my former coworkers stay in the industry after waiting out their non-compete. When I encounter a former coworker at a client site, I’m typically overjoyed. This person understands the zoo I work at. We will work better together because of this. The project will likely be done faster and be of higher quality. It’s good for both parties.

    Good luck, LW. I’m glad you’re in a job that fits you better. Take care of yourself.

  11. I just want to point out that even in the best circumstances, changing jobs can be extremely stressful. Make sure that you are not burying that stress or telling yourself that it shouldn’t be there, and are dealing with it. I know that when I’m stressed out, my anxiety tends to flare up. The Captain’s paragraph on how little people are actually thinking about us is SO TRUE and so necessary to remind ourselves of when social anxiety strikes.

    In my experience, most people are polite. They are probably not going to go out of their way to bring up how you left or anything negative about your performance at old job–and if they do, that reflects way more on them. I can think back on all my least-liked coworkers, and there’s not one of them that I wouldn’t be happy for if they found a job that suited them better.

    Also, if your industry is as described, I’m sure you’re not the first former coworker these people have worked with in a different capacity. It won’t be a big deal to them. In times of social anxiety I find it helps to turn down the spotlight I’m imagining over my head.

  12. Hi, LW! You are me a few months ago, basically.

    I’m in government service, and we have these one-year probationary periods when we change positions. I took a transfer to something that seemed better-aligned with my grad degree and future goals than the job I’d held for six years prior. The first two months, I was supposedly the Best Person Ever. The next four months, I was still Pretty Darn Awesome. Then, in about a two-week period, a really weird series of incidents took place where suddenly everything I did was WRONG WRONG WRONG and it climaxed in being called into a meeting twenty-five minutes before the end of the day where two managers presented me with a draft of a “resign to return to previous position” letter and said I could sign it RIGHT NOW or they would pursue termination of my employment.

    When I returned to my former position (or, well, the same major department on a slightly different team, breaking up the “I like both my boss and the department head but they are at each other’s throats and it’s making my workplace toxic” dynamic that caused me to leave in the first place), I talked to a guy who had transferred to [agency redacted] and then come back to our agency under nearly identical circumstances. And then I had a job interview for a promotion, where I had to check the “yes” to “have you ever resigned rather than face discharge?” and one of the interviewers basically said “you don’t have to tell me anything more, I know all about [agency redacted] and you have my sympathy.”

    It was still really freakin’ traumatic and I’m still dealing with a lot of self-doubt that I didn’t have before. But especially after that interview (which I’m apparently on their short list and they’ll be calling me back) I realize that it really wasn’t me, it was them. And some agencies are bad fits for you, and some agencies are bad fits for ANYONE who is a generally decent person. Whichever was the case here, you’ll be ok.

    1. I’m in retail, and my details are different– but there’s so much similarity to some situations I’ve been in to what Mama Cheshire describes

    2. Hi MamaCheshire: that’s totally true. I think this situation has been particularly hard for me and my ego because the former agency has such a good reputation in the field, so it made me feel like I can’t run with the big dogs. It was actually kind of a relief when I’d heard that one of my current coworkers had gone there and then come back to my current agency because they couldn’t stand the environment!

      I’m assuming by government service you mean social services? If so, we are in similar situations because I’m also in a helping profession. This probably ties in to the thread that Muddie Mae started about the ego-aspect of anxiety, but sweet baby Jesus are my brainweasels good at giving my professional imperfections a Serious Moral Dimension. “You failed at your job AND WHAT’S WORSE is that you failed [insert vulnerable population here]!” they tell me. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the mistakes I made because I was having difficulty grokking agency procedures are the tiniest water molecule of a drop in the bucket of social inequality.

      1. OMG, LW, I’m sorry. I’ve worked for dysfunctional nonprofits before, and I’ve been in a situation like yours, too. One might imagine that nonprofits are full of kind, gentle people, unlike nasty mainstream corporations, but it just ain’t so. In some ways they can be worse, because they are more likely than private industry to paper over internal power plays with a shiny, happy, “we’re the good guys who always do good!” facade.

        1. Ah, yes! They also use the “we’re here to do good” aspect to justify bad work policies because you’re supposed to want to do XYZ “for the cause.”

    1. I was so, so gratified when my therapist last week started using words like “trauma” and “abuse” to refer to my previous workplace. It turns out that many people do not have panic attacks when their supervisor closes the door while they meet, and that there are any number of reasons to do that besides “yell at you until you cry and then threaten to fire you.”

      PS — am in therapy thanks in part to this place, and it’s having a lot of benefits for me!!! Thanks everyone!

    2. I’m in two minds about that article. On the one hand, it could be really great advice for someone who is in ok mental health, has moved out of a negative work environment and is looking for some pointers on how to thrive in a new environment.

      However, if it is directed at someone who has actually has sustained trauma or a significant blow to their mental wellbeing – and to me the term workplace PTSD implies something along those lines – advice like ‘adjust your expectations’ and ‘don’t make yourself the problem’ is likely not to be useful. It may even lead to them blaming themselves for their trauma reaction, since they are likely to experience thought disruptive patterns and feelings (which may come through in lived behaviour) beyond their control.

      If someone actually is suffering workplace PTSD (I have certainly been through something like it), I would encourage them to be kind to themselves and seek help from a trained professional, potentially through an EAP if one is available. Being open, at least partially, with colleagues or supervisors was very helpful to me but this can obviously be risky and depends on being in a safe and supportive environment.

  13. HI, LW. This happened to me two years ago. I was laid off from my job of 7 years after the stress and lack of support sent me into a depression spiral which affected the quality of my work. It was officially downsizing but I think we all knew I would have been encouraged to jump if I hadn’t been pushed. I got another job in the same field, and then had to meet all my ex-colleagues at an award ceremony a few months later.

    Not going to lie, it was awkward. There was someone who had contributed to my downfall who was a bit funny with me. So I stayed cheery and professional and pleased to see everyone, and they just followed my lead. A couple of people came up to me privately to tell me that they missed me, hadn’t realised how much strain I was under, and that losing my skills had been a very bad thing for my department.

    That job was a bad fit for me, and I did make mistakes. I know that after I left, some stuff got blamed on me that wasn’t fair. But most importantly, I wasn’t around to hear it. Most of the people I worked with are too busy worrying about their own careers to hold any grudges about mine.

  14. And also, LW, your former coworkers probably don’t know details of your termination. They may not even know you were let go and that you didn’t leave for a different opportunity. Different places have different policies on how they handle that stuff, but typically discipline details aren’t shared out to the whole team, so while I’m sure some folks suspect you were fired and some knew you were struggling, most will probably understand some version of “they left because of reasons and now they work over there.”

  15. LW, I just wanted to offer a note of encouragement: The simple fact that you are still working in the same professional area (if not the exact niche, not clear on that from your letter), and doing well at it, is a victory. Some years ago I resigned from a job for which I realized I was a spectacularly bad fit personalities- and organization-wise, hoping I could navigate leaving on a good note. But nope — halfway through my notice period — and in the middle of a weeklong orientation session for the fellowship program we ran — my supervisors suddenly turned on a dime and, in a hostile interaction I’ll never forget, demanded that I leave immediately. So I did. And in doing so, I believed I was also leaving behind any hope of ever being employed in that field (which is a very particular niche but does draw people from a much broader industry) again. So I never even tried. I’ve gone on to meander my way to a position in another field that I’m really happy with. But I let a lousy boss dictate where my career path COULDN’T go — or where I thought it couldn’t — and that, for much bigger-picture reasons, was a mistake.

  16. Hi all, LW here… it’s incredibly helpful reading your advice, stories, and suggestions for scripts. I forgot to mention in my letter, I am in therapy and on a medication that is working well to manage my anxiety levels, it’s just sometimes a little insidious and overwhelming and hard to identify. Because, y’know.. anxiety.

  17. This is all really wonderful advice, LW, and you’ve got this, you’re doing fine.

    I’m in the mirror image of your situation – still in a horrible, toxic job with a vindictive and manipulative boss, in a career field that I adore. A very small, tight-knit, social, mobile career field. I started on my downward spiral about three years ago, and really should have been fired in the winter of 2012/13, but held on to my job by the skin of my teeth. That spring I started looking for something different, in another city.

    As soon as I started jobhunting, I realized how personally and professionally isolated I’d become without noticing – dropped my association memberships and stopped going to conferences, lost my confidence and stopped participating on lists and social networks, stopped fighting to make my contributions to high-profile projects visible. I basically hid in my office and talked to my coworkers as little as possible, my boss less, and my colleagues outside my institution not at all, and it was really hurting my ability to sell myself to a new employer.

    Over the last year, I’ve been fighting my way back, and it’s been some of the hardest, scariest, most brainweasel-infested work I’ve ever done. But also kind of wonderful? Calling up a department head at an organization where I’m going to be interviewing and hearing, “Oh, yeah, I remember you, we met at [X Conference]!” Sending a FB or LI friend request to a colleague and seeing it accepted in minutes, with a “hey, it’s nice to see your face!” PM to go with it. Going to a training and finding someone who would like to have lunch with me, who DOES NOT CARE why, or even really recall that, I disappeared for several years but is sincerely interested in what I’m doing NOW.

    These things make the current gig much more bearable. You will have these moments too, so let yourself be open to them. Remember that you are OUT, which is the most important thing. Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to recover your confidence. My hope for you is that, in a couple of years, your content, confident, and successful future-self will say, “Wow, getting cut loose from that mess was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

  18. Just a short note from, if you will, the other side of the fence: Earlier this year, I had to let go an employee. The type of work the company does shifted slightly, and suddenly, she wasn’t a good fit anymore, so she had to leave.

    Even though I fired her, this does not in any way make me respect her less as a person or even as an employee. She just wasn’t a good fit for the job, and that’s all that means: Not a good fit for the job. She is now much happier in her new position, and her new company is happier with her than we were at the end. Personally, I’m glad she found a job she likes, and am glad to see her whenever she drops by.

    Companies and employees part ways. That happens. All it means is that that particular relationship didn’t work out. Nobody thinks lesser of you for that, not even the person doing the firing.

  19. LW,

    I’m so sorry this happened. I was fired from my first ‘real job’ out of grad school and it was a devastating experience, even though the office was toxic, the owner was horrible, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted the job. Following my workaholic parents’ example, I had always used my job as a yardstick for my self-worth. It took a lot of time and a combination of reshuffling my priorities and increasing maturity to start thinking about work in a different way (it also does not help that, depending on where you are, you may live in one of those cities like I do where what you do is considered to be who you are).

    It sucked. I wish I had something more helpful to say, but it sucked and we’re rooting for you. The job advice on this website has always been the most helpful to me.

    1. Jumping off your comment, even among the workaholics there seems to a be a narrative (within the US, at least, not familiar with other work cultures) that employment is a very one-sided arrangement: “employers” are one giant, inflexible monolith and “employees” better mash themselves into the shape that “all employers” want. For example, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve heard people say interviewees should be looking for good fit and interviewing a company right back, rather than trying to do whatever it takes to get hired.

      Within that frame, getting fired is an incredibly shameful thing, because it means you are BAD. Not poorly qualified for that particular job, or in over your head, or in possession of a personality that doesn’t and won’t mesh with your team, or even in a bad situation. You are a BAD EMPLOYEE.

      See also: people that don’t understand mutual, amicable breakups and assume someone must have “done” something.

      1. “interviewees should be looking for good fit and interviewing a company right back”
        This is important but difficult to keep sight of in a tight job market and when employers have more power than individual employees.

        I’m an employer and one of the things I look for when I interview people is a sense that they are interviewing me, that they want to know about our workplace culture, our ways of doing things. I don’t want to employ someone who’s going to be unhappy because in the end that’s just bad for them and for me and my organisation.

      2. So true.

        I will say that during the recession, I noticed a *slight* shift in rhetoric – if, all of a sudden, mass numbers of people who were good at their jobs were being fired or laid off, did that mean we were all bad? It’s easy to assume that someone being fired = they must have been bad, versus everyone is getting fired and it is not our fault.

        There are a lot of things about that job that I did not handle well, and I’m not even disputing that I deserved to be fired, but I also did not have enough experience to know HERE THERE BE BEES. I think the Captain’s parents and mine have a lot of similarities – I was living at home and brought up some of the stuff happening in my workplace and was like, no, seriously, I think I need to quit, and according to my parents Quitting Is the Worst, You Never Ever Quit, You Just Work Harder. When I was fired (in less than a year, my department had hired and fired eleven people. In a department of 3) they said it must have been because I’d taken an unauthorized day off or something.

        I would have been 10000x better off if I’d just quit. Trying to stick it out just meant that every time I had to go through a clearance process, the whole ugly thing got dragged up again and retraumatized me.

        I don’t share anything about my job with my parents any more and I don’t solicit their advice. It’s pretty clear to me now that our priorities and what we want out of our jobs are not the same.

        1. Yeah, my family has that NEVER QUIT thing, too. It’s been interesting to watch them struggle to adjust their views in the light of the recession, since all of kids in my generation are struggling more than they were.

          I just hope we all remember this when we’re the elders.

  20. I have had colleagues who have left after months of misery or have been made redundant and who I still respect as competent professionals.

    It was stressful and unpleasant while I was working with them in roles they weren’t suited to, but it was also obvious that they were competent people in the wrong place, and I’d be *thrilled* to work with them in different roles, where I could enjoy the experience.

  21. It’s awesome to see all this dialogue and particularly the power of people empathizing with each other and sharing experience.

    It can be disorienting leaving a job and starting a new one even under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best. I totally understand how awkward it is, but I think Captain Awkward is right that your coworkers are probably not thinking about it too much. I’d say you should strive to keep connections with them – who knows, something else might work out in the future.

  22. So, I’ve got two somewhat relevant things to contribute here.

    1. Once upon a time, I got kicked out of grad school. I was told mid-semester that I was a bad TA, and that no one would take on a grad student who wouldn’t be able to get any TAships. At the end of the semester, I was told that I was a really good TA, but since I had made no progress in my research (because no one would work with me because there wouldn’t be TA funding), I was being kicked out. The truth is, I was not good at that kind of grad school. It was a bad fit for me and for them. I was unhappy and unproductive.

    I was then hired by a member of the department that had kicked me out to be a full-time TA, because I am awesome at it. I still work for the department that kicked me out of grad school. It was really uncomfortable for about a month. It’s been ten years now, and I’m still teaching.

    2. Of the many many people I have worked with over the past ten years, there have been several who were really bad at their jobs. There is ONE person that I would not want to interact with in a professional capacity ever again, and that’s because I later found out he was dating one of his students. The people who performed badly, either because they weren’t very competent at those specific skills or because there was other stuff going on in their lives that made them a bad fit for the job, are still folks I can deal with. The semi-competent but massively unethical one is a different story. Your former colleagues are more likely to be vaguely pleased that you’ve found something that works better for you than to judge you harshly.

  23. Oh man. This is so timely because I have seriously just been dealing with the same thing. I was fired from my last job (I’ve been self-employed now for over a year) and the industry I was previously working in is very, very small. I still get major AHAHHFDHFKSDF when I run into someone on the street or just overall feel plain bad that I wasn’t able to be my normal gracious self. I kinda left this industry in a huffy puffy way, which I actually kinda regret now.

    It’s actually had me thinking “oh I need to reach out to all these peeps and apologize for my behavior” blahblahblah. But LW and Cap bring up an interesting point — that all relationships are bilateral. I think if any of them truly cared, they could have just as easily reached out to me and inquired about how I was doing.

    All this to say — I think the overall plan of keeping it cool, calm, and collected is a smart one. It’s kind of like a reset button without having to go into all the context and reasons behind why the reset button is being pressed. Well played.

  24. I wasn’t fired, but my last job was terminated. It was my dream job, and I fully expected to be in that position for decades helping to shape my profession. My boss was fantastic, had mentored me from an assistant position to a leadership position, and our strengths really complemented each other. I had continued working through 3 years of chemo treatment and been supported during the process. I worked for that nonprofit organization for 5 years. It took me a couple of years to get to know people outside of my immediate office. And they were also great people.

    But it was a very toxic work environment. It exploited the employees’ dedication to the mission, while at the same time the director railed against the excessive cost of actually having staff and how personnel costs dominated the budget. It was an extremely disempowering environment where there were no regular performance evaluations and feedback or even concrete goals and work plans, where there were few staff meetings, and those that happened irregularly were many hours long and fraught and terrible. There was overt sexism in who was given what responsibilities and opportunities and also salaries and other compensation. It operated as a realm of petty kingdoms jealous of their perogatives rather than working together toward a common goal. There was a general climate of fear and uncertainty and job insecurity. Entire departments felt under attack (and they were).

    I was sad to lose that job (because the director said we weren’t part of the core mission, and our department was closed). But very relieved to get out. And worried about my friends who still continue to work there. Many people there were rooting for me to find a new job. And I rooted for them to join me in finding better places–we formed a job hunting group together, but they all abandoned it as soon as I found a new job. They stayed because of the tight economic market and sunk costs and fear of the unknown and its inherent risks and lack of energy to put into such a task. I still check in sporadically and keep thinking it can’t get worse there, but it does. It does. And the organization has continued to hemorrhage personnel between positions being terminated (5 including me), people quitting suddenly (4 that I know of), and retirements (2 I think), and most or all of those losses going unreplaced in an organization of less than 30 people to begin with, many less than full time. The director was removed last year, and they did a big nationwide search to replace him and somehow the top candidate didn’t work out, so the local fill-in (who frankly isn’t qualified) appears to be permanent. So it’s not getting better. And the organization keeps limping along presenting a functional facade to the world because 1-2 extremely dedicated people are working 70+ hours to keep it going rather than seeing it fail in any way.

    So there are lots of reasons people are fired, lose their jobs, move on, and it isn’t a sign of moral failure or deep inherent flaws. It’s a bad fit–either because of skills and goals, or because of workplace environment. Toxic is a bad fit for everyone, really. So try to focus on the positive aspects, and the positive interactions you had with former coworkers.

  25. I’m going to drop a recommendation for a cool book I just finished reading, that might be helpful with these sorts of things: “Married to the job: Why we live to work and what we can do about it” by Ilene Philipson. It really made me take a hard look at what I’m getting out of my job/career, and what I’m willing to give. It also showcases how dramatically different our current attitude to work is from even 50 years ago.

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