Continued from the previous post to give me more time to think and help you rest your scrolling fingers. Click below the jump for: Not automatically taking on new volunteer responsibilities when others pile them on, talking to kids about fatphobia and disordered eating, supporting a friend with an alcohol addiction, and bouncing back when you fail at what other people think is your dream job by finding a better way to tell the story.
Additional content note: I mention pet death (RIP Beadie) in the last answer, because she’s part of my story about leaving a job.
Q9: I’m so frequently voluntold to take on projects or to go way beyond the scope of what I’ve agreed to do that I’ve noticed that I’ve started to avoid or almost resent potential volunteer projects I actually might want to do. How would you suggest I approach this so I can still enjoy “my” time/energy/contributions to “my” projects? Thanks! (she/her/hers)
Overall, it sounds time to review all your volunteer projects and rethink how and where you spend your time. What if you did zero volunteering during the month of June or the whole month of July (keeping in mind that an organization that depends utterly on a single unpaid person to do its work has a management-problem, not a you-problem, and if they can’t hear “I need to take some time off from a volunteer position” without panicking or pressuring you, that’s not something you caused. Volunteers come and go.
Consider also that an organization that can’t process “No, I can’t take that on just now, so sorry!” without pressuring a volunteer has some downright toxic management practices and that it’s your duty to push back on those. “No, I’m at capacity, you’ll have to find another way” isn’t “letting people down,” it’s being smart and intentional and considerate about whether you can or want to honor your commitments. If you burn out and have to drop everything, who does that help? I’m sure what you do is amazing, but someone else CAN handle it, and if they can’t, that’s another management-problem, a “Hey, amazing volunteer, would you work with one of our staff to document your processes so we can train other people?” problem/opportunity.
You do not seem like a person who says “No!” easily, so a good approach to stemming this tendency is to build up your “No” muscles, in general.
One simple (not easy, but simple, direct, achievable, practicable) way to start to change this is to delay saying yes to any assignment or invitation for at least 24 hours. A script could be “Thanks for asking, but before I say yes I need to check my schedule/I need to think about it. When do you need an answer?” Tell this to everyone who invites you to a thing or assigns you to a volunteer project for the rest of 2019. Do this even if you want to say yes, trust that your “yes” will still be good tomorrow and you need to give yourself the gift of time to stop and think about it.
If someone’s voluntelling you (such a great word, that) to do work, they are assuming you’ll say yes, probably based on the evidence they have that you always say yes, but they can’t MAKE you say yes. You can absolutely say “Oh, before I take that on I need to take a look at my schedule and other commitments. Why don’t I let you know this time next week, and in the meantime you can brainstorm a Plan B in case it won’t work for me.” Their assumptions aren’t your obligations.
Start there. A break from volunteering + a blanket “Oh, thanks, that sounds wonderful but I need to check my schedule before I commit” script + a cooling-off period of at least 24 hours before any decision.
Q10: A friend of mine is an alcoholic, and I’m struggling to figure out how to both support her and protect myself from her alcohol-fueled issues. She swings from being my close trusted friend to saying “I don’t know you, everything you say is in bad faith,” depending on how much alcohol she’s had. She also drinks while on prescription meds, and makes herself incredibly sick, which makes me panic. How do I support her here? (ny/nym/nyr)
This is so hard. I’m not an addiction expert by a long shot, I’m sorry I can’t offer you a comprehensive or well-researched solution, esp. in this format, so I’m not going to suggest specific treatment avenues, but here’s a few things I do know:
You can encourage her to get help. “I really want you to get some help with your drinking, friend. I’m really worried about you.” + ask her to talk to doctors, counselors, etc. about a sustainable, ethical recovery program.
You can ask her what she’d like you to do to support her. “When you tell me you’re mixing booze and prescription meds, what is it you’re hoping I’ll do or say?” “When you call me up, clearly shitfaced, what is it you’re looking for?” Does she want you to come to the rescue, boss her around, listen without judging, pass the time, enable her, remind her you love her no matter what? If you’ve never asked her this, try it. (Emphasize agency. Remove shame.)
“I can’t hang out with this friend when she’s drunk, even if that means I see her a whole lot less” is an okay boundary to have. That can be a spoken, explicit boundary with your friend (“Friend, you’re drunk, I can’t hang out with you when you’re like this, let’s cut this short and I’ll call you tomorrow”) or a boundary with yourself about what you’ll do if this friend shows up or calls you when she’s drunk (“Sounds like friend is drunk tonight, for my own peace of mind once I’m sure she’s not in immediate danger, I’m going to cut this phone call short before we get into regrettable territory and text her in the morning.”) You can also set limits about how many times you’ll revisit a certain conversation or negotiation. “We already talked about this.” “You already know what I think.” You can refuse to go places with your friend or spend time with her around consuming alcohol, “Sorry, I’m your pancakes friend, not your booze friend.”
You can also widen your support system, so you’re not alone with this, so you have friends you can count on, and so other mutual friends of this friend can share in the task of being the safety net.
We are very limited in what we can do about another person’s addiction. You can’t make someone get help or change, but when someone is having trouble with boundaries, sometimes having good ones yourself is the kindest thing you can do.
Q11:Any advice for answering my 11yo daughter when she expresses concerns about being fat? Background that makes this tricky: She, her dad, and I are all fat. I got over binge eating disorder and diet culture and am happy where I am. Husband is losing weight due to a medicine he’s on, and he’s happy with that outcome. Meanwhile my (slim) 15yo is in therapy for being at-risk for anorexia. Yikes!
Ask her what’s bothering her about it? She’ll tell you and pretty soon you’ll have a frame for what’s going on [media stuff][bullying][health “concern” manufactured in school by anti-obsesity initiatives][stuff trickling down from you and/or sibling or grandma or someone else in the family]. You have a difficult tightrope to walk, teaching your children that all bodies are good bodies, bodies come in lots of sizes and shapes and that it’s important to be accepting and loving of ourselves and each other, while also being honest about the prevalence of fat hatred, discrimination against fat people including medical discrimination, and a culture that worships a narrow beauty standard and punishes everyone who doesn’t conform. Pretending those pressures don’t exist is going to feel like gaslighting. So bravo to you for being a parent who wants to get this right!
Fortunately the inimitable Scarleteen has a lot of amazing resources about size acceptance and body diversity, here’s a piece they wrote specifically for parents.
You say you’ve made peace with your body, what are the things that helped you overcome disordered eatings? Concrete things that helped me achieve greater health, happiness, and peace with my fat body:
- Retraining my eye and frame of reference: Collecting/curating/viewing lots of images of fat women and fat people in general, being around fat people in community spaces (clothing swaps and fashion social media groups, attending pool parties/beach days/dance parties), celebrating and seeking out good media representation of people who look like me. (Booksmart opens this weekend, it’s not appropriate for an 11-year-old but if an older teen needs to see a movie with a fat lead who has not one single ounce of fatphobia directed her way + the “budding sexuality” story is focused on a gay girl getting her first makeout on, I can say for sure that I, personally, liked it a lot and the trailer will tell you accurately if it’s for you).
- Separating exercise and pleasure in moving my body from the goal of looking a certain way – a Health At Every Size (HAES) pillar. Hanne Blank’s book about exercise is good, I keep meaning to hit up a Dance Dance Party Party session, I try to get into a park district pool 3-4 times/week. There are ways to move that aren’t joyless or goal-oriented.
- Cultivating eating competence and intuitive eating: Food is just food, it’s not “sinful” or shameful, it can be pleasurable but doesn’t have to be some amazing gourmet thing to nourish us. This book came up several times in the quick-and-dirty research I did just now, haven’t read it but it comes with some trusted recs and uses the right lingo.
- Developing boundaries about how I and others are allowed to talk about my body and rethinking the language I use to comment about other people’s bodies. It’s not that I always FEEL awesome about my body (Lenée and I once came up with a whole bunch of terms human parts that were poorly designed: knees = failure pulleys, sinuses = spite caves, teeth = anxiety bones, uterus = tote bag of betrayal), but I don’t do the automatic apology and shame dance I was raised with or reward it in others, I don’t comment on people’s weight.
- Pushing back hard on assumptions about fatness and health, esp. with medical practitioners, like, “Can you explain exactly how losing weight – a years-long process, assuming it’s possible at all which given the lack of peer-reviewed studies showing success at this I do not assume – will cure this sinus infection so I can go back to work this week?” and “You say ‘eat less’ but I just met you for the first time 2 minutes ago and you have no idea how much or what I eat, kindly explain” and “My knee only hurts on the side I fell really hard on and not on the other side, I am symmetrically fat but not symmetrically in pain, so, what would you do for a thin person with exactly one injured knee, great can we do that?” (heyyyyyyy torn meniscus tendon) and “So do thin people not ever get asthma/dizzy spells/heavy periods/anemia/acne/strep throat/insomnia/anxiety/depression, how does that work?” and “I’ve been fat for decades but this change in my body is brand new, weird, is fat like a 3-D printer?” and “Can you make a note in a chart that you are refusing to screen me or treat me for [x symptom] because I am fat? Thanks.” I struggled with this for so long, but I’ve made agreements with my last few (excellent) primary care physicians along the lines of “I follow a HAES approach to nutrition and exercise, let me know if you want info on what that is, additionally I’ve recovered from a ton of anxiety and unhealthy behaviors around dieting and part of that recovery is choosing not to prioritize weight loss at the expense of other health outcomes, so if we’re going to work together I’d like you to focus on other kinds of medical interventions and let me be the one to bring up weight loss as a strategy if I think it’s important.”
I try to use humor and gentleness and educate as I go b/c I have resources and emotional reserves and experience speaking up that not everyone has but I push back, and as a mom you’re probably going to have to do a bunch of this pushing back for your kids until they can do it themselves, and you’re going to have to model it if doctors get overly fixated on weight. Example script: “Hey, appreciate the concern but I’m trying to teach my daughter to not locate all of her health or body concerns in the number on the scale, we can work on ways at home to increase her activity and confidence, but no, given the history of eating disorders in our family, I’m not putting my eleven year old on a diet, there is no evidence that diets actually work and a lot of evidence that restricted eating harms kids, please find another approach.”
Dear Questioner #11, in your own recovery process, I’m betting you learned so many things about how to have a good relationship with your body, so teach your kids about what you learned. What helped you? What did you wish someone had told you when you were small? What helps you now? Kid and teen-friendly versions of those things are profoundly valuable because they come out of your own experience. ❤
Q12: So, I crashed and burned with my high-prestige “big job” and now need to find something more…low-key, I think – I am apparently a bad fit for a senior management role. My family, friends and colleagues are terribly disappointed in me as an employee and human being. I didn’t do anything unethical/illegal or any single terrible thing, I was just lousy at the job. How do I recover and rebuild from here? (she/her/hers)
Oh, I am so sorry. I think this happens all the time, lots of people get promoted into managerial roles that are a bad fit for them because being a subject matter expert or an incredibly skilled technologist or designer or analyst or creative director (or whatever made you and your work stand out to your former company) doesn’t automatically translate to being a great manager of humans and processes and budgets in your department or make you the right diplomatic strategist or advocate who can navigate all the politics and egos and shifting priorities at a company’s highest levels of decision-making. What makes it all worse is that when you are very gifted at something, people assume you either already know how to do everything else or that you’ll magically pick it up on the fly, so they skip over the coaching, training, and preparation that they might give to someone else, and because of, say, misogyny and “look, it’s a competitive industry, if you aren’t willing to work yourself to death while staying incredibly positive the whole time, maybe you don’t deserve to be here” culture, there are costs and risks in admitting that you don’t know something or need help.
I spent enough years in the early 2000s as a temp and contractor working for a bunch of senior executive types in big companies, and between the extremely bright and hardworking ones who’d been promoted away from the things they actually liked doing and were now Don Draper-ing along in self-medicated, workaholic misery and the affable but useless Dunning-Kruger fellas who just cheerfully failed upward until they ran out of up, I’m incredibly comfortable suggesting that many, many people should leave roles like this much sooner. It still sucks when it’s you, and it sucks when it’s not your choice or timeline, and I have all the sympathy, though I truly think in time that you’ll experience not being stuck in that job at that company anymore as a gift.
Bouncing back is going to be a combination of investing in self-care, revisiting all the networking and career stuff you already know how to do, and finding a way to tell a cohesive story about what happened. Do you need me to remind you to sleep and eat and exercise and go to the doctor and update your LinkedIn and call your best old mentors and coworkers and the friends who are encouraging and supportive and avoid the draining ones? Or can we skip to the story part?
The story is that you tried something incredibly challenging and failed. You tried something incredibly challenging and found out it wasn’t the right fit for you. You’ve got a resume and salary history that tells a story called “Hi, I’m impressively experienced, knowledgeable, and expensive!” right? (Please do NOT flinch at charging lots of money for the things you know going forward, if you ever feel doubtful about this send me a message and I’ll message you back with the name of a total dipshit I’ve worked with and exactly how much he got paid to be wrong), plus you have a story that very few people could tell, a story that many people would be interested to know. It’s about being at the highest levels of your field in a respected company, what it’s like to be in The Room Where It Happens.
It’s dramatic and compelling and chock full of lessons. Nobody really cares about a story where everything went perfectly and nothing was at risk, and most people are totally bullshitting the “tell us about at a mistake you made at work” or “what is your greatest weakness” interview questions, but not you! Your story knows stuff, like what would success have looked like? What would have made a difference? Was this organization the right fit for what you want to do in your career? Was it the right fit for what you want to contribute to the world, to where you want to go with your life? What kind of roles make you happiest, what parts of this career do you love, and what tasks would you be happy to never do again? What training and knowledge and experience do you need to be successful?
This is meaningful, useful material that nobody else has, where mistakes were made, not all of them by you, and you won’t make the same ones twice. That’s good shit!
One story. Different audiences, different versions.
- Story #1 is for yourself. An honest reckoning, a period of grieving, a kind and compassionate reimagining, a practical refocusing. Journals & therapists are good outlets for this story.
- Story #2 is for the people you know. Here’s what happened. Here’s where I am with that. Here’s what I need from you. It can be detailed and vulnerable or vague and professional depending on the level of trust in the relationship, not everyone gets to see your scars.
- Story #3 is for professional circles. It’s polished, it’s confident, it takes responsibility, it converts mistakes into lessons, it’s done apologizing, it’s ready to roll up its sleeves and do the damn thing.
Would you like an example? I have at least three stories about leaving adjunct teaching. One of them is called “I decided to take a long break from teaching to focus on writing full-time, let me tell you about all the exciting projects I’m working on! 😀 😀 :-D” (THANK YOU, CAPTAIN AWKWARD READERS AND PATRONS).
Another version covers 12 years of hope and excitement and false starts and grievances and self-recriminations and second-guessing before culminating in the Winter-Spring terms of 2017/2018, which I spent drowning inside my own lungs from persistent bronchitis, under doctor’s orders to minimize speaking or physical activity due to pleurisy and torn cartilage in my ribcage, and yet teaching seven intense production classes across two institutions anyway because I had exactly 1 paid sick day, no paid disability leave or medical leave, and not enough savings to safely forgo the income. In this version, I could tell you all about the day last March where I had to run the numbers to see if I could financially withstand canceling class 1 additional time because my cat Beadie was dying and I’d already used up my sick day, singular on urgent care for myself. (I took the loss and got one last day with my friend, Skyping each of my students to check on their projects while she reeked and leaked all over my lap, the very last hours she knew me and wanted to be awake and loved, hours beyond price while I waited for the vet to call and tell me if there was any hope). This tale has lines like “I am fleeing an ouroboros of sunk costs, exploitation, and debt while I still have life inside my body to run, because while I love teaching, it profoundly does not love me back” and “I’ve started shaking and crying anytime I know I have to go to that place, is today the day I just can’t make myself go in?”
These are both true stories about the same events. Which one goes on my LinkedIn? I was a good teacher and I loved it so much. I am happier to be free, happier to be writing, happier to be here with you. But the grief and regret and “what ifs?” didn’t just go *poof* when I left. It’s all still being written. Integrating them into a whole is part of the healing.
My dear querent, I’m meeting you today while you’re still sunk in the stink of your own failure, but let’s imagine this is a meeting a few months down the road. You’ve applied for a new job, and the company, intrigued by your resume and happy to soak up any juicy tidbits about your departure from their competition, has brought you in for a chat. You’re in your best interview outfit, your hair looks great, your shoes are perfect, you’ve got your lucky earrings on, you’ve got your favorite, perfect pen and crisp new notepad, you’re sitting in a conference room with a glass of water on a coaster in front of you, doing the interview thing that you’ve done many times before, and it’s time. You’ve been conversational and thoughtful in your discussions, asked great questions, provided detailed insights about the position, but it can’t be avoided any longer, it’s time for the part where your interviewer says, “So, I guess we should talk about this. Can you tell us why you left your last job?”
For a moment, the question hangs out there in the air like a fart in a car. And you panic, just for a second, because, who wouldn’t?
But you’re ready for this. You smile ruefully, you laugh and acknowledge how awkward it is for the interviewer to have to ask this and for you to answer, like “Haha yes, I was wondering when we’d get to that, let’s do this.” You take a sip of water, think before you speak, and then you tell your story.
“You probably know this already, but I was let go.
When [Company] asked me to step into the role, I obviously jumped at it, since I like challenges and I was hungry to learn this aspect of the business and reward their confidence in me. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of [cool, high profile exciting things] at that level?
What we quickly learned is that x, y, and z aspects of the role were not the best fit for me, I needed [What is it that you can truthfully say that isn’t about blame, avoiding responsibility, or badmouthing the place to outsiders, and shows off how knowledgeable and diplomatic you are] to truly meet the exact challenges that Company was facing at that moment.]
They really needed a [specific attribute]-person and I am more of a [incredibly positive, useful, but obviously different attribute]-person so parting ways was the right decision for everyone.
It’s obviously uncomfortable to talk about failure, I was incredibly embarrassed at the time and I so wish things had worked out differently, but I can’t regret the attempt. Thanks to that experience, I learned so much about our industry and all the ways I can contribute in this field in my future career, and I also know so much more about where I can really fit in and thrive.
A role like this [the one I am applying for right now, here, with your extremely valuable and important company, you attractive, sympathetic and brilliant people!] is a chance to return to my wheelhouse, and I hope the perspective I gained from my time in the C-suite will help me appreciate, do, and contribute [even MORE extremely cool, useful, impressive, highly-relevant-to-your-exact-needs kind of shit, be strategic and specific about the details you share] even better than I did before.
Adapt to your needs, break it up to be conversational, fill in the mad libs, be specific, but tell the story like only someone who experienced what you did can tell it: with straightforward honesty, courage, regret where its applicable but not too much, insight, evidence that you learned things, and evidence that you are ready to apply those lessons constructively in the future. Don’t forget the killer last question: “Before I go, are there any concerns you have about my fit for the role or past experience that I can clear up for you?”
Interviewers will take their cue from you about how to respond to and feel about mistakes and failures. They know nobody’s perfect, to the point that you would look like an asshole if you tried to pretend everything was perfect, that you were perfect. If they don’t want you, they don’t want you, there isn’t anything you can do to convince them they do. If they do want you, they’ll talk themselves into hiring you, and they’ll use your story to help them do it. Sure, you’ve made mistakes, but what an amazing experience and insight you have, and look how clearsighted and straightforward you are about it! You’re not living in the past or mired in regret or shame or covering anything up or blaming everyone but you.
The positive-corporate-acceptable spin story isn’t the most important story or the only important story, the story about how this all sucks and you hate it and you feel grief and shame and despair, that’s your story, too, you have to take some time to honor that one, and you have to learn the ones that say, “Hey, family, that’s not helpful, what I really need is you to just tell me you’re proud of me” and “Hey Colleague, I know I let everyone down, but you know what a great team we can be for x kind of work, can I count on you as a reference for my new job or to spot me any good leads?” I wouldn’t even necessarily accept the story that says you are inherently bad at senior management roles. If you want those kinds of roles, there are ways you can learn the pieces you didn’t know before. One story, many versions, don’t skip the hard ones, they’ll teach you how to tell the next chapter.
I believe that you can do this, even if you don’t. Everything that got you where you were when your family was bragging about you nonstop, when everyone was convinced of your bright and unassailable future, everything that made you valuable to your employers and marked you as someone to bet on is still within you. Your story carried you this far and the ending is still unwritten.
Since we’re on a poetry kick this week, here’s one about regret: Antilamentation, by Dorianne Laux. I’m wishing you every good thing.
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