McGill-a-Grams: My Job is Killing Me


How do you keep from falling into negative patterns at the office?

By Shannon McGill

"A treadmill for Algernon." Credit: Woodleywonderworks.

“A treadmill for Algernon.” Credit: Woodleywonderworks.

Dear Shannon,

When I go into my job, I am faced with a situation I feel totally out of alignment with. I end up reacting the same way every time: with passive aggression, martyrdom, and my new favorite, being “resentfully supportive.” 

I know my workplace is not going to change, but until I’m able to find something better, how can I keep out of the negativity without adding to it myself?

Stuck in the Groove

Dear Stuck in the Groove,

I hear you, Stuck; oh how I hear you. I have been working lo these many years myself at various jobs with varying degrees of ill-fitted-ness. We’re square pegs, Stuck, the both of us—probably all of us are.

Realize, first of all, that almost nobody feels 100 percent comfortable, fulfilled, or in control at work. I have terrifying realizations on the daily about how much I still don’t know about my job. I am trying hard all the time to improve and learn, but my anxiety, my secret feelings of inadequacy, are tenacious.

Often I find myself wondering, “Does everybody else know something I don’t? A way to prioritize? A way to organize? Has everybody else developed a fool-proof, streamlined process to their workflow?”

Then, inevitably, I have small revelations each week as I watch my co-workers struggle with deadlines and the sheer volume of their work, and remind myself, “Thank God! Everybody else is in the same boat.” To a certain extent, we’re all just pretending to know what we’re doing. We’re all sort of making it up as we go along.

God, I really hope my boss isn’t reading this.

So, first off, I would ask you to keep this in mind. Every job, and—not to get too philosophical, but—every THING is a process. We are never, in any moment, model employees with infallible vision accomplishing our duties with exacting oversight and perfect diligence.

We can try to be, and it is heroic to try, but we’re human beings, okay? Our feelings, our personalities, limitations, and weirdness will always make our professional lives fraught with conflict and messiness.

To a certain extent, we’re all just pretending to know what we’re doing. We’re all sort of making it up as we go along.

Forgive yourself for that, Stuck, right off the bat. Forgive yourself for letting yourself get sucked into unhealthy patterns at work—especially this pattern of over-exertion followed by contempt. That’s just working for a living, buddy. That’s why they call it work and not play.

Part of your problem, and mine too I think, is that we’re romantics. We’ve taken too seriously all the hippie-dippy nonsense we’ve heard about, “Do what you love, follow your bliss, follow your dreams, etc.”

Let that expectation go, Stuck, it’s absolute hogwash, and as working people, we both know it. Understand that having a full-time job with mandatory attendance is necessary for some of us, and we don’t have to love it, and it doesn’t have to fulfill all our spiritual and emotional needs.

Shannon McGill wants to know why you let other people tell you to feel bad about yourself. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Shannon McGill wants to know why you let other people tell you to feel bad about yourself. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

I don’t care how many people in your Facebook news feed are talking about, “My job is so great! I can’t wait to get there every day!” Those people are either liars or sociopaths or both, Stuck, and that’s the straight dope right there.

Draw a very deliberate and very solid line between who you are and what you do. Start there. Not that you have to be a robot, Stuck, but get your heart out of it. When you get out of your car in the morning, lock your heart up in your glove compartment. Repeat after me: “I am not my job. I am not my job.”

That should go at least part of the way toward making you feel less resentful, I think. If you’re able to, compartmentalize your feelings. “This is Work Me not taking things personally like  Real Me might.”

Attitude is everything, as they say, so once you put your job and your job-related feelings in their proper place, that might be all you need. But there are actions too, that will help.

Set clear, measurable limits, and make them clear to your co-workers. “I will be here by this time. I need to leave by this time. I need at least this much time to make such and such happen.”

Putting conditions on your output is the best. It gets everybody on the same page and eliminates confusion and uncertainty, which, almost inevitably, will lead to you and your work ethic being taken advantage of.

When you get out of your car, lock your heart up in your glove box. Repeat after me: “I am not my job. I am not my job.”

You may be a hard worker, but there is no need to work yourself into the ground, and I don’t think anyone expects you to. First you have to determine for yourself how much and how fast you are willing to work, and then you have to communicate that to the other people with whom you are working.

It really is that simple. Even if you are the low man on the totem pole, you still get to choose when your work begins and ends. Feeling engaged in that choice and taking it seriously will make you feel better; like I said, when limits and expectations are clearly communicated, workplace harmony will naturally ensue.

All of this is easier said than done, of course, because maybe you feel sheepish about standing up for yourself or maybe you fear that you will put your job in jeopardy if you push back at all. But listen, there are ways to protect yourself and advocate for yourself and still be professional and respectful of your superiors.

No matter how stressful your situation is right now, for heaven’s sake, don’t lose your temper. Blowing up or acting out of anger might feel better in the short term, but career-wise, it is never a good idea. Irrational outbursts only end up haunting you professionally (don’t ask me how I know that.)

So there you go, Stuck, a two-part plan: 1. Divorce yourself emotionally from your job; and 2. Determine your limits and expectations and communicate them to your coworkers.

If none of that works, maybe a change of scenery is the thing. In that case, I hope there is another, better and brighter opportunity just around the bend. Godspeed!

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