update: is my job the problem — or is it me?

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager and I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back– there’s more to come today!

Remember the letter-writer wondering whether their job was the problem or they were? Here’s the update. (First update here.)

Three years have passed since I wrote this question and I have a resounding answer to the question – it was the job.

At the time of writing the letter, I was working in a sector that is infamous for its lack of work-life balance. In particular, I worked in a job that entailed dealing with emergencies and putting out fires on a regular basis, and during COVID involved being in touch with communities that were experiencing death on a weekly basis. It was not a great set-up. I resigned from my job a year after writing the original letter to pursue work in a new field. I had a lot of questions and hesitations about ever working in the sector and in the particular type of job I’ve held, and did not know if I ever wanted to do similar work again.

I am happy to report that I am back to doing this type of work part-time in a different field, and plan to build my career in this sector. I realized that while the work itself is very stressful, the stress was made worse by the particular work environment I was in. During my employment, my boss added more responsibilities to my role, and I ended up with what could have been 4-6 full-time jobs, some of which I had no interest in. I therefore always felt behind, trying to manage many tasks and always failing to do them the way I would have liked. My workplace culture was very touchy-feely and involved sharing feelings and personal details about our lives in every staff meeting. At one point, we talked about how our family dynamics showed up in our work relations, if that gives you any hint of the type of culture we had. The expectation was toxic positivity, and the feedback for any idea needed to always be enthusiastic and over-the-moon excited. Giving feedback for improvement was seen as mean or problematic and resulted in scapegoating. My boss was not a direct communicator, and tended to be passive aggressive and gaslighting. I always felt that he didn’t like me, even though he respected me as an employee and could see the quality of my work. His lack of clear communication resulted in me feeling insecure in my employment, and I walked on eggshells in my workplace. My friends and colleagues outside the workplace often told me to quit. Out of our five-members team, three people resigned in the first year of me being there. I resigned two years in, and two of the replacements we hired lasted a year before resigning as well.

Since working at Toxic Positivity Inc., I have worked a lot on my coping and stress reducing skills. I started meditating regularly, taking walks to decompress, and emphasizing work-life balance. Through building these skills, I have also learned that skills aside, some environments are too stressful and too toxic to be sustainable long-term. I consider my former workplace to be one of them. And while it’s true that I do have high work ethics and tend to work very hard, putting me in a risk for burn-out, I have realized that some environments are gentle and supportive enough to help me prioritize my needs, and some environments will see my traits as a way to get more work out of me or control me.

I am happy to report that I am on a new career path that utilizes my old skills in a new field. I am in school part time to support this career change, and am working part-time in the field as well. I love the work I do and the people I work with. When I think about the work I will be doing in the future, I cannot help but feel “I can’t believe I am going to get paid to do this!”. The work is challenging as well in many ways, but having supportive, balanced bosses that respect boundaries and are truly invested in me as a person makes all the difference!

If you are wondering if it’s you or the job, trust your gut – it’s probably the job. No matter how great the work is, you will be able to find similar work that doesn’t entail mistrust towards your coworkers or isolation in your work place. You deserve so much better!

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. TranMod*

    “At one point, we talked about how our family dynamics showed up in our work relations”

    Ooooh, woooow. I’m tempted to say I would go all, “oh, you want me to share my family dynamics, here’s those abusive family dynamics for you…” but in actuality I would lie, lie, lie & deflect bc talking about my abusive family members is way too personal for work. And who wants to hear that, anyway. People have their own stuff to deal with.

    Did they really think through the kind of answers they might get and whether the listeners would be able to handle hearing people’s trauma histories?

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      I hear ya on the abusive family dynamics. The only impact they can have on your work is a negative one while dragging you back down into a bad headpsace. In any job, that’s a nope. In a high stress and traumatic job like the LW had, that’s a NOPE.

      These days I live alone and have four cats. There’s nothing there particularly useful to a job situation either, unless you count “keep the kitty litter scooped” as a metaphor for something.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        I’m adding “keep the kitty litter scooped” to my personal vocabulary! Thank you!

    2. Kit*

      I definitely think the people who come up with these things are imagining people talking about how middle child syndrome made them want to stand out, or how being the eldest informed their management style. They think survivors of childhood abuse are rare and exist somewhere else, rather than potentially being their coworkers.

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        Yes, +100.

        And even situations that aren’t abusive, can be uncomfortable to talk about. Like an extrovert child with two strong introverted parents.

      2. ferrina*

        I’m usually the object lesson on why companies should not do this.

        I was abused as a child, spent all of college studying and trying to figure out what the heck happened, and inadvertently ended up a semi-expert on emotional abuse, cycles of family trauma and cPTSD (at one teaching job I accidentally taught a course on signs of emotional abuse- the original trainer didn’t have any first hand experience, so she pretty much encouraged me to share while she took notes). I’m pretty upbeat and highly functional at work — I don’t fit the stereotype of someone that spent their formative years in a bad space. I don’t talk about my family history at work, but I’m comfortable talking about it. I don’t bring it up because it’s often a horrible experience for the person who has to hear it and it’s not relevant to our work, but if someone forces me to have the “uncomfortable conversation”, they better buckle in.

    3. Boof*

      Bet it was NXIVM type BS about how to gaslight yourself into accepting terrible conditions by saying “Actually it’s your childhood [feeling of being overlooked by your parents] that makes you [sensitive to working unpaid overtime] so the trick to [being happy with working unpaid over time] is to [process your feelings about your parents] and that is totally self improvement not being a doormat!”
      yes that was total ficiton on my part just there [and yet, lw, is that what it was??!]

      1. Staple my heart*

        OP here. Since there’s been a lot of speculation of the context for this example, I feel a need to respond. There’s just something strange about seeing the way people interpret my life and experience without the context.
        In my old workplace we had sessions that were geared towards creating a work environment more aligned with our values as a company. These sessions often felt to me like being in a couples or family therapy session with your coworkers, analyzing your dynamics. In one of the sessions, my boss shared how his family dynamics showed up in our workplace, which started all employees sharing the same. This turned into a going around the room so each person could share their reflections on this topic. As TranMod mentioned, I did deflect, mainly because that’s not the type of relationship I wanted with these coworkers. That dynamic was typical of the workplace – my boss wanting us all to be close friends who talk about everything, sharing with us things that are inappropriate for a boss to share with employees, and then expect all of us to show the same level of exposure. A refusal would be framed as not trying or having emotional blockage.
        Not that this matters, I don’t believe the behavior of my boss was intentionally manipulative or gaslighting. I think he was genuinely trying to create a great workplace for all of us, and his inability to deal with any type of conflict of displeasure created a lot of gaslighting, toxic positivity, forced vulnerability, and disrespect for boundaries.

        1. Boof*

          Gotchya. Lesson learned that I shouldn’t rampantly speculate, and thanks for the update.
          For what it’s worth I think it’s pretty rare for people to be intentionally, knowingly terrible; and even if they were it’d be rare to actually get proof of that. So it’s ok to leave a situation because it’s bad regardless of intentions!

        2. Zarniwoop*

          “ I don’t believe the behavior of my boss was intentionally manipulative or gaslighting.”
          Sometimes intent is less important than effect.

          1. ferrina*

            Agree. He has choices in how he behaves. When he sees people struggling and refuses to reflect on how his actions may be impacting the situation, he’s choosing his own emotional comfort over anything else.

  2. Mapp*

    “I have realized that some environments are gentle and supportive enough to help me prioritize my needs, and some environments will see my traits as a way to get more work out of me or control me.”

    That is very insightful.

  3. Bookworm*

    OP: Thank you for this update and glad to read you’re in a better place! And also agree on that last paragraph. Not in your exact shoes, but I’ve been thinking about that and going through all sorts of emotions, self-blame etc. It’s them, not me. But it was still good to read those closing words. I needed to see them and I appreciate your letter.

    1. ferrina*

      Seconding! This letter is so insightful and well written- really glad OP took the time to check back in and update us! These are words of wisdom!

  4. DramaQ*

    When asked to share about how family dynamics affect your work you should have cast your boss and co-workers as characters. “Yeah my dad liked to ask REALLY invasive and inappropriate questions at times when it wasn’t suitable or productive and here is how that made me feel”. See if they are self aware enough to pick up you are describing them.

  5. Ready to go*

    Oh, I needed to read this today. I’ve been in the same ‘is it me or the job’ place for about a year and a half now and I think I’m finally ready to come to terms with it being the job. It’s so hard – I’ve been here over 20 years and I love the organization and our clients- but I’m also pretty miserable. I leave on a 2 week vacation in a few days and when I come back I’ll be job searching in earnest.

  6. Moodbling*

    I’m currently attending a business school with the same accreditation as Harvard and that whole “share your childhood trauma to build a better team” thing is… currently and actively being taught to MBA students.

  7. Thanks!*

    OP: thanks for sharing this update! I’m still in the toxic workplace and saw myself in your original situation. Great to know better things are on the horizon!

Comments are closed.