One of our common experiences as adult survivors of a damaged past (ASDPs) is that, when it comes to friendships and work relationships, we often find ourselves in the “helper” role. Which can be a familiar place for us to be in emotionally. We unconsciously bring that role into our adult lives, especially at work, because commonly our adult caretakers inappropriately put us in that role to support them while growing up. It can become a point of pride for us to be a source of emotional support for our coworkers, because we commonly grew up hearing, “You’re so easy to talk to; nobody understands me like you do.” Sound familiar?
Which is okay…until it stops being okay. When does it stop being okay? When you can’t get your work done because there is always someone in your work area wanting to unload their worries or latest drama. Or when coworkers only seek you out for personal advice but they don’t invite you to fun after-work get-togethers. Or when you go home emotionally drained and lonely because your hours have been soaked up by other people’s negativity. Or they call you at home “just to talk.” You’ve become your company’s in-house social worker. Your colleagues aren’t your work friends. They’re your case files.
“I feel like I’ve become the emotional pack mule for my coworkers,” says Karen. “I’m the one they pile their problems on. I’m carrying around the weight of other people’s issues. The load keeps getting heavier and heavier. My gift of being a good listener (which I am and I’m proud of it) is turning into a career liability. I can’t concentrate on my own work. Someone else’s emotional emergency always seems to be more important than the project in front of me. I don’t know how to say ‘no’ to them without being mean and selfish.”
"Someone else’s emotional emergency always seems to be more important than the project in front of me. I don’t know how to say ‘no’ to them without being mean and selfish."
This dynamic happens so gradually that often ASDPs don’t even know it’s costing them until it feels like it’s too late to reverse the trend. We blame ourselves for letting it go on too long. And we don’t know how to back out of the role of amateur therapist without putting relationships at risk. But one day it gets to the point where there’s no denying the toll. And something must be done. Now.
Karen says, “It got to the point where I felt like my future was just draining away out of an open vein. And I even stopped caring about my own needs and interests because others were filling my head with their big troubles. I was being squeezed out of my own life. That’s when I knew I had to save myself. But how?”
I’m not here to tell you that reversing course is going to be easy. You will probably inadvertently hurt some feelings. Maybe some people will take your new boundaries personally and react in an over-the-top kind of way. But here is some advice from my own personal journey that might help you feel supported as you take your first steps in the direction of being your own champion:
Know what’s your “property” and what belongs to your coworkers.
This is the foundation of everything else you do to reclaim your focus, time and emotional energy. When a coworker is taking up your time with personal problems, are you somehow absorbing the negative feelings that come from those problems? Do you find yourself demoralized and it’s hard to return to a sense of positivity around your day and projects? Your property is giving yourself what you need to focus on your responsibilities and career with confidence, creativity, and peace of mind. Your coworkers’ problems and challenges are their property. Don’t try to take their property away from them, even if it feels like you’re helping them. If you want to start building up your understanding of the “property” concept, a great place to start is the May 13 entry in Melody Beattie’s fantastic book, The Language of Letting Go. It’s one of my favorite days of her year. I refer to it frequently.
Have scripted responses ready to deploy when people want to interrupt your day with their problems.
“I’m under a deadline right now and need to stay focused on my work.” “This sounds like a perfect concern to bring to your boss.” “Did you know the company has an employee assistance program?” “I’ve got five minutes, what’s up?” Or use humor: “This one is above my paygrade. I’d be practicing without a license if I advised you on this issue.”
Use body language to signal your unavailability.
Karen has found that wearing noise-cancelling headphones and keeping her back to her cubicle opening sends the “do not disturb” message.
If you have to specifically express your new boundaries, focus only on needed behavior changes.
“I need to work uninterrupted from 8:30 to noon.” “I know we’ve gotten into the habit of just dropping by, but I’m building a new work habit. Let’s text each other first to be sure it’s a good time for a chat.” And then cut down on your availability for those chats.
Prepare for potential drama.
If emotionally needy coworkers have latched onto you, they might resent your new ground rules. They may take them as a personal rejection or criticism. They may try to re-recruit you into the role of therapist by playing on your own emotional triggers. Stay calm, stay focused on your requested behavior changes, and go back to May 13 in Language of Letting Go, to review what’s their property. And what’s yours.
Find non-coworkers to confide in.
If you have workplace confidants yourself – people you turn to for personal, emotional support – find people outside of work to take on that role. You’ll be demonstrating through your own actions that your boundaries are clear and easy to understand. They can’t use the excuse, “But you’re doing it too,” to rationalize their intrusive behaviors on your work day.
Above all: Be your own hero, taking care of your own property.
You may feel like you’re being selfish to make yourself unavailable to coworkers who just need someone to talk to. And old voices in your head might try to shame you into dropping your early boundary-setting attempts. You can prevail.
You’re not being selfish. You’re doing your job. Unless your title is Company Chaplain or Company Therapist, every workplace minute you spend acting as your coworkers’ chaplain or therapist is a minute you’re not doing the job you’re being paid to do.
Demonstrate to your colleagues through your actions what it looks like to set expectations and uphold high-performance behaviors. That actually might be the biggest favor you can do for them.
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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt