Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Line in the Sand

Periodically someone whose opinion is important to me makes a comment that brings up this topic – drawing a line between self and work (not so different from the line between self and family…but that’s too long a topic for one little nightly blog).

From 1986 to 2000 I worked for an executive search firm that was obsessive, as most of the successful ones are, with client service. (One of the best ways to justify high prices, apparently.) We admin assistants usually had to take up the slack on ignored deadlines – our bosses would run out to do something they pretended was important – with a client or their personal lives, their personal lives of course being more important than ours. I remember many instances of making family or friends wait while I finished typing or proofing or copying a project to get it in that night’s Fedex, or even canceled doctor appointments when an important client or even just a prospective client (any degree of client being God in that environment) was waiting for something from us.

In our office we had a saying that the more dysfunctional admins were more successful. I don’t think we spelled it out to each other but we admins, maybe even the bosses, all had some degree of awareness that those who were children of alcoholics and/or motherless daughters, and in some sad cases women in currently abusive relationships, did “better” at putting up with the pressure to sacrifice self.

The New York office had a different cultural dynamic than our Dallas one – there the admins still worked very hard and probably made similar sacrifices but were known to utter comments like this infamous though brilliant “Enough!!!” cry:

"And why don't you stick a broom up my butt while you’re at it, then I can sweep the floor while I type!”

Even after I was no longer an admin and had transferred to a sister company that did less pricey work but still prided itself on customer service, I found myself working evenings and weekends. The overtime wasn’t specifically requested of me but I was praised as someone who “got” business needs and showed a sense of urgency and service orientation

Only after my 6 months at home in 2002 (I had volunteered for a severance package to focus on my writing) did I really pull back from the martyr end of the worker continuum. After I went back to the corporate world – in a job with yes, a client service focus since that was what I knew and had a pedigree in – I still grieved for the months at home when Sarah was both boss and employee, peer and janitor, everything. I missed the world where only Sarah made the rules, scary and imperfect as that world was (no completed novel, no paycheck, frequent questioning of my talent and my work ethic…sunny fun!, yes). That sense of loss hasn’t sunk down too far from the surface years later, but I have a strongly automatic response to the sad twinges: “You need a paycheck!” Yes, OK.

The psychotherapists of my lifetime have had varied perspectives on office pressures. One took extra pains to listen since she was developing a subspecialty as a workplace coach, my current one is experienced and compassionate enough to let me tell my story and respond as if the story is new. But another therapist, that I saw briefly in the early 1990s and think of as the Monkey Man (he was small and hairy with a twisted expression, once I spotted him on Greenville Avenue in an expensive convertible and I swear, he looked like a monkey in a clown car), was determined not to see anything positive in my attachment to my job.

Here is some good perspective on Dr. H, who by the way was recommended to me by a former therapist, a wonderful and helpful and sensitive guy, who had moved out of state – one day I waited 10 minutes past our start time for Dr. H. to come out of his office into the waiting room. (He had a solo practice with no receptionist). At which time he barked at me for not knocking. I said, I didn’t knock because your door is usually open so I thought you might still have a patient in there. He said, But this is your appointment time. Don’t you think enough of yourself to announce your arrival? (oooookkkkkaaaayyy)

Now you see, or wonder, why I kept going to him for multiple months – well…because he was so extremely challenging of my personality type that I thought I might get some good balance out of it. And when I fired him – which in the therapy world means, calling to say, “I’m not coming back,” without agreeing to come in for a goodbye session – it felt really good.

In our most memorable session, after what I admit was a l-o-n-g Sarah Monologue about a Rubik’s Cube set of international travel arrangements I had had to make for a client, covering time zones including China, and requiring me to go in early and stay in late and check messages from home (folks, this was before the Age of Email, so checking in from home was especially cumbersome), Dr. H. asked this thunderously resonant question, in reference to work-life barriers (come to think of it, I don’t think the phrase “work-life balance” had been invented yet either):

Why don't you draw a line in the sand with your boss.

My response was immediate, since I had thought about this question – even if it had not been directly asked of me – a lot and defended my choices a lot: “Well, the admins who draw that line, and stay on the side of it, are not successful in my office environment.”

His response was a monkey-like smirk.

“So....Dr. H., are you saying that it’s not possible for a well-adjusted person to be a successful admin assistant?”

In my memory, he just kept smirking at that.

I meant to mention earlier – it sounds quite dysfunctional to mention it here – really, it sounds dysfunctional anywhere I would mention it…my boss and his wife always made a point of remembering me on all holidays (including Valentine’s Day and Halloween), work anniversaries and birthdays. Think of the impact of this on a 20-something, even 30-something motherless daughter who felt lost in a family of 3 siblings and 6 stepsiblings. My boss D. and his wife felt like my family in a way. And I expected family to expect things from me. Yep. That was our office dynamic.

After Dr. H. I tried to stay with therapists who were at least willing to discuss my work dynamics – to talk through the complexities with me – without making blunt statements and donning monkey faces.

I made the big career break with the big boss D. in 2000, but I made a smaller, earlier break in 1997 when I stayed in the same office but transferred from him to supporting two junior partners. At first it was a blessed relief – the pressure of our workload and our 11 years together had gotten me to the point of literally yelling at him to get his attention – but I found that within a few months, hell maybe even just weeks, I missed working for him. It was partly the prestige – an admin’s rank is clearly determined by the rank of her boss – but I also missed the busy days, the sense of work importance, the Being Needed, with capital letters. My then-therapist, the workplace coach type, said there might be an important lesson in learning to embrace the less-busy daily reality that my new bosses generated, but I confess that idea made even less sense to me than “line in the sand.”

My old job was available because my replacement, a tough-talking Chicago native who told me proudly in the interview that she was “Not afraid to say no to people like him” (and I don’t think I imagined the dig at Southern-gal Sarah in there) had had one issue too many with D. and was ready to move on. Her story was that she questioned D.’s ethics. His version was that she had made too many major mistakes (this could have happened to anyone…but one night she parked a super-important binder of client info in an empty cardboard box without noticing the box had an old “trash” sign on it…). After I went back to D., more than one client told me that my temporarily permanent replacement did not have my customer service orientation.

For a long time this same woman was the only person I knew who had returned a shelter dog to the shelter, after having given up on him. I think I connected that with her giving up on a tough office job. Saying it was the right thing to do, but basically not being up for the challenge.

But…this July I also gave back a dog that I had earlier sworn to love. That experience changes a person’s judgment of situations, self and others.

These days I really try not to work more than 40 hours. Yes, finally, I consider myself more important than the job. (And I have guilt repercussions for that. Maybe genetic, definitely familial. More therapy is needed…)

But the job I have right now does not generally demand – at least not loudly – more than I offer. During the mega-hours-a-week years I got superlative reviews and frequent raises. And often a bonus. And annual profit sharing. That was their part of the deal. They met it.

So, what is the moral. I don’t know, and I won’t ask the Monkey Doc. But it needs more therapy…enlightened therapy. Non-simian.


Jodette said...

Well, dear, you know how "balanced" I am. I was always an exceptional assistant manager, yet never a good manager. My forte is the one woman office. Set my own hours, set my own goals, boss rarely bothers me. Yes, we who are "damaged" are often more inclined to tolerate bullshit. But I belive with age & enlightenment we learn to draw that line in the sand, not just with our jobs but with what our priorities are in life.
I think we are doing just fine.
Love you,

Library Lady said...

Did Bucho leave the Bowie family?!?

SarahBowie said...

Bucho became increasingly aggressive and I ended up taking him to a shelter. The relatives we got him from didn't want him back. Hopefully he has been adopted by someone who can give him lots of attention and exercise. Sadly, he doesn't do well with other dogs. Our house had become a combat zone, us against Bucho. I hated to do that to Bucho but the rest of us, especially sweet Billie, were really suffering.

Showing up for the Muse said...

I'm inspired to confess a dark sublimated side of my past. Had to give back THREE dogs. I feel so ashamed. I have cats, chickens, and co-care for cows and pigs. Two dogs came as a surprise, against my pleas, and then became my sole responsibility...and I just couldn't see the neglect in their eyes... Actually the last dog was taken from me. I hope they are all in a better place- but it does make me re-think my moral choices, and inner judge. Oh- this is hard.
I am also thankful to live a teacher's creative life- no cubicles- just 9 months of serf-hood.