Find – and learn – your work story

I saw our neighbor recently. I don’t see him that often—he’s a very nice guy, but he’s hardly ever home, and also, he has a grown son who moved back in with him for stints over the past several years and this guy had an unfortunate penchant for working on cars and motorcycles in their garage (illegally) and gunning the motors for long periods of time, thus filling OUR house with exhaust fumes and noise. This has increased the distance between us, but after years of gnashing my teeth about it (and hearing other neighbors complain about it too), I decided to just let it be.

ANYHOO, I saw him outside his house and I decided to let him know about electrical upgrade work that we and other neighbors have commissioned, because some of it may affect his property. He was awfully nice about it and in the course of discussing the whys and hows of electrical upgrades to 50+ year-old houses like ours, he blurted out that he had recently left his job—a job he had held for almost two decades—because he was so burned-out and overworked.

Over the next 15 minutes, I heard a lot about how he was feeling: shellshocked, grieving for the loss of his work identity, uncertain about what he was going to do next or even how he was going to spend each day. He was upset about losing daily contact with his colleagues, many of whom he had managed since the beginning of his time with that company and viewed as his dearest friends and family. There was a lot of emotion pouring out of him—this, from a man who I had barely exchanged 20 words with during the entire time we’ve lived here. But TBH, this has been happening a lot to me. In the past few years, many people I barely know and some who I don’t know at all have been confiding their work-related feelings to me. People like: my primary care doctor. My dentist. Strangers we meet on trips. Former colleagues. Current colleagues. And now, my neighbor.

As an aside, I don’t know whether this is happening to everyone, or just me. There are probably a number of factors, like: the stress and trauma we’ve endured over the past few years, the shifting boundaries between work life and personal life, etc. My husband says it’s because I don’t shut the door on a person once they’ve shared a feeling with me. Like, once a person tells me they’re feeling some kind of way about a work situation or their life in general, he thinks I then make some type of encouraging comment that invites further confidences and feelings. I don’t know that I necessarily WANT to be on the receiving end of all of these feelings, but I do know that I’m not actively discouraging this sharing (if I did that, I’d feel guilty about it for days afterwards).

People have often told me that I would’ve made a good leadership coach or therapist, which I think does a disservice to the rigorous training that coaches and therapists go through. I don’t actually think my advising skills are particularly extraordinary, to tell you the truth. But I have thought about ways I could be more helpful to people who are going through work stress and trauma and one thought I had was that maybe I could help people develop their own work stories—the stories about what is happening to them and what they’re feeling, so maybe their feelings and situations might make more sense, and they can then process things and, you know, move on with their lives.

What do I mean by work stories? Well, stories and narratives are a large part of what I do for a living, as a communications consultant and a writer. There are lots of stories people want to tell about the good work they do, either at a foundation or at a nonprofit, but they either don’t have the time or the skill to capture those stories in ways that are authentic to their voices and lived experiences and in ways that would be meaningful and compelling to their desired audiences. So I help them do that. For the most part, I don’t put MY voice into these stories, although I confess, occasionally a stray thought from my interior snarky monologue escapes into a piece I’m writing and then it’s usually caught and I’m gently reprimanded (while also receiving confirmation that yes, it was funny). My job is to help people tell the stories they want to tell, in ways that feel true to them and to the story itself.

Stories are so powerful across so many circumstances and groups of people. They bring people together. They move us to feel things, and learn things. Ergo, I feel like stories could help people process their work stress and trauma, too. To be clear, I don’t think it’s possible to shape these stories when you’re still mired neck-deep in the challenging work situation—that’s like asking, “Hey, how are you doing?” to a person drowning in a boiling cauldron. But I think that once you’ve made a decision to either stay with the work you’re doing or transition to something else, then I think that yes, putting the work into shaping your own narrative about what happened to you at work can be both healing and give you some freedom to move on.

What does a good work story look like? Well, work stories go beyond the feelings you’re feeling, and the feelings everyone else is feeling about your work situation, many of which you may not even be aware of. Number one, you should try to describe what you think happened. Number two, you should include a timeline about what happened (unless you’re feeling avant-garde). Number three, you should try to sort out where you might be applying a cause-effect theory where it really doesn’t belong—e.g., you’re saying, “If only I had done this or this, that wouldn’t have happened,” when really, what happened was probably not due to any one thing you did or said, or any one thing anyone else did or said, it was likely an amalgamation of bad timing, bad leadership, the pressure of external circumstances, etc.

A few years ago, I left a job I loved very much, at an organization I loved very much, with employees who I liked and respected enormously, some who I even loved, very much. I was so very, very tired—tired of my insane commute to San Francisco, wrung-out after a year of fighting back against the horrible, horrible decisions and actions of the Trump Administration, and tired of all the roiling internal politics at the organization, some that were rooted in legitimate issues and some that were not.

My first few months after I left that job, I did NOT have the story straight in my head about what had happened at that job, no sirree. I was distracted by other events, like my parents’ declining health. I had also made what turned out to be a very good decision to keep on working with the leadership coach I had started with while still at the organization (on my own dime). He is such a wonderful human being, so gifted as a coach and so wise and compassionate as a person, he helped me move through the exhaustion and stress and grief I was feeling about leaving that job so I could eventually understand what my work story was. Which went something like: I had done some good work and made some significant positive contributions while at the organization, but I had also made some mistakes in judgment and understanding. I still had so much to learn about what advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion looks like at an organization, versus what it looks like in the world at large. Some of the people I worked with were incredible, lovely human beings, and some were just too caught up in their own issues to do anything other than stir up shit and bad feeling.  The things I was good at—strategy, culture, communications—I was still good at, but I still had a strong tendency to overshare my thoughts and feelings with the wrong people.

In other words, I got my story straight about what had happened to me at that job. And that helped me move on and preserve and cherish what had been valuable and meaningful to me about that work experience, and leave behind what had been toxic and debilitating.

So for the many people out there who are going through or have gone through complicated, exhausting work experiences, I encourage you, if you can, to start thinking about how you would write your work story. You don’t have to actually write it down anywhere. It just has to eventually jell into a consistent narrative that you can let sit and rest awhile. Maybe you can come back to it now and again to remind yourself about what you learned from your story, and how you grew, but the object here is to get you past the point of perseverating over every single thing that happened to you and every single feeling you felt to the point where what happened to you at a job makes a kind of cohesive sense.

Some tips about writing your own story:

–Recognize that your work story is not likely to line up perfectly with what someone else’s version of what happened to you at work. It is perfectly possible for people to look at the exact same sequence of work events and draw entirely different conclusions about the whys, the hows, and the behaviors at play. The point of this exercise is not to convince someone else about your version of events as you saw them happen. The point is to give YOU greater understanding and peace of mind about the work events.

–Also, if you are writing a story in which you behaved faultlessly and everyone ELSE is the villain, you might want to question the reliability and honesty of your narrator (YOU). Don’t be TOO hard on yourself, but don’t cast yourself as the misunderstood heroine/hero, or even as the hapless victim. In every single work story, you had agency. Maybe you didn’t feel like you did—because of financial pressures, extenuating circumstances, etc.—but you definitely retained some level of agency. Whether or not it was as much as you’d like is something you may want to tease out and examine further as part of your narrative.

–Your story might shift a little over time, if new facts get introduced or if you have experiences later on that make you better understand what happened to you in one particular work situation. That’s okay! You know why? Because you’re the author of your own story! No one else needs to get the updates unless they were, in some way, integral to your work story. But I don’t know many people who follow other people’s work stories that closely (although I will admit, Don’t Worry Darling had me enthralled there for a good few weeks).

Finally, your work story should be a touchstone. Once you make some sense out of what happened to you, in a way that adheres to the facts of what happened and feels true to how you felt about or still feel about what happened, then your narrative should be something that you can occasionally return to for memory’s sake, but that you can also leave alone. Listen, I get a big thrill every time I re-read Return of the King and the Riders of Rohan sweep down upon the fields of Pelennor, but I do not, I repeat, I do not read that book every single day. It’s a narrative I return to because it meant something to me and it still does, but I don’t need to live in that story that often.

I am really, truly sorry for what you went through in your difficult work situation. I am also sorry for all of the external pressures you were dealing with that made it even tougher to negotiate your difficult work situation. Please believe me when I tell you that you are the author of your work story, and that developing and memorializing that narrative might just help you move on.