I gave a presentation at the 2014 HighEdWeb Annual Conference called Playing Politics last week, about how to navigate the human aspects of the workplace in a positive way. It talks about how people think, and why they make the decisions they do, and adapting behavior to different personality types, and when to keep your mouth shut.
One of the questions I got in the Q&A was so simple and yet has sent me spinning for days thinking about it. I was asked what to do if you’ve made a lot of political mistakes, but didn’t realize what you were doing, and had a lot of ground to recover. I replied that it would take time to rebuild…but the real story is longer and harder than that. It’s a question of resiliency – how you get back up after you fall down. I couldn’t help but think of the story of the last few years of my life, when I reached some of my lowest lows, but have managed to get back up.
So, here’s the story I’ve never fully told – my perspective on being pushed down, and how I got back up.
Three years ago, things were going well. I had a good job – not a great one, but a good one. I was making good progress in my PhD program. I had a great professional community with HighEdWeb, the conference and professional association, at the center of it. I don’t know how to describe to people the sense of family that exists in this particular professional community. They aren’t just colleagues and co-workers. They are friends, teachers, mentors, and confidants. It’s a welcoming community where I found acceptance in a way that I never had before. I had just come off a big win of a red stapler award at the 2011 annual conference, which sounds silly but really is one of those things I’m most proud of in my professional career because of the community that honored me with it.
A few weeks after the award, I got married. It was a small, thrown together ceremony attended by family (of course) but also by many of my co-workers and friends from the HighEdWeb community attended. It was an amazing day with amazing people. My personal life, my educational life, and my professional life were, seemingly, on track.
And that’s when my life started to fall apart.
To add a bit of context before digging into the story: I have a specific personality type that is socially awkward and commonly misunderstood. Heck, I even misunderstand the intentions of others with this specific type – of people that are, essentially, mirror images of me. It’s a tricky one. But, nonetheless, I accepted long ago that in doing things that seemed normal and made complete sense to me, people would interpret it in a way completely differently than what I had intended. None of this is to solicit sympathy – it’s merely to explain that I have lived a lifetime of having people read my words and my actions in the worst possible way and it was just something that I was use to. So, when those types of things happened, it was just par for the course.
So when things really started to fall apart, I didn’t notice at first. It all came on in a way that is shockingly similar to the frog dying in a boiling pot of water. If you boil a pot of water and then throw the frog into it, it will just jump right out. But, if you put the frog in a pot of water and bring it to a slow boil, the frog will not even notice what is going on around them until it is too late.
I was in a slow, boiling pot of water, and I had no idea what was about to hit me.
Things at work and in my professional community would just happen here and there that seemed weird, but were so minor that I barely even gave them a moment of my attention in the grand scheme of things. At work, it was rumor here, or gossip there. My boss sending me an email specifically to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to do things as if I had done them, but I hadn’t. Meetings I was excluded from. Ideas of mine that were taken and given to others to implement. In the community, it was people making a remark here or there that seemed to be said in malice, but that I didn’t understand and wasn’t inclined to explore because it didn’t seem like a big deal and I just wanted to focus on my work.
Then it started to get worse. More extreme gossip and rumors – things that no longer could be categorized as misunderstandings but were just downright lies. Or people attacking me online out of nowhere. Or me sending someone an email to try to figure out what was going on and getting a tirade in response telling me what a horrible person I was. Every time it happened, it didn’t make sense to me – these were people I considered friends and all of a sudden, it seemed like I was on the receiving end of a mean girls attack in high school.
And then it hit bottom.
To preface this, I will readily admit that I am not perfect. I make mistakes – I’ve made a lot of them. But not to the best of my recollection have I deliberately tried to hurt people. People like me are introverted, socially awkward, and probably have, or have had, a decently low level of self-esteem which manifests itself in all sorts of weird ways. But, at the end of the day, I’ve always cared about the people around me being happy and would do the best that I knew how to achieve it, even if it meant prioritizing it over other things. And, like anyone who has a self-esteem issue or two, I really just wanted people to like me (very high school, I realize, but adult life is more like high school than many of us will dare admit).
So like the boiling pot of water, everything escalated very quickly. Suddenly, people I had know for years, and considered friends, hated me. People I had only had a few conversations with in my life hated me. People I had never even met, or spoken to, hated me. When I met new people in my professional community, they would look at me with daggers coming out of their eyes and wouldn’t even shake my hand. I was unfriended on Facebook, unfollowed on Twitter, removed from connections on LinkedIn…which may not seem like a big deal but in this particular community, it is. I received phone calls from all over from people calling to tell me that others – many of whom I had barely ever spoken with in my life – were making a special effort to tear me apart at networking events. I never knew who would hate me for reasons that they would never take the time to explain. I had no idea who to turn to, or who I could trust. My job was destroyed, my professional reputation was destroyed, and people who had I considered my friends turned their back on me without a hint of an explanation. It wasn’t until it all came crashing down around me that I could see clearly what…who….was responsible, and why. Money, power, intrigue. It had all the makings of a good novel.
To this day, I know bits and pieces of what’s been said about me (and, spoiler alert, a lot of it is blatantly false and the rest exaggerations of the truth), but I’ve never gotten the full picture of it. And I’m actually thankful for that, because I’m sure it’s far worse that even I know and having the full story would likely just do more harm than good. I was fooled by the person at the center of it and so I don’t blame, necessarily, the people around him who were fooled by the stories as well.
In the midst of all of this, I felt more alone and discarded than at any point in my life. My self-esteem plummeted to new lows and I sank into a deeply depressed state. I’m not going to lie, dear readers – it was bad. Someone had literally done their level best to destroy my life, all to take my job and make more money. But even though I felt incredibly alone, I wasn’t. My husband, of course, stood by me. He wasn’t involved in any of the same social circles that were now crumbling. All he knew was that I came home crying almost every day. He was always there to support me, no matter what. And there were a core group of women friends from my professional community that rallied around me and picked me up.
And slowly, I started to build back. I found a new job at a company I adored. I maintained a presence in the professional community, even though that required being around people who still looked at me as though I was the devil. I actually looked at it as an opportunity to expand my relationships with people in the community that I knew but didn’t consider a friend – it was the best decision I ever made. And, I built outside hobbies and side projects. I started Zen Workplace, continued work on my PhD, and started a few other side projects. But most of all, I put a lot of time and effort into understanding the workplace dynamics that resulted in the position I was in – on things I could change in myself to alter the way people perceived me. I read everything I could get my hands on about workplace bullying and office politics and change management. I came out of it wanting to teach people everything I learned about creating win-win situations at work so that no one feels they need to destroy someone else to get ahead. There are better ways.
I don’t want to give the impression that everything was rosy from here on out, because it wasn’t. Building something from scratch is hard, and I took a lot of bumps along the way. I still have people that hate me for no apparent reason, but I’ve learned not to hang my head in shame when they give me a look of doom. It’s their problem, not mine. The company I went to eventually ended up crumbling around me (though I was more of an innocent bystander this time), with a lot of really great people leaving and a lot of really poor leadership left over. But, because I really do believe that everything happens for a reason, that just pushed me to leave for the job I have now, which is basically the coolest job in the world.
Taken purely from personal experience, and not from any research out there, here are the things I learned from this process:
Don’t be a victim. Did I do the things I was accused of by the troll and the minions? No. Do I believe I was a target of workplace bullying? Absolutely. Am I still angry about this to this day? You bet. But, at some point, to move forward I had to move myself out of feeling like a victim in this situation. It was only when I moved on and empowered myself that I was able to escape the depression and turn things around. You are the only one that can pull yourself out of it.
Attitude is everything. My best friend in the world just got out of prison after serving eight and a half years for a crime he did not commit, and he has a long road of rebuilding ahead of him. Through it all, I have never spoken to him or visited him when he did not have a smile on his face, a great attitude, or a set of plans for the future. You can approach even the darkest situation with a positive attitude, and there are rewards to be reaped from doing so.
Change what you can. A giant part of this process, for me, was understanding what I could have done differently in this situation. Could I have prevented my attacker from staging that specific brand of warfare? No. Could I have done a better job of identifying the signs, or building better relationships with people who fell susceptible to it? Absolutely. Use your mistakes in the past as a learning experience – fail forward is a term that is about as cliché as they come, but in this situation, it’s very relevant.
Make plans. If you could do anything, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you get there? Put together a plan of attack and give yourself a roadmap. You may not achieve everything overnight, but working towards a goal is critical to maintaining that positive attitude and moving forward productively.
Fake it ‘til you make it. My self-confidence was absolutely shot, but I put on a happy face and acted as if it wasn’t. After weeks (and months, and years) of doing that, it came back. Just know that everyone in the world has moments when they are down, and feel like they aren’t good enough. How you move past it is what matters. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will – even if you just present a pretense of belief for a while, the world doesn’t know any better.
Find people to trust. You need to have a support system in your life to re-build. You need people who you can talk to, vent to, who are going to tell you that you’re awesome and boost you up when you can’t do it yourself. This social support is critical. Find your people, and then let them help you through it.
‘Eff ‘em. Somehow, I’ve done a great job of convincing people that I don’t care what they think of me. It is the most untrue thing in the world! I’m a human being – I want people to like me, and appreciate what I bring to the table. However, I had to come to the realization that I simply cannot do anything about the people that choose to hate me for no reason, particularly when they refuse to talk to me about it at all. I have literally done nothing to them. So, if they want to stand in the corner and look at me hostility, or unfriend me on Facebook, so be it.
Keep those around you in their proper sphere. There are those people who hated me at one time that have come back around. Maybe they’ve realized what really happened, maybe they didn’t – I don’t know because I’ve never talked about it with any of them. But regardless, I truly don’t blame them for this situation. So to move on, I don’t treat them as horribly as I was treated – that’s just not healthy, for them or for me. But I do keep them very much at arms length. It’s important to be civil, to forgive, and to let go as much of that anger as possible for wrongs (real or perceived) that have been done to you in the past. But, it’s also important not to forget – when you do that, you just open yourself up to it happening again. It’s a tight-rope act to be sure.
Do good in the world: My husband and I were a block and a half from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off. Thankfully, we were not hurt. But this was a life-changing experience and led to me joining the Dana-Farber Marathon Team for the 2014 Boston Marathon, where I raised over $5,000 for innovative cancer research (I’m also running the 2015 marathon too, if you want to donate!). Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was the real turning point. I saw people that have it a lot worse than I do approach it with the best attitude in the world. If they could do it, I have no excuse.
Stay positive, and keep moving forward. It just takes time. The moral of this story is that if I can dig out of the hole I had, anyone can dig out of making political missteps in their worlds. People are generally good, and it is the rare unequivocal bastard that is out to destroy someone’s life. Give it time and make positive changes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and eventually you’ll make it through to the other side.
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