You ever cry in the middle of a gym surrounded by people half looking at you, while the loud music pulsing in their ears is the only real separation between you and them? It’s a weird feeling. Especially when there’s no real reason for it. Which makes it all the more infuriating when you have to fight every urge to slam yourself against the back wall and slide down hoping no one sees you. I understand it sounds melodramatic. I tell myself that at least 5 times a day.
“Stop being dramatic.” is something I say to myself 5 times a day
It’s hard to pin point exactly when this started. I can pin point when it got out of control (I think). And I’m pretty sure why it started. But when that canker in my soul started growing like a weed is a little fuzzy. So let’s start with what I know. Or at least, what I think happened.
I was emotionally abused at work. By someone I considered a mentor.
It’s hard to say that because I never thought I’d ever be a victim of this. And saying the word “victim” out loud (or rather writing it down) gives me mixed emotions. On one hand, it makes me uncomfortable. Because I don’t feel in control. And I should be. On the other hand, it’s the only thing that stops me from beating up on myself and spiraling into a self-hating tizzy.
What's a self-hating tizzy? Something like this
This afternoon I dropped my toddler off at martial arts class. Earlier in the day I had to deal with my emotionally abusive boss via email. That one email exchange was enough to set me on edge. After dropping my child off at class, I walk next store to work out (the class is part of the gym – cool right?). When in the locker room, I try not to look at any mirrors as I know I’ve gained weight since this whole thing started, and I didn’t want to go off into a tizzy. But I caught a glimpse anyway. My hips are the first thing I start hating on. Then my chest. Then myself for hating myself because I know I shouldn’t do that. By the time I get to the work out machines I’m already about 15 insults deep.
At this point, the only thing that keeps me from beating myself up is the act of lifting heavy objects. It takes all my focus just to make sure they don’t crush me. But in between those sets, I’m hating on myself for not being strong enough to finish the exercise. Even though I’m clearly not at 100%.
By the time I get home it only takes my wife asking one (totally innocent) question for it all to boil over. By then I’m sitting alone, on the floor of my bedroom trying to soothe myself through deep breaths so my kids don’t see anything’s wrong with daddy.
What happened to me?
This is also something I ask myself 5 times a day. Frankly, I don’t know. I think it built up over time. But I was too hopeful and maybe a little naive to see it all play out. I thought when I first started at the office that I could show my coworkers a better way. That positivism, encouragement, and service could bring success far greater than the horror stories they told me as I walked through those doors. I thought I had the backing of my then-mentor who told me coming in, before I took the job, that she “wanted me to feel a part of a family.”
And you know what? In a purely business sense: positivism, encouragement, and a selfless, service-oriented culture did have a strong financial impact. My team became more proactive and creative. We made the company half a million dollars in the first 5 months I was there. (That was on top of supporting all current customers. And for a business that only made $14 million a year, an extra $500k was a big deal). Delivery time on major projects for our customers went from 3 months to 10 days. Customer Service Representatives felt empowered to come to us with questions, concerns, and strategies. Products were now more focused on customers and people. Things seemed to be going well.
But at what cost?
I don’t know when the shift happened. I frankly to this day don’t really know why this happened. Maybe it wasn’t a shift at all, and I was too focused on the pot at the end of the rainbow to notice the bottom falling out from underneath me. Regardless, whatever thick skin I had during that time was worn down to the bone.
For whatever reason, my boss decided to get more involved with my team. Maybe it had to do with the company losing a major customer and I was nominated as the scapegoat. But that seems a little too self-pitying. So we’ll skip that. Regardless, she became increasingly antagonistic and demeaning. Privately in meetings, publicly in front of executive staff, and once that precedent was created, it allowed other teams to give me and my team the same treatment.
I was lectured publicly about not sitting up straight during meetings. My mental capacity was questioned and made fun of on a daily basis (I have ADD). Gossip about me became a common hobby in the office. My responsibilities began diminishing. My bonus became a quarter of what it was. My team was cut in half. My team’s manager was moved to a separate team. A promotion I was promised disappeared. But don’t worry – the plan I pitched my boss when the promotion process began is still in play, just by someone other than me. (I’m still a little bitter if I’m being honest).
While all this was going on, I had a sick wife and two toddlers at home. I began to have little to no patience for them. I started snapping at them, then moved to beating myself up for being a terrible parent and husband, to hiding in my bedroom on the floor because I was having a panic attack.
I was trying to manage so many peoples’ emotions and egos I ended up hurting my family and myself.
What it's like living with depression
I wish I could tell you there was some magic pill I took that made this all better. I wonder every day if I’m over-reacting to someone’s perceived subliminal message (depends), if I’m a good leader (I am), if I’m good at my job (I am), whether I’ll ever be as healthy as I want to be (working on that). I’m an emotional eater so combine that with depression and I become a regular chef boyardee.
Are there happy moments? Absolutely. I took my son to the park just a day ago. He wanted to hold my hand the whole way and told me all about his day. I was on cloud 9.
Is this temporary? I seriously hope so. But I know enough people who deal with this same issue every day with no end in sight. If anything, I’m more empathetic to their life.
What I'm hoping you take away from this
I wrote this in part because it was cathartic. But also in part to warn. If anyone tells you company culture isn’t a big deal, run. Run as far away as fast as you can. If the CEO of the company acts differently than what they say their culture is all about – run far away. And have no shame in doing so. My reactions to what happened may be extreme, but never-the-less they’re real.
And even if you’re a CEO, please for the love of all that is holy, be honest with yourself. Don’t lie to yourself and your employees about what you really care about. If you need to be controlling and negative, then be honest up front about it. There are people who thrive on that. But if you’re not careful, you’ll hire the wrong people, and possibly affect them permanently. And if not permanently, intensely.
If an employee spends a typical 9-5 work week with you, then they’re spending 64% of their life on earth with you instead of their family. Think about that. And then ask yourself if you or your company is really worth someone sacrificing the majority of their life for.
Bottom Line: I know life is good. And it’s worth fighting for. And it’s worth living for. And it can be a happy place. And you’re in more control than you think.