Who: A 39 year old creative
Where: London, UK
What: Being taken advantage of made one woman learn to set professional boundaries
When I started my last job, over three years ago now, I was so eager to please. Actually, as my therapist tells me, that’s not just a trait of mine at work, but in life.
I was excited and saw lots of areas where I could use my experience to make positive change, but there was a lot of work to be done. Looking back, I was like that nerdy kid in class – the one whose arm bolts up every time the teacher asks a question.
I took on a lot of responsibility – implementing structure and deadlines, streamlining clunky ways of working and managing the team’s workloads while making sure the KPIs were met. I volunteered for weekend shifts, worked over Christmas and bank holidays, and was frequently the last to arrive for after-work drinks at the pub.
It made me feel useful and valued – feelings I crave. As well as that, being slightly older, I became an ear or a shoulder for the younger team members. They would message me to ask for private chats and pour their hearts out about issues with co-workers, or confide in me about frustrations they had. I didn’t just want to listen – I wanted to make everything right. And I must admit, it made my inner people-pleaser feel good that relatively new colleagues were trusting me, but it was a lot to take on.
After a year in the role I felt totally indispensable. I basked in my seniors saying: “What did we ever do without you!” But there was a problem: I had become a total “yes man”. Not only was I doing my own work, but I was also picking up all the jobs others didn’t want. It became too much. I started to feel resentful. It didn’t help that I had a sharp-tongued boss who saw me as beneath her (maybe because I thought I was, too). I was always so willing, never daring to say no, and I began to feel less valued and more like a punchbag.
Things came to a head when my annual leave was approaching. I love September – not too hot but still feels like summer, and if you go away there are no kids because they’re back at school. I’d had my 10 days of annual leave booked off five months in advance when my boss called me in for a chat. She wanted to take a last-minute trip and our dates clashed. She didn’t want to leave the team without either one of us there to lead. I buckled and rearranged my holiday. It was a bad call, and one that she never appreciated. A year later, when I asked for a promotion and a raise I was turned down, so I left.
It was a very dark moment when I let that all sink in. All the hard work, all the extra hours were not rewarded. It was a hard lesson, one that still makes me shake my head. But something truly life-changing has come of it. Yes, I’m still a little bit that nerdy kid in class, but not all the time. I’ve learnt to put my hand down and let others have a chance to answer. It doesn’t mean being a slack employee – it means having as much respect for yourself as you do for everyone else. What I have learnt above all is that if you undervalue yourself you are giving others a free pass to do the same – I’m not saying it’s OK, but it’s a little bit on you as well.
I’ve learnt the hard way what boundaries really mean. For me, it’s saying: “This sounds interesting, I look forward to chatting on Monday,” when your boss is blowing up your phone on Sunday. It means saying: “I’d love to help with that, but if I do I will need support with my other tasks this week.” It doesn’t mean not saying yes, it just means knowing how and when to use no.
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