One time I had a really awful supervisor. Now, I’ve had a few really awful supervisors. I don’t know if this guy was the worst, but he was definitely in the top three. (Fortunately, I have also had some absolutely wonderful supervisors.)
The year that I spent in this position, however, was hands down my worst. I had an employee who was resentful that I was hired into the position rather than her being promoted (even though she wasn’t qualified). Despite my concerted efforts to work collaboratively with her, she had other plans. How did she express her resentment? By cleverly sabotaging my work so that things fell apart when she was not on shift and I was. And by spreading horrendous stories about me to other employees both at our location and others. She was very compelling, very believable. Her campaign against me was relentless. And some of her stories about me were quite offensive and extraordinarily, personal hurtful.
The boss – my supervisor’s supervisor – was “retired on the job” in the worst way possible. He had no clue what was going on, but would periodically pop up and bark out orders, send people scrambling, and chastise. Lines between work and personal were ignored, and I would be chastised for taking a rare sick day, or probed about my personal life.
Back to my supervisor. He’d lived a sheltered life, and relied on a very rigid and archaic work model. Our schedules only overlapped a few hours each week, so we communicated via notes we left for each other. He jerked me around on a regular basis (dispatching directives via notes), and if I asked for discussion or help in prioritizing or told him I was struggling with covering both the morning AND night shifts on Wednesdays and Thursdays, he would chastise me for whining and/or insubordination.
Add to this that my job was high responsibility, very high stakes, and high stress. Every day as got ready for work, I took a few breaths and sent out a wish that I would rise to any challenge that would come my way – knowing that it could quite literally be life or death.
This was certainly one of the worst years of my life, and the horrific nature of the job situation completely consumed and ruined my personal life.
When I approached my breaking point I carefully crafted a measured, diplomatic letter to my supervisor. I made it as clear and concise as possible. I let him know that I was feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of burning out. I summarized the circumstances of my job that made me feel that way (for example my employee’s campaign of sabotage, of which he was well aware) and suggested some solutions that might reduce my overwhelm.
In response, I got a lengthy letter that said something like, “what if those things aren’t true,” then systematically debunked all the things I had listed as being circumstances leading me to feel overwhelmed.
What if it isn’t true? That I’m not feeling overwhelmed? That I’m not going to burn out?
I felt like I was in the twilight zone.
He wanted to debate with me. NO, he wanted to tell me I was wrong, for feeling the way I felt. He seemed to think that he could argue why I did not feel the way I did. Not should not feel; did not feel.
Dear Reader, I have tried to paint a picture of how stressful my situation was so that you would believe me when I said I was overwhelmed and approaching burnout. But what if I started this post by simply stating that I had an impossible and stressful job situation, and was overwhelmed and approaching burnout?
Would you still sympathize with me? Would you question me? What would impact your decision whether or not to believe me? And when I say believe me I want to be clear: believe that this was my experience and that these were my feelings about it.
If you never had an experience like this at work, would you be skeptical? If you have more of an assertive personality, or a presence that compels people to take you seriously, and personally can’t relate to this experience, would you be skeptical of my experience?
If I was still working at this job and suffering and you were my friend, would my pain make you so uncomfortable that you would want me to “look at it differently,” “change my attitude,” or “interpret my supervisor’s behavior differently,” rather than you accepting that things were really this awful?
Not only did my supervisor invalidate my feelings, well-intentioned friends and family invalidated my experience of what was happening. And that made it worse because, on top of a horrific job situation, I felt like no one believed me or how bad it was.
Have you ever expressed your feelings, or shared your experience of something, and been hurt, confused or infuriated when someone told you that you were wrong?
As a society, we have developed some bad habits. Instead of cultivating compassion and validating others’ feelings and experiences, we question or even invalidate them.
Other people don’t get to tell us that our experiences are wrong; they don’t get to interpret our experiences. Neither do they get to invalidate our feelings. We are the only ones who know what we experience, know what we feel.
So when Black Americans share their experience of being Black; about how there are two different Americas; that while progress has been made, being Black is still a life sentence, we do not get to question that. When Black folks say that they are systematically being killed for the crime of being Black, they are expressing their experience.
White people cannot know what it is like growing up Black in the U.S. What we can do is listen and try to understand. And cultivate compassion. That’s a start.