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January 14, 2017

2016: A Little Sugar with your Crap?

If somebody had presented 2016 to me in a gift box, all prettied up with glittery intrigue and possibility, I might have been inclined to re-gift it midway through the year—right back to the bastard who sent it to me.

Only a few weeks into the year, I left a good position with an organization I’d been with for almost a decade, with no clear objective in mind other than to get out. 

I wanted and needed a change. I had some pretty high hopes pinned on that decision to leave my job, and on poor ol’ 2016.

It took me the better part of the year to realize that my 2016 gift box contained not one, but several little gifts, each nested in relentlessly recurring themes.

Somewhere along the way, I remember seeing a meme that described my efforts to stay positive throughout the unfolding weirdness:

Rolling a turd in sugar doesn’t make it a brownie.

That’s what I could swear was in that box of 2016 after unwrapping it—just so many layers of sugar coated, turd-filled crap.

Ah, but they were gifts—which I almost missed while I was pre-emptively declaring the year a total bust.

It startles me a bit still when I look back and see the jumping off point was just walking away from a job. Did I say just? There was no just about it. It took years—years—to come to that decision.

That J.O.B. represented more to me than just an income. It held a decade’s worth of every ounce of striving I had within me. A decade of being the proverbial square peg, trying to pound my personality, skills, and even my appearance into staunchly round holes. Of kidding myself that my edges were indeed softening, molding into the expected shape to be “successful.”

At the best of times, I thought I was making it. Managing to fit in and conducting myself within a specific culture that values, above all, bottom lines, hierarchy and endless meetings to figure out what the hierarchy wants. At the worst of times, I thought I’d never figure out all the rules to the never ending game of Cover-yer-Ass. Actually I was right about that. I gave up when the “Throw Each Other Under the Bus” stage took an ugly turn, with me under the tires.

Logically, I knew it wasn’t personal; it was just my turn. I’d seen many others before me run over by that bus—but still, I did take it personally. I felt it when I saw it happening to others, and damn did I feel it when it was my turn. It burned with injustice, and the salt on the wound was the realization that it really wasn’t personal. It was a calculated game of chess that required everyone under the Queen to be a pawn sprawled on its side at some point.

My personal efforts for so long were not in any way valued or devalued because I was the one doing the job, I just happened to be strategically placed at the right time for the wrong situation to ricochet its way across several departments and rungs of management to finally come to a shuddering halt on my desk.

Bottom lines don’t recognize the people behind the titles, and of course, I was just as shocked by that as everyone else when it was their turn. No one sees it coming, until the view behind them is the crowd of those still standing. Some horrified on your behalf, some grateful that it’s not their turn, others distinctly smug in their assurance that it will never be their turn.

Blind flight was all I could imagine by then.

For some time after I left, I still didn’t fully understand how much my stress was related to stifling myself, my creativity, my personal ethics, and ultimately, my belief in my own value. Every measure that I believed defined me had become about being successful in that damn job. The process of getting from, “Should I quit?” to, “Yes, yes, yes—do it!” was in itself, a long and needlessly painful one.

There’s a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness, and it took me far too long to find it. But when I did, I neither walked nor ran out the door, I flew—scared and pretty sure I was leaping off a cliff. But since my sanity had already fled well ahead of me, I couldn’t even be sure of that.

And that’s how my leap into that big box of 2016 began—with an, “I’m done here,” and no clue what to do next. 

Doesn’t that sound like a simple, one-challenge-at-a-time kind of decision?

Ha! When life decides we’ve had more than enough opportunity to figure a few key things out, I think it tires of subtlety and delivers a good wallop upside the head until we’ve got it properly thumped into us. Or is it just me? I began my escape with an adventurous eff you to the corporate world, imagining an idyllic little work-free hiatus to rediscover my happy place.

Sigh. It does sound nice though, doesn’t it?

Not gonna lie, it was better than nice…for awhile.

For the first time in my adult life, I had time. Time to think, to wallow, read, indulge whims. Time to invest in relationships I’d put on the back burner, time to think about next steps.

And what did I do with my year of unemployed naval-gazing exactly? (Ohhh, how I gazed. My naval has never been so well examined.) What a deliciously self-indulgent mode to find oneself in. With no one else’s needs or expectations owning my time—no boss, kids thriving on their own, my only responsibility was now the care and feeding of myself and my dog.

Life both slowed down and sped up. I had so much more time for…everything! Doing things, fun things, growing-me things, feeling-better things. And spending-time-with-people things.

I had to time to “people” again.

That “empty” time unleashed a whole new level of learning and appreciation for me. It helped me figure out the who’s who in my life in a way I had no idea was needed. I reacquainted myself with so much love—family and friends who accept me with all my sharp edges, ugly deeds and soft, underbelly flaws—having the opportunity to reaffirm these bonds has been such a gift. I’d redo 2016 all over again just to unwrap these people again.

But there was a flip-side to the year, and to “peopling” again…and that’s where the synchronicities began to align with all the little turd-filled gifts and the situations that brought them.

I began to notice that some of my personal relationships were structured in similar ways to some of my past working relationships. What made me think this was only happening at work, I’ll never know.

Life, though, was determined to reinforce the lesson. Those wallops I mentioned? Yeah, in rapid succession until I finally connected the dots:

Boundaries! Figure them out and take care of ‘em, girl!

To those who glide through their days with strong, healthy boundaries and the ability to protect themselves without negative impact on their jobs, goals or relationships, this may seem like a no-brainer. Some though, like me, struggle to detect the difference between being kind or helpful and laying oneself down as a doormat.

Blatant violations of this difference began to occur with frustrating regularity, until I had no choice but to acknowledge that leaving my job was only a first step. I had allowed my boundaries to become lazy and unrecognizable, inviting relationships to drain me without refilling me. It had become an easy out to avoid confrontation, or dealing with other people’s poor behaviour.

I was being dragged into a back-assward, long overdue discovery that boundaries are not only necessary, they help define us, and shape our interactions in all arenas of life. Boundaries reinforce our values, and more importantly, they guide us in how we expect to be treated, and inform others about how we value ourselves.

I apparently had fuddled up my understanding of this most basic principle. But once that awareness solidified, I was completely unable to withstand what had suddenly become obvious everywhere it intruded—unreciprocated investment in relationships.

What an upheaval this caused!

I was now questioning myself for being the doer, the giver, the “whatever you need” person wherever it felt one-sided. I noticed I was only questioning what I was getting out of certain relationships—the ones that took without replenishing.

Once I had the time to really pay attention, I couldn’t not see where these patterns were recurring in my life…bringing another unexpected and unwelcome understanding: appreciation, generosity of spirit, reciprocity—none of that is implied. It’s either present, or it’s not. Those expectations can have a pretty broad definition in the context of relationships, but they must include something that is mutually sustaining.

This led me to the bigger a-ha…also not pleasant.

My job wasn’t the problem. Those personal relationships weren’t the problem either. I was the problem. I allowed that to happen to myself—and maybe it served me in a way I’ll understand better from further away, but I did know I was done needing that identity.

I can’t say I dealt with these realizations in the cleanest or kindest of ways.

I must have summoned quite an abundance of motion when I hurtled out of my safe, pension-assuring job, because I just kept riding that momentum right through the year—cropping some relationships, changing the patterns of communication in others, and walking away where the only thing keeping the relationships alive were coming from me. What started out as a single-minded intention to change careers ended up becoming a full on house-cleaning.

It’s been a freeing year in that regard. Saddening too. I’ve let people go that mattered—still matter. But who and what I give my energy, my time, my love to has changed. My boundaries aren’t on offer anymore. I understand more clearly now than ever before that I alone decide whether or not my life is enhanced or depleted by anyone’s presence in it.

I had to dig through some crap to find the gifts within this past year—but once I’d gotten enough distance between myself and the way my decisions unfolded, I looked behind me and saw a completed puzzle. All those picture-in-picture moments in the year, no longer looking for their place. Nestled in a larger context, they’re more blended into the rest of my life, and purposeful in their presence.

Though I’m not sure yet what roads these a-ha moments have opened up for me, I do know that the space has been cleared for decisions that will fit me, rather than forcing me to tailor myself to fit the expectations of others. My step is lighter now, on the way to new decisions. I’m not lugging around heavy, stale, self-defeating thoughts about what role I have to fit into—and work on finding what fits me. 

2016 is unwrapped fully now. It may have looked like a sugar coated turd, but in hindsight, it was all about what I needed. So thanks for that 2016, and here’s to all of us figuring out the gifts coming in 2017 without rooting through the wrapping looking for clues that are right in front of us. 

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Author:  Karen Hubert

Image: Minnie Keane, used with permission

Editor: Travis May

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