We’ve all run into those individuals in our lives who bring up mixed feelings. On the one hand they can be supportive, even complimentary of us, and on the other hand they have been unexpectedly aggressive or critical. They are inconsistent, and that inconsistency may present itself in a number of ways (not just surprising you in conversation). As an example, they say nice things about/to you but their smile doesn’t reach their eyes or their tone of voice doesn’t fully support the positive message. They are incongruent. You just never know what to expect. These are our “frenemies”, to use the colloquial term (otherwise known as ambivalent relationships). Whatever you call them, they are exhausting (in contrast to the other three types of relationships we have at work; friends/allies, opponents and those we don’t know).
Many of us are torn when ambivalent relationships show up in our lives; not having enough “bad” things in play to give up on the opportunity that things will get better, but not having enough positive things happening either to help support a deeper (or healthier) relationship. For many people this causes confusion, guilt, annoyance or other strong feelings, especially in a working environment where we all do our best to be as constructive and positive with others as possible (and where you have little choice about whom you work with or for). Flashing back to high school? One thing we learned there was frenemies are a lot of work, and they never reliably get to a place where you could call them friend. There is a reason for this.
According to Adam Grant in his book Originals (page 131), psychologist Bert Uchino discovered that ambivalent relationships are unhealthier than negative relationships because of the amount of stress they generate. And yet we are more inclined to walk away from strictly negative relationships and try to salvage ambivalent ones. Why? It has something to do with our self-esteem. Negative relationships at work are easier for us to let go of with our dignity intact; we see no purpose in making the relationship better, and since there are no synergies involved we bear little risk in walking away from the relationship. No such luck with our ambivalent relationships; most people would take a sincere hit to their self-esteem if a frenemy deteriorated into a consistent opponent. Whether we like it or not, we are often invested in making these types of relationships work. Perhaps for good reason, these relationships may exist with a co-worker, a manger or a subject-matter-expert (SME) we need to rely on in our work…all circumstances where we are expected to figure it out and keep the work (if not the relationship) flowing in a positive direction. So what to do with these ambivalent relationships?
The first thing to remember is you only control your thoughts and actions, which means you will need to do some work with yourself to keep this relationship from messing with your well being. This other individual isn’t suddenly “going to get it”, change or reliably become your biggest fan. If it hasn’t happened yet, it isn’t going to, which means you need to wade into the muck of the here and now. Start by noticing any passive aggressive or negative behaviours that you may be contributing (hey, we are all imperfectly human, we’ve all done this). While you may not be saying disparaging things about the individual you might be vocally agreeing with others who do (it’s likely you are not the only person struggling with the ambivalence of this relationship). Check in to see what narratives you have attached to this person, likely they are not flattering…or objective. Step one is to stop making it harder to come to grips with what is needed (a constructive working relationship) and become neutral in your approach and actions with respect to this person.
Step two is to get more objective about the individual. This does not mean you have to become “besties”; no one can make that happen when the conditions do not exist to support it. It does mean you put effort into looking at this person in a different light. Look at them in terms of what they want for the work, keeping in mind no one gets out of bed in the morning to screw-up or deliberately make life harder for others. What is more likely is that the two of you have a style difference. This individual may have a more direct way of communicating, or they may be delivering a deeper sense of urgency (we tend to forget the niceties when we are under the gun at work). It’s important to remember that they are a son, daughter, spouse, parent, caregiver and loved one, just as you are, and they deserve to be viewed as having value and worth regardless of a style difference. Next, look for common ground; there are things you have both agreed on in the past, why? Was it because you are both dedicated to securing best possible outcome in your work? Did you both share an opinion or approach? While not enough to sustain a consistently positive relationship, it is important to remember that agreement is possible and understand what sources of agreement exist. In other words, you don’t have to like this person, but you should check in to see what it is about their work you respect.
Being mindful of what you can respect about someone whom you may not fully trust can help you to manage your emotions when things tip into negative territory. It won’t change the unpredictability but it will mean you are able to stay out of the drama of it, to feel calm and able to like yourself while in the midst of dealing with an opposing view from someone who could have gone either way. Staying calm means the relationship won’t deteriorate further and leaves you more opportunity (after the drama has passed) to see other options, clear the air, re-assert your views/concerns or try to better understand what problems exist and how they can be overcome. When you make it about the work, rather than how you feel about this person, your well being and self esteem stay in tact and you have more energy to enjoy the rest of your day.
Bad days are not something we wish upon ourselves, we do not get out of bed in the morning with the intent to have one, yet we know there are more of them in our future. Bad days seem to come out of nowhere, but there is a pattern to them and once you know that pattern you can better predict when you may have a bad day and take steps to be compassionate with yourself in the midst of it, supporting your well being. Bad days (as I am using the phrase here) are those days when your well being ends up in the toilet and you need to spend a phenomenal amount of energy to keep going during the day (and/or trying to get yourself to sleep at night). Bad days are soul-sucking experiences that leave us unsettled (maybe even angry or upset) and exhausted.
Understanding how bad days happen is useful in helping to see them coming and be able to meet them head on (rather than getting caught up in their drama). They begin from two sources, the first is “life”, like when you are stuck in an unpredictable traffic jam (making you very late for work) or your kid throws up on your only clean suit (on the day you have a big presentation). Life happens and when a lot of life happens we learn from it and come up with ways to lessen it (like finding an alternative way to work or putting on the suit after the kiddos are safely on their way to school). The second source of a bad day? Ourselves. How we respond to what happens to us directly determines the kind of day we will have; sometimes we rise to the challenge of our day (and it doesn’t make the day “bad”) and sometimes we don’t (and it puts a dent in our well being). Waking up with a pit in your stomach because you have to give a big presentation can impact your whole day if you let it (then add in bad traffic or a soiled suit and voila – you are well on your way to the worst day ever). How we “stack” our day in our minds makes a big difference; as an example if the prevailing thoughts in your mind are concerned with your ability to do something (like a presentation), then that will follow you through your day like a bad smell, cancelling out other positive things that may sustain you, like having lunch with a friend or interesting work. When vulnerability, fear and concern are the first emotions “stacked” in your day these become the “lenses” you are looking through, putting at risk your well being as they colour everything else about your day. Sometimes we wear these colourful lenses on purpose and sometimes we don’t know we are wearing them at all.
The second component of a bad day stems from our beliefs and values. On it’s own a work item, like giving a presentation, can often be managed so it doesn’t impact your whole day. You may give yourself a pep talk on the way to work, or speak with your manager about your concerns; in other words, you mitigate it by finding ways to manage the emotions you are experiencing (therefore taking off the colourful lenses). In order for you to do those things for yourself you would have beliefs about a number of things. You would believe your manager was there to support you, not judge you. You would believe that any stumbles in the actual presentation would not be career limiting for you. These kinds of beliefs can help you to continue, even though what you need to do is awkward and unfamiliar. The other component in this is values, which work hand-in-hand with our beliefs. Continuing with our example, the opportunity to present would need to fit in with your personal values; you would need to feel that doing the presentation was important (i.e. value of communication, and/or transparency through sharing information). Beliefs and values source us, meaning they provide us with energy when we need it. This energy allows us to continue with something that may not feel comfortable, but that we know in our hearts is right. When our values and beliefs are being represented or upheld we can often make it through the event with our well being in tact (we may still feel exhausted at the end of it, but it is an exhaustion steeped in accomplishment). However, if you had to present data you felt was misleading or false (not aligning with your values), and failing to do so would cost you your job (your belief), where would that leave you? Yup, that is a soul-crushingly bad day that strips away your well being leaving you vulnerable, unhappy and stumbling against any other challenges you may face.
There is no “magic bullet” that will prevent you from experiencing bad days, but there are simple things you can do to recognize the pattern of a bad day and help yourself get in front of one. Make it a habit to check in with yourself over the course of your day, just gently look inside and note your thoughts (be compassionate here, there is no such thing as a “bad” thought even if you may not like what it says). Then, note the emotions that are tagged to those thoughts. Most of us would rather not feel anything, emotions can be pesky energy suckers…but know this, emotions will steal that energy anyway so better to feed them once and be done with it – note your emotions. Then, with deep self-compassion, look to understand the beliefs you are holding that give life to these thoughts and emotions…and finally, look to see what values they represent. With this beautifully real picture of what is happening for you in this moment spend a few more moments to understand what the most compassionate thing you could do for yourself right now would be? Maybe it is to call in and let work know you are going to be unavoidably late, buying yourself some time and peace of mind. Maybe it is to express concerns to your manager or a trusted colleague, sharing the burden carried makes it much lighter to hold. We can’t always prevent bad days from happening, but we can be kinder to ourselves in the middle of one, listening to what we need. When we are able to do this for ourselves we respond (rather that react) to what is going on for us in our day, nourishing our well being in the midst of chaos.
Do what you love seems like solid career advice, especially if what you are doing for work right now is soul sucking; anything that offers refuge from that looks like a viable option. At some point in your career “do what you love” helps to make choices and options crystal clear, but that clarity can also be rare and elusive. Pursuing a beloved hobby as a career (or as a business) isn’t always the answer, as many find out when what they loved to do quickly turns into obligation…or an administrative nightmare. Doing what you love is a noble goal, but it is not easy or quick.
No one should take on paying work that isn’t meaningful (at least not for your whole working life). However, there are times in life when you have to do what you have to do, and every piece of work you complete adds to your career perspective. To help gel this concept I’ll use an example from my past. I didn’t enjoy waitressing as a vocation one little bit. It is a noble job (and a necessary one, or none of us would be able to enjoy eating out), but for me it wasn’t meaningful. However, I learned a lot from it. I learned that how you are treated (by your employer, or by the customer) depends a lot on how much you respect yourself. If you don’t think you deserve it you will not get tips, or fight to keep your tips when your boss doesn’t pass on the ones from the credit card slips only he sees. If you do not use your voice to advocate for yourself and your reasonable needs you will not receive sensible notice of your shifts so you can juggle two jobs. I learned I was not motivated to be a career waitress and because of this I knuckled down with more focus in school to ensure I would get into university. When people ask me how I made my career choices it was more about what I did not want to do then what I wanted to do…in the beginning. Maybe it is the same for you.
Being told at the beginning of your working life that you should love what you do is like asking a newborn to get up and walk. What we love to do is always something we can name, but isn’t necessarily something we know how to make happen…and it changes throughout our working life. To find that special something you could invest in for a lifetime you need to understand yourself through your work, and that takes time. You need to try new things, some you will love and some you will despise. You need to fail at things you want to be really good at, to learn resilience and occasionally (as you begin to master skills) to surprise yourself. You need to “fake it until you make it” terrified that every new day will bring you closer to being found out…and then come to eventually learn that no one will likely find you out because they are all faking it too. You need to train others to take on work you are leaving behind while being grateful to put it carefully in someone else’s hands. You need to stand up to a boss or employer who is less than professional or accountable for his or her workplace behaviour. You need to support others in the work they are doing, being part of a team, collaborating to build something bigger than any one person could possible achieve. You need to see how you make a difference, learn what gets you out of bed in the morning…and to hear your own heart as it quietly expresses pride in your accomplishments as you drift into sleep at night.
No one should have a career path that is only made up of “doing what you gotta do”, this is the very definition of soul-sucking. However, doing what you love is only possible when you are ready to take on the huge responsibility of doing it the way your heart and moral compass have been guiding you towards all along. Doing what you love is not the “safe” choice, or the way to make quick money. It is not the easiest path or the one with clear results. It takes courage and resilience built into the deepest confidence and knowledge of yourself. You may have to defend your actions each and every step of the way…and still be able to sleep well most nights. You will have to override the concerns of those you love, and occasionally even your own practicalities, to focus on and distil what you love in your work and pursue it.
Most of us will not get to do what we love for the majority of our careers, even though we all deserve to. What we love isn’t always sustainable as a career or business…it isn’t always in our control to make happen. Yet, this is a life example of when the journey is more important than the destination because you need experience to figure out what it is you love to do, what you could happily arise to continue doing each and every day of your working life. Once you have found that piece, you’ll be amazed at the number of places and the types of work where it is present. On the way to figuring out what you love, work for people who can teach you remarkable things, do work that makes a difference to someone else’s life and go home at night knowing you have done your best every day. Own your accomplishments and your mistakes. Smile at yourself in the mirror and live the big juicy life you want on heartfelt terms. If you can do this, then you will have something even more powerful than doing what you love, you will love yourself in what ever you do, which is something you do control and will make you happy every day.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.