Living the Martyr Lifestyle

Dec 10, 2008 by

Note: This post was originally published on the Nonprofit Congress blog 3/17/08.

In America, perhaps more than other countries, our identity is often tied to the work we do. I don’t know about you, but when I meet someone, the second question I’m almost always asked is ‘where do you work?’. It helps us define ourselves and helps others define us too. Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing.

From an internal perspective, we can often ‘live’ our jobs way too much. I speak from experience as someone who has worked jobs where my very existence, my ego, my self-esteem seemed to hinge on the work I was doing. I cared so much about my job that I stopped caring about myself. I was ill, unhappy, and had virtually no outlet since all my friends were at work.

From the external perspective, other people might think we’re nuts. Unless of course, all your friends work in nonprofits (as virtually all of mine do). If all of your friends do work in nonprofits, you probably don’t see them, because you’re all working too much. If you know people who don’t work in nonprofits, well, you might never see them either. And, you might be getting questions like “If you’re not getting paid by the hour, why the heck are you working 60+ hours a week?!?”. Umm…

It took me a few years to figure this out and I have a couple of tips and suggestions for those of you who might be newer to the sector, or who might still be martyring themselves to their jobs.

  • First, you don’t have to be a superwoman (or a superman for that matter). YOU ARE ONLY HUMAN. Sorry to tell you this, but no matter how much you work, you’ll never be able to single-handedly eliminate poverty, animal abuse, homelessness, etc. To think you can is foolish at best and egomaniacal at worst.
  • Do what you can in a day and then go home. You’ll be better for it in the morning. I can’t emphasize that enough actually. I’ve always found putting in a hard 8 to 9 hours and then heading home to rest is much more productive than an exhausted 12 hours followed almost immediately by 12 more.
  • Try to have fun with or at your job. Whether its taking some time to eat lunch with your coworkers or heading out for happy hour afterward, it can definitely improve things. I mean, you work with these people at least 40 hours a week, you might as well get to know them personally.
  • Use your vacation and sick time. Hopefully you’ve got some paid time off. USE IT. Again, it does no one any good for you to be horribly ill and dragging yourself into the office. In fact, its worse: you can’t do much because you’re sick and you infect everyone else in the office. Here at NCNA, we have 6 people. If one of us brings in a cold, we all get it. Do your coworkers a favor and stay home. Or take a vacation. Even if you can’t afford some big trip, at least take a week to go camping or go to the beach or even stay home and do nothing. Do you remember summer vacations from school? Long days with precisely nothing to do? Wasn’t it amazing? Recreate that at home!
  • Let it go. I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: I seriously love my job. I’m passionate about the nonprofit sector and the opportunities to unite us into a more powerful voice. But when I go home, I let it go. I don’t worry about the work still on my desk. There will always be more work to do. You can’t eliminate it or reduce the load by worrying about it when you’re not there, so stop trying.
  • After all of this, if you’re still martyring and can’t see a way out, maybe its time to look at where you’re working. The environment can be just as bad as your internal triggers.

Does anyone have additional things to add to the list?

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