It’s so hard to say goodbye…

Apr 26, 2010 by

Courtesy of Flickr user Peter Kaminski

Picture this: you move to a city where you know no one and no one knows you. You agree to move into a house, sight unseen, with strangers. And you start a nonprofit job that you know you’re going to love because you’re going to be working on something that lights a fire in your brain and your belly.

Do you have that picture in your mind? Good. Now I’ll let you in on a badly kept secret: that was me, once upon a time.

I was once an irrepressible idealist. (Hell, maybe I still am.) And I once devoted my life, in a fairly literal sense, to an issue that I cared about more than almost anything in the world. For three years and in two organizations I worked very long hours for very little pay. I was sick a lot of the time because I was exhausted, stressed out and living unhealthily. But for a while, I loved it.

After year two when I had some experience under my belt and I had run a program by myself for more than a year, I started to talk to my supervisors about taking on some more work and responsibility. We were short-staffed and there were a lot of things I could have pitched in on even if I didn’t have the experience to take over. But the organization was ridiculously mismanaged, the department I worked in was restructured 3 or 4 times that year and I ended up having 4 different direct supervisors over the course of year 3.

When I met with each one I told her about how I wanted to do more and take on more responsibility. I talked about how I thought I deserved to get a title promotion and a raise after all the good work I’d done. And I was promised by each one that I would soon get that raise and my own office to boot.

I waited and waited. My work ground to a halt because the various supervisors wouldn’t give me approval on any of my work so that I could move forward; they simply didn’t know enough about what I was doing to say yes. I was upset but I kept on: I worked with lateral coworkers and volunteered to take on some of their assignments. I pitched in anytime someone needed my help. And I continued to be ignored by my superiors. Oh but I loved the issue, loved the cause and thought for sure things would get better eventually.

For a year I did this. I lived in stasis, wanting to do the work I loved but being thwarted at every turn. Have you ever been in love with someone who didn’t love you back? Yeah, it was like that.

Finally, after bitching and moaning to my friends about it for months I was chatting with one of them online and bitching some more. And she said “why don’t you just quit?” I didn’t have an answer for that. That day, I did some quick math to figure out how long I could survive being unemployed on my savings. I contacted a temp firm. I wrote a letter of resignation. And I haven’t ever looked back.

So why was it so hard to say goodbye? Because I was emotionally invested to an unhealthy degree. Because I had built my entire identity around the job and the issue. Because I was being strung along like an unrequited love.

Are you experiencing this? Do you know the pain and frustration of loving your work and hating your job? Here’s what you have to do:

  • Emotionally un-invest – This is probably the hardest part and it takes the longest. You have to put in a lot of concerted effort to close your heart up and put up a wall so that the job can’t continue to poke you in that bleeding wound. But you need to do it, to work at it every day.
  • Lose (or at least blunt) your ego – One of the reasons you keep letting yourself get strung along is that you think that you are THE person who will save the world. Don’t tell you me you don’t, ’cause then I’ll know you’re lying. You are convinced in your heart of hearts that if you stop working on this issue things will fall apart. They won’t.
  • Build yourself back up – Once you’ve torn down your ego, you need to build it back up. But it needs to be better, stronger and faster. It needs to believe that you deserve more than to be kicked repeatedly and exploited for cheap labor.
  • Give up – Some of your reluctance to leave stems from the culturally-ingrained American values of perseverance and stoicism. We WILL stick it out to the end (see: two seemingly never-ending conflicts going on right now beyond our borders). You know what? It’s OK to give in, to admit that you can’t make it work and that it’s not you, it’s them.

These things may take a while for you to accomplish. It took me a year to complete the ‘steps’ and to realize that I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by sticking around a place that obviously didn’t want me. And the next time it happened to me, it was much easier – it only took me 4 months to realize what a mess I had inadvertently stepped in and decide to get out.

Now I know (and you can learn) how to do the things I love, how to deal with the long, hard goodbye and how to make sure I’m true to me.

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  • MM

    Great post. It was everything I needed to hear about the decision I just made. Thanks!

  • @MM – Thanks for the comment! I’m always glad to help someone validate a good decision ๐Ÿ™‚

  • GM

    More power to you & thanks for sharing your story – nice to know I’m not the only one who’s been in those shoes!

  • Thanks GM – I’m glad to know I’m not the only one either.

  • I’m still going through a lot of this after I left ACORN/ACORN Housing. I’m right there with ya Elisa! Thanks for thinking the same things I am and then writing about them better than I ever could!

  • No problem Ashley. I’ve heard that more than once from former ACORN-ers, especially the bit about emotionally un-investing. When you’re not only passionate about something, but its also a really great cause helping lots of people, it can be so painful to make that break. But sometimes, you just have to. Thanks for commenting!

  • Your advice is dead on, Elisa. Sometimes, you accomplish more when you ‘give up’ and take a healthier approach than you would had you stayed!

  • Thanks Julia – obviously I totally agree. But it can be very, very hard for people to remember that.

  • Ruth

    Thank you for sharing these lessons from your experience, it’s really helpful to see these steps written down in black and white. I too have too much of my identity invested in my job, which was great for the first year and a bit… though I’m a bit scared of how disinvesting will affect me.

  • Ruth – thanks for your comment. Disinvesting is a painful process (sometimes very painful depending on how much you’re committed to your job) but I really think it can only make you stronger. This sounds like a cliche, but you have to build a hard exterior ‘shell’ or a thick skin so that you can protect yourself from the pain these jobs inevitably put you through. Typing it out even sounds silly since we’re talking about a job here, not a lover. But since you’re right in the middle of it, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Good luck!

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  • zak

    I’ve been doing the emotional divesting at work myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t singlehandedly move mountaints, so I’m going to give it 40 hours a week and then spend the rest of my time trying to figure out what and where I should be headed next. Hopefully, I’ll have that lightbulb moment sooner rather than later.

  • Andrea – it sounds to me like you’re more than halfway there. You have to put that physical/time barrier between yourself and the job (i.e., going home after 8 hours of work a day) which can then lead to the emotional barrier as well.

    BTW welcome to my new blog even though I haven’t officially rolled it out yet ๐Ÿ™‚

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  • Excellent post. I know this feeling well. I think a lot of people go into nonprofit work ready to throw on our superhero costumes and save the world. Eventually the sad reality hits that we spend more days as Clark Kent than as Superman (or woman as the case may be) toiling and toiling for little/no reward. This, in conjunction with dealing with the inner workings and politics of an organization, can become overwhelming, no matter how invested you are in the mission. Glad you finally got up the courage to leave that situation.

    • Thanks! You are so right and I love the Clark Kent/Superman analogy. Clark
      Kent is treated like crap most of the time but still gets to put on the
      costume more frequently than most of us will. The inner workings of the
      organization is really more the thing though. Nearly every job I’ve left had
      more to do with the drudgery of dealing with internal politics rather than
      not liking the actual job. The problem is when you love the issue too much
      and get the two entangled. Thanks for the comment!