Thanks, Me, For Looking Out For Me

Dear Mommy,

I work at a creative tech agency. This is the first office job I have ever had and I’ve had a hard go acclimating to the professional atmosphere over the last year. I’m pretty severely introverted and antisocial and coming to work everyday in an environment where everyone dresses to impress and is always on their A-game has proven to be very difficult for me. I often feel like I’m saying or doing weird things, look like an unprofessional slob, or just sound slow and stupid.

There are lots of non-paid work functions that are supposed to add to the “culture” of our company and be “fun”, but to a person like me these functions make me feel as if I’m working a double without getting paid because of the emotional/social effort they require. Many times I’ve said I would be at one of these functions and then flaked out. I’m worried not going to these functions makes me seem like less of a team player, or sheds some sort of negative light on me as an employee. More specifically, I was recently hand chosen along with a few of my other co-workers to participate in a promotional photo-shoot, which was to take place on a Saturday, unpaid. I tried to wiggle out of it but my co-worker was pretty insistent about me being in it because my scene was very important to highlighting the company culture.

There were a few things that I was irked by – like them wanting me to wear high heels, which I would never do of my own free will – but as some time passed and I learned more and more about what my scene entailed I became pretty disgusted and ultimately flaked out the night before at around 8:30pm. Basically, I was supposed to wear pigtails, which I normally do, but against a backdrop of a bubblegum dispenser and a lamb statue while chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles and wearing red heart sunglasses. LOLITA ANYONE? I messaged my coworkers and told them that I felt uncomfortable with the “Lolita-ish” vibe and didn’t want to represent that as a professional woman. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision but I can’t help but think that this is just another one of those things that is going to stir up a bad reputation about me being unreliable and flaky. What do you think?!

Ah, the world of young professionals. Since my day job regularly involves getting puked on, it’s a hard world for me to imagine. But as a sort of weird person whose idea of dressing to impress involves wearing pink sneakers and a dress that a 7 year old would covet, and whose idea of fun on a Friday night is listening to the entirety of Jagged Little Pill alone and watching Legally Blonde for the 500th time, I gotta say…I doubt I’d go to those fun (read: unpaid) work functions either. It sounds like a very hard place for an introvert, and my heart goes out to you.

You asked me what I think about all of this and the first thought that came to my mind was, “This woman is brave and impressive.” Girl! Do you know how hard it is to speak up about something that makes you feel icky as a woman in any situation, let alone in the WORKPLACE, when you are ALREADY having anxiety about fitting in with the company culture? I’m certain you do, because you just did it! Wow! Take a moment to place a warm palm on your own shoulder and say, “Thanks, me, for looking out for me.” At the risk of sounding like a poster hanging up in a 9th grade classroom, ~being true to your self~ and ~standing up for your beliefs~ are the most powerful of small, everyday victories against the culture of FUCKIN’ DUMB BULLSHIT that often surrounds us. It acts as a bulwark against the forces desperately trying to pound us all into a single shape who question nothing and accept everything. “You go girl” is essentially what I’m trying to say.

It sounds like your job is the sort of job that is looked at as a career, and though that distinction remains fuzzy to me (and most of us, probably), maybe a career involves a certain level of commitment to something other than just showing up and doing your job for eight hours. Things like “contributing to company culture” and “playing the game” start to matter. Since I have little experience in a working world that doesn’t involve preparing things to eat or taking care of children, I’m not sure what can be done in your situation. I happen to believe that what should matter when you go to work is your work and how well you abide by the rules of basic common decency. But in your job, your willingness to engage in the unpaid labor of “contributing to the company culture” and building a reputation as a team player may matter. Do you feel like it does? Is it a job you want to keep? Then maybe you do have to play the game a little and force yourself to show up for these shitty work functions. I totally hear that it’s a lot of work as a person with anxiety to go out and fraternize with work people, but you know what also is a lot of work? Worrying about your reputation because you don’t ever go out and fraternize with work people. Maybe if you show up to some of these things, some of the anxiety will cancel itself out and you’ll feel better. And maybe if you do bite the bullet a few times, you may find that you have gotten to know your coworkers a bit better and it will all feel a little less like work. That said, even if you do decide to play the game a bit, you are still allowed to have boundaries and pick and choose when to engage in all this unpaid work disguised as fun. Finally, have you thought of just being honest? Being real and saying you’re not gonna go to a thing because you’re usually tired after work or want to spend your weekends at home is a lot better than saying you’re going to go something, flaking out, and then worrying about what flaking out says about you. Make it a rule: say you’re not going if you’re not going to go, and when you say you’re going to go then you have to go. Even if you never go, being upfront about not going might help cultivate a reputation as someone with a rich life outside of work, instead of a flake. Good luck, friend.

Love, Mommy

A Chain Of Support And Love And Reaching Out

Dear Mommy,

My friend is going through a really difficult situation involving life, death, and cancer. How can I support him and be there for him?

Wow. I’m so sorry that you and your friend are going through this. In situations like this, words can be so meaningless. I don’t have the skill or knowledge or, frankly, the desire to write about death and provide insight into its meaning and how it affects us. All I can say is that it’s just fucking shitty. To be alive and know that one day we and the people we love won’t be anymore. Life makes you love people and then it takes them away, and eventually you, too. You and your friend are in the thick of it, right there in the middle of what makes life horrifying and worth living. You are absolutely not the first and definitely not the last. If you want, let it comfort you that literally all of us will weather this storm, too. We are here by your side.

As far as supporting your friend through life-threatening illness, there is only one thing I can think to do: ask him how he wants to be supported through life-threatening illness. People tend to comfort people how they themselves like to be comforted, but we all need different things and we have not necessarily been taught to ask for them. Help him ask for them! Maybe he’d like you to keep things light when you hang out, maybe he wants you to witness his fear, maybe he wants to be held when he cries, maybe he’d rather not be touched. Maybe he wants you to listen to him silently, maybe he wants advice and comfort. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe he wants a combination of these different things at different times, and it’s up to you to make him feel comfortable asking for them. You need to understand that the way he wants to deal with this is not up to you, and any way he wants to cope is valid. You need to admit that you do not know, and ask him. And if he doesn’t know, maybe you can figure it out together through trial and error. It can, and should be, an ever-evolving conversation.

I’d also like to say that while this situation is and definitely should be about your friend, you are also affected by it. You need to make sure you are doing everything you can to take care of you through all of this. Secondary traumatic stress is very real, and you cannot be a help to your friend if you are being stretched to your breaking point. Be there for your friend as much as you can, but remember that you are NOT selfish for taking care of yourself too. Understand that you don’t have to be available for him 24 hours a day, whether that means not responding to a text from him for a little while or setting boundaries for how long or often you hang out. Treat yourself like you are treating your friend, and turn to other friends in your life for support. Things can go on that way forever – a chain of support and love and reaching out.

Good luck, to both of you.

Love, Mommy

—————————————————————

Dear Mommy,

I work in a very sexist industry, and I try my very best to help lift other women up, but I am routinely cut down and condescended to by other women. It drives me crazy and it PISSES ME OFF. How do I support the fellow women in my industry, even when they’re being nasty?

Hello, my love. This is such a hard situation! First, I want to commend you on your mission to lift up other women. That is so powerful and radical! And sexism is so fucked up! One of the ways that it works so insidiously is by worming its way into our own bodies and minds, using its poison to turn us against ourselves and other women. We are continually given the message that there is only room for a certain, very small, amount of women at the top and the only way to make it in this “man’s world” (ew) is to put each other down. I commend you for doing the hard work it takes to rise above that deeply entrenched SHIT. Not everyone has, and some people never will. This could explain a lot of what’s going through these other women’s minds when they’re cutting you down. Of course, who knows, they could also just be mean. This is possible because people are sometimes mean and, well, women are people.

One thing I’ve learned in my relatively short life (some wise old people say this too though, ok?) Is that communication is always key to pretty much everything. You will never be able to control what other people do, no matter how hard you try, but if there are specific women at your work that are perpetuating this crappiness, try opening a dialogue. Say exactly what you told me! “Hey, I’ve found our workplace (AND ENTIRE CULTURE) to be really sexist and it bums me out. I feel encouraged to see the women I work with as competition. I’m trying really hard to combat that by lifting up other women. I want to have your back, but I feel like you don’t have mine. Can we talk about that?” It is possible that they’ve literally never thought about it that way before. This conversation could break down walls and be really healing for both you! Or maybe nothing will happen. Either way, you did your best and that’s all you can ask of yourself. At worst, you’ll become known as “that woman at work who has my back even though I don’t have hers.” There are waaaay worse people to be! If you work in an industry where the people you work with are constantly changing, you may have to have this conversation over and over again. If that thought exhausts you already, remember that you don’t have to fight sexism each and every day. You can’t, it would be too draining. Sometimes you need a break, so let yourself take one when you need it. And some women are never going to have your back, some women are going to keep pissing you off and putting you down.

I want to leave you with something to mull over. It’s an idea we should try to explore to its farthest reaches. It may make things harder for you, but it could also liberate you! Here it is: you don’t get to choose which women deserve to be lifted up, because we all do. Internalize that instead, and make a commitment to lift up all women, regardless of their race, temperament, class, interests, style, ANYTHING – even how much they piss you off. Don’t worry, no one is saying you have to do it all single-handedly. You won’t be able to, so don’t even try. But do what you can. It sounds like you already are. I’m so proud of you.

Love, Mommy