I used to endlessly listen to people. Bartenders would become reverse bartenders and tell me their problems. I used to get assigned to “difficult” teams because I was a known as a “fixer” of them. I would get called into projects as a hit woman to sort out what the “real problem” was and set the team in the right direction. More often than not, people liked it when I did this because I had poor boundaries. I brought problematic, equivocating points of view so far into my own that I lost the ability to do what was right and sensible. And when people looked to me for direction, I couldn’t give it. They could keep their problems alive, but I was a really great paper towel for toxicity. In so being, problems would usually resolve themselves in the short term.
In retrospect — deep empathy is a great skill for a researcher talking to a relative stranger for a few hours. But sub-optimal in my role as a colleague, especially if boundaries and basic decency become a challenge.
Something snapped hard in me last year. Well, not “something” — it was a new job so misrepresented to me I could legitimately sue.
I was just… so disgusted, so done. I decided to make what I could out of the role while plotting my next move, and because I didn’t give a crap what these people thought of me I also stopped accepting all forms of poor behavior and the endless justifications for it. Not vengefully, mind you, I started holding them accountable for their words and actions, in the moment. I also started watching my own behavior and making sure I was saying what I knew needed to be said, kindly but directly and again in the moment, which is key.
When I started to divest myself from absorbing other people’s points of view — when I had empathy, but not the kind that makes me lose my own point of view — I noticed that I gained the distance I needed to provide clear direction and feedback to people.
That feedback isn’t always welcome and with the toxic people you’re talking about, it is almost always shunned. But that doesn’t stop me from saying it, because it needs to be said. And maybe someday a critical mass of feedback, or hitting a giant self-created wall, will propel them to act, to change.
It has made me unpopular with “leaders” but well-respected by my team, which I care about more than people who are the leaders… of making themselves feel good, I suppose. It’s probably a career-limiting move and I’m not sure it truly helps anyone but me, but I refuse to let shitty behavior go any more or facilitate it by accepting it.