Updated: Feb 26
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Should I break up with my boss?
Did you see this one coming? In keeping with our Valentine’s series, ”Should I Break Up?”, let’s dare to ask ourselves: Should I Break Up With My Boss?
I’m your host, Joy Ryan, of Joy At Large. I host this podcast channel The Unlimited Series to bring you tools of the facilitation trade to difficult dilemmas we face at work and home. If you’ve heard our first episode, we’re on the scene with a tool called Process Communication Model - a personality/communication/conflict Swiss-army knife used by NASA, Bill Clinton, Pixar and so many more, researched by Dr. Taibi Kahler.
We exposed the false beliefs in our previous episode: Should I Break Up With My Partner? Today, let’s bring PCM to a question we’ve all faced at some point in our lives: Should I Break Up With My Boss?
One unique thing about this pandemic is the blanket of stress we’re all facing at the same time. I’m a nerd so I’m going to use this analogy. It’s like COVID has put the whole world in this microwave, and all the people-shaped molecules are jittering and vibrating at a higher frequency all together, at the same time.
Think about it. It used to be that someone was having a bad time and bringing that stress to the word environment. Today, we’re arriving at our screens and every single person is enduring the same stress of a lockdown, albeit in very different ways.
Which begs the question: Should I break up with my boss?
I once had a boss who stormed into the office, heels clicking under her weight and temper. She was angry. She was angry that someone had started a meeting without her because a client had arrived early. She threw her coat on her assistant’s desk, narrowly missing her assistant, and entered the meeting room smiling. She belittled her team in front of her client, saying she: “paid for everyone’s salary here!” and when the meeting was over, she kept my colleague in the room to give him an earful.
There was once I had a similar treatment. I’d booked a flight that arrived the morning of work and wanted to come into work anyway. She stamped towards the meeting room (again), and clicked her fingers at me to follow her. I was in my early 20s, I remember, wondering what this was all about. She slammed the door behind us, and then cornered me and demanded to know why I was coming into work the morning of my arrival. I think she thought I wasn’t going to survive the day after a long flight… but I think I felt my heart stop, and though I was at least a head taller than her, she struck such an imposing figure that she seems so much larger in that moment.
This isn’t half as bad as an ex-colleague of mine at a different job, who was pulling long hours consistently for months while getting sexually harassed by her boss. She had a great work ethic and a high tolerance for pain, that she endured the physical toll of her gruelling schedule and psychological wearing for months: she lost her eyesight temporarily, suffered crippling headaches and fainting spells in the office… but got back up each time she felt well enough to work.
There isn’t enough podcasting servers in the world that will contain all the horror stories people have experienced with their bosses.
The question we don’t ask until it’s too late is: Should I break up with my boss?
Here’s the PCM angle.
There are three levels of distress, one that follows the other. In everyday words, the way we experience unhealthy emotions appears in three ways. One is worse than the next. That last stage appears as depression but can take the form of extreme anti-social behaviour, extreme victimisation, extreme paranoia, extreme passive-aggressiveness and so on.
Usually people have an instinct to protect themselves and leave their jobs (or get fired) before they stay too long in the third and more severe level of distress.
“Should I break up with my boss” is less a question about how horrible they are, and more about how this stress is showing up for you.
There are a few different ways in PCM that the second level of distress shows up: are you… overworking and burnt out? Are you… making more mistakes at work and getting criticised for it, and see people you love leave you? Can’t seem to take responsibility for yourself anymore? Manipulating others? Becoming more detached from reality, escaping through new hobbies, or becoming a recluse?
In PCM, distress is observable, sequential and predictable. We can see it. One level follows the next, and we can know what will happen next before it happens.
In the stress of that job, I spaced out. In the stress of her job, my ex colleague worked even harder. We knew how to cope. And we need to work. So, what’s wrong with living in the second level of distress?
“That’s everyone I know who works hard. Something’s gotta give.”
And you’re right. It’s our choice. You choose what you want to feel, think, and do with your life - all the time.
Enduring a difficult boss is a choice.
Let’s circle back to the PCM rule of distress: what comes after second, is third. If second is where we fail to think clearly, like overworking and being less productive because of it, fail to communicate clearly… third is the state of ambivalence: what’s the point anyway?
This is a state of depression that takes professional help to work on. A friend who left her job after a year of toxic bosses who constantly belittled her and her work, is another year into still finding herself again and the process has unearthed other past traumas that compound to her road of feeling empowered, free of anxiety, and clear minded again.
The price of living in second level and then third level distress is something that’s hidden, not advertised. After all, who wants to lose a hardworking employee who overworks when stressed?
And what keeps us from developing a sense of self-awareness enough to realise we’re in an emotionally unhealthy state? It’s the same distress that clouds our ability to think clearly about our situation, and invites us to feed ourselves false beliefs, like that there is no other way when the reality is: you have a choice.
I won’t forget this story a client of mine shared with me.