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A Dog with a Bone Learns a New Trick

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Call it the siren song of the ship wrecked life: the job crises that keeps me up in the night; the unavailable lover who fills my fantasies; the skills I can’t master, and feel that somehow I should, in order to be okay. I have, for most of my life, been mesmerized by the situations and relationships that don’t work. It’s a vestige of my dysfunctional childhood, and at thirty-nine years old, and I’m just starting to learn how to break the pattern of obsession with what doesn’t work.

These situations and relationships have been the unwavering focus of my adult life. I’ve heard that we recreate situations from our childhoods because they are familiar to us. This may be the case, but what resonates more for me is that I recreate the dysfunction from my childhood because I want to fix it. If only I can succeed in this messed up job, I’ll prove that I’m worthy of acceptance by my employer and everything will be okay. If only I can win the affection and admiration of the unavailable lover, I’ll be worthy of love. If only I can perfect that which I lack, I will no longer be deficient as a human being. I will be worthy of … something good next time around. Then I’ll be able to set down what no longer works, walk away, and take up something good, fulfilling and fun. Like a dog with a bone, I gnaw away at what’s eating me, ignoring the delicious steak right in front of me.

I have figured out over the years that I have kept this focus out of fear. The fear is familiar territory from childhood, to be sure, and because it feels familiar to me to fear the disapproval or inadequacies of an employer or the humiliation of romantic rejection or the shame of not knowing what I ought. I haven’t been as sensitive to the alarm bells that would tell me early on in the courtship of a new job or love or endeavor, that this thing is not ideal for me, to steer clear. Instead, I’ve rationalized that I can do it. I can contort myself into whatever shape is required of me, and this time, by God, I’ll succeed.

I am an optimist, if nothing else.

The tipping point came for me this summer.

I had been working long hours, pushed to the limits of my training and capacity in this one job and then beyond my limits and capacity. The strain was immense. My employer was minimally involved, minimally supportive. After several years with this employer, I’d gotten used to that. But this project was different. I found that I could not actually pull it together on my own, that I needed team support and involvement. The project began to unravel, and we nearly lost the customer. Three times.

I got a lukewarm, resentful, and blaming response to my requests and needs, and for several weeks I lost sleep; I worked many more hours than I should have as a single parent; I wept with frustration on a daily basis.

And then I woke up.

I realized that I couldn’t fix it.

I surrendered to reality.

When I finally got it, that I couldn’t actually fix the situation and that I wasn’t really the best person for the job (and after a brief flirtation with the prospect of pursuing further education in this thing I don’t like and am not very good at … ) I began to disengage emotionally. I poured my energy into the things that made me happy and gave me energy. I am fortunate enough to have several part-time contract gigs in my field. Instead of letting the things I enjoy coast (since I’m naturally good at those things, they require minimum attention and effort from me to keep them going), I started spending more time on them. I reversed the investment of my energy. I did only what I had to do to keep that one miserable job afloat, since I needed the money, and I gave everything else to doing what I love. And as I’ve been told would happen by dozens of self-help gurus over the years, what I wanted to happen began to materialize. What I focused on grew. It flourished. Within six weeks of making the change in my focus, I was able to cut out most of the work I didn’t enjoy. I felt powerful and peaceful and invigorated by my work instead of wanting to crawl in bed at seven o’clock each night.

The next most important thing is that I have also begun to recognize when I’m taking up the bone again. Old habits die hard, and this is not something I could change entirely over night. The problem with those unworkable situations is that they are so fascinating and complex … they are like the crossword where I say I’ll only do one more and then quit but end up working on it long past my bedtime. So when I gave my notice at that one unworkable gig, I began to get sucked into the drama. There was some general displeasure at my announcement, though I gave them more than three weeks’ notice and made sure not to blame them. I kept it professional. To them, it was personal. I wanted to fix it. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to recognize that there were systemic issues in the company and that I could be part of the solution.

I got over it. Fast.

I had to avert my eyes from the proverbial train wreck or risk becoming one myself. So I wrote an article; I scheduled a babysitter so I could go to a movie; I meditated. I cleaned my desk so it was conducive to my peace of mind. I felt better, and I liked it.

I’m beginning to like the taste of steak. And, just as important, I’m beginning to recognize the difference between the bone and the steak and to have choices between them. I have begun to recognize the ache in my jaw that tells me I’m working on the unworkable and to accept that splinters of bone in my stomach aren’t going to satisfy. I’m beginning to trust that if I lay down the bone, there will be something else to sustain me. I’m also realizing that the bone is not alive and cannot harm me of its own volition. If I set it down and stop gnawing on it, it loses its power over me.

This old dog is learning a new trick.


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