I wrote the following about 3 years ago. I am happy to report, I am now in a job and a relationship where I feel valued… but it wasn’t a straight line from A to B.
Run a quick mental list and count the times you have heard this from one of your girlfriends or thought it to yourself at the beginning of a relationship: “But he has so much potential.” Ugh. It’s like poison. Potential is the drug you start taking in a dead-end relationship to convince yourself that it’s going to get better someday or that change really is just around the corner. It’s what we use to convince ourselves that the one compliment, the one sweet gesture, or one small act of ambition can outweigh and overcome all of the rest. The “rest” being any number of things: complacency, laziness, disrespect, abuse, general under-appreciation, etc. Take your pick.
I’ve been there. I think at some point, we all have. It’s hard not to believe that you can’t finally be the one to help turn it all around; that even though things have been rocky (to say the least) that you mean enough to them to be the catalyst for change.
Now, I have been that girlfriend in the past. The potential-addict. I have. I went through a phase where I was a magnet for those relationships. I was like a very unsuccessful house flipper. I would find these houses with a decent exterior, respectable foundation, but a ton of red flags (think flooded basement or crack-house adjacent). I would ignore the red flags, certain that the positives outweighed the negatives. Then I would immerse myself into the project wholeheartedly, inevitably going over budget and past deadline, only to finally throw in the towel a year later, taking a huge loss. I finally reached a point after a string of these relationships when I realized I was the common denominator. So I took a step back from dating. I had to. When you essentially bankrupt yourself emotionally, it takes some time to rebuild a line of credit.
I realized something recently though. I’m still a potential-addict. Only now, I’m projecting it onto my company; more specifically, my management team at work. I thought I’d learned from my mistakes – I really did. It’s one of the things I pride myself on. I make some big mistakes, some really monumental ones, but it’s rare that I’ll make the same mistake twice. I like to mix it up. So imagine my surprise and disgust when I realized this trend is still pervasive in my life.
I should back up for a minute though. I was at my first job out of college for almost 4 years. I can tell you right now that it was about 2 ½ years too many. But I was green and naïve and the economy was tanking, so every day I would convince myself that tomorrow would be better, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that it would all be worth it. It was an “education”. And I could turn it into something great – that all the promises my boss made me when he hired me would eventually materialize. He was really sorry when the bonus check he owed me wasn’t paid out for 6 months. And that time he hurled the teapot across the warehouse and berated me in front of the entire office? Just a misunderstanding.
I eventually left. I mean up and left Los Angeles completely and demanded a paycheck for months while looking for a new job. Not surprisingly, this was not long after I finally got myself out of a fairly abusive relationship. I had reached my breaking point, and there was no more room in my life for empty promises. I swore I was never going to fall into that trap again. Ever. In a relationship, or in a job.
Now, I have held up on my promise to myself to stay out of those types of romantic relationships. If I’m really being honest, I’ve just stayed out of relationships completely since then, but that’s a conversation for another day. I was just focused on getting my life in order when I left LA. I needed to find a new job, a new place to live and a whole new direction in life. My career became the most important aspect of my universe at that point and after a brief stint in New York, I wound up in a sales job for an internet company in the Silicon Valley.
I’ve been there about a year, and things are starting to feel eerily familiar. Let’s examine the evidence. Do I feel under-appreciated and ignored? Check. Is my confidence being consistently undermined? Check. Am I catching them in blatant lies on more than one occasion? Check. Uh oh. This does not look good. To be honest, things didn’t look good about 9 months ago when the entire office was patently unhappy, being harpooned for things that weren’t our fault, left with no support or practical training, and trying to figure out where all those fat commission checks we were promised were hiding. On the bright side, no one has thrown a teapot at me in a while.
I should have known I was in trouble when my boss pulled me aside to tell me that he thought I was a poison to the office, and THAT was the reason people were unhappy. The best story he could come up with was that everyone had confided in him to specifically voice concern about my negativity. Bullshit. We were still small enough an office at that point for me to have pretty close friendships with most of the people I worked with. I was the person people were comfortable talking to about their problems – namely, our shitty management and crappy work culture. In fact, most of those people quit not long after that, and I know for a fact those so-called complaints my boss threatened me with were fabricated. But when you have a weak personality as a manager, and an office full of unhappy employees, who is the easiest scapegoat? Probably the biggest personality. And if you’re a man with crippling insecurities, who’s the most threatening to you? Perhaps it’s the loudmouth blonde who always says what’s on her mind. So the unhappiness of the office that resulted from complete mismanagement was pinned on me. Swell.
You must be wondering what any sane person would wonder at this point: Why the hell wouldn’t you just quit??? Well, I considered it. I really did. But I was still stuck in that same old trap, thinking it would get better if I could just tough it out. That if I cared enough, it would all work out.
The truth is, sometimes things DON’T work out. Sometimes we aren’t enough to change it – the job, the man, the situation. Sometimes the only way to be the hero of our own story is to walk away. And I can tell you right now, walking away can be more terrifying than staying, even if staying means being miserable. Because just like everything else in life, misery is a condition we can get comfortable with. But once we recognize our patterns, we can change them. And that’s what I did.
About 2 months after I wrote this piece, I quit my job. One dreary Friday, I decided enough was enough. I had just bought my condo and although I was interviewing other places, hadn’t landed a formal offer yet. But once I recognized what I was doing and how I was allowing myself to be treated, I couldn’t stand to be a part of it for one more second. So I went home, ran the numbers, and figured out I had enough to cover my mortgage for 3 months. I walked in Monday morning happier than I’d been in months, and quit. I never looked back, and betting on myself was the best decision I could have made.
I’ve had other jobs since then, and other relationships. And you know what? I can recognize when I need to get out much more clearly now, before it gets toxic. I’m not saying change isn’t scary, or that we should all quit our jobs or relationships when things get tough. But when you realize you’re not getting what you deserve from someone and things are slipping into harmful territory, whether it’s with a significant other or a boss, take the leap of faith and walk away. Bet on yourself. Because in the end, your own potential is the only thing you have any control over at all.