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Welcome to The F Word, where we, Skillcrush staffers Lauren Lang and Julia Sonenshein, discuss issues that impact all of us—both in and out of the workplace. We know that, for us, coming to understand the f-word (in this case, feminism), and how important it is in the scope of our lives, didn’t happen overnight. We hope you’ll join us once a month as we meet to discuss power, identity, and the changes we want to see in the world.
Julia: Lauren, hi! I am so excited to be talking about one of my favorite topics: guilt. Sometimes it seems like anyone who isn’t a straight, white, man is conditioned to feel guilty about everything—even the most personal of choices. And when it comes to the working world, I have encountered a minefield of guilt, and I found myself tiptoeing around it until a few years ago when I adopted my now trademark “screw it” mentality. I felt guilty about taking vacation or sick days, saying no to new projects when I was stretched too thin, or really being assertive about anything at all. I lived to say “sorry” and make myself as malleable and agreeable as possible. I wanted to be invisible, easy, and to demand nothing.
But maybe the most destructive experience I had with workplace guilt was when it came time to leave a job after a year or so of being miserable. I had the epitome of a toxic boss, my colleagues walked around like defeated zombies, the work itself had changed into something I didn’t recognize, and didn’t want to be a part of. It was taking a major toll: I lost sleep, I felt anxious all the time, I kept getting sick, and my hair even started falling out. But for months, I didn’t leave.
I worried about what would happen to my team when I left. I worried that I was asking too much—hey, everyone hates their job, right? (Wrong.) I felt like I was putting my own needs in front of my coworkers’, and for some reason I thought that prioritizing myself was a bad thing. But mostly, I felt a sense of loyalty—that I owed it to my toxic employers to stick it out, health and happiness be damned.
The reality is that I was completely replaceable. They didn’t need me, and frankly, I didn’t owe them anything. They’d treated me terribly and made me miserable, and for some reason, I STILL felt guilty about the idea of leaving them high and dry. When I look back on this, I think: COME ON, YOUNG JULIA. YOU DESERVE BETTER. I can’t believe how long I stayed in that awful situation, racked with guilt about wanting something better for myself.
Lauren, have you ever felt guilt about leaving a job? If so, where do you think this guilt comes from?
Lauren: Oh, Julia, HAVE I EVER. (Also, hello!)
I had a terrible work experience a few years out of college. I worked for a wealthy religious institution, a type of workplace that boasts delightful peculiarities like pettiness, greed, extreme hierarchy/fascism…and inborn guilt. I woke up within my first week of the job and realized what a toxic environment it was—everyone was either suffering (like me) or knowingly creating that suffering. I was micromanaged for my work, belittled by (all male) clergy who demonstrated poor leadership inconsistent with any religious tenet I know of, and harassed by higher-up church ladies in positions of power who clucked at me about my age and physical appearance and lunch choices.
But in my mind, it was somehow just…too late. I had made a commitment, and I felt an uncontrollable obligation to stick to my word and to put others’ needs before my own. So in moments of fantasy, I half heartedly researched job listings but couldn’t bring myself to pull the plug. It would be such an awkward conversation! I would be putting more undue burden on my coworkers! I would be a source of disappointment for people! And so I stayed for 19 months until we finally moved for my spouse’s job—19 very long months of dreading every work day.
BUT… there’s a twist. I was suffering so much that I decided to go to therapy during this time and explore some questions I had about myself. Why couldn’t I say no? Why couldn’t I advocate for myself at work? Why did my entire sense of self-worth hinge on praise and approval from my boss? And why did I feel like I physically couldn’t quit?
It slowly came into focus for me: I had been raised and conditioned to be a “good girl,” to do what authority figures told me to do. And when there was this disparity between listening to authority and hearing quite a different voice of conscience in my head, it destroyed me. If people so much older and wiser—priests, for heaven’s sake—were unhappy with me, the problem had to be me.
(Spoiler alert from 15 years later: I wasn’t the problem at all. )
Julia, did you have a moment where everything clicked for you, or was figuring it out a slow and gradual process?
Julia: Well that sounds just awful—and totally relatable. I’ve definitely found myself in job situations (yes, plural) where I realized almost immediately that things weren’t good, but felt like it was too late.
My realization was a slow one, and it happened in a very roundabout way. While I was bubbling with anxiety over the job that I couldn’t make myself leave, I couldn’t understand why my coworkers all seemed to be fine. Then one day, a coworker mentioned to me how unhappy she was. From that point forward, it all started to spill out. Everyone was miserable, and everyone was looking for other jobs. I was the only dope sitting there, letting myself be unhappy.
Wanting to be the “good girl” really resonates with me, or maybe my version is not wanting to be someone who makes a fuss. Complaining, quitting, or sticking up for myself felt like they would take up too much space, and I would feel guilty drawing so much attention to myself. It flies contrary to what I think many of us in the workforce are taught: Suck it up. Get through it. Keep going.
Lauren, what’s the bigger picture here? I feel like women and guilt in the workplace goes far beyond simply quitting.
Lauren: We seem to be returning to a prominent theme in our F Word adventures: young women are conditioned to swallow their voices in service of others in positions of power. Research demonstrates over and over that women often feel tremendous guilt when they buck cultural norms (to include advocating for themselves, doing anything that might inconvenience others, and saying no).
For me, that guilt wreaked terrible havoc with my mental health. It kept me paralyzed in a bad situation, and as a result my anxiety and depression skyrocketed. I lost sleep, lost weight, and lost time ruminating on a situation that wasn’t going to improve. And lest we think that guilt doesn’t have an outward effect, GUESS WHAT: The quieter we become, the more that people in power gain power, and the more they feel justified in expecting our silence. They keep demanding more and more, and we retain our dignity less and less. That’s the patriarchy for you.
So Julia, here’s the million-dollar question: How do we overcome that guilt? How do we keep it from clouding our judgement, hindering our success at work, and keeping us from world domination (or, at the very least, a job that we actually like)?
Julia: EXCELLENT QUESTION. Coping with guilt is a lifelong process for me, and I’d be lying if I said I thought I was out of the woods. But, there are a few key things that have helped me. First, I found other people who could relate to me. When I heard about the situations they were staying in due to guilt, it was a total shock to the system. It was so clear to me that they deserved better, and I wanted better for them immediately. And what’s more—they wanted better for me, too. When I found myself at yet another job that I eventually needed to leave, but stayed in because of guilt, something was different this time: I remembered how I felt when I heard about other people in the same situation. If it wasn’t good enough for my friends, it’s not good enough for me. Now, I try to see myself as my friends would see me, and to be my own friend in the battle against guilt.
I also grappled with the idea that at the end of the day, I owe things to a lot of people—my family, friends, and partner, but I also owe myself. I owe myself happiness, respect, and value. I do not owe an employer who treats me poorly. And honestly, if they’re treating me poorly, it’s because they don’t think they owe me anything, either. So why stick around out of loyalty to someone who isn’t loyal to me? I come back to the fact that if I wouldn’t let my friends do it, I shouldn’t let myself either.
How have you combatted guilt to become the badass I know and love?
Lauren: Julia, I LOVE the compassion you show to yourself in these examples, and I think being able to treat yourself with the same respect you afford everyone else important in your life is absolutely key… to a good job, but to everything else too.
What broke the spell for me was realizing that the patriarchy, while pervasive and powerful, is a damn liar.
The lie it tells is that as a woman, I should feel guilty for even considering that I’m worth more than what I am given—whether that’s a salary of table scraps, a potpourri of condescending comments, or a really crappy job. That lie came to me funneled through the authority figures in my work life, but I was complicit in my willingness to accept it as the truth.
I struggle with guilt too, but I eventually discovered that the greatest weapons I have against that lie are my own agency and my own voice. Because the truth I would tell my younger self is that a bad job isn’t some litmus test to prove your loyalty to a higher cause; there are no bonus resume points for suffering. You won’t be the first to quit that place of work and you certainly won’t be the last, and staying longer that feels right is much more likely to have a negative impact on you than any impact whatsoever on your employer or your future.
It’s great to go above and beyond for noble missions and inspirational outcomes at work when they feel worth it to you. A job that gives you passion and purpose will never be perfect, but it can definitely make work problems feel less significant. But you’re right, Julia—you owe nothing to a job you hate. A shitty job will continue to be shitty with or without you…and if anyone tries to guilt you into thinking something different? That, right there, is the lie.