Deep Waters

I sat on the couch in our therapist’s office trying to figure out what I wanted to say. My spouse couldn’t come but lovingly noted that I had been “very stressed” lately and maybe I should get everything off of my heart and mind. I knew my head and heart were full of thoughts and feelings, but I didn’t know where to start.

He picked up his pen, leaned forward in his chair, and asked, “How are you doing?  How’s the job?”

I could feel the choke in my throat almost immediately. The feeling of drowning in deep water that floods over me whenever I talk about work. The gag reflex. I gave myself a second to breathe by letting out an elongated, “Welllll…..” I could feel myself blink back hot tears. They were already coming—the tears, the words, the feelings. I couldn’t breathe.

This is almost every time someone asks me what I do for a living. Or how my work day went. Or how’s my boss. I feel like I am gripping the sides of a rocky boat on exceptionally choppy water, stomach in knots, holding my insides together. My mind and body pitch with every crashing comment, redirect, gaslight, manipulation. I am confident I know where my feet are. I am much less confident I will be standing by the time we get to shore.

What is hard is that I am good. Very good at what I do. I love the work. I love the people. I love the camaraderie. I love the leading. Yet I find myself always back at the mercy of a captain that cannot tolerate a beloved—and exceptional—first mate.

This is not my first time at the bad boss rodeo. One would look at my professional life and wonder. I have too.

I said out loud to our therapist, “You know. The only consistent thing about my horrible working relationships is me. What is wrong with me?” If I can find the broken spot in me, I can fix it. But I can feel my insides pitching forward as I wonder out loud. This is the movement from trying not to choke to a body-shaking sob.

Maybe if I work less, say less, be less, the next time will be different. The next time. Always the next time.

The problem is, it’s not. Manipulators gonna manipulate.

You see, I’ve been lost. The manipulators I know who are in it to win it play the long game. The amount of work to neutralize someone else’s greatness for their own gain is a slow, intentional road. The payoff is worth it, but it takes work. I simply don’t have the energy to outmaneuver someone so needy. The work—the people—are too important.

They have to put you in a boat. Hopefully by yourself, but if that doesn’t work, with other people who end up becoming dependent on you. They will pluck you from behind the wheel and make you beg for tools as you try to protect everyone from your seat in the middle. They will pretend kindness only if they can be publicly benevolent. They will insist on setting out when the weather calls for disaster, knowing it will destroy the crew. They will tweet about how they are trying so hard.

And if none of that works to wear you down, if none of that makes you surrender, they will tell all the people who can make a difference on the shore that there is no storm. They are indeed, a good captain. You, and the team, are simply failing.

It is no wonder that I’ve seen my colleagues climb overboard to jump into the unknown rather than wait out the storm.

I was desperately trying to find out how I repeatedly end up in these positions. Particularly with fellow women as bosses. I asked what was broken in me that kept me cycling back to these spaces. He asked if every job started out that way. I had to admit no. But I also knew that, regardless of whoever was in charge, they were going to hear the truth from me. And for some, that was the signal for the storm.

Clicking his pen, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Can I ask a ‘what if’ question?” 

I nodded.

“What if the only consistent thing about those spaces is that you were called to be there? And you don’t have to stay there?”

What I heard for the first time was not a broken me, but a me called to broken systems and people. A sense of prophetic truth-telling that gave me space to lean into desiring wholeness and healing for others, but also released me from the outcomes of others. Responsible to, not responsible for.

And I heard agency. That faithfully following my call is not desperately paddling because of a false sense of guilt or responsibility. That in some spaces, I can show people where the lifeboats are (or even admit we need them), but climb in. Not as an act of rebellion, but surrender. I am here to live into truth, not just survive horrendous leadership. I am not tied to going down with the ship.

And then some days, some days, I get to say, “I am the storm.” That faithfulness sometimes looks like truth telling despite knowing the consequences. 

But to know either way that I don’t have to be victimized over and over again trying to convince people who don’t want to see, don’t want to change, and don’t want my good. No matter how many times they lie to themselves or to others. I can’t control their narrative. I can control how many fingers I use to wave goodbye.

This Red Tent woman has requested to remain anonymous. We applaud her courage to risk sharing this part of her story with our community. It is our privilege to honor and protect her identity.