I've been scarred by horrible jobs

People take advantage of me. I keep getting into these awful situations

Published October 29, 2010 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I don't know what to do with myself. I'm 26 years old and have been through a lot of stuff. Although it could always be worse, it is a lot of stuff for me nonetheless.

When I was fresh out of college, I was lucky enough to be hired by an upstart company with a lot of promise. Things were going well. I had a big-time position for someone so young -- until my bosses turned out to be misogynists who cheated on their wives in front of me, made comments about how ugly I was to clients in the office, micromanaged me, did not allow me to do said big-time job and instead had me do cleaning duties and "female things" as they put it, and just plain turned out to be bad guys.

The company went under right before the economy collapsed, and I found myself working as a manager for yet another horrible, controlling boss. I still gave it my all, but found myself increasingly exhausted and quit in a mass exodus with 10 other employees. I then started freelancing for an old mentor who due to her own stress turned crazy on me, and would embarrass me on purpose in front of colleagues and then apologize later for her behavior. The relationship became an abusive one in that sense, me taking it, crying on my way home or in the bathroom, and then getting her "sorry e-mail."

Because the gig with her was only part-time, I was making almost no money and was basically unemployed for 10 months. This put me in severe debt and all that lovely stuff that comes with making no money. While this was all going on, I discovered I had some major health issues (not dire, but not easy to take care of), and watched as my mother almost died multiple times due to her own lifelong health issues, and had to end a four-year relationship that involved me taking care of the guy both financially and emotionally while I got nothing in return other than a big hug and a "thanks for being so great."

Luckily for me, I finally landed a great gig, so that's going well. But I ended up dating another guy who out of nowhere turned into a cheater who said he loved me, but needed to cheat because I was too "obese" (I'm 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds). My longtime ex, whom I was such a support to, is now calling me every day for advice on his new girl, all the while thanking me for all the time I put in and telling me how important I am.

These sorts of bad things seem to be the story of my life. Since elementary school, I've had "friends" that seem intent on using me as a punching bag, only to freak out when I suddenly grow a backbone and, sage-like, say, "No thanks, guys, I'm done." I seem to get saddled with a lot of crap, most of which is my own doing as I infinitely trust people and in turn let them walk all over me, as I just don't get mad, but internalize things before eventually calmly explaining why my feelings were hurt and why I have to leave. I now find myself totally exhausted, and becoming increasingly bitter about everything. I used to be able to say, "Well, those bad bosses taught me how to work well with everyone," or "That ex is now a great friend I didn't have before," etc.

But just because I know someone was being horrible to me, even though I have some confidence, it's all starting to waver and get to me, as if the dam has finally broken. When my (absolutely wonderful) boss gives me some normal, healthy criticism, I get instantly defensive and upset. When I hear that my friends are doing well, I get instantly jealous and all my self-worth seems to drain away, taking days to recover, and not making me want to talk to them. I have become unable to trust anyone. I know my once sweet, happy and calm demeanor has been replaced with a cold steel gate that I don't let anyone through, and that my anxiety and despair is starting to make my health problems more pronounced.

I feel like my depression is making me miss opportunities, as I get so hung up in doing things right and taking serious confidence hits every time something bad happens these days. My therapists (there have been three) and my parents all blame my maturity level, saying that some day this will all balance out and that I'm lucky to have the grown-up perspective that I do. But it's too late for that, Cary. I'm tired, burnt-out and angry, and I know the only way to fix things is to overcome that and start attracting the right people.

I keep trying (I built a vision board, I say positive mantras, I meditate and went back to church), but I can't seem to come out of it. How do I open myself up again without getting hurt? How do I rebuild? How do I get on with living my life and living up to my full potential? Thanks for the help.

Punched Out

Dear Punched Out,

"Be patient" sounds like "sit around and wait for things to change."

But that's not what being patient is. It's not sitting around waiting for things to change. It's breathing with all the intensity of a lover. It's being as vibrant as a leaf. The leaf is attached to the tree. It's filling with the green blood of time. It's performing daily the miracle of photosynthesis.

The lover is attached to the loved one. She does not cease to love. She does not stop breathing. She's not "fixing the relationship." She's intensely still, like a leaf.

A leaf is connected. It's working in its way. It's not doing compulsive things.

In the opening we make when we stop doing the compulsive, answers are scattered like acorns. We can stoop to pick them up. That is what we mean when we say, "Be patient." We mean focus on the few feet of fecund earth around you. We mean take the gifts strewn about your feet.

We also mean -- or I also mean -- stop working on your machine. Take a break from trying to fix the thing you think is broken. You're not getting anywhere working on that thing. You are missing the answers strewn about your feet.

I do not like to write in prosaic terms. I like to give you something of my landscape. I like to ask you to look over my shoulder at what I am looking at. I know the people at Gawker think this is  insufferable. Their acerbity is funny like the braying of donkeys. I love it but it is not part of the discourse. I'm talking about whether to write in prose or not. I know, I know, it may not be obvious what I am telling you to do. I'm not telling you to do anything. This encounter is like the encounter of a lover. There's no instruction there. It's just an interaction after which people are calmer and fuller and warmer. This daily thing between reader and writer, it's not the reading of an instruction manual. It's an encounter after which we are warmer and fuller and we can calm down and look at the diamonds scattered at our feet.

People tell us to be patient and we think they're telling us to play dead. But what they're telling us is to perform for the branch we belong to.

In prose: to be fully alive in the moment, like a leaf on a tree.

You belong here. You are attached to your life and your tribe and your friends and family and you are doing what you were made to do. Look at all the forms of nature. Some are twisted and strange. Some are full of pain. Look at the nest of hornets. Are they a mistake? Should we reengineer hornets so they build nests that look more like beachside condominiums? In the fecundity of nature's speech you find all things said: the strange mud-dawbings of the stinging insect who comes on you by surprise and makes you cry.

But I'll try to say it in prose:

I'm suggesting you get some boundaries and learn to say no.The trick is to say no early enough.  

Learning to say no early enough so you don't have to jump out of a moving car is the trick. Some of these people you have gotten into abusive situations with, some of us could have picked them out right away and just said, I don't care how much I need the money, I am not working with that person.

Some of us would never get into the car in the first place. I'm not saying I'm one of those people. I'm more like you. I'll get in the car. I'll think, well, this person seems crazy but I need the ride. Not my wife. She pays better attention. She'll look at a person and say, That person is a person out of whose car you may have to jump before it stops.

So I try to learn from her.

Think of working with such people as if it were a crime. You wouldn't hire on to a criminal syndicate, would you? If your boss asked you to rob a bank or shoot somebody, you wouldn't do it, right? Well, some of the interpersonal dealings you've been in can be construed as morally criminal. They are crimes against yourself.

How is it that some people can say, Hell no, I'm not working with that jackass! and some people think to themselves, well, this person is a real prick, but I need the job.

It takes time to learn to hear your instincts. That's where this patience business comes in. What do your instincts about character sound like? Well, if you're in an interview with somebody and you suddenly feel like running away, that might not be just your problem with being nervous and wanting to run away. It might be a clue that the person interviewing you is an abusive jackass. You might think, Oh, well, I get into interviews and I feel like running away and I have to overcome that. Try running away the first time you feel like running away. Your running may take you where you need to go.

Try trusting the instinct to flee. It may be a neglected voice that can guide you.

There's another kind of breakthrough you make where you realize that you can't do certain things even a little bit. You finally see that you can't even have one little drink. Those of us who have addiction problems, when we're drinking or using, we say, well, I haven't had a drink in three days, so I'm not drinking. Or, I'm only drinking a little bit, so I'm not really drinking.

People with relationship problems face a similar dilemma. It's not a matter of cutting down. It's a matter of cutting it out.

You're either drinking or not drinking. A peace comes over you and you say, I'm just not doing it. Not at all. It's not something I do.

Maybe this will happen with you and relationships. Maybe you will abandon half-measures in relationships. Maybe you will decide there are certain people you're just not dealing with at all. Maybe you will decide that you will only deal with people you feel good about.

In the economic realm it may seem impossible to do this. I think it is possible. Money will come if you find the right comfortable position.

It does take courage. It takes courage not to take the first job that comes along.

It also takes courage to say, Convince me why I should go out with you, and then I'll think about it -- in a month or two.

There's that patience thing again. You do have to wait some of this out. But as I said above in my poetic fashion, waiting is not going on hold. It's turning your attention to the stillness. It's being invisibly busy in the stillness.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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