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A Professional Reckoning

I’m a workplace people pleaser. I say that mostly with pride, as I can pretty much get along with anyone, and that has proven advantageous to my career, since I am often given opportunities to engage in collaborative endeavors that encourage my own creativity and contribute to my professional fulfillment. However, being a workplace people pleaser also means that I’ve sometimes had to learn the hard way when it comes to setting boundaries in my professional roles -- particularly boundaries that are protective of my personal life. And I’m not the only one. Recently, an article was released that noted that workers are miserable because the professional keeps creeping into the sanctity of the personal -- specifically, Sunday night has become the new Monday morning. I’ve experienced the drawbacks of this creep myself, and as such, I’m here to offer two strategies for integrating “nope” and “never again” into a purposeful professional practice. Further, I’ll show how employing these approaches in my own career has helped me to create a successful balance between the personal and professional, and even more explicitly, helped me see the benefit of encouraging their separation.

Protecting Personal and Professional Boundaries with the Power of “Nope”

After I graduated from my master’s program in English, I accepted a position as an academic adviser within an engineering student services office. I know -- this may seem like a strange segue. Maybe it was just having finished my thesis -- a trial by fire that while rewarding, completely (even if only temporarily) annihilated my ability to analyze one more piece of literature (and thus prevented me from moving into a Ph.D. program). Or maybe it was just time to try something else. I tend to be someone who (at least thus far) is good for about five years or so before I need to move on to the next creative challenge. In either case, my experience is further proof that we English majors are going to be a-okay, especially because we have diverse career options, and sometimes in unexpected fields.

Back then, I embraced my professional transition enthusiastically. And by embraced enthusiastically, I mean I made it annoyingly intense. I was always early to the office, checked my emails in the off hours and volunteered for extra activities and duties that might keep me away on the weekends or evenings. I made myself anxious about performance and productivity, and started to base my personal worth on my professional performance. Thus, it may come as no surprise to you, readers, that I burned out after a few years in this position, too. Don’t get me wrong -- because I’m a type-A gal with high-functioning anxiety, I still did well and kept excelling (even finding enjoyment) while I was in the role, but I did so by prioritizing the professional through personal deprivation, continuously conflating two worlds that, at least for me, necessarily required some separation to ensure success (and my sanity!) in either.

As it always goes with hindsight, it was only because of this experience that I was finally able to gain some essential self-awareness about the positive potential of placing barriers between my professional and personal worlds. According to Rebecca Knight, saying no is not always a natural response for employees. Indeed, saying no is still a little scary to me, since I do take a lot of pride in my professional productivity, but I’ve found a comfortable way to turn down, or even turn off, workplace overload. By engaging a little English major syntax switch, and tapping into my Midwest roots, I have learned to make “nope” a part of my professional practice. I say nope to checking email after hours, I say nope to working on vacation or sick days, and I say nope to prioritizing the professional above the personal. I even work out on some of my lunch hours at our campus gym, a strategic physical redirection that requires me to walk away from my computer for an entire hour! Nope has thus become an enabling mantra for me; when I say nope, I am executing my professional empowerment.

Saying “Never Again” to Roles that Don’t Recognize or Reward

I’m the primary earner in my marriage. For some reason I can’t stand the term “breadwinner,” but if we think about this in terms of winning the bread (let’s not spend too much time parsing that out, as I think the metaphor will lose its effect), I would be confident in claiming I bring home at least four to five loaves a day, in comparison to my husband's single loaf. In this way, we are a modern couple, with him operating as the primary caretaker and me operating as the primary professional. Though, because we are also the most modern of modern, even maybe the postmodern, he also works part-time remotely from home, and I do a large amount of the caretaking, too (second shift, anyone?). But I digress. This article isn't about the dynamics of my marriage. That’s my next publication.

As the aforementioned breadwinner, I engage in a lot of part-time remote positions, and I’m always on the lookout for the next best gig -- both because I’m someone who would rather be busy than bored, but also because I’m still solidifying my ideal professional path. Not to worry -- this doesn’t negate the entire first part of this article; I schedule these part-time positions into my day in the same way that I do my full-time work. With them, I’m still saying nope productively -- just in a different capacity. Wait. Am I digressing again? Anyways, sometimes in my seemingly never-ending scramble for side hustles that might lead me somewhere important, it can be all too easy to forget to factor in my own worth and value as part of the job-hunting process. In the rush to secure the next stable income, I can get too caught up in the act of acquiring, neglecting the importance of self-alignment when it comes to position fit and function. In addition, as someone who is continually haunted by an economically insecure childhood, the specter of financial disaster -- one that can feel impending, even when it is not at all inclement -- can cloud my professional judgment. I get money for that? Of course I need to do it!

This specter may explain why, recently, I found myself accepting a part-time remote teaching job that I had strong reservations about. A good majority of these reservations centered on the energy output to fiscal input ratios. Like many adjuncts, I would be drastically underpaid for eight weeks of rather intensive writing teaching. For this reason, I decided fairly early on that I would not be renewing my contract (or reserving my energy) for this endeavor. This was the first time in my entire professional career that I willingly turned down reliable remote work. Even as I type this out, I am feeling a small smattering of anxiety -- did I just make a big mistake? Isn’t some pay better than no pay? What if this was an essential stepping-stone to my next big professional thing? What if we suddenly implode financially? But that anxiety soon dissipates into a feeling of accomplishment and positive professional self-actualization. I am worth more. I am valuable and deserve to be compensated for my skills and education. I am in control of my employment experiences, and if they are not empowering, they are not worth engaging. It is my goal to never again allow myself to forget these facts. Neither should you, reader friends.

Acknowledging Boundaries and Remaining Aware of Workplace Worth

I realize that these might be considered the ramblings of a pretty privileged professional -- you have had stable, reliable employment in higher ed and now you have too many jobs to choose from? Poor you! Let me be clear: there have been many times in my life where working was not an option (I started helping support my single mother and younger brother when I was 15 and got my worker’s permit), and choice was a luxury I couldn’t afford (living with my single mother, I experienced eviction, homelessness and continued financial distress), literally. But I would argue that even when the stakes are dire, or maybe especially in those instances, acknowledging boundaries and maintaining an awareness of workplace worth are both key to professional self-advocacy and actualization. We are in charge of building the environment we want to engage as employees. Saying nope to unrealistic expectations and waving goodbye to positions that negate our potential, or purposefully take advantage of it, is an empowering move that will only enhance our future career endeavors. You can wield this power, readers. You should.

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