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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Don't Always Be a "Good Employee," From Someone Who Had a Breakdown Doing Just That

In 2001 I had a nervous breakdown because I couldn’t be a “good employee” for even one day longer.

Something just snapped. I stayed at home for three months and could barely talk. I was on a cocktail of anti-depressants just to keep my head above water. It took me 18 months to put myself back together.

I’d spent so long playing the role of “good employee” that I forgot all about who I was under all that exhausting role-playing and wound up totally lost.

I learned a really important lesson in the most difficult way I could learn it: Squeezing myself into box that’s too small is only ever going to hurt.

So, let me offer you a simple 1-2-3 that I hope will help you avoid the same trap I fell into and help you deal with the exhaustion of being a “good employee” if that’s where you’re at.

1. Who Are You Trying to Please?

Wanting to be a good employee starts with the best of intentions. You want people to think well of you. You want to build a good reputation. And you want people to like you.

But those intentions can so easily be perverted into people-pleasing that you end up spread thin like a marshmallow under a grand piano. You busy yourself with meeting peoples’ expectations rather than doing what you think is right, you say the right thing in meetings because you want the validation, and you filter how you appear to your co-workers because that’s what “good employees” do.

So, who is it you’re trying to please by being a good employee? Is it you, or is it everyone else? Have your good intentions been usurped by being seen to be great at what you do and wanting to fit in?

Should your answer highlight how you’ve been playing the role of good employee rather than becoming great at what you do, it’s time to recognize one simple fact.

Your job isn’t to please everyone. Your responsibility is to yourself.

2. How Do You Want to Feel?

Exhaustion drenches you. It seeps into you and makes it almost impossible to see another way of doing things. But it’s a pretty safe bet that you don’t want to feel exhausted anymore, right?

So, if there was another way you could feel, what would it be? What would an alternative look like? What would it feel like? It could be that you want to feel light, creative, and energized. Maybe you want to feel free, driven, and focused. Or maybe you want to feel peaceful, flowing, and appreciative.

Like a tow rope to a car in a muddy ditch, the point here is to connect deeply with something real that can pull you up and out.

Acknowledge that there’s a different way, a way that adds rather than takes away. It sometimes helps to look back at a time in your life when your work and career felt great, and get specific about how that was. How did it make you feel, and what did it allow you to do? What was different between that and where you are now? What would it mean if you could get something similar again?

Recognize that these ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving are independent of any need to be a “good employee.” In fact, the need to play the role of good employee is exactly what gets in the way of these more flowing and enabling ways of doing things.

3. What’s an Easier Way?

Trying to be a good employee can have you running yourself ragged in the effort to be validated as such. An easier way starts with being kinder to yourself.

And the next question is a simple one. How can this be easier?

This is not a question designed to take the easy way out. It’s there to highlight a way forward that offers a sense of ease and wholeness rather than a sense of needing to be “good.”

Ease over struggle. Flow over frustration. Acceptance over exhaustion.

So rather than trying to be a “good employee” when you’re in meetings, what’s a way that feels easier that honors who you are? Rather than trying to be a “good employee” by toeing the party line even when you disagree or have a different plan, what’s an easy way for you to honor what matters or voice your opinion without fear of being judged as “wrong” or “bad?” Or rather than trying to be a “good employee” by blending in and doing what’s needed, what would be an easier way that lets you be you and do what you’re best at?

I’d take an employee who’s at ease with doing great work over one who plays a role any day. How about you?

Photo of tired man courtesy of Shutterstock.

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