Five or six years ago, I was reading The Tipping Point (one of Malcolm Gladwell’s many bestsellers).
He mentioned this famous study about marriage and relationships where the researcher could prove with astounding accuracy whether a couple would stay together or not … after watching them interact for only seconds.
The bottom line? If contempt and resentment have entered into a relationship, it’s not going to last (even if the couple doesn’t realize it yet).
I promptly broke out into a cold sweat, shut the book, and never finished it.
At the time, I was in a relationship that I was starting to feel trapped by. I was also exhibiting all of the signs of contempt that the book warned about (I remember eye rolling and disdainful comments were two big ones), and honestly … I wasn’t ready to admit the truth yet, so I quite literally had to put the truth down and walk away for a while.
You can’t hide forever, though. Eventually I owned up to what wasn’t working, and we went our separate ways. And in the long run, we were both better off for it.
This experience feels particularly fresh for me because of something I recently helped a client through.
My client, Kara, only started working at her new job (an absolute dream company) 5 months ago. At first, everything was rosy. She was riding a high of inspiration, energy, and connection with the people around her.
But in the past couple months, the honeymoon turned cold, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on why.
We did a little digging, and it turns out she’d been nurturing some silent resentment that had started to fester.
I’M NOT YOUR COFFEE GIRL
Kara is an absolute gem. She’s smart, hard-working, compassionate, and incredibly mindful of other people’s feelings.
In fact, she proved her value to her team so quickly that she was promoted to a more senior position in the company after only three months of working there.
The start-up she works for is like a lot of other up-and-coming organizations — there’s a lot to do and not enough time (or people) to do everything that needs doing.
She tries not to get bogged down by overwhelm and her never-quite-finished to-do list, but some days that’s harder than others.
After a stretch of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and unmotivated, she reached out and shared her fears with me:
“I’m scared that the honeymoon is over and that I won’t ever feel as excited and inspired by this job as I did at the beginning. It’s only been 5 months, but I’m not sure I can get back to that place.”
I asked her to tell me the first thing she would change about her job right now, if she had complete power and authority to make it happen.
She said, “Well … I think I would need to stop getting coffee and water and lunch for my boss.”
Wait. Hold up. Say what?
As it turns out, her boss had been calling her into meetings and asking in front of other people (in a way that was hard to turn down in the moment) if she would mind grabbing them coffees, waters, lunch, etc. They were the kind of requests that look benign, but feel undercutting.
Let me be clear about this — Kara is not an assistant. Those kinds of duties are not part of her job description. She has her own responsibilities and workload that she’s actually being paid to do.
NATURALLY, THE RESENTMENT HAD STARTED TO FESTER
It’s hard to know how to respond when you’re caught off guard by an inappropriate request, so it’s understandable that Kara hadn’t done anything about it. She didn’t want to rock the boat, so she just did what she was asked.
But like anyone in her shoes, she’d started to feel really undervalued.
Not only that, but she was self-conscious about the message this coffee-fetching dynamic was sending to other teammates. She didn’t want to be taken less seriously or undervalued by other people because of how her boss was treating her.
And like any chronic disease, the festering resentment had started to spread. Feeling underappreciated became the ripple effect that impacted everything else — her inspiration, energy, and interest in her job had all started to wane, too. Apathy and disconnection had started to settle in.
It didn’t help when she found out that this had happened before. Apparently, her boss had a series of actual assistants who had all quit because they felt unvalued.
This is the point in the story at which most people would be nodding their heads in solidarity with Kara, saying, “Yeah, your boss sounds awful!” or “No wonder those poor assistants quit. People are so ungrateful.”
BUT I’M NOT GOING TO DO THAT
My response to Kara was, “Does your boss know how this makes you feel?”
And her answer? “No. She doesn’t.”
The hard truth is that those assistants might not have needed to quit their jobs. Maybe if they’d found the courage to tell their boss how they felt, or believed they were allowed to share their feelings, things might have turned out very differently.
Which, of course, is exactly what I told Kara.
It’s easy to want to paint people as either heroes or villains — the victim who’s being taken advantage of and the perpetrator who’s doing the harm. But real life is rarely like that.
Because this same boss? She’s also the one who fought hard for Kara to get that promotion after only 3 months of employment. She clearly respects Kara in a lot of ways, or she wouldn’t have cared enough to advocate for her.
So we planned out what Kara would say to her boss, and how she would draw a much-needed boundary around her valuable time and energy. It went something like:
“This is vulnerable for me to share, but I value our relationship a lot so it’s important to be honest. I feel really under-valued and under-utilized when you ask me to get coffee or lunch because it isn’t what I’m here to do. I’d really like to be spending that time on the projects that I’ve been tasked with, so that the whole team can benefit. I’ve been feeling unmotivated and disengaged lately, and I know that feeling more valued would go far in turning that around.”
When I asked Kara how she thought her boss might respond, she said:
“Actually, I think she’ll be really receptive. We’re encouraged to share our feelings here, and I think she’ll be glad that I did.”
IT WOULD HAVE SUCKED IF KARA HAD NEVER SAID ANYTHING
Because more than likely, her resentment would have festered to the point where she was actively miserable. She would have ended up quitting a job that she had been so excited to do … all because she assumed she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do anything about her situation.
Now, Kara can get back to work. There are so many great things about her job that she hasn’t been able to appreciate for a while, because it’s impossible to feel resentful and grateful at the same time.
So, here’s the bottom line.
You can’t go around blaming people, quitting jobs, feeling disdainful, lashing out, silently seething, brimming with passive-aggression, or assuming what you want isn’t possible … if you haven’t actually set firm boundaries or told anyone what you wanted or how you felt.
It takes guts to be vulnerable enough to ask for what you need, tell people no, and set boundaries. But unless you have the courage to be honest, resentment will always creep in, and it will always wreak havoc.
What about you? We’re all human, so I know you have something festering that you haven’t spoken up about. Share with me, in the comments.
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