My To-Do list is out of control and if that is not pressure enough then there is the struggle with the parts of my job/life that I love and the rest of it. Much of my week is ruled by Stephen Covey’s “Urgent/Important matrix” or Natalie Houston’s “Prioritize your Activities by Gain and Pain” (with a heavy focus on avoiding pain). You know the type of activity: putting out the fire before it burns down the entire forest or at least plowing a firebreak to keep it contained. But I also believe quite passionately that I need to reserve time each week to feed my soul and renew my passion for my work. I love teaching, but it is hard work. I love directing a National Writing Project site, but it can also be grueling. I’ve written many times that that teachers must put their own oxygen mask on first or everyone will suffer, but it is getting hard to practice what I preach when it comes to the demands of my professional and personal life. I think the problem is the number of toxic relationships I have allowed to flourish in my life.
There are a lot of articles out there about toxic relationships: toxic romantic relationships, toxic friendships, and toxic workplaces are popular topics, but there is not much out there about the more insidious toxic relationship – the toxic volunteer job. These are the “little” jobs that you agreed (either verbally or accidentally) to take on. My week, my calendar, my inbox are filled with these “little” tasks that do nothing to advance me professionally or personally. No one “volunteer” job is overwhelming (although I have one that comes close) but the cumulative effect is stressful and exhausting. The clamor to take care of these volunteer jobs is often distracting from the jobs I get paid to do (which are hard enough, thank you).
Yvette Bowlin writes in “5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship” on Tiny Buddha that the “label “toxic” means something that drains life and energy. While her article (and many others) focuses on the toxic romantic relationship there are signs that apply to toxic service relationships as well. Some that really resonate with me include:
- The time and energy this relationship requires is out of balance with other relationships. When a volunteer job is interfering with the job that pays your bills or your family life then there is a problem. This is especially problematic when the relationship takes more from you than it gives. A healthy hobby may take time away from family but returns you energized and happy so it is a positive trade-off. An unhealthy hobby takes time away and returns you angry, frustrated, and/or exhausted.
- You can never do enough. The toxic volunteer job is a jealous tyrant that is never satisfied and always demands more and better. This monster is also skilled at making you feel guilty for not putting this job first. There is no winning with this relationship and little joy to be found even in a job well done because it could have always been better or there is already another task queued up.
- The relationship is changing you – and not in a good way. Perhaps you are picking up bad habits or reviving old ones. Perhaps you are making bad choices about diet, exercise, sleep, or alcohol because of the stress related to this relationship. The blame for the bad choices can probably not be based solely on this one toxic relationship, but if your volunteer job exacerbates the other stresses in your life then you have a problem.
What are your choices? How do you survive or escape a toxic service relationship? First of all, you have to recognize that you have choices. Even if you agreed to a term of service you can always resign. There may be social consequences, but you have to decide if the toxic relationship is really worth suffering simply to avoid those. Amy Rees Anderson offers some advice that is applicable to the toxic volunteer job in her Forbes article “Coping In A Toxic Work Environment.” One piece of advice that I think is helpful was to learn from the experience. What can you take away from this toxic relationship that will benefit you in the short or long term? Alan Henry writes on LifeHacker about “How To Handle a Toxic Work Environment“ that we should not take the negative relationship personally or let it define us, but more important is recognizing when it is time to end it. He does suggest that you work to keep the break-up positive and not to dwell on the toxic elements that drove you out.
Once again, blogging about the stressors in my life has helped me focus my thoughts. While my various volunteer jobs do often add stress and complications, there is only one relationship that I would consider toxic. Now I need to decide how I want to cope with it. Is it time to fold?
Do you have toxic relationships in your life? How do you deal or ditch the toxic relationships in your life?