Rachel is here to discuss something completely different: the performances we are expected to put on for others in a lot of our jobs. These performances are not the actual work that is part of our job description, yet they are exhausting nonetheless. We will be talking about the personal/emotional impact of those performances, how to recognize them, and our hopes for the future of work.
Also, it’s November so that means small business audio essays are back! We get things started with Alex McGinness of Arcoiris Design Studio. You can find her on Instagram as @arcoiris.design.studio. And check out her Rainbow Refresh Challenge, a 5 day audit challenge that can help you refresh your brand.
Welcome to Clotheshorse, the podcast that is ready to change what it means to be a worker in this world!.
I’m your host, Amanda and this is episode 182. I took last week off because I’m currently dealing with the hottest viral illness of 2023, shingles! Seriously though, I would have never guessed that was what was wrong with me if I hadn’t heard two other podcast hosts (Trend Lightly) talking about their recent bouts with shingles. Fortunately, the treatment is working and I’m already feeling a lot better than I was a week ago. Thank you to all of you who sent kind thoughts and cute cat photos over the last week!
This week’s episode…well, I’ve been excited about this one since weeks before it was even recorded…this week’s guest is a return guest, Rachel Greenley! You first met her in January, when she dropped by to talk about her New York Times essay, This Is the Reality of America’s Fast-Fashion Addiction. In that piece of writing, she shared her experiences working in a facility processing Amazon returns. And the essay is a must read for anyone who has wondered what happens with the items we buy online and then return! If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, well, you should go do that some time soon. It is episode 151!
Today Rachel and I are going to talk about something different: the performances we are expected to put on for others in a lot of our jobs. These performances are not the actual work that is part of our job description, yet they are exhausting nonetheless. We will be talking about the impact of those performances, how to recognize them, and our hopes for the future of work.
But before that: It’s November! Which means it’s time for two Clotheshorse holiday traditions!
The first is the 12 Days of Slow Gifting. Now, in the past that has included an episode or two about slow gifting, but I will be skipping that this year. Instead, I’ll be sharing inspiration and information about the 12 Days of Slow Gifting all month long on Instagram and TikTok, so keep an eye out for that.
The other Clotheshorse holiday tradition is…small business audio essays! For the rest of the year I’ll be sharing audio essays from small business owners within the Clotheshorse community. This week we’ll be hearing from Alex of Arcoiris Design Studio. She was the first person to submit an essay, within 24 hours of the announcement so let’s all give Alex a massive round of applause for not procrastinating!!!
Okay, now let’s give her essay a listen!
Thank you so much Alex for taking the time to tell us about yourself and give us a little bit of business advice, too! I’ll be sharing Alex’s website, instagram account, etc in our show notes, so please give her a follow and check out what she does!
I’m really excited to have Rachel back for this episode because I really just enjoy talking to her so much. The process for prepping an episode of this podcast isn’t as spontaneous as it might seem. Before we even talk about recording, I usually spend an hour or so talking things through with the guest, typing up notes furiously, in hopes of creating an outline for our conversation. That’s because I want to ensure that we both get to ask and say all the things we wanted to ask and say.
And when I was prepping with Rachel for this episode, we were talking about her job search. She mentioned how opportunities had arisen here and there to apply for jobs that she didn’t really want, but that would feel safe, that would alleviate the fear of not being able to find a job. Maybe working for companies that didn’t align with her values. Once again, that fear is hard to shake. I have had it so many times over the years. I even feel that fear sneaking in sometimes now.
Rachel told me that when she started to feel that fear, that sense that she should pursue a job she did not want just to feel safe, she would go out in the woods and hike around until she forgot about it.
And I have been thinking about that so much since that conversation, which I want to say was back in August, when I had so freshly quit my horrible job, and the fear was sort of swirling around me at all times.
There are so many times that I have said to myself “it’s time to go for a walk in the woods” (mostly as a metaphor because it has been–until recently–way too hot to go traipsing around outside). But I have had those moments of fear, of “should I just apply for this job that I will hate, that will inevitably make me sick.” And Rachel’s words have helped me shut that down.
Really, the conversation in this episode has also helped me keep things in perspective. Listening to us discuss the exhausting roles we must play in the workplace, it reminds me of why I just don’t want to do that again. It renews my commitment to trying my hardest to never have to sacrifice my own well being, my own life, for someone else’s financial gain. It’s a privileged place to be, to feel as if turning my back on that life is even an option. But it also took more than 20 years to get here. It may not work out, but it might.
Certainly I can look back at the first half of this year and remember the pain of it all, and it almost serves as that “walk in the woods” for me. I’ve talked a bit about how sick that job was making me, how it was chipping away at my self esteem, my mental health, my physical health. I know I shared about that back when I left the job this summer. I’m still unpacking it all. I think I will be doing that for a long time.
It’s funny–but not in a haha way, more in a depressing, infuriating way–that a fully transactional part of our lives–doing work for pay–can have these long lasting impacts on our mental and physical health. That months and years later we might still be unraveling the knots that we tied ourselves in during our time at that job.
Rachel and I are going to talk a lot about the performances we have to put on for others in order to succeed at work. And I think it was the performances that I had to put on at my last job that were far more exhausting than any of the actual work I did. To be clear, I was working extremely long hours–I seriously do not know how I was making Clotheshorse during the first six months of this year–but the work itself, I don’t know, I’ve always been a hard worker so it doesn’t phase me. It’s the performance of everything being okay that chips away at me.
I managed an awesome team at my job. I actually miss all of those amazing people on a regular basis. I have kept in touch, but in a very distant way because I just don’t want to talk about the company where they still work because…I just can’t. The person who replaced me as their manager was formerly a peer who had been miserable and shitty to me since the day I joined the company. I can’t say nice things about her. And I can’t cheer for anyone’s success because I think the company is a bad business.
Here’s the thing about being the boss: the performance is even more complex. There is the act you put on for the executives above you and the peers around you. The performance for your team is even harder, because you have to pretend that everything is okay, that you weren’t just humiliated and degraded for the last hour or two by the CEO. You can’t cry at work. You can’t seem tired or frustrated. You can’t show that you disagree with a policy. You have to pretend–just like a parent would do for their kid–that everything is just fine. The kanji for boss in Japanese directly translates to “part parent” or “half parent” and that has always felt very appropriate to me.
So for the first half of this year, after my primary partner and peer at work was fired essentially for standing up for me, for going to HR about a horrible meeting in which I was humiliated, screamed at, degraded, my spreadsheets were mocked (don’t ever mock my spreadsheets okay? My friends call me the Google Doctor for a reason!), after Dustin physically pulled me out of my office where the Zoom meeting was happening because he couldn’t bear to hear me experience that for another minute…I had to pretend to my team that everything was fine. That I wasn’t sick with dread over yet another meeting, yet another late night phone call from the CEO, yet another humiliation.
I also felt like I had to put on a performance for my family, for Dustin, for my friends…that everything was just fine. That work was great and definitely not making me sick. Dustin knew otherwise of course…on our trips to Japan this year, in the last few days I would find myself spiraling with depression, anxiety, outright despair over the return to work. It effectively ruined the final days of our trips. I experienced the same thing every Sunday when I woke up. Every night before bed. I just couldn’t take another day of it, but I had to pretend everything was fine for everyone. I had to put on that performance.
I also had to put on a performance for all of you, here on the podcast and on social media…that everything was just fine, that I was having the time of my life. And to be fair, while working on Clotheshorse for the first half of this year might have been a blur, it was also an escape, a place where (for the most part) I could not deal with humiliation and bullying.
Around March, things got weird. That was back when Alex of St. Evens and I did the series of the ethics of secondhand, still one of my favorite things I’ve worked on for Clotheshorse. Things were going pretty well–I had already protected my mental health by turning off comments and using the Instagram controls to keep trolls away. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten really good at protecting myself on social media.
But things went off the rails one night when a woman I don’t know and did not follow, her name is Rebekkah, became convinced that a post I had made about the negative impacts of anti-reseller rhetoric was directly about her. She is part of the vintage collecting community and she has a lot of strong feelings about resellers. She even had a podcast about that topic. But I don’t know her. I’m not a part of that community and this series (as you all know) was a bigger project that wasn’t really about vintage per se, and more about secondhand as a whole.
So Rebekkah thought that I was attacking her and years ago, I began using an Instagram option that only allows followers to comment on posts. I did that when some really fatphobic trolls showed up to harass people. And I was like “wow this is great, I’m going to continue this forever.” But in this case, that meant Rebekkah couldn’t comment on my posts because she doesn’t follow Clotheshorse. That could have been the end of it, but she was convinced that not only was I targeting her with the post, but that I was intentionally silencing her by preventing her from commenting. So she started sharing all of these nasty stories about me, comparing me to Nazis, just generally questioning my intelligence and decency as a person. Then her friends started harassing me via DMs and stories of their own. I blocked her, but the messages from her friends kept coming. And honestly, it freaked me the fuck out.
Now, I think if I hadn’t been so exhausted and broken by my job, I would have remembered that just a few years earlier, vegans had found my phone number and texted me death threats because I said the vegan leather was plastic. I would have remembered that everything was fine after that. And I would have gone to sleep that night feeling fine.
But instead I was scared and angry. And I had to continue the performance for all of you as if nothing was wrong. That some Instagram nonsense hadn’t messed me up.
I was so exhausted, so hopeless.
It was in the weeks after that that I began to seriously consider trying to get inpatient mental health treatment. I have bipolar disorder and I have done a few stints inpatient in my late teens and early 20s. But here in the US, that kind of treatment will generally bankrupt you. Or at the very least, force you to stay at your shitty job because you need a steady income to pay those medical bills.
So then my brain shifted gears: maybe I needed to quit Clotheshorse because I couldn’t handle social media bullshit AND my horrible job. I gave that option a lot of thought, for a month or two. Silently pondering this everyday, hoping that no one would guess that I was just breaking inside.
That’s when I finally told Dustin: I have to leave this job by the end of the year. In fact, I would like to leave before Black Friday because I can’t handle another holiday season of being yelled at.
We began to hatch a plan. And I felt a little better, although now I also had to pretend at work that I wasn’t totally planning my escape. Well, that performance was cut short when an incident motivated me to quit a lot earlier than planned.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because we have to normalize talking about this kind of stuff. We have to normalize being open about the impact our jobs have on our mental health. Making conversations like that NORMAL is step one in making it BETTER for all of us. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It shouldn’t traumatize you or drive you to substance abuse. Back after Christmas–after that horrible Zoom meeting–I started doing something that I hadn’t done for a very long time…I started cutting myself. And that was how I silently coped with the next six months of draining performances for everyone around me. I assure you that when all of that Instagram drama was happening in March, I was also in my bathroom harming myself.
I still have those marks on my arms. In fact, they seem to get more pronounced after a little bit of sun. And many times, when I’m starting to feel that fear that I should apply for any job, no matter how horrible it sounds, I look at my arms. I stare deep into the random lines crisscrossing on my wrists. They are my walk in the woods. They remind me that I deserve better and that I can find better. And they motivate me to talk about these difficult topics with all of you. I always say that our personal stories can help others better understand their own lives, to see the systems that harm us on a regular basis, and maybe even remind us that we collectively have the power to change it all.
And that’s why I am so excited to share this conversation with Rachel with all of you, so you can also start naming and calling out the messed up things that are happening in your jobs, too. We will never fix it if we don’t start talking about it. And getting others to talk about it, too.
So let’s jump in!