Earlier this year, I was going through a rough time at work. I was a Human Resources Business Partner, a title I had chased in part because it sounded sparkly and important. The executive I supported often shot verbal jabs and biting sarcastic remarks at me. I was working on a floor where I was the only HR person and didn’t know anybody else. During meetings, my heart would start to race when I had to report out, nervous about what would be said in response, what critiques or jokes would be lobbed my way. This anxiety in turn made me a less impactful version of myself.
I realized I was in denial one day when I was talking to Kendahl at home. “I don’t know why I don’t feel great right now,” I complained. “If you were to look at my life from the outside, you’d wonder why too. I have this great family, house, things are going well at work—”
“That’s not true,” she interrupted. “Things are not going well at work. You are not being treated well and you’re not feeling valued by your colleagues. You come home every day and tell me this.”
It was an intense moment of clarity for me, clouds parting and sun screaming through. She was right: I wasn’t happy with work, and I needed to admit it to myself.
Most of the time, when people at work as me how things are going, it seems like the only proper response is, “Great!”
For me, someone who is drawn to success and appearing successful, being open and honest about my struggles is especially terrifying. My wife, a counselor herself, encouraged me to visit a counselor to talk about what was going on.
Fortunately, I work for a company with professional counselors available to work with employees going through a variety of challenges. This fact alone proves that not everyone is doing Great! at work, but of course I hadn’t considered that.
For our first meeting, he met me in the waiting room of our health services wing and walked me down a long hallway to get to his office. I felt like I was a patient, previous stigmas of counseling flaring up. For someone like me, drawn to achievement and image-crafting, counseling isn’t exactly my first choice to spend an afternoon.
I remember two important things about that first session: first, the Terrible Towel on his office wall indicated he was a Steelers fan, like me, which was comforting. This guy is a person, a normal human being like me. Second, when I asked him about his background, he made a simple statement that made me feel totally comfortable:
“I’ve seen it all.”
He said it casually, probably not meaning much by it. But it meant a lot to me in that moment, like what I was going through qualified. In a different session, when I mentioned the possibility of bringing some of my challenges up to my boss, he again encouraged me. “She’s been here thirty years; she’s seen it all too.”
Throughout my sessions, that phrase stuck out as a key moment for me, despite the fact that it probably wasn’t a part of his counseling strategy (Or was it???). It felt like he was saying, “You are not going to say anything that will shock me. You’re safe.”
It’s so easy for me to ignore or suppress what’s actually going on inside in pursuit of Being Great! and Looking Great! I thrive in the corporate environment in many ways given my personality and work ethic, but I don’t want to fit into the “Pretend everything is Great! and it will be Great!” culture.
So the first counselor who saved me was the one I love most, the one who sometimes knows me better than I know myself. The second one did it with a Terrible Towel and four simple words that helped me keep my head above water.
Matt Cambridge (’12) is a new dad to Chloe, husband to the beautiful Kendahl, and a human resources professional at Boeing. He lives in St. Louis and enjoys eating Hershey’s kisses, riding roller coasters, and watching the latest stand-up specials on Netflix. You can read more of his work at laughcrythink.com.