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Words spoken by colleagues can have a huge impact on our careers: Positivity and support, versus negativity and bullying. Is there ever really any excuse for the former in our industry?

by Jill Spurr

Years ago, in one of the first jobs I had after uni, I was bullied by my line manager. Very seriously bullied, to the point that it made me very ill. In fact, I was so ill at the time, that it took a close friend taking my car keys off me to get me out of the immediate situation and into a position I could recover from.

Now, if you had asked my manager if they were a bully, or ever likely to be a bully, I don’t think they would have recognised themselves in what you were asking. In the cold light of retrospect, I think they were just doing what they thought was right. I think what they piled on me was a symptom of their own lack of support and understanding from above. It doesn’t make it okay, but something I’ve come to recognise over the years is that sometimes, someone must decide to end the cycle of hurt people hurting people. Before you can get your scissors out, you need to recognise the cycle is there.

This bullying manifested itself in the form of a daily, two-hour one to one in which I was given an A4 list of things that must be done that day (invariably this was early afternoon) to the 12-inch remix of “you are not good enough”. I have a vivid memory of bursting into floods of tears when one session ended with an uncharacteristic “I’ve put some Yums Yums in the kitchen.” I still can’t eat them.

I can’t articulate the sorrow and mix of emotions that came with my recent realisation that almost three decades of my career has been built on those words: you are not good enough.

Imagine if those words had been: “you can do anything, achieve anything”.

Perhaps, or even almost certainly, I would still be in the same position, had the same career, the same roles – Matt Haig’s Midnight Library really resonated with me – but the emotions that lay behind it would have been so different: self-belief can change your world, if not the world. Then again, I wouldn’t have learned quite as much as I have. I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Collateral beauty – good things coming out of bad experiences. While those sessions cost me a lot, they eventually gifted me wisdom.

What you repeat, you believe. What you hear more of, you believe. It doesn’t even have to be a cacophony – even if you haven’t heard of the illusory truth effect, you can see its impact in current affairs: the US election, climate crisis denial, pandemic anti-vaxxers to name but a few examples. We believe the familiar whether it is truthful or not (and whether we know it is truthful or not). Social media logarithms keep us fed with stuff that we interact with – what could possibly go wrong?

That’s why it’s important to keep your emotional diet healthy. Not just in the news you consume, but the language you use. The words you use to describe yourself. How you view yourself.

There’s a wonderful side effect of improving your language. Actually, there are loads. It’s well-documented that recording gratitudes each day improves mental health and optimism. But when you change how you view and describe yourself, you change how you view and describe other people. It becomes natural to build someone up, while tearing them down feels alien and uncomfortable.

I have the great privilege of being a role model for my niece. It’s something I take very seriously, and it is something that has changed my outlook on life. I realised that I couldn’t encourage her to take up space in the world with any authenticity if I didn’t walk my walk first: if I didn’t take up my space. As a consequence of that realisation, I now have a Level 7 diploma, am chartered, have a small freelance editing role, and have written and run a “Social Media for Small Business”, among other things. I stopped settling, thinking that I wasn’t good enough. I started to chase more, even though I hadn’t even defined what “more” looked like. I just knew what it wasn’t. After all, I’d spent years up close and personal with what it wasn’t.  

You know what else? I like myself a whole lot more. I’m more self-assured, confident, comfortable in my own skin, which is all I really want for my niece. I have more kind words for myself.

And when we share those kind words with others, we work magic. When we empower someone else, we grow too. As Robert Ingersoll said: “We rise by lifting others.” If that isn’t a takeaway from the pandemic and lockdown, I’m not sure what is.

While we may have grown up singing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me”, it’s not true. Words are powerful, and can have an impact long, long after they were uttered and even forgotten. Maya Angelou: “People will never forget how you made them feel”. You know, twenty years after the events that started this, I shook in one to ones. Even after I stopped shaking, if a line manager asked for five minutes, for many years I automatically responded with “Am I in trouble?” I laughed it off, of course, but it isn’t funny.

I think most of us will have memories of something that hurt, made us feel small, smarts. Knowing that, who would choose words for others to be harmful, criticising, damaging?

Recognising you are caught in a cycle of hurt people hurting people is painful in itself. That’s why it’s often easier to keep on keeping on, after all, it’s only feedback… you are just trying to get the job done… they are over-sensitive… you don’t mean any harm… they are so up themselves… anyway, you are entitled to your opinion… snowflake. Then you put it out of your mind, and turn to social media to send hearts to people tweeting #BeKind.

You can do anything. Achieve anything – if you choose to.  

The greatest act of rebellion I ever made was finding my voice. The greatest act of compassion I made was using it.

Jill Spurr is a communications specialist looking for a new role. You can say hello on Twitter at @dreamworkbc

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