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Do your early experiences of work shape how you view it later in life?

 

My dad seems to think so. In a conversation we had a few days ago, he attributed my nervousness at starting placement soon to my first job, which he seems to believe has scarred me for life. According to him, I need to work through the anxieties that it created and get rid of the negative view that I have of all future employers and colleagues – namely, that they’ll all dislike me, criticise me and think I’m incapable of doing my job properly.

He might have a point. If my first experience of work had been an office in which I was bullied or undermined by my employer. If my first job had lasted a long period of time.

 

If my first job wasn’t three weeks at Domino’s Pizza.

 

But it was. Could those three weeks have had such significance? Not only did I have an intensely negative experience of employment at the tender age of 16, I also met my future fiancé there. Is this a good thing? We spent two and a half intense years together, before a suitably intense break-up. If I hadn’t met him, I might not have isolated myself quite so much in sixth form. I believe I grew apart from friends as a result, and my social life suffered. But equally, without our break-up I probably wouldn’t have gone to Canada. And I wouldn’t have met as many wonderful people as I did. And the friends I had in high school? Two of them I still see, and they have been my closest friends since childhood. The others… well, they were kind of bitchy anyway. I don’t need people like that in my life.

So, back to the job. Yes, the manager was a dick. He yelled at staff, he was mean and rude, he patronised me… his personality was completely at odds with mine. At that age I lacked confidence, and although I was confident with peers, I was shy with authority figures. I had (and still have, to an extent) phone anxiety and so having to take calls with people reeling off large orders while working the computer system and trying not to get the orders wrong sent me into a total panic. Once I got so flustered that I entered someone’s address and phone number incorrectly, so we were unable to call them back to correct the order. He shouted, in front of everyone, ‘WHAT IS SO COMPLICATED?!’

At that moment, I felt like the stupidest human being to ever live. Because he’s right. What was so complicated? How come everyone else managed, and I didn’t? How come my boyfriend was so good at his job that he’d be left in charge when the manager wasn’t there, yet I was on the verge of being fired because I couldn’t even work a basic computer?

I mean, people make jokes about staff in fast food places. It’s hardly seen as a high end, difficult job. On the contrary, it’s seen as a low-skilled, easy job to do. So if I’m not even capable of doing something so simple, how can I ever expect to perform in a real job?

 

The fact that this still stirs up so many emotions in me makes me think that maybe my dad was right. It also makes me doubt my sanity. I mean, come on! The job lasted three weeks before I quit – partly out of a desire to be free from the nightmare of working there, but also because I was scared that if I didn’t quit I’d eventually be fired.

But can this experience really be to blame for my anxiety today? Am I that sensitive? I guess I do lack confidence. All evidence since that horrible job has pointed to me being a perfectly competent individual. I’ve volunteered with organisations and done a good job, and I’ve held other jobs successfully.

And my previous feelings of not fitting in and of letting my shyness creep in and spoil my experiences motivated me to do everything to avoid that in my first placement on the course. I steamed in with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, worked hard, chatted to everyone and basically just fought to be seen as positively as possible. As a result, I aced the placement, everyone had good feedback about me and I avoided ever being on the receiving end of the manager’s infamous bad temper.

 

This is getting long. Less blog post, more confessional.

 

I guess I’m just working through things. I start the final placement of my course on Monday, and I’m terrified. I’m envisaging various scenarios, each with a negative outcome. They won’t let me leave early on a Monday to get to yoga class, so I’ll have to quit it for 6 months. They won’t let me do four days a week if I struggle with the workload (the university expects you to do four days until all assignments are handed in, but they seemed surprised when I told them that and said they’d prefer me to do five). My colleagues won’t like me. I won’t know what to do. I won’t enjoy the work, and will feel constantly depressed about having to go there. I’ll make a fool of myself in court. I’ll embarrass myself. The service users won’t like me. I won’t form good relationships. I will be ineffective when carrying out direct work with children. I won’t know what to say to them. My life will be one long feeling of dread and anxiety from start to finish.

All of these thoughts are genuinely going around in my head. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. The fact that they’ve stressed how flexible they are. That I can work from home on days that I just have a report to write. That as long as I get the hours done, I’m free to start and finish when I want (within reason). That everyone I’ve met so far has been really welcoming and friendly to me.

But my head tries to predict every scenario possible and attaches a negative outcome to it.

I think it has a lot more to do with my personality in general than one three-week-long job. I’m just a terribly anxious perfectionist. I can’t bear the thought of criticism, of falling short. Saying that, maybe my dad has a point. That first job, the one that it took guts to pursue because I already had fears about not being good enough, smashed any tiny bit of confidence that I might have had in myself when it came to work. And at a time of real personal crisis in my life too. If I had been more resilient, it wouldn’t have affected me.

But I wasn’t.

The thing is, I am now. I have so much more confidence, and I know better. I know better than my 16 year old self, and I believe in myself more than she did. I have no reason to doubt myself anymore.

So when I walk into that building at 9am on Monday morning, I have no reason to assume that it will be anything but the beginning of a wonderful, exciting, educational journey. And if I do happen to catch myself making any other assumptions, I will just have to remind myself that it isn’t Domino’s, I’m not 16, and I don’t have some spotty jumped-up little shit of a manager yelling in my face.

I’m a better manager than he’ll ever be, in every sense of the word. I’ve learned to manage my fears, my anxieties, my eating disorder… and the journey continues. He might have been the manager of his tiny little pizza empire, but I am the manager of my whole life, and I’m starting to think that I kick ass at it.

And my achievements in life are so much bigger than work. Work does not define you. Your success or failure at work has no bearing on your worth as a human being. I’ve managed to learn this about food. I used to think my eating habits, and my weight, were related to my intrinsic worth. If I could overcome that huge error, surely I can overcome this too?

And if those negative ruminations turn out to have some grounding, and I do have a shitty time on placement, I know that I’m strong enough to not let it affect my happiness as a person. Because it’s just work, you know?

My real job is pursuing contentment and doing the things that make me happy. Work is just one tiny part of that. In my life, I’m the boss. And it’s my job to be the kind of boss that I deserve. That means no unhelpful criticism, no putdowns, no unfair appraisals and no unrealistic expectations.

 

(I would like to be able to say that writing this has helped me to feel less nervous about Monday morning… but it hasn’t. Ah well, it gave me a break from studying – that’s one area that I DO need to improve in!)

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