“Confessions of a Recovering Cynic” by Laurie A. Berry

My early years as a young professional were one of a practitioner struggling to bring basic programs to our campus. I grew up in a medium sized housing system that had a strong institutional history. My first job away from my alma mater landed me in a place where housing was just beginning. I was the second housing professional hired to help run the apartment complex. Graduate school and my professional experience as a hall director did not prepare me for building a program from the ground up. Just when things began to normalize, the director of the department left. It was one of the first times in my professional career that I had been a part of a major restructure.

In retrospect this is where my cynicism began in my professional life and where I entered into what I now call my “Angry Era.” I felt abandoned by a person I had grown to trust over the course of our five years working together. I could not imagine how when he left he could do so right before the busy closing season. I began to look inward for support as I felt alone professionally. My identity in a small department was derived from my relationship with the only other housing professional on my campus, the director.

During the height of the Angry Era, I did not just burn bridges, I napalmed them. In my mind, I was the only person who cared enough to stay and do the work needed to build a good housing program. So when the new director came into the department with ideas to change and enhance what we were doing, I was not interested in engaging. I was convinced he would start a process and then leave. I was certain anyone he brought in would do the same. So I remained closed off to colleagues emotionally.

Things around me began to change. New staff members arrived. They engaged in the departmental initiatives and with each other. I watched from a safe distance. Because of a space issue in the main housing office, I was moved to a different location to open the Center for Judicial Affairs. I was removed from the department emotionally and now physically. I had the opportunity to build something from the ground up all the while feeling as though I had been pushed away. I struggled during this time in finding my way because I felt so isolated.

As a part of the restructure, the director scheduled a three day retreat. This type of retreat required staff to stay off site. I had, at the time, a young infant. I wanted to use her as an excuse not to have to stay over-night, but this was an important activity that I would be expected to role model good behavior. So I reluctantly went along. While I began to engage more with the retreat activities aimed at establishing a foundation for the department, it was during a down time conversation with two persistent colleagues that lead to a break-through for me. With these two women on a porch in a state park, I found the genuine connection I had been missing. We had a conversation that got me to think more deeply about my role within the department. Over the course of the next few weeks one colleague persistently challenged me to look at my relationship with a particular manager. One day when she asked a question, I had previously refused to answer fully, I blurted out that I thought my colleague took my job. The restructure meant a realignment of duties. I felt as though one of my colleagues took important aspects of what used to me my job. I could not believe I said those words out loud. I pretended it did not happen with an awkwardly long silence that seemed to last forever. My colleague then calmly asked me why I felt that way. And though I do not remember exactly what I said to her, I know I was honest for the first time with those feelings. I owned my feelings of isolation from the direction of the department. I said aloud in a safe place that I did not think my voice mattered. After this conversation I knew I had to have another with the manager whom this situation affected most.

At the time I chose to write an email. I entitled it “an olive branch.” It was a core dump of all I had been feeling in the past year as well as why I felt marginalized in the restructure. I shared that I did not feel that my voice or experience mattered. I hit send and I felt better. Immensely better for having owned up to my feelings and that I shared them. I was not sure what the reaction of my colleague would be, but I felt as though it might give us a new starting place. What I discovered was a gracefulness that led to forgiveness. While I was never unprofessional, I was certainly not genuine with my coworkers. I was not connecting with the vision of the department. I learned through forgiveness that a relationship that had been rocky can be rebuilt and renewed. I learned when I engaged genuinely with colleague I could find my place within the department.

Being angry is isolating. Being angry kept me from discovering what was truly stunting my growth as a young professional. Letting go of my anger then allowed me to find my voice and place within the department. It was here that I began my recovery from cynicism. As a young professional I personalized much of what I did and what others did. When change began to happen that was not a part of what I envisioned, I became disillusioned and isolated myself. I had to be honest with myself and others before I could reengage with department.

I have learned at the times when I feel most isolated is when I need to reach inside and find concrete ways to connect with whatever I am feeling distant from. Even in my darkest moments there are ways to make positive contributions. Sometimes this comes in the way of contributing through a program or initiative. Other times this can come by engaging in an honest conversation with a colleague or supervisor. Knowing and believing that my voice matters helped me find my way out of the Angry Era. As leadership or organizations change finding and trusting my voice has helped me find those common connections. I have chosen this profession because I love to work with students. The capacity in which I work with students has changed over the years but my passion to create a place for students to grow and learn has never faltered. Remembering this has served me well especially when I become cynical.

I have been fortunate to work in the same department for the past 20 years. Through my growth as a professional and my different roles, I now have a deeper understanding of what it means to lead a department. I am a product of my experiences. For this recovering cynic, it is a journey that I embrace because without my time in the Angry Era, I cannot appreciate where I am headed. Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. captures my journey thus far with this quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” I intend to live my personal and professional life in the light. When I find myself in a dark place, I will reconnect with my light. When I find myself isolated and headed toward cynicism I will connect with my voice and find ways to connect with my passion.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““Confessions of a Recovering Cynic” by Laurie A. Berry

  1. Laurie, thank you for sharing this. You have given a reminder that while we all have frustrations in our work, we can choose what to do with said frustrations. Moreover, that choice doesn’t have to only happen once. The choice to stay angry, to retreat, to be cynical, doesn’t have to be standard operating procedure if we don’t want it to be. I’ll remember this next time I want to take the cynic’s way out and hide!

    Happy to see you on the road to recovery 🙂

  2. Great post, Laurie. We all need to be reminded of this when (not if) we hit those frustrating and isolating places in our work!

  3. Thank you for this post, Laurie. I can appreciate that your feelings turned negative during a difficult time of transition. What I’m taking away from your story is a sense that it can be hard to place ourselves at the middle of what seems to be a situation completely out of our control, but really, we have more power than we think. We are put into tough situations time and again, and we’ll always retain a choice to examine the ways we may be “supporting” that hard situation instead of owning our part and doing something to positively counteract it.

    Looking inward as I type!

  4. Thanks for sharing this experience, Laurie. We’ve all been there, and will all be there again. Being reminded to find the light each time is sound advice.

  5. Pingback: “Daring to be Vulnerable” by Laurie A. Berry | WISA

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