It’s Not My Problem, Man

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Separation.

What a shock! Today, I got a glimpse of my former self, say about three years ago, and how much I’ve changed. Now I understand how it was that I used to be so stressed out every minute  of  every  day  and  how  the  unusually  high  stress  has melted away in the past year. Not that I don’t have periods of extreme stress while under deadlines, but I just don’t carry the weight I used to, and now I understand why. I don’t have  to carry other people’s problems anymore.

The Long-Awaited Honest-to-God Secret to Being Happy

Last Friday  about  dark,  after  I  should  already  have walked out the door of my office for a long weekend, a woman I haven’t seen in  three years wandered into my office. I say “wandered” because she had  no clue that I worked there and she was looking for a colleague of mine who’d prepared a 15- minute briefing for her to give to her employees but had either refused or been unable to give the briefing for her. His notification that he couldn’t brief had taken place over two days prior to her showing up in my office area on Friday evening to ask my boss if someone else could give the briefing instead because she didn’t want to do it herself. I later found out she’d already been refused by other analysts in my office, but she wasn’t forthcoming with that bit of information. This was her briefing to give, apparently…something else she failed to tell me.

Her face lit up when she saw me, as if she’d found her godsend. In the old days, that would have been true. She barged into my office, interrupting my concentrated attempts to finish a review for one of my teams so they could look it over during the weekend. She told me her problem and that someone needed to present the charts to her employees and she wanted me to do it.

“When is it?” I asked, based on the misleading info she’d given me. “And what’s the briefing about?”

It turned out to be a subject I hadn’t worked with, so if I presented it as an expert, I needed time to look over the charts, which she didn’t have available. As for the timing of the presentation, it was in three business days, on a day when I was already scheduled for two lengthy meetings and  waiting to hear back about a third that coincided with the time of her briefing. I explained the situation.

“Well,” she said, “we want you to do it.” She had an assistant  with  her.  Both  were  grinning  with  relief.  “So  we’re good.”

“No, we’re not good. I told you, I haven’t seen the charts and I  can’t commit to the time of the meeting. I won’t know until Tuesday morning if I have a meeting at that time or not. Everything’s closed for the night and I can’t get an answer until Tuesday morning.”

“Well, you’ll figure something out. Thanks!” And they were gone.

She promptly went back to her office and sent out an email to several hundred people announcing that I’d volunteered to give the briefing in her stead. I didn’t see the message until late that night when I logged on from home.

I immediately felt the old resentment of not having been heard. Or heard but ignored. Of having her issues dropped on me to take care of. And later, of her deception. Not only did I not know if I’d be available for a presentation that had just been widely announced, but she hadn’t sent me the charts to review.

This morning, Tuesday, the charts arrived, along with a pithy note thanking me again for “volunteering.” Yes, in quotation marks. She thought it was amusing that she’d forced an out- come. She never once asked if I had anything to do with my day other than paint my toenails and read Cosmo.

Immediately, I fell back into the old dynamics of my relationship with her. I don’t tend to do this as much with newer people in my life, but with old patterns with people from long ago, I have to be more careful. The stress level suddenly soared. How was I going to be able to brief those charts and be in the other meeting that had just been scheduled for the same time? What was I going to do? Couldn’t someone clone me?

I started to shoot back a quick email reprimanding her for putting me in such a jam. Maybe I could get one of the other analysts to give the briefing for me. I’d have to call in a favor or two to make it happen, but it was vaguely possible. Otherwise, I would have to do some major juggling,  spend the next two nights in overtime while neglecting my kids and my writing, and really stress to make this briefing happen as she’d announced it. The fact that I started to send an email that told her outright that she’d put me in a bad situation was unusual enough for me, but I didn’t send it. I rewrote it.

Somewhere while the stress levels were brimming and I was trying—on my own, not with her—to figure out a solution to her problem, the thought hit me: “Why is this your problem? She procrastinated, got desperate, manipulated, and now doesn’t have a problem. You do. Why are you taking on her problem?”

So I emailed and said I was sorry but, as I’d told her be- fore she  surprised me by sending out a mass email, I didn’t know if I could commit until today. Today I know, and the answer is no. I can’t do it. I’m in another meeting. Very sorry.

And it was that simple. It’s her problem again now. I didn’t juggle my schedule, work overtime, find her a presenter so she wouldn’t have to. None of the things I would have done several years ago that made me so famous for getting coworkers out of crunches. It was her problem and I let it stay her problem, and I went back to all the other work problems that were mine.

I’m stunned that I fell so quickly back into the old dynamics with someone in my past before thinking it through and breaking it. But what stuns me more is that I used to do this all the time, which is why she thought dumping on me would be acceptable yet again. And what stuns me most is that I used to consider her a good friend at work.