Thoughts & Observations

The Guilt of the Martyr

As part of my Rebel in a Polyester Sash presentation, I tell the story of how a woman we had to layoff thanked me in the middle of finding out that she no longer had a job: she thanked me for giving her a great place to work and for allowing her to see that it was possible to both be a great mom and to have a fulfilling, meaningful career, something that she had never believed before.

I looked out into the audience at the Nonprofit Technology Conference as I was telling that story on Friday and noticed a number of women wiping away tears. I was moved that my words had caused such a strong reaction, but I was saddened because I knew what those tears meant. They meant that those women had never had that experience.

As I spent time interacting with other conference attendees, I noticed a recurring theme: just under the surface, there was a current of misery and unhappiness running through their work lives.

They had started working for a nonprofit because they wanted to do work that would have a positive impact on the world. But what they encountered were organizations so mired in bureaucracy, red tape and old ways of doing things that the amount of impact they could have was continually minimized.

After fighting the system for years, a lot of them wanted to leave, but instead they stayed. They stayed because they held onto to some level of hope that they could be the one to save things. They stayed because they felt guilty leaving an organization that was trying to do good. They stayed because they felt guilty leaving their coworkers with an even bigger burden to carry. And they stayed because they felt guilty at the idea of leaving those who benefitted from their organization’s work behind.

But the guilt of trying to be the martyr was slowly killing them. Depression. Pneumonia. And just an overwhelming, unshakeable feeling that something was very, very wrong.

As I spoke to person after person caught in that trap, I realized that a lot of them were just waiting for someone to give them permission. They wanted someone to tell them that they weren’t a bad person for giving up and moving on.

What I believe is this: do what you can to change things and when things won’t change anymore, get out.

If you are a person who wants to do good in the world, then get yourself somewhere where you have the greatest possibility of actually doing that. Trying to do good within the confines of an organization that can’t get out of it’s own way long enough to deliver on its own mission and refuses to change is a waste.

You – a person who wants to make the world better – you are precious and limited resource. Use your resource in the place where it will make the most difference.

That is not something you need permission for.

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5 thoughts on “The Guilt of the Martyr

  1. Hi Jessica, I’ve been lurking on your blog since coming across it a few months ago, and have enjoyed your fresh, honest, and well-written take on things. This entry in particular resonated with me. While I won’t go into the particulars of my situation, suffice it to say that I’ve been living in hope for years now that I can help make a difference at the place I work. However, at some point I’ll need to cut my losses, if just to maintain my sanity. Here’s to the courage necessary to seek new adventures. You seem to have it in spades!

    • jessicahlawrence

      Thanks so much for your kind words! : ) And yes, please don’t let your work drive you to the point of losing your sanity. It is simply not worth it. The world would then be missing out on all of the good you have to offer.

  2. Pingback: 11NTC Round-Up: Your Posts, Highlights, and Take-aways | Philanthropy

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