I have a situation at work and a situation in my personal life that both require aspects of my better, more sensible, more creative self. And I wonder if I am up to the tasks.

On the personal side of life, my young friend has terminated her engagement. Her reasons are valid and quite mature, but it is a sad situation. When you have no family to fall back upon and only yourself to depend upon, the allure of a stable significant other is alluring. That said, when you are only 23, it seems like letting go of a really great guy who loves you and wants to marry you is a really hard decision. Heck, at any age that would be a challenge. But she is only 23, only just now starting on a career path with paid time off and full benefits. Only now living alone for the first time ever, having endured situations from homelessness to multiple roommates to make ends meet. Only now having a car – a decent car – insurance, and the freedom to take road trips on days off without relying on the kindness and convenience of others.

Bottom line is she is only 23 and just now starting to have the life many take for granted. She is making friends her own age and wants to be free to live on her own terms awhile before getting serious and settling down. Thus far she has been so busy being grateful that this wonderful, decent, stand-up guy fell in love with her (and she with him) and wanted to marry her that she did not completely absorb and understand what marriage truly meant. That weight of responsibility for another is too much to bear at this point in her life, and I for one am grateful she recognizes her limitations before taking it further and having it be even more of a mess to try and clean up and repair. Better now than after the marriage.

So I am trying to be supportive and comforting and encouraging and positive, because in all honesty I respect and admire her courage. I truly love and adore this girl and simply want her to be happy and have the best life, but this is a rough patch with lots of tears and second guessing and unhappiness and guilt. There is also a sense of relief, which seems to cause even more guilt. I get it, all of it, and I can only reassure her these emotions are perfectly normal and do not mean she is some kind of destructive force and should steer clear of dating forever. Maybe several months to reflect and enjoy her independence, but swearing off dating forever is a little extreme. Give it some time for the rawness to heal and then see how she feels before making any sort of decisions about what might happen next with romantic entanglements.

I have nightmares of being a terrible, destructive friend in not suggesting they seek counseling or other professional assistance. My instincts say she should trust her own gut on such matters, and at 23, she is far wiser and more mature than many due to her early start on independent adulthood (booted from home at 15, being homeless, navigating shelters and social services, finding stable housing situations with multitudes of roommates, graduating high school, getting through 2 years of college, having a baby and putting him up for adoption – all while working and supporting herself). At the same time, she is only 23, and now that she has a good and stable job, a car, an apartment of her own, she should be able to relax a bit and pursue and enjoy the things most 23 year olds enjoy.

I am even more wigged out than usual and being repetitive in my statements. I am not sure who I am trying to reassure here – her to accept this is what I really think or me that what I really think is valid enough to be spoken out loud.

And go back to college, of course. Her dream of earning her degree is starting to reawaken, and I really, Really, REALLY want that for her. I myself was in my late 40s before graduating with a degree, although I had been doing accounting for years before finializing the formality of education. Both my kids have been working steadily the last couple of years toward finishing degrees. My daughter will be done in December, my son sometime later (undetermined right now because of his new job and its commitments). If my young friend dreams of earning a college degree, I am absolutely 100% behind her in this goal.

Still I waffle and waver. It’s kind of tough being an influence in someone’s life. I hesitate to the use the words “role model” because it does not suit me; I am way too squirrely to be comfortable with the idea of anyone emulating or desiring to be more like me. Heck, sometimes I feel as if I am a mother who encourages independence in her own children because I fear my own mistakes be foisted off onto them. But if I sit still and seriously examine my impulses in this and all regards, I trust their judgment. I have always hoped I was raising independent children with common sense and the ability to think for themselves, and to date we have been successful. I stopped telling my kids what to do long before they were 18, employing instead a form of family democracy that said I still had final veto power but would restrain myself from using it just because I disagreed with their choices.

That’s in the personal side of my life. No one expects me to be the perfect friend, mentor, or parent, including me, and certainly no one is observing, paying, or even really judging me and my performance at any of those things.

Professionally, it’s strangely difficult. I actually hate training people, because I have gone away from the experience feeling badly about me and my abilities in this area. There is a job description; there are performance standards; there are expectations for the trainee to learn. When they don’t get it, I feel like a failure, especially if I cannot figure out why they are not getting it, and I always assume it’s me and something I am doing, some failing of mine that is causing the issue. Even while I know for fact is it rarely so simple as me being a complete and utter disaster as a training partner or mentor, the faulty feeling for those who have failed to thrive under my tutelage weighs.

At work I have been assigned a troubled employee to mentor on her professional demeanor and interpersonal skills. As an attorney she is very bright and very sharp, but as a coworker she is a very prickley pear to work with and has ended up alienating her fellow associates, staff, and even the partner she is assigned to work for directly. Her sensitivity, insecurity, and driving competitive need to be right does not mesh well in our little laid-back work environment, so much so that I was asked to sit in on her performance review last week to forge a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate her to our work environment.

I had to really consider this when asked if I would be willing to work with and mentor her on communication and interpersonal skills. She has a lot of admirable qualities and I actually like her as a person yet frequently want to strangle her as an employee. There is an abrasiveness to her that needs to be toned down considerably. The bosses are good people, recognize talent when they see it, and value a smooth-running office environment where staff are happy to work hard toward clearly defined rewards. Being lawyers, everyone understands these are competitive, hard-driving, assertive people, but our firm is structured so that teamwork is rewarded and backstabbing promotional climbing is discouraged. I do not know that it is possible to completely obliterate it any work environment, but our little firm seems to hum along pretty well in its current structure and balance.

This was the gal who asked me yesterday about my diet and eating a cheeseburger. I was not at all offended by her inquiry, yet she is still smarting from her review last week and emailed me last night to apologize for her comments, said they were rather rude and out of line. Possible progress? I am on the fence about it. I brushed it off – people have said far, far worse to me in the last 6 months – but I appreciated that she is trying to examine her interactions.

It has me thinking about my own negative girl and interpersonal relationships with others. I am typically quite nice around most people, and at least cooley civil to those I dislike or find distasteful for whatever reason. But I have listened to myself and my own unconscious fearful words or ideas leaking out in my sentences and questions. It is okay that I do not have even most of the answers to life’s questions figured out, and I generally have no issue admitting that freely. It’s when I am afraid of not knowing or figuring it out and letting the fear overrun my head and ability to think that gets me into trouble and releases negative girl into the wild to wreak havoc. If nothing else, my exercises with self-esteem building works my mental muscles as much as the gym and the healthier eating choices are working on the rest of me.

Thinking about it this morning at the gym for a too brief workout this morning, I recognize that she is going to have to want to address these issues in order for me to be an effective mentor. I have zero desire to deal with a resentful adult who does not feel there should be a problem with her attitude and behaviors, and there is no organizational imperative that says I must work with her and reshape her into a better fit within the overall firm. The partners would really like to retain her, but she is replaceable if she continues on her present trajectory.

I suppose I am mulling it over here because I’m feeling uncertain of my own feelings on the subject. On the one hand I see she is sharp and good at what she does, but her attitude and inability to work cooperatively with her peers makes her a problem, one she did not truly see as that much of an issue before last week. Any sense of entitlement where one should not exist is a hot button for me, and I am having to tread carefully and acknowledge my own bias in the situation. We have our first meeting this afternoon to discuss her thoughts and ideas to improve her attitude and mend fences with the other associates, a bit of an uphill battle as it stands right now. I am going to have to be really real with her about my own willingness to go to bat and help heal those relationships, because I will have to see some genuine effort on her part before I step up and step in to assist her.

And I think I have the right balance in mind for this situation, but we shall see how it goes.

My own recent experience with training and dealing with those putting forth considerable effort to coach me to different behaviors looms large in my head. On some levels I recognize my own paralyzed reactions to suggestions and resistance to knowledge they tried to impart, but since I was the one seeking the assistance, I was at least somewhat in the right headspace to receive the knowledge and expertise they were/are trying to share. This woman, it is a bit fuzzy whether I am comparing apples to apples between our situations.

What I know is I do want her to be successful here, but maybe she is not ready to accept the conditions that come with that success? Because my reasonable working conditions could be cruel and unusual punishment to her. I suppose I shall have to see how our meeting progresses to know for sure.

*sigh* This is why I hate being a boss, really hate being a supervisor. People are simply so unpredictable in their reactions. If she does not assume some responsibility for herself and her reactions/behaviors with others in the firm and its impact on her present standing, I cannot see any clear way to helping her overcome the issue. I dread that most, trying to make an otherwise bright person understand that her opinions and ideas are not the only opinions and ideas that matter and should be considered.

Wish me luck; it certainly feels as if I need it today.

6 thoughts on “Being a mentor

  1. Janelle you are one of the wisest and most kind and empathetic women I know. I have no doubt that the advice you give to this young girl is invaluable. Please don’t stress yourself over it so much. Sometimes when I hear myself talk to more junior members of my work team I question my “knowledge” and then think, “No, I have been there and done that, I am only imparting some wisdom gained from experience” The key is having these young people take that wisdom and morph or mild it to their own situations.

    Good luck, but I don’t think you really need it – don’t underestimate your experience and wisdom in these matters.

    1. Thanks, M; I think this is my own edge of anxiety manifesting itself, especially since I have one child getting married in just over 2 weeks and the other in less than 5 months. With wotk it’s an unusual situation, because her work is stellar, but if she cannot get along as part of a team it doesn’t matter how good a product she produces. Convincing young people of that seems more and more difficult every year that passes, and I’m hopeful her own hubris does not end up putting her out onto the street in search of her next job.

      1. Oh I am with you on the team thing and constantly reinforce that within my own team – no individual contributors welcome here – it doesn’t work in our team environment when we are project focused.

        I also think too many young people are actually taught to be individual contributors. even as I watch my own children play their videos games in silence – no more board games – no outdoor team activity – they just dissolve into their own worlds in their headsets or on their laptops or phones. How much of this as a society are we contributing to?

        the real world is about problem solving as a group for success. I have no doubt you will impart this the kindest way possible.

  2. It sounds like you young friend is doing exactly the right thing and I am sure you give her both good guidance but also a wonderfully safe place to share her feelings. Good for you.

    On the work thing – ugh. You are right that she has to see it as a problem and want to change. But I suspect this is more of her basic personality and the environment isn’t a good fit. Which really isn’t personal. But yuck having to deal with.

    1. Yep, young friend is better today, no longer crying nonstop during her non-working hours.
      The other girl … I have high hopes, but I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s hard to teach basic social skills and why you don’t insult your coworkers because they disagree with you.

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