Would you like to know why I left youth work?
No, not the “emotional toll, logistics too difficult with a small child” answer that I glibly throw away on podcasts and at dinner parties.
The real reason?
I was tired.
But not in the way you think.
Well, ok, in that way, too – I was a single parent to a 4-year-old and maxing out my babysitting credits so I could go make toast for teenagers.
But I was tired of something different.
I was tired of taking every single bit of behaviour, stopping, and saying to myself, “That’s not what they mean. Yes, they may have just thrown a chair that narrowly missed my head. But actually, that’s completely understandable because of these 8 different ridiculously hard things that they’re currently having to deal with. So I’m not going to call the police. I’m going to make them a cup of tea and have a chat.”
Now, on the surface, this might seem like good old-fashioned youth work. Seeing behind the symptoms to the cause. No behaviour happens in a vacuum. All that jazz.
And that’s all true.
But constantly having to deal with people doing shitty things to you without being able to say “Oi! That’s a shitty thing! Can you stop?!” has implications.
For example, it made me much more likely to make excuses or people in my personal and professional life when they treated me badly.
It also made me less likely to enforce healthy boundaries for Ethan and for me.
And it reinforced the tendency that I learnt growing up in Evangelical Christianity to put my own feelings and needs dead last in the hierarchy.
Because it’s true – no behaviour happens in a vacuum. There is a reason for everything people do to you…and rarely is it anything to do with you. It’s much more likely to be their own childhood trauma, their current anxieties, an underdeveloped sense of their own boundaries…the list goes on.
Rarely do people mean to hurt you when they say hurtful things. Honestly.
But the problem is, when people do shitty things to you, you get hurt. Regardless of whether they meant it or not. Regardless of whether they never had anyone tell them they were good enough as a child. Regardless of how much pressure they’re currently under at work.
And it’s all very well to go, “Ok, so they may have hurt me deeply with their words and actions just then, but they only did this because (insert valid excuse here).” But you’re still hurt.
Explaining it away just means you’re invalidating your own feelings, needs, boundaries, and worth below everyone else’s. Constantly.
Because they’re having a hard time.
Do you know the most freeing thing about leaving youth work?
Being able to stop being “friends” with someone who was out of order.
Being able to stand up for myself when people hurt me.
Not having to constantly make excuses for everyone else’s behaviour.
And the unfamiliar experience of letting it be ok that I’m upset.
I reclaimed my feelings.
Well, it’s not quite that simple – it’s a process. And I think that some people around me might find it a little abrasive that I’m not as easy-going as I have been in the past. That I don’t always gloss over disagreements. That I stand up for my opinions, my boundaries, and my decisions. But if I want to teach my children that their feelings – their wellbeing is as important as how the people around them feel, then I need to model that.
Otherwise they’ll end up constantly people pleasing as they grow, not asserting their own wants and needs, and pushing themself down the hierarchy. Just like I did.
I don’t want that for them.
So, I’ll be as (kindly) assertive as I need to be. And try to unlearn it all.