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Perspectives: Ashes of a burned bridge
How do you make sure the fire doesn't keep spreading?
This week’s Perspectives edition is a guest essay from Mina. She worked in the public sector before leaving her permanent position at the end of 2022. Now she does project and management consulting, but on her own terms. This essay has been lightly edited for clarity.
When I left my last company, I burned bridges.
It was never intentional. I was so low and truly felt that I had nothing left to contribute. Due to the ongoing stress, it was much easier to be pessimistic than to mobilize and push myself forward.
It wasn’t a completely negative experience, though. During my short tenure, I felt like I had met my people. We laughed, we commiserated, we worked in the trenches, and I genuinely respected and appreciated my core team.
But the team was part of a larger corporate culture driven by panic and competitiveness and it seemed like our group was always getting the shaft. We had spent the last few months in a micromanaging environment that used fear rather than motivation to get things done and perpetuated a culture of blame. Lack of accountability crippled people in their roles.
I lost all my resilience.
I questioned my own judgment.
I decided to give my notice after weeks of sharing with my boss and team that I was seriously struggling and felt like I was negatively affecting them. I gave unofficial notice first and told my boss that I was too burned out to continue. I put it in writing a week later and agreed to give almost one month’s notice to align with the deadline of the project I was managing.
That last month was torturous. I had several teary emotional breakdowns, feeling fragile and incapable. I remember at the time feeling like an inflatable air dancer at a car dealership, ready to blow over at any moment.
This was also during the holidays while my child was on break, but because of an “unlimited PTO” policy and my impending departure, the company said that I was not permitted personal days off during the holiday period. Interestingly, a person on my team gave the traditional two weeks’ notice soon after. No bridges burned.
I remember finding it unfair that no one expressed appreciation to me, and I was just expected to stay the full month I’d committed to despite my burned-out mental state. My colleague, on the other hand, just waltzed out the door, dumping all his work on another team member, with no hard feelings.
We finalized my project a few days early and I moved up my leave date accordingly. And then I was gone.
It took a few weeks but eventually, I started feeling like my old self. I started consulting with a few familiar clients and had a lot of small, quick wins during those first months. I reached out to a few people from my former company, but it was one-sided. Maybe they found my emotional experience weak and frustrating.
The reality was that I found the situation literally unbearable. I was also hurting and trying my best. Shortly after I left, two other teammates departed, followed by the surprise layoffs of our boss and their boss. It was clearly a tumultuous environment, although previous discussions led me to believe that I was the problem.
I couldn’t deal.
I abandoned my team.
I clashed with the culture.
I didn’t have the energy to fight the system.
I was not a good fit.
I knew I was responsible for my work and how I reacted to the situation, but surely not all of it could be my fault. I imagined myself as some sort of arsonist, and it hurt that people felt better without me in their lives. But, I also couldn’t ignore how much I truly felt better without that company or those people in my life too.
Everyone says not to burn bridges. But once you light the fire, then what’s the best path forward? The world is tiny and industries are even tinier.
My experience there held me back from putting myself back out in the world. But after I left, things were looking bright for me and I felt stronger and more confident with each successful project. That old company was more like a blip.
The moment I decided to publish something about my own company on social media, my former boss posted “Good luck” — just like that. I tried not to read into it or examine what the lack of punctuation meant. Perhaps he wasn’t in the proper headspace after being fired unexpectedly. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed intentionally insincere, and my insides were cracked all over again.
I guess I assumed a burning bridge would be a little more obvious while it’s happening. In my mental state, I thought my sacrifices to wrap things up those extra weeks would be enough, but my negativity outweighed any of the positive.
I assumed people probably wanted to see me gone. Since it was best for both sides, I thought it would be both possible and desirable to maintain relationships. I soon realized resentment replaced the professional and personal friendships I hoped to maintain.
So when the damage is done and the embers are settling, how do you make sure the fire doesn’t keep spreading?
Should you cut ties, remove connections and history on social media, do whatever it takes to prevent the triggering reminders of a struggling time in your life?
Or continue to try to mend by reaching out and hope that time will erase the negative feelings?
I recognize that I lit the match, and now there’s a group of people that will remember my attitude and, no doubt, question my professionalism.
But there’s another group, a larger group, that knows and appreciates me.
So while I have arson on my record, I’ll remind myself that the bridges I burned lit my new path. And we’ll all be better for it… eventually.
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