When your dream job goes bad, or even worse, becomes a nightmare

How did you envision a life in the arts? Perhaps a dream of how great it would be to be paid to make art. Your days spent practicing and refining your craft. Connecting with other like-minded artists, collaborating and elevating your artistry on a regular basis. Getting into flow, and moving, touching, provoking your audience in some way. Maybe even making a difference in the world with your art.

You work hard, you spend years training and refining. Finally the stars align and you get the job. Excitement! Celebrations! The dream is happening!

You get the job and you show up to work, excited, optimistic. Then you start to hear the gossiping, the complaining, the imperfections around you, the threats of job cuts or lowered pay, or unreasonable requests on your time. You meet bitter colleagues, unpleasant directors, belt-tightening administrators, or even abusive people in power positions. 

Or you work for people who do not hold the same values as you and are perhaps racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ableist, ageist. 

Last year, there was an exposé of sexual and physical abuse at Profiles Theater in Chicago, raising awareness that serious abuse in the arts can and does happen. 

Not everyone experiences this. I was talking to a friend the other day who said she has received marvelous treatment from some of the best theatres in Chicago, and she is happy and excited every time she goes to work.

But for those who do experience this, it can feel like betrayal. Because you’ve worked so very hard for this wonderful dream. You’ve poured your heart, soul, and resources into achieving the dream. 

Your feelings can range from disillusionment, to internal conflict, sadness, grief, to downright fear for your bodily safety and your career. 

Here are a few suggestions of ways to cope. Of course, your chosen actions will vary depending upon the circumstances you are facing. This is an imperfect list! I’d love to hear from you and how you deal with imperfect jobs and imperfect people. 

  • There is no easy solution if you are dealing with difficult circumstances. On the one hand, you are probably so happy to have a job in the arts. On the other, people around you might be making your life miserable. Acknowledging the challenge of your circumstances and the pain that you feel can be affirming and bring some relief.
  • Commit to self care. What are the things that keep you sane, keep you healthy, give you the best chance to be your best self? 
  • Let your administration know your concerns. Or the union rep. Or a trusted colleague. If you feel like you might be experiencing abuse, check out Not In Our House, an organization that fights abuse in Chicago theater. I particularly love their Statement of Principles and their emphasis on mediation to resolve conflicts. If you are not in Chicago, certainly they can point you in a direction of help for your location.
  • Find truly meaningful outlets. Find arts endeavors that fill your soul, even if it doesn't pay. Connect with people who love you and value you. Participate in a social movement. Do your part to make the world a better place.
  • Quit. You don't have to pay the bills via art in order to be an artist. That is so much pressure! I've experienced this first hand, and countless other artists have talked about this topic. It can be so very freeing to make art based upon all the other reasons aside from financial. This is a huge step, and not one to take lightly, and it is definitely not the answer for everyone. But if your organization does not mesh with your values, it is worth considering.
  • Take care of your parts that get activatedThe present is a revolving door to unhealed parts from our past. Our parts carry emotional baggage, and if they are triggered by your work, deal with them and help them relieve their burden. Your activated parts might be interacting with the environment in ways that make things worse for yourself. If you can bring healing to these parts, you will bring your best self to a challenging environment.
  • Remember that your colleagues have parts that are activated in this situation too. Chances are, if you're feeling stressed, others are as well. Chances are, if you are not your best self in this organization, others are showing up with extreme parts leading the way too. This can be parts that like to gossip, complain, criticize, compare, be nasty, be critical, be judgmental. Or parts that get timid in the face of bigotry and abuse, that wilt under pressure, that shy away from conflict. And performance anxiety might be rampant but not talked about. Recognizing that your colleagues are acting from Parts, not their whole best self, can perhaps allow you to extend a little grace in their direction. Extending a little grace might, just might take the edge off a moment of tension, or allow new connections and the beginnings of humanizing to happen. 
  • On the other hand, don't be a martyr! Find ways to remove yourself from the ugliness rather getting drawn into it. If you are dealing with abuse, do not try to extend an olive branch. Take care of yourself and your safety as your top priority. 
  • It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing kind of situation. I'm into pro and con lists these days. It's another angle on parts work. For example: One part of me loves working for ArtsOrgNumeroUno! I get to make art to the highest standards! I'm with other excellent artists! It's the best! On the other hand, it's also true that I absolutely hate working here. People are mean and backstabbing. There's too much complaining. There's sexism and homophobia. It's all white and non-inclusive. It doesn't match my values. Pro - they pay me money to do this! Wow! Con - I have to work weird hours. I have to stay up late. Pro - if I didn't work here, I'd miss all these great opportunities for art making. Con -  every time I'm here I'm mad as hell and agitated and it makes my stomach hurt. 

    With this pro/con list making, you don't actually have to make a decision. Giving voice to the strong conflicting feelings can bring internal relief and clarity. And boundaries. And better choices about how you act when you are there. And sometimes you might end up making a different choices, with confidence and self assurance.

I started this blog post thinking about people I know who've been disillusioned by the arts world and the organizations that are less than perfect. But it turns out this topic is big. Experiences can range from challenging colleagues, to low pay and time not being respected, to outright abuse. All experiences are difficult and valid in their own way. If you are in one of these circumstances and weighing the above suggestions, please check in with your heart and see which feel right to you. Not all apply to every situation or to every person.

Wishing you satisfaction and meaning in your artistic work.