The Artificial Power Structure and Feeling Helpless as a Lawyer with Annie Little

In today’s episode, Sarah is back again with Annie Little discussing the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. It’s part of a series of podcast discussions, so check out the others before and after this one. Graeber gives four reasons why having a bullshit job feels so miserable. Last week’s discussion was all about the first reason—ambiguity and forced pretense—catch up on that one first. Then, let’s dive into the second reason, and feeling helpless as a lawyer.

The Misery of Not Having a Cause

This week’s conversation concerns the second reason, the misery of not being a cause. The phrasing is a bit interesting, but it essentially means the feeling that you don’t have control over what happens in your job and how challenging that can be in roles where you make a lot of money or have a lot of prestige. 

Graeber describes this phenomenon using a study done with infants. When an infant learns to do something, there’s a particular result, but that result doesn’t last long. For example, if the infant throws a toy, it will get taken away, and then it’s over. The infant realizes that they are the cause of something. But since the toy was taken away, there is also a feeling of dysregulation and depression because they cannot cause that again. This relates to people with bullshit jobs because they feel like they do not have agency. 

Lawyers Have Little Control

Sarah and Annie have seen this phenomenon with lawyers many times. Most people understand that being an associate and more junior means you won’t be able to make things happen and force impactful changes. It’s eye-opening for many to realize that even partners at well-respected firms don’t have much control and ability to change things. Many partners are still dealing with abusive clients and aren’t able to have the control to end the relationship.

It’s a simple assumption that the higher up you make it within a practice, the more authority and impact you have, but that’s not always true for lawyers and can wreak absolute havoc on their mental health. Law firms are a system, and the authority is so diffused that no one has true responsibility. 

Non-lawyers have difficulty understanding how little control lawyers have in these contexts. The power and control are in the firm’s overall structure instead of in any person’s hands. People look at lawyers and see someone very accomplished but don’t realize how little control they have. 

Lawyers hit all the marks they are supposed to hit in law school and work their way up in the firms. There’s an assumption that increased power and agency come with these accomplishments. Many lawyers are in denial to protect themselves from the reality that they aren’t really able to change anything. 

An Artificial Power Structure

Graeber spends time in the book discussing the idea that the power structure is often extremely artificial. We function under these shared rules and assumptions but don’t challenge anything. The author even references sadomasochistic behavior in workplaces, but unlike actual members of BDSM subcultures, people in bullshit jobs aren’t aware that they are playing by these made-up rules. Parameters are worked out in advance; everyone is aware of them and can call them off anytime. 

In a bullshit job, you don’t have a safe word to call out to your boss to get out of a situation. Unless you say, “I quit.” These words will break the relationship entirely instead of just getting you out of one situation.

Annie and Sarah have been in situations where someone in a position of power within a law firm is mistreating someone or just exposing them to a toxic work environment with no way out other than quitting. Graeber talks about the existence of this dynamic that encourages people to behave in horribly demeaning ways to pretend they are superior to someone else, and that’s part of the artificial power structure. They don’t have much power, but if they treat someone like garbage, it will feel like they do.

With lawyers, there is so much hard work done in law school, and then you are dumped into this toxic culture and assume you must have done something wrong instead of recognizing the abusive behavior. It’s hard to see the environment has been set up with artificial ideas of superiority. Annie quickly learned that even the order in that you copy people on emails is important in these power structures. But that isn’t common sense or normal behavior. 

Testing the Limits

Annie was able to test safe words once she became pregnant. She knew she wouldn’t return to the firm once she had the baby, so she started pushing back and letting her impulses fly. The partners would sit her down and tell her her billables were low. Instead of just taking the beating, she fought back and pointed out that she had brought in clients, even though that wasn’t her role, and asked them if they would fire her. The partners were supposed to bring in the work, and then she was supposed to do the work. She finally pointed out that the partners weren’t bringing in enough clients. 

This moment was eye-opening to Annie because it was clear that the partners were struggling, and their initial reaction was the blame the associate and punish them. She felt comfortable challenging them because she had already accepted the idea that she would leave and wasn’t concerned about the long-term relationship. 

Many lawyers reach the point of needing to quit, and once they do, the partners come back and act surprised. Many say that “we wish you would have told us,” even though they were the ones dealing out the abuse and subjecting people to this toxic work environment. Gaslighting happens all the time, and it’s important to understand that there’s nothing you could have said or pointed out at the moment that would have really made a change.

Take Back Your Own Power

This situation of artificial power structures and the inability to make changes is something that lawyers deal with all the time. Figuring out how to successfully navigate this without losing your mind can seem like you’re dealing with a magical constellation of behaviors. It’s important not to view these moments as personal failures but to recognize someone else’s cowardice. 

When there is a reaction to a lawyer quitting, and everyone says they wish they knew the circumstances, don’t engage. People are aware, but they just don’t do anything about it. The only thing that is making them engage now is the challenge to the hierarchy because you’re taking the power back when you quit. 

Quitting isn’t easy, and not everyone can take that risk. Just identify the power dynamic and understand that it’s not fair. Know that your boundaries are only as good as those who will respect them. If you are in this situation, you are not alone, and understanding that is the main point of this conversation. 
Come back next week for the next misery in the series. If you haven’t downloaded the guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, start there.

Complete Bullshit Jobs Series

Is Being A Lawyer A Bullshit Job?

The Misery of Ambiguity and Forced Pretense in Law Firms

The Artificial Power Structure and Feeling Helpless as a Lawyer with Annie Little

The Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to One’s Misery as a Lawyer

The Misery of Knowing That One Is Doing Harm as a Lawyer

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Hello. I am back again this week talking with Annie Little about some of the content in the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. This week, we are talking about the second of four reasons that he gives for why having a bullsh*t job feels so miserable to the people in it.

The phrasing of this one is a little bit interesting. He describes it as the misery of not being a cause. As you'll hear in my conversation with Annie, what this means is essentially the feeling that you don't have a lot of control over what happens in your job, what happens to you in your job, and how that can be particularly challenging in roles where you make a lot of money or where there's a lot of prestige. So many things to take away from this conversation. Let's get right to it.

Okay, we are here to talk about the second of four descriptions that David Graeber gives in his book Bullshit Jobs about the effects of being in a job that can be characterized as a bullsh*t job. Again, if you're listening and you're like, “What the heck are you talking about?” go back to episodes where Annie and I have talked through the way that a bullsh*t job is defined, etc.

We're going to jump right in today. This is honestly, of the four different types of misery that he describes, I feel like this misery, which he calls on the misery of not being a cause, is probably one of the most prevalent. What do you think, Annie? I don't know.

Annie Little: I completely agree because anytime I'm thinking about it or ranting about this to you, my husband, or whatever, I feel like it always comes back. Everything, even if it fits really nicely under another category, I feel like it ultimately has this element of not being a cause at the root.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. For people who are listening, the phrasing of this type of misery that he describes doesn't completely capture what is conveyed in the discussion. For everyone who's listening who’s like, “The misery of not being a cause, what does that mean?” the way he starts out explaining this phenomenon is he talks about this study that was done with infants and how basically, when an infant learns if they do something, there's a particular result and then that is taken away, in other words, if they throw a spoon, they're going to get some response from a caregiver and then that stops, the infant very quickly becomes extremely dysregulated and then ultimately very listless and depressed.

He describes the phenomenon or the study describes that phenomenon as the infant realizing that they are a cause of something. In other words, they caused something to happen and then having the experience of not being able to cause that thing to happen is what results in this dysregulation and depression.

He relates it to the experience of people in bullsh*t jobs by saying that essentially, part of what can make these jobs so misery-inducing is that people do not feel like they have agency. Can we just talk about why it is that you and I both think that this is such a huge thing for so many of the lawyers who we work with, who we know, etc?

Annie Little: Yeah. I think for me, what over the years has been the biggest eye-opener for me on this is that, because I think as we're talking about it, listeners might automatically think about being an associate or being a newer lawyer and more junior in an organization where it's like you know you have the ability, the capability of making things happen but you just don't have the authority potentially, but the big eye-opener for me has been working with lawyers who are partners.

Not just partners but partners at really well-respected firms that are the head of their department, that sort of thing, and hearing their experiences of suffering really and realizing that even when somebody has the title and has the appearance of being higher up in this hierarchy, they too don't have the agency to affect the change that they want at a base level for themselves in terms of being forced to work on certain matters for abusive clients.

It's like, “Wait, you're the managing partner at this firm of this department and there's still somebody forcing you to work with this awful, awful client?” It just really blew my mind that that's a thing because I've never been a partner at all or been that high up. But as a business owner, I'm like, “If I don't want to work with somebody who's abusive, I don't.”

So I just assume that as you get higher up in, even if it's a big organization, you would have that same agency and they don't. It wreaks absolute havoc on their mental health and everybody that I work with in that situation thankfully leaves.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think it goes back a bit to what we talked about the previous week, the first misery, the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense. This is especially true I think in large law firms where there's this fiction, this pleasant fiction that as you become more senior when you become a partner, you have more control or ability.

As an associate, you might feel like you don't have a lot of agency but there's this idea that at some point, you will. That is true within a range but ultimately, I think what both you and I have seen is because of the structure, particularly of law firms and the way that law firms work, the fact that law firms are a system, and the fact that authority is so diffused but then also no one has true responsibility, you really do have this situation where even people who, like you said, are managing partners and extremely senior, and I think the people who junior lawyers would look at and think, “Well, if someone can make a change here or do something different, this would be the person,” and so often that's not the case.

There is a limit to the level of people's agency. I don't think people outside of those contexts, like non-lawyers, I think if people knew how much lawyers in those contexts feel like they don't have any control over their lives frankly, they would be stunned because it would not make any sense to them because they would look at it and think, “But these are the people who have the most control over their lives. They're super accomplished,” and et cetera, but they often don't and this phenomenon that he's describing in the book is why.

Annie Little: Yes. Also, when you were talking about non-lawyers, especially when you think about the way lawyers are portrayed in the media, I feel like there's a take no prisoners and I'm not going to take any of your bullsh*t type stuff, I'm just going to do what I'm going to do, you could do that but the result wouldn't be the desired one in most cases to go [inaudible] on it. Even if you're that high up, it often doesn't work out for you.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I think even the people in that situation, by that I mean the lawyers, it is hard to see that is part of your reality because of the same things that someone outside of the circumstance would see. Someone who went to law school, got good grades, got a job at a law firm, blah-blah-blah, it hit all the markers, hit all the things that they were told, people who really have control over their lives and are doing the right thing, these are the markers they'll hit. They've hit those and then I think that it takes a lot to see in that circumstance that actually there are a lot of ways in which I don't have agency in this situation.

Annie Little: Yeah. I think this comes up in the book quite a bit when they give examples but it's one of those points where cognitive dissonance arises as well. Because, like you said, we do these things, we've done everything that we're supposed to do, we’re possibly rising through the ranks, all that stuff, and there's this assumption that certain things like agency and power are going to come with that.

When they don't, there's this sense of denial that we use to protect ourselves from that reality because it's so shocking and not what we expected. It's like, “Well, I'm doing all the right things so it's almost like I have the power, I have the agency, I can effect change, I can do what I want now,” when you really can't. Because it's like, “There's no way that I could have put in all this work to really have not, for lack of a better phrase, better able to be the cause of these big issues for myself.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. This is the other thing that I thought was so interesting about this section. He talks about how, in bullsh*t jobs, the power structure is often extremely artificial. The dynamic of however the workplace functions is not like, “Oh, this is how the world works,” it's like, “We in this organization all function under this shared set of rules and assumptions that haven't really been expressed and we pretend don't exist but create this dynamic of certain people being in authority and other people not being.”

The thing that was so interesting, and I'm going to read just a small section of the book to summarize this because I thought it was fascinating and also highly disturbing, is that he describes some studies that have shown how these artificial types of systems actually, I don't want to say induce but encourage a sadomasochistic behavior in workplaces.

Here's what he says, he's writing about one of these studies and one of the researchers and he says, “What this researcher found was that unlike members of actual BDSM subcultures who are entirely aware of the fact that they're playing games of make-believe, ‘purportedly normal’ people in hierarchical environments typically ended up locked in a kind of pathological variation of the same sadomasochistic dynamic.

“The person on the bottom struggles desperately for approval that can never by definition be forthcoming. The person on the top going to greater and greater lengths to assert a dominance that both know is ultimately a lie. For if the top were really the all-powerful confident masterly being he pretends to be, he wouldn't need to go to such outrageous lengths to ensure the bottom's recognition of his power.

And of course, there is also the most important difference between make-believe S&M play and those engaged in it actually do refer to it as play, and it's real-life non-sexual enactments, which he's talking about in the Bullshit Jobs, “in the play version, all the parameters are carefully worked out in advance by mutual consent with both parties knowing the game can be called off at any moment simply by invoking an agreed on safe word.

“This is precisely what's lacking in real life say to masochistic situations, you can't say a safe word to your boss. Supervisors never work out in advance in what ways employees can and cannot be chewed out for different sorts of infractions and if an employee is being reprimanded or otherwise humiliated, they know that there is nothing that they can say to make it stop, there's no safe word except perhaps ‘I quit.’

To pronounce these words however does more than simply break off the scenario of humiliation, it breaks off the work relationship entirely and might well lead to one ending up playing a very different game, one where you're desperately scrounging around to find something to eat or how to prevent one's heat from being shut off.” When I read this, I had literal brain explosion emojis.

Annie Little: Do you remember I think I Voxered you after I read this the first time? I was like, “Holy crap. What?”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. You mentioned this earlier but I know that you and I both have worked with many people who have been in these situations. By these situations, I just mean a situation where someone who is in a position of power within a law firm is mistreating someone else or the person is just generally being subjected to a generally toxic work environment and they essentially feel that the options are to go along with it or quit and those are the two options. Ultimately, they end up quitting because there's no real alternative for a lot of the reasons that he discusses in this summary of this section.

The fact, especially, and the part that I read didn't talk about this too much but there was another part in this section where he talks about the fact that essentially, the existence of this dynamic actually encourages people to behave in demeaning and inhumane ways to other people because of the fact that it is this artificial power structure where they're having to somehow pretend that they are in fact the superior of someone else in a way that they are not actually. That was a lot of words.

Annie Little: Yeah. It's like overcompensating and there's that cognitive dissonance where it's like, “I am the boss or I'm in charge but I really don't have that much power. Cognitive dissonance, how do I resolve it? Treat this person like garbage. There, now they know I'm in charge.” That's what I felt to be on the receiving end of it for sure.

Sarah Cottrell: A hundred percent. I think that to me is part of why there were so many brain explosion emojis when I read this section because I think there are so many people who experience this type of mistreatment and it's not logical in the sense of if you're someone who's a professional who's worked hard and gone through school and law school and all of these things and then you're in this job that many times is like a job that everyone talks about as being such a good job and something you should really want and yet the experience of it is abusive and toxic, I think it's so much easier for lawyers to be like, “Well, there must be something wrong with me. I'm experiencing this job wrong.”

This discussion to me was like, “No, you're actually experiencing what is going to happen in environments where we set up these artificial ideas of superiority.” For example, I have multiple clients who have gotten in trouble and had various talking to yous, etc., in law firms, not because they were disrespectful, not because they did something that was actually problematic but literally, and these words were basically used and this is in multiple cases, this is not even a one-time deal, this is very common, basically because they spoke to associate who spoke to a partner as though they were equals.

Annie Little: Good Lord. God forbid.

Sarah Cottrell: The thing that was common in all those circumstances is that the associates are like, “But there's all this talk about how we're colleagues and everyone's opinion is valued.” There's all this external lip service paid to the idea that, like you said, “Oh, shocking that they are colleagues and that they are equal in some fundamental sense,” and yet ultimately the expectation of many people who are in roles of authority in these firms is that you will, by your behavior, demonstrate that you know that you are beneath them.

Annie Little: This wasn't a thing for me because I worked at smaller firms but learning that the order in which you copied people on your emails needed to be in order of seniority, I was like, “Are you f*ck*ng kidding me?” People get reprimanded for doing that improperly.

Sarah Cottrell: 100%. I know so many people who have been reprimanded for that.

Annie Little: You're lucky if I get everyone on there that's supposed to be on there.

Sarah Cottrell: To me, that's an example of someone who might be like, “Oh, well, that's just whatever, common sense,” and it is “common sense” within these environments but the point is if you talk to someone outside of a law firm environment and you're like, “Yeah, I got in trouble because I sent an email and I didn't list the people in the to field in the order of their seniority,” like, “What?” It's like could you define petty tyrant?

Annie Little: Especially when people took time out of their billable window to sit you down and beat you out for doing that. It was that level of importance to them.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. Meanwhile, if people are asking actual questions about how to do some work in a substantive way, it's like, “Don't ask me that. I don't have time for that.” This is the point, this is the world that so many lawyers are living in and the way that he talked about this particular type of misery, the misery of not being a cause and talked about how it creates this sadomasochistic environment if you have these artificial hierarchies, I was like, “So many things make so much more sense.”

Annie Little: Right? It really spoke to me, especially when he mentioned the safe word, I was like, “I found my safe word at the end of my career because I was pregnant,” plus I knew I wasn't going to come back after having the baby most likely so I was throwing caution to the wind because I didn't know it but I have ADHD, so I'm like, “Let the impulses fly. Let's see what happens. Are they really going to fire a pregnant lady? No.”

I'm sure a lot of people relate to this but this was a consistent conversation that was had with me because it's a little more common at smaller firms than in Biglaw where there's more of an expectation that even as an associate, you're going to be a bigger participant in business development. I did bring in clients but they weren't big clients because I was junior and so the people I was bringing in were junior, whatever.

But they would sit me down and say, “Your hours are low, your billables are low,” and I'm like, “I know.” They're like, “We really need to be bringing in more business,” and I'm like, “Okay, well, I have but I also don't get credit for that in any way. I thought you're the partner, the partners generate the work, I do the work. Do you want to fire me? Is that what this is about?” That was my safe word. I was like, “So do you want to fire me?”

They're like, “Oh, no, no, no.” I'm like, “Well, I don't understand because I can't create billable work, I just do it,” and they were like, “Uhh.” Reading this in the book was like that. There's the sadomasochism part but it's also this sense of punching down where they're like, “I'm struggling to bring in business and I feel like garbage about that myself and so how can I get rid of that discomfort?” and it's like, “Oh, I'm just going to blame the associate.”

They would threaten my compensation and all that stuff and I'm like, “Okay, alright.” But because I no longer had that very legitimate fear of being fired or whatever, I just felt free to call them out a little bit more and it just confirmed it because I wasn't able to articulate what was going on until I read this passage. I was like, “That was my safe word.” But again, it wasn't agreed upon.

The other thing about it that really resonated with me, because he went into more of a discussion, which we're not getting into here for lots of reasons but when in actual BDSM communities, like you said, it's play, people are willing participants, there are prescribed rules that are agreed upon by both parties, but most importantly after what they're doing is done, there's a period of aftercare where it's like, “Hey, we just went through all this, how you doing? You feel okay? You need anything else from me?”

When has that ever happened after a difficult conversation as a lawyer? It's never like, “Oh, yeah, I gave you all this really intense criticism or whatever, are you okay? I hope you realize that I did this for this reason and I hope it was helpful but if it wasn't, let's talk about it.” Never.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes to all of that, and it also explains this phenomenon that you just see over and over and over and over and over again where someone is working in a law firm in a really terrible situation, either it's an overall terrible situation, maybe they've got pulled into the orbit of a known abusive partner, whatever, and everyone knows, especially who the real abusive partners are in these contexts, it's rare that no one knows.

Most of the time, it is known. You'll have this situation where the person gets to the point where they decide to quit because of this dynamic of that is you're out. Then they give notice and all of a sudden, there's all this, “Oh, we wish you would have told us,” as though we couldn't know that the fact that you're being subjected to abuse on a daily basis and being overworked and whatever is happening in that specific context, as though any human being couldn't recognize like, “Hey, this person is probably not going to put up with this forever.”

But there's always this sense of shock and surprise and the person who's leaving who has said, “I quit,” the one safe word that exists in these contexts, is then made to feel like, “Oh, well, if they just had done something differently, they wouldn't have been subjected to the treatment that they were subjected to.

Annie Little: It's not true because I was also in a circumstance where I was hired to work for a difficult partner, it became very clear to me right away, people took me out to lunch and I was like, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for letting me know,” and then we had multiple offices and I was working with another known difficult partner. He was very challenging, I handled it but then he wrote off literally 70 hours of my time and didn't tell me.

Our firm was like, “If we're ever going to do something like that, we always have a conversation so you know and we don't hold it against,” none of that happened. I just saw it on my billing summary and I was like, “Are you kidding me? I went through the wringer and made this deal happen.” So I brought it up to my direct boss and I was like, “You know what, this was my understanding about how this is supposed to work but this is what actually happened,” and he was like, “No, I'm sure that's not how it happened.”

I'm like, “Well, but it is.” He's like, “Well, just talk to him. Just talk to him. I'm sure it's fine.” So I called the partner at the other office and I talked to him and the gaslighting commenced. I was like, “No, that's not what happened. This isn't what happened.” It was a whole thing. It did not end well and then he called me back a day or two later and he's like, “Well, I'm sorry that it went down like that,” and did the whole thing and I was like, “Yeah.”

He's like, “Are you even going to accept my apology?” I was like, “What apology?” I literally said, “What apology? What are you apologizing for? I'm unclear.” That was it, it was like click, and then literally, whenever we would be in the same room, at a firm function, or something, wouldn't make eye contact with me, gave me a limp-wristed handshake if ever.

People like friends too and people who usually got it, I would explain what had been happening and they're like, “Well, that just doesn't sound like him. He's a jerk but he'll apologize and all is forgotten and it's fine.” I'm like, “Did you not just see what happened over there when I went to go say hello to him and he turned around?” They're like, “No, I'm sure something else has happened.” I was like, “Wow.”

To your point and to anyone else who's going through this, even if you haven't raised it to the level that obnoxious me did, there's nothing you could have done to have made people be like, “Oh, I wish you had told us,” that they would have made a change. That's not it.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. The only reason it's said when you're quitting is because you actually have some amount of power back in that situation. This is part of why I think you see this dynamic where when people finally are like, “I'm quitting,” and give notice, all of a sudden, there's this scramble to act as though all of the concerns that were obvious before they gave notice actually would have mattered.

I really think it is this idea of I quit is a safe word and using it gives you back some power in the situation. The really unfortunate and ridiculous thing is ultimately, it's because you're walking out the door. Also, something else that you said made me think of something that I often find that I end up telling my clients when they're talking about some of these situations that they're involved in, what their workplaces are like often.

It's like, “Listen, this person you're describing who you work for or these partners, they are cowards.” When we're talking about your experience with that partner who wrote off the time and then “apologized” but didn't really apologize and then didn't want to interact, that is classic cowardice and I just feel like you see that over and over and over in these situations.

Annie Little: It's so frustrating too because I was able to see that for what it was at the time but for me, it's this feeling of, “Oh, I'm the assh*le. Bye.” I raised this concern and it's very uncomfortable for everyone else because this person is problematic in the firm in general and has a lot of power so people are like, “Yeah, you are the assh*le for rocking the boat because we'd rather not deal with this.” Then I'm like, “Well, I'm quitting,” and it's like, “Oh, my God, why?”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, 100%. The reason I want to talk about this is if you are the person in this situation and then you're listening to this, which is to be real, there are a lot of lawyers in situations like that who are listening, we know that because we know what so many of these environments are like, it can make you feel like literally you're insane, you're losing your mind.

Especially if you are more oppositional, that actually is very helpful in these situations. I am not someone who by nature is oppositional. I know that's true for a lot of lawyers and in this type of context, most likely what you're going to think is you're doing something wrong.

If you somehow figured out some magical constellation of behaviors, then the person who you're working for, the people that you're working for wouldn't treat you the way they do, the work wouldn't be handled the way it is, or whatever. There are lots of things that I think many lawyers who are having this experience think are attributable to their failure as opposed to someone else's cowardice.

Annie Little: Yes.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that it's so important for people to know that this is a real dynamic that really happens and you are not making it up. I know I have an episode about this at some point that I did, but basically, if you gave notice and all of a sudden everyone is like, “Oh, you should have told us,” and they act like they didn't know or maybe they don't say they didn't know but they're saying things that make you think they must have not known, I mean that is extremely unlikely. They knew, they just didn't care, and the only thing that brought them to care was the fact that you asserted the power that you have in this artificial hierarchy, which is to say, “I'm not going to engage in this anymore.”

Annie Little: Mm-hmm, yep. You're not imagining it. It's real.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Okay, do you have any other things from this discussion that he had of this particular type of misery related to having a bullsh*t job that the listeners should hear?

Annie Little: I mean because you know I have an entire catalog but yeah, as with other sections, I think we've hit the high notes.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Well, if you're in one of these environments, if you're having an experience and this resonates with you, I just want you to know that it sucks and it's wrong. It's not okay that you're being treated that way and also you are not at fault for someone else being abusive towards you.

Annie Little: Totally, and we also understand, we're not saying you should use the safe word and quit, we also understand it is not that easy. We just identified that power dynamic, which can also explain why it's so difficult and it's just wildly unfair. We're not saying, “Well, this is how you fix it,” no, we also understand that it's really, really hard, it's terrible to be put in that situation anyway and if you're at a point where you're, “I'm not sure if I can quit or I want to quit or how to go about quitting,” that's completely normal. It's crappy but it's absolutely normal.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That just made me think of one other thing, which I think is so huge which is this is part of why if your options in these types of environments are basically to participate in the fictional hierarchy or quit, this explains why, among other things, I get so enraged when people try to talk about boundaries in these kinds of work settings in a way that just indicates, “Well, basically if people are mistreating you, it's just because you're not putting up sufficient boundaries.”

When your alternatives are basically to participate or quit and if you're in the real world, there are so many dynamics around whether or not you can quit at any given point and whether that's among other things because you've gone to law school and have tons of student loans, etc., it's so much more complex and it's so much more exploitative of the people who don't have power in these situations than I think the conversation around boundaries really recognizes.

Annie Little: Oh, my God, Sarah, that's my biggest most exposed nerve around this stuff. I won't go into it but just to amplify your point about people where the discussion is around you're not setting firm enough boundaries or whatever, this is something that I talk about every day to people I work with where I'm like, “Listen, your boundaries are only as good as the people who are going to respect them.”

As someone who is more oppositional and somebody who was raised for some reason to understand boundaries to the point where my multiple therapists throughout the years have been like, “Annie, perhaps your boundaries are a bit too rigid,” and my friends have always been like, “Oh, you're like boundary is goals, you're the boundaries queen,” and so it's like, “Listen, I've got boundaries down to a fault even.”

I was having the same experience that people, as people who report, I'm not good at setting boundaries. I'm like, “Be that as it may, that may be true, it may not be true but as someone who was a boundaries expert, it does not matter because in this whole system, in this fictional hierarchy, and just the bullsh*t power dynamics, it does not matter if your boundaries are guarding Fort Knox because the way this is set up, the powers that be have nuclear bombs to come through your boundaries, they don't care.

Sarah Cottrell: Exactly. The fact that these systems are so narcissistic is part of why this dynamic happens because it's every little thing has to either be nothing or has to completely explode the relationship. So much of what's happening in these situations is that people are being exploited because they, for many different reasons, are not going to default immediately in every situation to exploding the entire relationship and walking out there.

Annie Little: Yeah.

Sarah Cottrell: Alright, well, I am now sufficiently enraged on behalf of all of you who are in these kinds of situations. That's pretty much why I do what I do here and we still have two more miseries to talk about so stay tuned and come back next week for the next one. We're out.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.