Vectored illustration. Silouette of men pulling in different direction.

Years ago I heard the expression, “If you give an inch, [insert name] will take a mile.” I wonder if that is something inherent in the world of work or in American culture in general. It’s great to be recognized, rewarded for, and given the opportunity to make your talents shine, and there’s also a very fine line between being useful and being used.

I experienced the “being used” side of things last year in my professional and personal life, and I really have no one to blame for it but myself. There are certain things I’m very good and and like to do, and I will do them willingly (for a price of course). What I don’t like is when other people’s disorganized sense of urgency cramps my style–we need this, we need that, oh my goodness, you have to drop everything and help, you’re the only one who does this right!…and I’m the one who didn’t set healthy boundaries. I’m the one who didn’t say, “I’ll do this, and I won’t do that.” I said yes every time and then wondered why I was anxious after work or crying before taekwondo class. I was completely used up and burned out.

One could say, “Stop whining and do your job.” And yes, there is some of that. I signed on for a job, have a lot of perks and pretty good compensation, and I shouldn’t be surprised that the people giving me money expect something in return. Same thing with being a black belt–giving back, teaching, sharing experience, and mentoring other students is not just expected, but it’s in our Korean titles. (I’m currently a “Kyo sa neem,” or “Instructor” at second Dan)…and, people are very quick to use up a talented and willing person without giving them a chance to recuperate or grow.

This year I’ve put up some pretty strong defenses. I’m so organized and future-thinking at work that I nearly work myself out of things to do–that calms me and seems to stave off the inevitable chaos of the ever-changing whims in a corporate environment. It also has made me emotionally walled off and defensive towards any requests.

At my new taekwondo dojang I am greedily, hungrily, selfishly consuming training and have seen improvements in my physical performance. Meanwhile, I feel sad for my instructors, even if they want to teach rather than train. (I am probably unfairly projecting some of the trauma I experienced of being “used” exclusively for teaching in a crappy situation onto them).

I noticed how much I’d veered in the opposite direction of being a Yes Woman recently. The other day my Master asked if I could be an extra pair of hands once in a while so the instructors could take some time off during July. I happily agreed, but I felt panic rush up into my chest when she was showing me her calendar and going over the few dates where I could fill in. I wouldn’t be teaching on my own or even leading the class. I would just be an extra black belt to help out the instructor-in-charge with things like holding pads for kicking drills, splitting up the class into groups for individual practice, etc. Things I’ve done dozens of times by myself and with other black belts for the past few years. But I couldn’t help my perhaps-too-strong sense of self-preservation that has become so loathe to make a commitment.

I have talents, want to make good use of them, and want to be rewarded, and like anyone else, I don’t want to be taken advantage of for them. I’ve let my bad experiences overshadow the positive moments of giving back and sharing of myself. I have not mastered the art of being useful without being used, and any advice from my readers is welcomed. It seems like with most other things in life, moderation is the key.

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