When I first arrived in the French Alps, it was pitch black outside.
My future colleagues were driving me to my new home and workplace — a mountain holiday lodge. My ears were feeling funny because of different air pressure. There were no other cars on the small mountain road.
I was feeling dizzy from a whole day of travel and the rapidly changing altitude. My colleagues kept telling me about all the stunning views I would see if it wasn’t close to midnight. Their words unlocked my imagination.
I was starting to fantasize about a beautiful, idyllic summer in this natural paradise.
Little did I know about the work that was coming. The whole team was about to get thrown in the never-ending sequence of making beds, serving drinks, doing the dishes — and repeating it the following day.
The job I got myself for that summer almost broke me. But it also taught me something important.
Working in hospitality helped me cure one vice I carried with me my whole life: people-pleasing. But when people-pleasing became my work, I had to start drawing boundaries.
As the car parked in front of the lodge, I took in a breath of fresh alpine air. Without knowing it, I was just beginning the toughest summer of my life.
But also, it was the summer that made me a more assertive person.
Working as a waitress or cleaner wasn’t written into my fate. But I decided to cheat fate. I applied for a three-month seasonal worker position at a hotel — and I got it.
Raised in a middle-class family, I wasn’t expected to even think about physical labour. My parents did everything to ensure my brother and I wouldn’t have to consider this. They put our education before everything else. They supported every new hobby and interest to give us the best start they could.
When I said I was going to work as a hotel housekeeper and waitress, it broke my mother’s heart. She cried to me on the phone. Many times. She repeated in disbelief that I was cleaning toilets. And, she couldn’t comprehend why.
Of course, cleaning toilets was just a small part of my workload. But let’s not go into that.
To me, going to the lodge was just another adventure on my soul-searching journey. I was coming from a year of living in Edinburgh, which changed my life. I felt like the world was opening up to me and for me.
Being in the beautiful mountains, in nature, sounded like the perfect food for my soul at that time.
But I had no idea what it meant to work in tourism during the high summer season. Let’s put it this way: the notion of a work-life balance was considered a joke in our team.
Life at the lodge equalled work.
After a few days of being constantly on duty, I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive the remaining twelve weeks. But the sheer amount of work wasn’t even the biggest problem.
The continuous need to please the customers was.
Living and working in the same place is always challenging. I still do it now, as a freelance writer. But these days, I’m at least in control of my time.
Working at the lodge was nothing like that.
Whenever I was off duty, I still needed to go through the front of the house to get food. My resting space was also shared with the guests’. For them, it looked like I was always available, always on.
It often happened that a guest asked me for things the very moment I was coming from my shift.
Can I have an ice-cream? Would you mind leaving an extra towel in my room? Can we book a table for dinner tonight? Could you show us how to get to the lake?
Their innocent requests seemed enormous when all I wanted to do was rest. Worse even, customers started to enrage me. How dare they ask me this when I’m off? — I’d think while putting on my best smile and fulfilling their wishes.
Working at the lodge was exposing how much of a people-pleaser I was. Before, I never saw this as something bad. I thought about it as ”being nice.” Somewhere along the way, I learned that putting others before myself was the right thing to do.
But at the lodge, this habit almost broke me. It made me neglect self-care when I needed it the most.
Around the middle of the season, I understood I couldn’t carry on this way.
I remember the evening that changed everything.
It was getting dark and I already closed and cleaned the garden bar. We called it the cabane. I was about to sneak out and go to bed before anyone noticed.
Then, all of a sudden, a group of walkers knocked on the already closed doors.
‘Can we get some beers?’ — the man asked in French. — ‘We’re coming from a full day of hiking. But make it cold, please.’
For some reason, the words “sorry, we’re closed” couldn’t get through my throat. I went back to work mode, looking for beer. All that was left was outside the fridge. To make it cold, I frantically started putting beer bottles in buckets of ice.
As if I was serving champagne.
The walkers waited at a table outside. I was stressing out to get them what they wanted. But this turned out to be the breaking point. Before I knew, it, tears started rolling down my face.
I couldn’t take this anymore. I hate people, I remember thinking. Suddenly, something broke in me. I didn’t care about delivering the beers anymore.
I was now crying full-on in the closed bar.
‘Are you okay?’ — my colleague Tom came in. — ‘I heard you here and I thought it was weird. You were supposed to close half an hour ago. Wait, what’s going on?’ — he now noticed the half-filled buckets of ice and my tears. — ‘Are you still serving those people outside?!’
I was sobbing uncontrollably.
‘They…. they just came to the garden. They wanted beers. But….’ — I took a breath trying to reclaim agency over my voice. — ‘But I just can’t do it. I fucking hate this job, Tom.’
He gave me a comforting hug and said he’d be back in a minute. He served the beers. Warm. Then, he came back to the cabane and sat next to me.
‘Look’ — he started. — ‘I know you want to do your best here. And you do. But it’s okay to tell people you’re off. Or that we’re closed. Why didn’t you tell those guys we were closed?’
‘I… didn’t know how’ — I said. — ‘I wanted to be nice. I was still here, so it didn’t look like we were closed to them.’
‘That’s not the point’ — he shook his head. — ‘People can walk in and you can still tell them we’re not serving. You’re in charge here. You can call it a day when it becomes too much.’
Then, he said something I’ll never forget:
‘You won’t be able to serve people if you burn out. To take care of others, you must take care of yourself.’
The saying that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” turned out true in my case.
That summer at the lodge, I was on the verge of burnout. But I managed to stop. I recovered. I got help from my colleagues. And, I started saying “no” to the requests I couldn’t handle.
It would be nice to finish this story on a positive note like this. But there is more.
The lesson about putting myself before others lasted me two years. Then, in 2018, I came to work at the lodge once again. That time around, I didn’t avoid burnout. I went into deep emotional turmoil and ended up in bed with bronchitis for three weeks.
It took me a long time to learn how to be assertive. Apparently, people-pleasing isn’t a habit we give up overnight.
Because it’s so ingrained in our culture, we play it out in our lives. We think we’re being noble and generous. In reality, we’re destroying ourselves. This serves no one.
We all have boundaries. When you disrespect them, ugly things happen. People-pleasing at your own cost can make you resentful. It can break you, physically and emotionally. Then, what use are you to your customers, your friends, your colleagues?
Recovering from being a people-pleaser is the best thing you can do — not just for yourself, but also for others. Commit to it before you burn out. Don’t wait before you crash.
Learn the lesson from my story. This way, you won’t have to learn it in a job that breaks you.
Marta Brzosko is a writer, meditator and founder of Self-Awareness Blog where she helps you tap into your inner knowledge. She believes that all the big answers can be found within – you just need to be willing to explore them. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
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