On the tail of Mother’s Day, I was thinking back to what I was like at age 27, the year my mother died.  I was already a successful and ambitious sales person in the media business when this happened, and it shook my whole world.  I was thinking about how vulnerable I felt at the time and what I did to fill the void.  And, since I was single and work was my primary focus at the time, filling the void meant forging strong relationships with colleagues.

A year after my mother died I landed my biggest and most important job to that point, a hot hot hot cable network!  No gig was cooler than that place in the 1980s, when I got this job. (MTV, folks!) I was great at what I did and managed to succeed even with my personal grief.  But inside I felt deeply alone and was trying to live my life without my mother in it.  Well, the woman who had hired me was a bright, lively, warm person, a few years older than me, and reached out her hand in friendship.  I couldn’t have been more thrilled!  We became good friends.  I went to her house, she went to my house, we talked on the phone, we cried to each other, shared secrets, the whole shmeer.  The professional boundary had been smashed.  I was in heaven because I worked for the coolest company, and had me the strong, comforting, female, authority figure for which I longed.

A year passed.  Suddenly, this boss moved over to a new department, gained a higher status in the company, and I got a new boss — this one, not so warm and friendly.  But it didn’t matter because I still had this great relationship that would support me and be there for me, just from a different department.  So I thought.  I soon realized that she wanted to cut me loose, and move beyond me.  I was crushed, I tell you, to my core.  I wrote her letters, I called her, I tried to understand the sudden disinterest in being my friend.  I never got a straight answer.

It took me awhile to heal.  I had let my heart shoot my brain, basically!  I now know it’s because the hormone oxytocin (which acts as a neuro-transmitter in the brain) is released when there’s a powerful connection.  It’s what we all seek, of course, especially when we are in need.  Work is a sea of opportunity to connect. The danger in this is that many people in corporate life are in it to win it; ambitious to the point of using people along the way.  And, even if they aren’t trying to use people, they have to recover and protect their own boundaries, in order to be most effective and have the best chances of success.  I can’t say to this day what her motive was to befriend and then unfriend me. Once she broke my trust, I felt I never really knew her in the first place. But, in hindsight, if she’d known how to handle it better she would have.

I’ll never forget this powerful lesson. No matter what is going on in your personal life, work is a dangerous place to become vulnerable to others.  Sure, I made some very nice friends throughout the years, some of whom are reading this right now, but the difference is having a friend vs. trying to find healing through a co-worker.

I wanted to write this to you from the perspective of someone now approaching 57, who has made lots of mistakes and has learned from each one of them. Your work life is different in many ways than mine was at your age.  But still, people are people, and as nice as they may be, your best bet is to keep a professional boundary so that your personal life doesn’t encroach on all of the amazing opportunities and business relationships that await you.