How to tell if you’re as indispensable as you think

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥   @HeartSisters

During my 35+ years in public relations (working in corporate, government and non-profit sectors), I was typically the one tapdancing through the office with my hair on fire, cheerfully juggling multiple deadlines, all due this morning. I was almost always the first to arrive each day, and the last one to leave. I seemed to take a perverse pride in being recognized by all as the indispensable “go-to”  person on any team.

But that word “indispensable” is problematic.    .    .

The dictionary definition is: “something or someone who is so good or so important that you could not manage without it, him, or her.”

In fact, I somehow believed that I was so good and so important in my workplace that for months leading up to my “widowmaker” heart attack, I went to the office almost every Sunday morning to work all day on a major project that I decided needed far more focused attention than I could fit into my regular work week.

Nobody ever told me I HAD to come in to work on my days off. But since I seemed to be the only person on staff capable of leading this project, I began to normalize my Sunday shifts by explaining that actually, I get far more work done on Sundays because the phone’s not ringing and I don’t have meetings to interrupt me. . .”

Does this defense sound familiar to you, too?

A close friend once told me over a glass of wine at her office retirement party about an old poem on the myth of indispensability.  She’d been reminded of this poem, she said, because all evening, she’d been hearing her soon-to-be-former colleagues ask,How will we ever manage without you?”

But she already knew the sobering answer:  nobody is indispensable.

She also knew that these same colleagues would not only manage perfectly well without her, but after a certain amount of time, they would barely remember that she had ever been there.

Here’s an excerpt from that 1959 poem by Saxon White Kessinger that may address your own misguided belief that you too are indispensable:*

“Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul.

“Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

“You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.” *

After my heart attack and subsequent cardiac complications in 2008, that 35+ year P.R. career abruptly ended. Because of ongoing debilitating symptoms caused by a second cardiac diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease, I was simply unable to function as I needed to.

I knew it, and – worse! – my wonderful colleagues knew it, too. A brief return-to-work trial became a humiliating disaster.

It was a demoralizing time for me.  My desperate hope was that my doctors would come up with a magical remedy for my cardiac symptoms, or that I would be “cured“, or that I’d at least be well enough to go back to the work I loved and was good at doing. All I wanted was to feel “normal” again, during a time when nothing felt “normal” anymore. And what would be most “normal” would be to go back to work.

Whenever my work friends would call or visit me at home during those early weeks of recuperation, their messages were reassuring variations of: “We miss you so much! Work is just NOT the same without you!”

So imagine my stunned shock within a short time after that failed attempt at a graduated return-to-work trial when I learned that my full-time replacement had been hired, had moved into “my” office, and by all accounts, was a nice guy doing a great job.

Somehow, the entire workplace seemed to be surviving just fine, and the world was continuing to spin on its axis – all without me!

This can be a hard pill to swallow if you still somehow believe you’re indispensable, and especially tough if the role you’d been planning to resume as soon as you felt well enough is no longer even available to you.

Here’s the trouble with “normalizing” an abnormal work ethic that requires you to act as if you and only you can do whatever it is you are doing, or by remaining within an organizational environment that openly promotes an unhealthy “always on” culture:  this sense of forced indispensability can actually affect your physical and mental health, leading to psychological burnout or severe physical illness.

One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, suggested a significantly increased risk of coronary artery disease among those who work 11 hours a day or more – findings that were enhanced by lifestyle habits often associated with those who work 11+ hours a day (high stress, lack of exercise, smoking or eating unhealthy take-out meals.(1)

It’s ironic, isn’t it?  Even when the corporate culture itself may be making you sick, you may still feel desperate to return to the same environment that made you sick in the first place. After last week’s Heart Sisters article on learning the fine art of p-a-c-i-n-g was published, for example, not every reader agreed with my suggestion that heart patients might want to consider accepting the need to slow down. As one reader astutely commented:

”    I’m still resisting this one. Don’t like it!  I liked and relied on the woman I used to be. I miss that woman!”

I get that.  I too strongly resisted this kind of advice in the early days, post-diagnosis.  I had somehow turned into a person I no longer recognized. That person I used to be seemed to have disappeared. How could I get her back? And what could I be doing to speed up this annoyingly slow recovery business? 

When I wrote one day about what a painful transition it had been for me going from being a racing-around-in-charge person to one who needs long naps, I heard from a self-described recovering Type A personality, who wrote me a comical essay that I re-posted here as “Life After Heart Attack If You’re a Type A”. 

The interesting twist: even beyond the workplace, this pervasive urge to do more than we’re capable of doing can be seductive for many of us – ranging from the responsibilities of volunteering to never turning down a request to babysit your grandkids, even when you’re not feeling up to it.

Please remember: even if you truly believe nothing will get done if you’re not the one to do it, others WILL find a Plan B that works for them. This will happen. Nobody is indispensable, as those who believe they are almost always discover far too late. As the former president of France Charles de Gaulle liked to say:

The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable people.”  

1. Mika Kivimäki et al. “Using Additional Information on Working Hours to Predict Coronary Heart Disease”. Annals of Internal Medicine 2011 154:7, 457-463
* Poem: “There Is No Indispensable Man”, ©1959, Saxon White Kessinger
Image: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about working – and not working – after a cardiac event in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).


See also:

#JOMO (the JOY of MISSING OUT):  It Turns Out There’s a Name for My Life

Scope Creep: when NO Means Maybe, and Maybe Means YES

Thoughts On Returning to Work if You’re a Heart Patient

Are You a Priority in your Own Life?

The New Country called Heart Disease

The “Loss of Self” in Chronic Illness is What Really Hurts

17 thoughts on “How to tell if you’re as indispensable as you think

  1. NOTE FROM CAROLYN: This comment has been removed because it was trying to sell you something. For more information on how to get your comment deleted before it sees the light of day, please visit my Disclaimer page.


  2. I was lucky – at the time of my own heart event (Takotsubo Syndme) I was already retired due ME/CFS – this condition had forced me to slow down and learn the value of rest and prioritising – in order to survive that I had to learn the difference between what I really wanted to do and what I thought I had to do.

    So after a heart event which requires rest during the recovery period, I had already mastered the art of slipper wearing, delegation and switching off.

    Too many women feel they must keep going – I hope you all learn faster than I did that you must give yourselves permission to stop, sniff the roses and take in the scenery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such good advice, Eve – on “slipper wearing, delegation and switching off”! It’s not often you get to thank one chronic condition for making you an expert in coping with another…

      Let’s hope that all women learn to “sniff the roses” before a serious diagnosis forces that appreciation skill upon them…

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  3. I have had two heart attacks. One was a widowmaker, died on the table & was revived. Second one was a Takotsubo. From stress.

    I discovered after 36 years of marriage I was indispensable. For who would wash my abusive husband’s laundry? Be my sister’s caregiver in her terminal illness? Me, of course. I only had a “heart attack”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Patricia – sadly, some people only see how others view them after years of being the ‘go-to’ person taking care of everybody else but themselves. After everything you’ve been through, I hope you’re practicing some self-compassion these days, no matter what other drama is going on around you.

      Take care, stay safe….♥


  4. WOW, I needed to read this today. Some days I’m just too tired. After up and down stairs to do (2) loads of laundry, I’m ready to rest before I remake the bed. I ALWAYS want to do MORE, but more than not, the energy is not always there. Today, as I sit on the patio, enjoying the breeze, I’m thankful I got in my 2 mile walk this morning. Life after 2 heart attacks, and 2 strokes….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sitting on your patio, enjoying the breeze, sounds like a lovely tonic for your soul, LuAnn! It’s so important to build in those moments of joy and mindfulness into that list of the tasks we have to do. I used to reward myself on my little exercise calendar with a shiny sparkly sticker for every hour of physical activity, but on bad days I could barely walk to our local village and back (about 10 minutes each way). But those are the days when I really deserve that sparkly reward!! So now, even on a day when I’m absolutely too exhausted to do much of anything, those tasks that I do manage to get done get a sticker!

      You did a 2-mile walk? That sure deserves that lovely rest on your patio!

      Take care, and stay safe! ♥


  5. Wow, I am so with you, sister! It was early in my PR career that I learned that too! I had a rotating co-op position (internship) and was the first hired, and everyone thought I walked on water and sang my praises. I was pretty smug and thought so too.

    I returned to college and another intern replaced me. When I returned the following semester for the internship, all I heard about was how great the student was that came in after me. I realized that no one is irreplaceable, everyone just has different skills and talents. It burst my bubble but it really helped with my view of the work world and becoming a manager.

    I do like the water bucket analogy, hadn’t heard that before. Just loved reading this lesson Carolyn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good grief, M! That’s a bubble-burster, for sure! At least your colleagues could have had the courtesy to tell you how FABULOUS it was to finally have YOU back again!

      That was a pretty powerful lesson to learn (and so good to get that out of the way early on in your career!)

      Thanks a lot for sharing that perspective – take care, and keep safe! ♥


  6. So absolutely true even if it is a hard pill to swallow. Not even limited to heart disease, but injury or just retiring from a committee you have chaired for many years. Thank you for putting this out there.

    Your book is a constant reference for me, so thank you for that as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Barbara and thanks for your kind comments – I’m glad to know that you’re making good use of my book; as I said in the preface, I wrote the book that I was looking for (but couldn’t find!) right after my own cardiac diagnosis, so I just love to hear feedback like yours. I appreciate that!

      I think this issue boils down to a sense of loss, and it can feel awful whether we’re stopping an important role due to a medical condition or injury or retirement or divorce, and even whether it’s sudden or planned for. The longer we are actively engaged in any specific role (employee, manager, owner, volunteer, grandmother) that serves to define us, the more we might experience this sense of feeling indispensable (or rather, believing that we’re indispensable).

      Actually, it just struck me now as I write this that divorce is also a great example of how traumatic it can be to face that sense of being “easily replaced” when an ex-spouse remarries – that’s a pretty harsh lesson that suggests one of you is completely dispensable!

      Take care, and stay safe… ♥


  7. The Bucket Theory of Indispensability has been a staple in our home most of my life. My 89 year old father, also a heart patient, started telling me about the bucket in high school.

    It was a good truth to learn early along with Life Ain’t Fair.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was not born a go getter but was taught early on that my value lay in my ability to work… the harder the better. Then as I got very good at what I did…. being a Cracker Jack Nurse, I was promoted into supervisor and teacher roles that I didn’t even want… but took them because it was a sign of success. Later I asked to be relieved of the duties of supervising and went back to what I loved.

    But it was with my children I truly became an indispensable over-achiever…I modeled myself after my mother who never stopped moving… ( I found out years later her MD had prescribed amphetamines for weight loss, no wonder I couldn’t keep up).

    Lucky for me, I realized I was killing myself before I was diagnosed with HCM and CAD.

    When I left my beloved nursing profession on disability at the age of 63, I left behind many well trained nurses to take my place and had ZERO regrets!

    We owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to drop the egotistical pride of being indispensable and train those who will replace us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jill – so many good points! They say in business school that “succession planning” should be a critically important standard in every organization (identifying and developing new leaders who can replace old leaders when they leave, retire or die). Knowing that the organization will be in good hands long after they’re gone seems good for individuals, good for their colleagues, and good for the organization.

      I really appreciated your point about the seductive allure of being promoted – even when you didn’t really want the promotion! It’s so flattering to be offered advancement upwards at every opportunity, isn’t it?

      A friend who was a social worker used to pine for the good old days: she originally went into the field to work with people who needed her very specific expertise, yet within a few short years, her promotion to management meant that she no longer ever saw clients, and spent the rest of her career overwhelmed with bureaucratic issues that wore her down.

      So glad you decided to go back to what you loved doing!

      Take care, and stay safe… ♥


  9. A wise surgeon I once knew said that there is an everflowing river of patients, we only dip our fingers into the flow to help those we can.

    I overwork, I know I do, and I have to force myself to pause for things that bring me joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the truth, Dr. Anne! No matter how competent and hard-working and self-sacrificing we may be, there is literally no end to the must-do list we will never get around to. Reminds me of the business guru who warned “once you have mastered how to balance three spinning plates, you will be rewarded with a fourth, and then a fifth!”

      Thanks so much for the important reminder to pause for the things that bring us joy!!

      Take care, and stay safe… ♥

      Liked by 1 person

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