Bouncing off the Walls? Escape from the Rubber Room

Last time, we discussed life in a Rubber Room. It can feel like the dead end at the corridor of a career, a padded cell, a cul-de-sac, or a waiting room where the waiting never ends.

But escape from a rubber room is possible. Workers retire, take a job with another governmental or private sector organization, or redefine themselves and negotiate a way out of their rubber room status.

When I say, “negotiate,” it would be folly to think that you can get out of a rubber room through the gentle art of persuasion alone. Even the most artful negotiation cannot overcome a severe imbalance of power. Only you will know whether fight or flight is the more effective response.

You may need to simply sit and wait. But if there’s even the slightest chance that you can marshal your abilities to shorten the term of your exile, then focus solely on breaking through and breaking out.

To exit the rubber room, you’ll need to be resilient, pliable and perseverant. Learn how to hit your head against the wall repeatedly without hurting yourself. You’ll do all this without protective gear. And on the rebound.

Summon your best attributes, and remind yourself that you are:


You are resilient when you can take a lot of punishment and bounce right back. Resilient people sustain no long-term injury when bent, stretched or compressed.


Those who are pliable bend, not break. They accomplish this by adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of the local work, management, legislative and public scenes. They’re open to new ideas, and contribute to projects in helpful and creative ways.


Perseverant describes someone who is single-minded and not easily discouraged by setbacks. In fact, one mantra of perseverance is “Never Let Them Wear You Down.” If you are perseverant, you have staying power. Think of the Energizer bunny. Or, if you’re old enough, the endurance of the Timex watch.

The emotional penalty imposed on a rubber room occupant can be crippling. Most of us are unaware of how much self-esteem and socialization we owe to our jobs. When those benefits are taken away or suspended, the loss is great. The worker feels a pervasive sadness and is confused about what’s causing that mood.

For instance, we rarely think of the social importance of those casual encounters with co-workers in the office kitchen or around the coffee pot. Share a kitchen and you share the genetic memory of the “cooking fire” in a group of Paleolithic ancestors. Maybe that’s a bit overwrought, but don’t underestimate the significance when your family members gather near the “cooking fire” in the kitchen at Thanksgiving.

For the rubber roomer (let’s just call them “roomers”), the casual encounters at the copier or in the kitchen still take place. But what’s wrong is the sense of separation between the roomer and the rest of the group. Missing is the bond between those who share common triumphs and defeats. In other words, shop talk—who’s doing what, what’s happening on the home front, in the department, and elsewhere in the organization.

Sometimes when the roomer approaches the group, the conversation stops. That’s awkward for everybody. People don’t mean to be secretive or unkind. Silence is a natural response to the appearance of a stranger on the scene; a stranger is exactly what the roomer has become.

There’s a lot of anger in rubber rooms. But those most likely to escape know that holding a grudge against those who put them there will frustrate any plan they have for getting out. Forgiveness is politically shrewd.

Some rubber roomers find it diverting to classify the cast of characters that populate their room based on personality type. It is a perpetually unfinished task. But stay long enough and you’ll begin to notice patterns and personalities, among them the Wounded Bear, the Counselor and the Hermit.


This office beast is in severe pain. Wounded bears aren’t malicious by intent, but they are self-centered and seek sympathy even as they inspire fear. Being rubber roomed has injured Ursus Horribilis and made him miserable. With claws as sharp as ever, this bear is unpredictable and quick to anger.

The wounded bear sulks in his office and growls at anyone who crosses his threshold. Be charitable and say “good morning.” But don’t expect a greeting in return. Perhaps a grunt.

The bear sees a conspiracy of hunters everywhere, and they’re all gunning for him. Even if you approach carefully, with food and kindness, you risk being mistaken for a dangerous enemy.

It’s not much better if the bear considers you a friend. Kindness has its consequences. The bear might interpret a friendly gesture as a pledge of loyalty, obliging you to rip to shreds any enemy whom he designates. He really might insist.


The counselor is philosophical about his lot in the rubber room. Although he will create and relate his version of what brought him there, the counselor does not waste time by brooding, accusing or denouncing those who are responsible for his incarceration.

Instead, he studies his opponents, identifies their weaknesses and formulates a plan to manipulate them to serve his chief purpose. And that doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the rubber room is part of it. Think of the mob boss who manages an empire from his luxuriously outfitted prison cell. In the same way, the Counselor may not want to perform his executive functions in the cold light of day. Besides, in the rubber room, there are fewer distractions.

Of all personality types to be discussed here, the counselor is the most likely to exit the rubber room on his own terms.

He’ll make that happen by fine-tuning his behavior and performing to please those who hold the key. He’s clever and compliant, or at least gives the appearance of compliance, and doesn’t challenge the powers that hold him in stir.

One way to describe the counselor is as an “éminance gris,” which literally means “grey eminence.” It’s a good nickname for a former big shot who operated behind the scenes in a non-public or unofficial capacity.

The counselor knows where the bodies are buried, which closets are skeleton-equipped, and where the used linen is ventilated. But it is his “unofficial” status, and ability to hover above the fray or fly below the radar, that makes him even more influential and valuable.

Among his chief virtues is a non-judgmental nature. The counselor does not pass sentence on his fellow rubber-room residents, and he is a master at keeping secrets. This makes him the ideal confidant, advisor and puller of strings. If you are fortunate enough to have a counselor in your rubber room, cultivate his friendship.

Now we turn our attention to the Hermit.

If the Wounded Bear is angry, and the Counselor is wise, think of the Hermit as content.


When the hermit learned that he was being rubber roomed, his anxiety attack went to meltdown and triggered his allergic reaction to scotch tape.

He couldn’t imagine how he would cope. Could he survive the disruptions to his day-to-day habits without drifting into paralysis or a fugue state?

And most important to him, how much of his carefully constructed camouflage would be torn down, making him visible to the entire office?

As is often the case, the Hermit’s catastrophic visions did not materialize. Now, he finds peace in the rubber room. His mood is back to normal—he’s disengaged, solitary and distant. Rubber rooming may be the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Our hermit is no longer obligated to fulfill the minor duties to which he was assigned prior to becoming a roomer. Those duties sure did tire him out.

Even though the Hermit leads a solitary life, on rare occasions he can tolerate human contact. (No touching.) Because of the depth and breadth of his bookshelf and mastery of other media, the Hermit is the fellow you’ll want to consult when looking for obscure materials, answers to impossible questions, and the kind of obsolete information that he keeps only because its arcane nature pleases him.

It is possible for several weeks to elapse before the Hermit is sighted. Light can barely penetrate his multilayered, gridlocked, immobile and barely porous accumulation of stuff that the Hermit describes in hushed and reverential tones. For this reason it is difficult to tell whether he is in his office or not.

He has achieved serenity in the rubber room and can’t imagine wanting to leave. Roomers like the Hermit feel that they have carved out their own niche. Finally! Maybe now people will leave him alone.

The Hermit’s den-like digs blanket and protect him. He wouldn’t merit an episode of “Hoarders,” it would be more like a mini-series.

Finally, the Hermit is not what you’d call empathetic. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t understand what everybody else in the rubber room is so upset about.

THAT’S IT FOR SEGMENT TWO OF THIS POST about rubber rooms, their occupants, and ways to escape from them. NEXT TIME, we’ll meet the citizens of another kind of rubber room—the Turkey Farm. Thank you to Peter Sperry for introducing me to the term “Turkey Farm.” I looked it up at Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary,, and you should, too.

J.T. Kerwin’s featured blog for GovLoop is a somewhat whimsical look at language, design, branding and creativity in the Federal environment. He admits to meandering, but not to malingering. You can write him at [email protected]

J.T. Kerwin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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