Dear Dr. Yael:
I am very happy and successful in my line of work. However, I am having trouble with a coworker and hope you can help me.
A few months ago, a new woman began working at my office. We share a workspace and often have to work together on projects. This woman seemed nice, but there have been several awkward situations between us that are really bothering me. First, she often acts like I am cutting her off during a conversation. Whenever I talk she makes a loud comment or sigh, indicating that I have done something wrong. Thus, I am always feeling like I hurt her or upset her in some way. I try to be very sensitive, but inevitably there is that sigh telling me I must have done something “wrong.”
She also tells other coworkers that I can’t make early morning meetings because I have a hard time getting to the office early. This is true, as I am married with several young children. But it’s the manner in which she says it – as if to make me look unprofessional. She could just say that since we are not required to be at work until 9 a.m., it does not make sense to schedule an 8:30 meeting – just in case anyone has outside obligations. Why must I look like the one who “cannot get here early” when we aren’t expected to be in then anyway?
I know it may seem as if these are not major issues, but I am having a hard time working with this woman and do not know how to improve the situation. She tries to be nice and there are times that we work very well together. But then there are other times.
Another coworker recently asked me why I am always apologizing to this woman. I replied that I might have said something to hurt her and feel badly because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. This coworker urged me to stop worrying about it, because it was clear this woman was not treating me well. I know that my co-worker is right, but I am the type of person who wants to get along with everyone. Additionally, I have a hard time hurting anyone, even inadvertently.
In short, here’s my dilemma: I don’t want to be consistently taken advantage of, nor do I want to hurt anyone’s feelings. How do I walk this fine line?
An Exasperated Coworker
Dear Exasperated Coworker:
It appears that your new coworker may be somewhat jealous of you. Perhaps she is envious of your success at work or the fact that you have a family. With her behavior seemingly inappropriate, something else may be going on that is causing her to act this way. Is she going through a difficult time personally? Is she an insecure person? Perhaps the answer to both questions is yes, as insecure people generally need to put down others in order to feel good about themselves. Maybe your new coworker tells others that you cannot make early morning meetings as a subtle putdown.
Writing about your quandary demonstrates that you are obviously a caring person who wants to do the right thing. If you feel that your new coworker would be receptive to discussing this issue with you, initiate a meeting with her. You can say something like, “Am I doing something to hurt you? I feel like you are often upset with me and this confuses me because I always try to do nice things for you and treat you with respect.” Ideally, your coworker will realize what she is doing and will begin to change her ways.
However, be prepared that this may not happen, as jealousy is a powerful emotion. Even if your coworker has no idea why she is subtly disparaging you or making you uncomfortable, jealousy is probably one of the main reasons.
If you must continue to work with this woman, it would be a good idea to “kill her with kindness.” You need not continuously apologize to her, but you can try to be extra nice to her, even buying her a small gift on occasion. I know this might sound odd, but when you give to someone, you begin to like that person more. For their part, most people who receive preferential treatment and presents from others tend to have a hard time criticizing the givers.
It is possible that this woman has a significant emotional or personality disorder. If this were indeed the case, your best course of action would be to stay away from her as much as possible. People with personality disorders can be very toxic in the workplace and it is not good for your emotional health to be involved with such a person. Request a different work area if possible, and be cordial but distant.
We all have to deal with a certain number of difficult people during the course of our lives. Since this person is not in your inner circle, e.g. parent, child, sibling, spouse or in-law, be grateful that she is only a work acquaintance and that you do not have to live with her – enabling you to keep your distance from her.
It seems that you enjoy getting along with others, perhaps making you a people pleaser. This is not a bad trait, but be prepared that in this case, no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to please this person.
You must make a decision to not care so much about what she says while attempting to establish healthy relationships with others in the office. To reiterate an earlier point, her possibly toxic personality may worsen if in fact she is jealous that you have a fuller family life than she.
Whatever the reason for your coworker’s behavior, your situation is obviously difficult. Create a support system for yourself, so that you do not begin to internalize these negative feelings. Furthermore, keep reminding yourself that this situation is not of your making and that you have no control over other people’s feelings. And as you continue to be kind to others, remember that their happiness is ultimately up to them. Hatzlachah.
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