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Coping strategies for finding out how awful you really are
January 24, 2014 9:20 AM   Subscribe

What do you do when you realize that, not only are you not even close to being the hero of your own story, you're most likely the main problem?

My current situation is this: I'm quitting my job. I'm not just quitting my job, I'm pretty much giving up what has been, until now, my chosen profession. At this job, I've consistently stepped up to take on more work when others have suddenly quit. I've done far, far more than my fair share, and been the focal point of criticism when pretty much anything goes wrong, including when it's not actually something I've done. I've had people yell in my face in the middle of the office over mistakes that weren't actually of my doing, and when it later came to light that I wasn't the one responsible, no apology has ever been given. When, yet again, another person quit, and I was volunteered to take over their responsibilities, I later found out that other's refused to work under me. Instead of actually being in charge of a team, I was instead told to do all of the work of leading the team, but that I wouldn't have any kind of say over anything. This has led to things like just this morning, walking into work with the person that's been put over me (and who volunteered me for this position) being told that someone on my team was out sick, and, with me (the person who would actually have to cover for the absent team member) standing right there, the other person was asked to take care of things.

Here's the thing: I've worked my ass off at this job. Sixty and seventy hour weeks for no extra pay over the forty hours in the contract. Even the person who volunteered me for this extra work, who I thought of as a friend, when I bring up events like being screamed at in the office, says things like "I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened," or "I don't know the other guy's side of the story."

In talking to my wife about the whole mess, I said that one of the things that really, deeply hurts about the whole situation is that not one person has said anything to me along the lines of "I wish you weren't leaving" or "It's too bad you're quitting." Her response was to say that I was acting like a child, and that there's no way I should feel I have a right to that kind of thing.

So, after all of that, I have absolutely no idea where to go from here. The thing that keeps bouncing around my head is that if you go through life thinking you're surrounded by people you think are assholes, it's most likely that you yourself are the asshole. And that, that would be me. I feel like I've just found out that, in this story, I'm the bad guy, and everyone will be much better off when I'm not in the story anymore. It's a pretty painful thing to realize, and as much as I really, really have tried to do the right things, and to be a good person, I know for a fact that I don't always, in fact rarely succeed at that.

What can I do? I'm not asking for validation, as much as I'm sure this sounds like it, and as much as I'd love to be told it's actually not my fault, I know that's not the truth of things. I'm not asking for people to make soothing statements and tell me that it's not me, when all signs point to me as the problem. What I am asking for is for sound advice on how to move forward, on how to deal with the fact that, as much as I have tried to be a part of the solution, I'm very much a part of, if not the source of, the trouble, not just at this job, but pretty much going back through most of my professional career. How the hell do I keep going when I'm struggling with the fact that, not only am I evidently the worst thing in the world to the people around me, but that I'm also pretty much the reason I'm miserable?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would start with a therapist who can help you work through these issues and help you determine how close to reality your impression of the situation actually is.
posted by Jairus at 9:23 AM on January 24 [11 favorites]


Therapy.

You may be overreacting. I don't see where in this story you are an asshole. I do see where you need to stress less about these kinds of things. And if you are the asshole, maybe therapy can help you work on that.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:25 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I don't see where in this story you are an asshole.

Me either.

All the same, I totally agree with your passing comment that you may be miserable because you make yourself miserable. The good news is that, with therapy and kindness to yourself, you may find that you become happy because you're happy.

You're going through a tough time. Be gentle to yourself. And maybe you need a real reboot, with a new job, new career, etc.--but don't necessarily go there hastily. Take a breather.

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:29 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Just chiming in to say that just because everyone in one work place is horrible to you, it doesn't mean you're the asshole. Every job I've had except one I've got on really well with everyone, but this one job ... this one job.. I came home every night feeling like it sounds you do. Turns out it was just a really toxic work place. The alternative is that you just have a massive personality clash with the work culture - it doesn't mean you're an awful person, just that you shouldn't be working there.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 9:31 AM on January 24 [23 favorites]


It sounds like you're flipping between two versions of this story: one where you're the underappreciated victim, and one where you're the "worst thing in the world."

I'm pretty sure the useful truth lies somewhere in between.

It's true that you are ultimately the root cause of your misery, and that looking at your own attitudes and behavior are the path to freedom. But this is not because you're a horrible person, but rather because the stories you're telling yourself are causing your suffering.

Nthing therapy and/or mindfulness meditation. And throwing in a plug for one of my all-time favorite self-help books, Chari Huber's "There is Nothing Wrong With You."
posted by ottereroticist at 9:33 AM on January 24 [14 favorites]


You've asked people not to say that you're not the problem, so I won't do that - if you want, I will agree that you are the problem.

But who is to say whether the thing about you that IS the problem isn't the fact that you're not a good fit at that one specific institution where you're working?

What i"m getting at is - okay, say that you're an apple. And you're in with a bunch of apples, and all the other apples are looking at you like you suck. And you're sitting there thinking you're a bad apple. But maybe it's not that you're a bad apple - maybe the problem is that you're a Winesap and they're all Granny Smiths. So the problem isn't that you're bad at being an apple, the problem is that they have a problem with any kind of apple that isn't a Granny Smith, and you just need to find a basket of Winesaps - or a basket of all different kinds of apples - and it'll be better.

Think about it like that. Yeah, you can go ahead and still think that your being there is a problem that way, but that isn't the same as you being bad at being you.

....Is that clear? There are some weird fumes in my office and I"m not sure I"m making much sense right now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]


Before you get too down on yourself, read about sick systems and the benefits that accrue from walking away from them. Quit the nest of vipers, take a long enough break to be able to look back on it instead of out at it, then re-evaluate.

You might also want to try making a regular practice of mindfulness meditation.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 AM on January 24 [20 favorites]


If it's any consolation, my sense is that such problems are usually pretty simple. You're probably not doing everything wrong, but rather doing one thing wrong over and over again. Maybe you act like a doormat and thereby encourage people to disrespect abuse you? Maybe you think it's a good idea to get openly confrontational with people you dislike or disagree with? I don't know what it is, and most likely neither do you. You've got a blind spot that your brain is filling in with some bad ideas. Therapy has a high potential of helping you see the situation, and your dysfunctional patterns of behavior (whatever they are) much more clearly. You may find that small changes make a big difference.
posted by jon1270 at 9:36 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]


If I were your friend or your spouse or your therapist (I am none of those things that I'm aware of), I'd tell you this: you may have been told you were the reason people quit but I might paraphrase your pseudo-friend that "you weren't there, so don't know what happened, and you don't know the other guys' side of the story." Considering people have shouted at you in the middle of the office -- versus sitting you down in private and discussing performance issues, which is what non-toxic organizations do -- I'd put my money on office toxicity.

But let's run with your attitude. Maybe you're a bad guy. Maybe your office is bad. Maybe you're even a bad guy because your office is bad! Where you sit right now, there's only one way to find out: stand up for yourself and leave. That's exactly what you're doing, and once you make that decision, that makes you the hero of your own story. Starting today, you're not going to put up with this any more: you're going to leave this bad situation, and you'll either find a better one or you'll find out you're the problem and you'll start working on it. To me, that sounds exactly like what a person with self-respect and confidence would do -- so it doesn't really matter if you have self-respect and confidence, or if you're faking it until you're making it.

Just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. You have three variables: your own behavior, the career path you've chosen, and the workplace you occupy today. Of the three, the last one is the easiest to change and potentially the most impactful, so you're making a good choice there. Once you've gotten a new job in your field, see if things are still horrible. If they are, then perhaps it is you, or your chosen field (although it might be you made a bad second employer choice; it happens.) More likely you'll start the new job, do well, and suddenly realize it had nothing to do with you at all.

Which means I take issue with your core premise: "the fact that, not only am I evidently the worst thing in the world to the people around me, but that I'm also pretty much the reason I'm miserable?" I respectfully submit that the only problem we can factually show is that you work in a place that sounds very very toxic and inappropriate, and that you're not happy there. If you really are the problem, you'll find out, but from where I sit your evidence doesn't show that.
posted by davejay at 9:37 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]


I just to point out that whether or not you're a giant ass who has caused problems all through your career, it is a very, very good thing that you're asking yourself that question. I think it speaks well of you, and makes me believe that the truth is probably somewhere in the grey area between "giant jerk," and "total victim," like ottereroticist says. The truth could also just be somewhere else entirely, but we can't know that from your description.

We have this tendency to paint people like that, and simplify them, when we're all really big complicated messes. You are almost certainly not entirely a jerk, but you are probably also not perfectly perfect and always in the right.

(I think this is a good illustration of how complicated each and every one of us is compared to how we see the world.)
posted by hought20 at 9:38 AM on January 24


I think your problem lies in the fact that you have internalized the "job-as-identity" bullshit that comes along with western culture. Now that the career scenario you had envisioned is not aligning with your ideal - your very identity is taking a hit because you have linked the two. It could also be that you have only now realized the important fact that no matter how hard you work, or how much of yourself you give to a corporate entity - there is no guarantee that you will get anything back. Why? Because as much as the lines blend - a job isn't your family or your friends. I think your problem wasn't so much being "a bad guy" or whatever warped way you are thinking about yourself. Your problem is giving so much of yourself to the arbitrary thing we do for money these days.

You also have pretty clear-cut hallmarks of depression / anxiety as evident from your writing. Print out what you wrote, bring it to a therapist who has a CBT approach, and commit yourself to a few months of therapy. You need to sort this shit out because it will corrode you.
posted by jnnla at 9:40 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]


Yeah, there's really nothing for it but therapy. Get into it as soon as possible. Make a phone call today. Just look up local therapists in your area, see if any of them are reviewed anywhere so's you can make an informed decision, then pick up the phone.

Here's the thing. I was in a position a lot like yours, a few years ago. I realized I was the antagonist, pretty much. And if I were called upon to recount the stories that led to that realization, I would have talked about a lot of incidents in which other people's behavior was incomprehensible to me, and in which I was acting normally. Now, after having been in therapy for a while, I understand that my perspective on these events was not a reliable one.

So, long story short: Maybe everyone in your office just happened to be terrible - some people are just easy to scapegoat for no reason I can understand - or maybe you're doing something you're not aware of that's making people treat you with antipathy. None of us know what you're like in person, so all we can really do is guess.

So talk to a therapist. They'd be able to figure out what's going on much better than we could, and much better than you can on your own.

If it turns out that you were the problem all along, you pretty much just need to come to peace with that, and acknowledge that you were...not sick, exactly, but something like it. You were in an unhealthy place, and acting out of whatever drove you to be that person, and you need to forgive the person you were. And it's good that you're asking these questions now. The road to peace and wellness begins now.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:43 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]


I agree with therapy. It sounds like you are filling in the unknown holes with "they must hate me" "I'm awful" "I'm not appreciated", when perhaps in actuality, people aren't giving you a lot of thought or if they are, it may be because they are picking up on your negativity and reacting to that.

I have a friend who looks at the world through negativity glasses. She expects bad things to happen to her, she thinks all unfavorable outcomes are somehow a direct negative slight against her, people either walk over her or ignore her. And you know what? Bad things DO happen to her. I'm not a person who believes in a lot of woo-woo stuff, but honestly I believe her negative outlook on life attracts negativity and bad outcomes like a magnet to metal. When she complains about all this I give her the same answer: THERAPY. Don't have her response, which generally is "it won't help, my life just sucks." Everyone's life sucks sometimes. But it only sucks all the time if you allow it.
posted by cecic at 9:45 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]


There are a lot of missing or confusing details in your description:

* Why, exactly, did people "refuse to work under you"?
* Why did you assume that "you would have to cover for the absent team member" when you were standing right there while someone else was instructed to cover for the absent team member?
* What led to you being yelled at for other people's mistakes, and why wasn't your immediate response to say "hey this was somebody else's mistake, why are you yelling at me?" (n.b. being screamed at in the office is a pretty good sign that there is something very wrong with that office rather than you; this is not acceptable behavior no matter what the circumstances.)
* Why do you keep being "volunteered" for more work, and why have you been taking on that work with no compensation? If the person "volunteering" you is your supervisor or boss, then you're not being "volunteered" and they should be giving you the support you need to do the tasks you're being assigned -- and if they're not your boss or supervisor then why are you letting them assign you work (and what lets them think they can do so)?
* What does "doing all the work of leading the team" mean if you haven't been given that responsibility officially? What makes you assume this is your responsibility? Are you in charge of the team or aren't you?
* What sort of conflicts are you talking about where the guy is saying "I wasn't there, so I don't know what happened," or "I don't know the other guy's side of the story"? Do those conflicts happen routinely? What causes them?

My gut reaction based on what you've written is that this is a combination of a very dysfunctional office, and of you taking on more work or responsibility than you're really being asked to do. But the above suggestions of therapy (or career counseling) aren't wrong; a second opinion from someone with the opportunity to break these stories down into a lot more detail may help you determine whether you're the problem or they were.

With or without that, though, try switching companies before you go all the way to switching careers, and try that before you decide that Everything Is My Fault And I Am A Terrible Human Being.
posted by ook at 9:46 AM on January 24 [16 favorites]


I cannot make any sense of your narrative. You really need a disinterested third party - someone in a mental health field - to work through this with you. It's hard to understand when and why your behavior/response was something you should avoid in the future when you can't provide an objective narrative.

Worst case: Even if it is you, your only victim is you and you can change. But I doubt it's all or even mostly on you.

Good luck.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:56 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


Nearly all shortcomings and "flaws" can be overcome to some degree, if you believe you have it in you. The healthy way to approach disappointment in yourself is "Okay, I'm not satisfied with how I handled this. I will avoid this in the future by working on X, Y, and Z."

If you can't forgive yourself or believe that you can improve, then it is certainly time for therapy.

I believed I was just inherently awful for years. Getting help for depression convinced me otherwise. I'm nowhere near perfect - I will be the first to admit my numerous faults - but I work to overcome or at least minimize them, and I don't let them rule my self-perception.

You are okay and you will be okay. You have worth. You are likeable, talented, and competent. You are not perfect, but no one is, and you can get better every day. If you can't believe these things, find a therapist you like, and they can help you change your narrative.

All good stories about heroes involve growth and redemption. Your journey begins here and can go anywhere you want.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:03 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


You think you are in asshole because your co-workers are not saying, please don't leave?
That seems strange.

Even if I felt that way, I doubt seriously that I would express it. I mean, I would assume you have your reasons, and the boat will still float. Work relationship are often weird. Co-workers are often cold. Everyone has their own issues, and frankly they are working the job for their own selfish reasons, not for you.

Quitting a job, starting a new path, is a time filled with lots of raw emotion. I think the emotion is getting the better of you.
posted by Flood at 10:05 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I haven't read thoroughly enough to say whether you are / aren't the asshole here. I just want to comment on the woozy uncertain feeling of slowly realizing that things aren't as they had previously seemed to you. The narrative has change in a subtle but drastic way.

So I'm a Buddhist. And we call these subtle shifts in understanding "realizations," especially when they relate to our ability to be compassionate, loving or especially clear-minded about reality. Furthermore, the best thing in the world would be to be lovingly chewed up by a monk. To have them tear you a new one, out of love. Because they would stop you from kidding yourself, stop you from dallying along in your own delusions and get you to see the truth of who you are, how you're really thinking and what you're really doing, so that you now have the opportunity to think and behave differently. You're no longer so ignorant of yourself. These moments are very very valuable. Because really, after you turn 18, people don't correct your behavior any more, they just avoid you, fire you, or whatever, but very few take the time to give you true & proper feedback. So either your loved ones tell you, or you find out like this, with a woozy feeling of waking up into a different reality and not sure how to process it all.

I just wrote an exam at the temple where I study. I got the last question pretty much entirely wrong. I thought it was an easy question! When the monk explained the answer, I realized that I had no clue what the question was really asking. Even after he explained the answer, I still didn't understand the question. I said to him, "You know, getting the answer wrong was so much better. I'm glad I got it wrong. Now I know what I still need to know, whereas before I thought I knew it all." And he totally agreed.

So, again I can't say if you're being unduly hard on yourself, or if you are actually an angry character who blames others and who is just starting to see that a lot of this anger is coming from your own side. But you've asked how to cope with it, and the answer is to see what a blessing this is and appreciate it, even if the truth is a little shocking and smarts a little. You are now a little less ignorant. You now can choose different behaviors! What good fortune! Furthermore, you have the opportunity to develop humility and perhaps mend the relationships that you've harmed by your anger. Take your wife out for dinner because tonight is a celebration.

And in the future when you see other raving mad people, instead of developing disgust or judgment towards them you can have compassion, because they're still struggling with that cloud of self-deception, they're still shadow boxing with themselves. Maybe you can kindly share a nugget of wisdom or two, or maybe you can simply wish them well.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:33 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


Hi,

I'm short on time at the moment so I haven't read all the comments here, but I thought you might find the following recommendation helpful: Michael Neil's The Inside-Out Revolution. It covers a way of using your subconscious mind for creative, intuitive guidance which can be applied to a variety of problems.

Good luck.
posted by Musashi Daryl at 10:45 AM on January 24


The definition of an asshole is someone who thinks they're too nice to people. The definition of a good person is someone who thinks they're awful to people.

You've just been granted a bit of grace, causing you to really see, and it flipped you.

So you're now feeling the pain of goodness, which is mortification over your not-good parts. Assholes never feel that (you never did, apparently). The pain is a very good sign. And it won't go away. Even saints wailingly bemoan the people they inadvertently harm. This newfound sense of mortified pain over the bad vibes you've subjected others to will not go away, it will only get worse, even as your vibes get much better. But treasure it. It's your non-asshole badge. If it goes away, that doesn't mean you stopped being an asshole. It means you re-started.

There are two ways this recent flip can affect you. You can go the asshole way, and dissolve into depressed self-pity (all about you!). Or you can welcome change (change is easy to do, just hard to welcome; once you welcome it, you can't help but do it). And it's important to remember that every new moment is a clean slate. You don't need to undo what's done (unless you actually do), you just need to change how you do. So keep shaking the Etch-a-Sketch. And be as kind to yourself as you intend to be to others. Beating yourself up rectifies nothing. Don't just shift your thoughtless aggression to a new target (i.e. you).

Clear the sense of mortification off your screen so you can get down to useful exploration. And be glad you've been given this valuable glimpse into your own unconscious dark matter. Most people never get such a glimpse because they actively hide from it.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:54 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


In talking to my wife about the whole mess, I said that one of the things that really, deeply hurts about the whole situation is that not one person has said anything to me along the lines of "I wish you weren't leaving" or "It's too bad you're quitting." Her response was to say that I was acting like a child, and that there's no way I should feel I have a right to that kind of thing.

I just wanted to address this part of the post. If this did happen as described, it sounds like that kind of exchange between you and your wife is significantly adding to your stress. I agree that coworkers aren't necessarily friends and you won't necessarily receive emotional responses in your workplace, but at home should at least be a place where you feel safe to vent once in a while.

It sounds like you and your wife could benefit from sitting down and having the conversation about what you're looking for from her when you go to her with an issue like this and how to ensure that you are communicating to her when what you need is comfort, not discussion. I think the work of doing this needs to be mostly on her part.
posted by capricorn at 10:57 AM on January 24 [10 favorites]


In talking to my wife about the whole mess, I said that one of the things that really, deeply hurts about the whole situation is that not one person has said anything to me along the lines of "I wish you weren't leaving" or "It's too bad you're quitting." Her response was to say that I was acting like a child, and that there's no way I should feel I have a right to that kind of thing.

If this interaction happened as you describe it, that in itself is a problem -- to be clear, your spouse's problem, not yours. It doesn't sound like you claimed a right, it sounds like you expressed a perfectly human desire to have your contributions acknowledged and presence desired. It'd be one thing if she said "yeah, that'd be nice, and I know you're disappointed, and I'm sorry, but I think one has to just learn to live with the fact that many workplaces are like this", but it sounds like she belittled you instead. It's possible this happened because this is a stressful time for both of you (stress can lead otherwise helpful and supportive people to express their feelings badly), but you should know that the response you're describing is *not* a good/reasonable one to the feelings you described expressing. If there's a significant pattern of this over time, particularly outside times of stress, that'd worry me more far more than a crappy job.

As for the rest of this: I'm almost always pro-introspection -- the unexamined life is not worth living and all that, plus I think figuring out what you're actually responsible for can often be very empowering. So while I don't see "asshole" written all over the behavior you're describing (and it does sound like toxic workplace), it might be worthwhile to *constructively* think about ways in which you might have contributed to the kind of dynamic you experienced and how you could adjust your contribution.

A couple of suggestions (besides visiting with a good friend and/or therapist, who might be able to spot a lot more than random commenters on the internet):

* As a rule, while it's *really hard* not to tie a lot of your personal identity to your career (perhaps particularly for men and particularly in the US), try not to. The legibility of contributions in the workplace is fuzzy at best and maybe even mostly an illusion, which is one reason why some people in the same business can make millions while others make minimum wage.

* Generally, you might want to think about doing some managing of expectations of others. This isn't to say everything or anything that's happened to you is your fault, it's just a skill that can help in the workplace.

* "I've consistently stepped up to take on more work when others have suddenly quit. I've done far, far more than my fair share" Be careful and strategic about taking on more than you can do in a normal workweek. Stepping up is admirable, and when you do it as an opportunity to achieve something more for yourself or just to bear more of the necessary weight in a community of people you care about, it can be rewarding. But in workplaces -- even non-toxic workplaces, sometimes -- you're an industrial input into a profit making machine, you're one truss rod in a structure that is constantly trying to accommodate as much load as possible. The system will try pile on as much as it can while giving as little as possible in return. When you're deciding whether or not to take step up and do something more, do it incrementally, try to set expectations for what you plan to accomplish carefully, and watch how you're recognized when you succeed (or coached when you're struggling). If you don't get the recognition or experience you want out of it, be that much more cautious about doing it in the future. And only extend yourself beyond normal working hours if it's something you're doing for yourself.

* "I've had people yell in my face in the middle of the office over mistakes that weren't actually of my doing, and when it later came to light that I wasn't the one responsible, no apology has ever been given" Sometimes people are ashamed about this kind of thing, as they should be, so ashamed they won't seek you out to give an apology. If you can brush it off and everyone knows how things really went, you probably don't need to worry much bout this. If you can't brush it off -- and nobody likes being yelled at, so it can be hard to -- it might help for you to stand up for yourself by prompting the offending party. Maybe something like: "I think we all understand now that when you yelled at me over problem x that was pretty out of line considering causes y & z. An apology would be nice. More importantly, though, I we can be much more restrained and constructive in discussion and avoid scenes like that when working through problems in the future." That sets an expectation of how you want to be treated. Even if you don't get an apology (whether out of shame, busyness, or because the offending party is a sociopath), you can use that expectation as a line in the future, where if there's any more yelling, you can recognize these are people who won't respect others and you need to leave (or you can come back with "first, no matter what the issue is here, we talked about this, the way you're expressing the problem is unacceptable and unprofessional, second, remember problem x where you did this same thing and turned out to be totally wrong?").

* "When, yet again, another person quit, and I was volunteered to take over their responsibilities" If you're not in a position to just say "no, that won't be possible" (and many people aren't these days), then it's important to learn to register protest: "You had two people doing my job and Quitter's job for a reason. Quitter may have also quit because he couldn't do everything involved in his job. There is no way you can reasonably expect me to do everything on my plate *and* Quitter's to. If you give me Quitter's responsibilities, I will have to prioritize and let some things simply go undone, and it will not be my fault, it will simply be the reality of how things work when you try to get one person to do more than one job." If that doesn't faze the people who are making the decision, and particularly if it doesn't set their expectations and they end up in any way accusing or huffy about how things fall out later down the line, you know it's not your fault and it's a sign to get out.

* "I later found out that other's refused to work under me." Of anything you've said, this is possibly the only real red flag I'd do some digging on. It may be nothing, just typical workplace fog of war, or it might be jealousy. If you know *anything* about why, though, maybe some reflection would be useful. Do it looking for things to improve on in the future, though, rather than as something to beat yourself up over.

* "I was instead told to do all of the work of leading the team, but that I wouldn't have any kind of say over anything" This is another "register protest" situation (where you can't just flat out say, "no, that's not possible, I'll stick with my current position"). "You're asking me to fill leadership role without the capacity for making decision calls. That's an ineffective and no-win situation."

* "Sixty and seventy hour weeks for no extra pay over the forty hours in the contract." It's usually not a good idea to consistently work over forty hours a week, unless it's either for *you* (you're doing work you want to have done or you're in pursuit of a likely personal reward), or unless it's temporary (less than 3 weeks), occasional, and focused on a specific reasonable milestone. If you feel you have to do it in order to fit in, that's likely a sign of a toxic culture. If you feel obligated to do it in order to pick up slack, that's definitely a sign of a toxic culture. Your responsibility is to either draw a reasonable line, or find a way to get yourself out.
posted by weston at 11:03 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]


I dunno, man, it looks like you are actually asking us to tell you that you aren't the asshole. It also looks like you're simultaneously screwing up the courage to hear the news that you're the asshole, if in fact that's the case.

First of all, I only have your side of the story so I'm gonna take that at face value. Taking your story at face value, you know that you are not the asshole and that you've been working with some really toxic people. You need to own it if that's what you think.

I know that our culture tells us that "if you have the same problem repeatedly in different settings, then you are the problem" - well, that can be helpfully true on an interpersonal level, but it isn't applicable to all problems. If, as a woman, I have (say) a complaint about men always staring at my boobs, I'm not gonna conclude that "oh well, this happens everywhere I go, I guess it's my problem for having boobs."

So no, I doubt that you're the asshole here, but what you are doing is broadcasting victimhood in every line of your narrative. For one thing, as I've already mentioned, the very premise of your question: "I keep getting victimised, so I must be the asshole." Yeah, maybe, depending on what details you left out; your narrative is confusing, as ook points out. Or maybe you're assuming responsibility for things you know to be beyond your control.

You are in a workplace where you're not paid for more than 40 hours a week but you were voluntarily working 30 more for no extra pay. This has not been appreciated, yet you have continued to do it, and you haven't attempted to set boundaries or renegotiate the terms of your employment to reflect the level of responsibility you're taking on.

You are reprimanded for others' mistakes, and instead of saying "that was not my mistake" you wait for contrary evidence to "come to light".

You're regularly screamed at in front of the whole office, and instead of quitting you stay in that workplace even though others have quit it abruptly.

Maybe you haven't done these things because you know they wouldn't turn out well and might even make matters worse. Fair enough, there's no sense fighting a losing battle. But, back up a bit and read the end of that sentence.

Others have quit it abruptly. Because they knew there was something better out there for them to go to. Apparently, you don't know this.

The biggest problem, from the sounds of it, is that you are not setting boundaries, not standing up for yourself, and not removing yourself from toxic situations when it becomes apparent that they are toxic.

I am not saying these things that are happening are your fault. There are groups of very negative people who won't be reasonable no matter how effectively you set boundaries and assert yourself. In that case, the way to deal with them is to leave them. But you won't do this if you even half believe that people like this are all that's out there. And you will half believe it if you've had this many bad experiences.

This is because you get what you put up with. Again, I am not saying you are the problem because you put up with it. I am saying that I think you believe these people are the problem, or at least the main problem, so you need to own that and firmly resolve that from now on, you won't tolerate disrespect and you'll remove yourself from the influence of negative groups.

You also mention that you think of a coworker as a "friend". No coworker is a "friend". If I had to pick one thing that improved my professional life, it was drawing a hard boundary between my personal and professional lives.

I know it's natural to turn to a friendly person after something bad happens at work, but here's another way to look at it: Ann gets yelled at in public by Bob, who controls their career and livelihood. Ann goes to Charlotte, whose career and livelihood is also controlled by Bob, and complains about Bob. Now Charlotte can get into trouble. Here's how: Ann is asking Charlotte to agree that certain negative statements about Bob are true. If Ann were malicious (and I realise this probably didn't occur to you since you probably aren't malicious) they might then go around telling people that *Charlotte* said these negative things about Bob, or at least agreed with them. Either way, Charlotte is getting roped into a conflict of interest and triangulated against somebody else in the office, and if Charlotte gives you what seems like an unsupportive response, it may simply be that she doesn't want to get involved in that kind of dynamic. It wouldn't be personal on her part, it would just be Charlotte trying to get safely through the day and collect a pay check, and she may feel bad about it but still be unwilling to get into a conflict of interest. Workplaces like you describe have factions and stoolpigeons and are not good places to find people to confide in. If you need to talk about something that's happening in the office, talk to Bob directly or talk to an actual friend who's not connected to your workplace.

You need to leave (you are leaving), and you also need to learn to speak and act with power. Off the top of my head, I recommend nononsenseselfdefense.com, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour, and The Nice Factor Book by Robin Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb. Those will do for a start.
posted by tel3path at 11:04 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]


re; capricorn's thoughts about your wife....speaking as someone who always tries to help/discuss rather than comfort (I try to see every problem as an opportunity for growth, and work to tailor myself to accommodate reality rather than vice versa), I think it's unlikely she'll be able, constitutionally, to soothe you when she sees you as in the wrong.

Furthermore, you've been soothing yourself in the wrong for a long time, it seems, and it appears that you want to stop doing that, and face reality. So this seems like a real good wife for the task, just so long as she's flexible enough in her perspective of you to recognize and adjust to the possibility of change.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:06 AM on January 24


FWIW, there are several cases where someone left a team I was on and I privately thought "Oh sh*t, that person is one of the only reasons this bucket of bolts holds together". But I did not say this out loud. It's not a comment that would reflect well on the rest of the team and I didn't want it to get around that I said that. Besides, in several cases I felt like the person in question was doing what was truly best for them, so I wanted to focus on giving them a cheery sendoff, rather than ending with some sort of guilt trip.

That doesn't address the rest of your points, but I just wanted to point out that there might be reasons other than the ones you're thinking of why you didn't get this type of response to your departure.
posted by shattersock at 11:16 AM on January 24


You don't sound like an asshole, you sound like a doormat, and doormats are easily replaced. So, it's unlikely that your leaving would generate responses from coworkers in the sympathetic vein you seem to expect.

The only suggestion I can give is the same advice I give anyone about any job: don't take it personally, don't give more than you are paid to give, and never assume that a coworker is a friend, no matter how much evidence appears to the contrary. I don't always follow my own advice, but every personal problem I've ever had in a workplace has come from breaking one of these rules.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:24 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]


Oh, and since you're actually asking for coping strategies, not feedback on what really happened to you: I once had a really traumatic experience in which a supervisor said some things about my personality that upset me a lot, and in a situation where I was unable to leave (we were driving in a car and I couldn't get out). She commented that I was unfriendly and hard to get to know, and also said that "everyone who worked there" thought the same and that they were all discussing these defects of mine, which upset me especially because I thought I was on good terms with one coworker in particular and it undermined my whole sense of social awareness if he really found me so off-putting.

I coped by

-- mentioning the feedback to a past mentor of mine, who was able to give her perspective (namely, that an introverted personality was being misread by an extreme extrovert)

-- checking directly with my friend-coworker, getting verification that he didn't think these things about me, that they were not in fact common department gossip, and that he also considered the supervisor's feedback to be out of line

-- completing the rest of my job time (mercifully only a few weeks) as politely but distantly as possible, then avoiding further contact with that supervisor and never asking her for recommendations again

-- telling the story to a couple of friends who could be trusted to sympathize with me and say WTF! several times, thereby also reminding myself that I have assorted friends and therefore my supposed personality deficiencies were probably not so bad as depicted by my supervisor

-- LATER (this is important, I needed some time to get over the sensation of humiliation and just to get away from that place in general) -- sift through what she'd told me for only the specific instances of what I had done that she didn't like -- not the conclusions she'd drawn about me as a person, or the generalizations she'd made about my family and upbringing (yes, seriously), but just exactly what I said or did that was a problem -- and think about whether I wanted to change my habits in those areas, or whether I felt confident deciding that they were really her problem.

For example, I concluded that her wanting me to tell her more about my personal life was her problem -- she had a poor sense of work/life boundaries -- but her being offended that I didn't chat with her more when entering a common work space was at least partly my problem, as I tend to have a kind of businesslike demeanor when I'm concentrating on a task. That is not suitable for all office cultures, and it's good to be more self-aware about that and find ways to overcome it.

Every once in a while I think back to our conversation and still feel a little twinge of annoyance and embarrassment, but it's manageable and increasingly rare. And I feel reasonably confident that I've separated the actually useful feedback from the chaff.
posted by shattersock at 11:41 AM on January 24 [9 favorites]


You're more than likely not an arsehole, you're just working in a sick system. If this is something you've encountered a few times, that's okay, that happens too (speaking from experience).

And I've done what you've done which is to work extremely hard, take on more work than I can manage, and be really worried about why everyone seems to hate me. And the answer is - sick system.

Once you get out, all of that crap will lift. Once you get into a work environment that works for you, you will feel sooo much better. And you'll realise that the people around you were just products of the sick system. The sick system sees nothing bad that happens to other people, it doesn't speak up, it doesn't defend people, it has no friends, it gives no praise, it shows no concern, it yells at people for things they didn't do - it's a sick system and it cannot be changed.

And there are a lot out there. Just keep trying until you find one that isn't.

If you're in a sick system and you can't get out immediately, learn not to take on more work. Don't overextend yourself for something that is just going to bleed you dry and give you nothing in return. Cultivate your boundaries.
posted by heyjude at 11:58 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


You're being very dramatic. Do you have to be a hero or a villain? Can't you just be a mundane, ordinary person with weaknesses and strengths? Can't you just be, you know, a regular decent guy who tries hard but isn't perfect? Because that is overwhelmingly most likely what you are. Don't try to be a perfect superstar, and don't assume you're worthless if you aren't one. Is there possibly something other than work you can find validation from? I'm sure, somewhere in your past or present or future, you were someone's hero even if only for a moment. That can be enough.

Take a deep breath, a nap, a relaxing weekend, and try not to think too much about this job. Get a new job and try to set healthy boundaries this time so you don't feel like you're trying too hard for too little reward.
posted by quincunx at 12:37 PM on January 24 [7 favorites]


as much as I have tried to be a part of the solution, I'm very much a part of, if not the source of, the trouble, not just at this job, but pretty much going back through most of my professional career.

You have provided zero evidence for this. Do you have any?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:28 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


Everyone is both the main problem and the hero. How can that not be so when the person who most affects our work is us? So you're no different than any other person.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:13 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I think you should start taking people at their word. If your contract is for forty hours, work forty hours. If a job is somebody else's responsibility, don't do that job. If you're not supposed to be a group leader, don't be group leader. I think you're way overstepping your bounds, and then getting upset when people don't appreciate it. Dude, they don't appreciate it, because you're overstepping! They *want* those boundaries, and you aren't respecting that.

Your overstepping is probably causing the people around you to compensate by trying to harsh, hard-line boundaries with you. So of course you're going to get a lot of people being guarded and stiff around you (ie, enforcing their boundaries), not a lot of people letting their boundaries down to pat your hand and sooth you and wish you wouldn't go. That doesn't mean that they don't like you, it means you're terrible at respecting boundaries and they're wary. Similarly, I would guess that people don't want to work under you because you micromanage and stress and don't give them the space they'd need, either. Again, it's not that you're a terrible person, but being around someone who's bad with boundaries is exhausting and infuriating -- it sucks the air out of the room -- and it can be hell to be under a person like that. This stuff isn't about you being a good or bad *person,* this is about you having a PITA *behavior* that you should change. That's doable, happens to everybody, not a catastrophe.

So, if overstepping boundaries is really that PITA behavior that you should change, what can you do?

-- Listen to what people are telling you and *believe* them. Take people at their word.

-- Don't push yourself into relationships/tasks/positions that don't involve you. That means not trying to work above your pay grade, not undermining your co-worker's position as leader, not trying to do all the work all the time -- giving other people the space to fulfill their own responsibilities and live their own lives.

-- Don't pull extra people into relationships/tasks/roles that aren't theirs. That means not casting your co-workers/supervisor in the role of "friends" and then getting upset when they don't act like friends, and not involving your wife in your co-worker drama.

-- Own your shit. You aren't a leaf caught in the wind, buffeted by fate. You aren't a martyr or a victim. You're a person with agency, and you're responsible for you -- except that right now, instead of taking responsibility and owning your own life, you're pushing that responsibility off onto the people around you. That's a heavy, unfair burden and they don't want it. That doesn't mean they hate you and you suck, that means you're not being fair, so start being fair. An example of owning your shit would be, instead of sulking that people aren't sorrowful enough over your decision to quit, tell people that you're going to miss them and that you're sad to go. If you're feeling sad, own that you're sad, don't sit around wishing that *other* people would be sad *for* you.

-- Along with that, take action to change a situation rather than ruminating over the situation -- be more active, less passive. If something is going down that you don't like, your choices are: 1. leave 2. say something 3. go along to get along. Bitching to your wife about it until she snaps at you not to be a child isn't a viable option. Creating a victim narrative out of it isn't a viable option. So just make your choice out of the options that *are* viable, and move on.
posted by rue72 at 2:41 PM on January 24 [19 favorites]


I can't agree with rue72 enough.
posted by azalea at 3:37 PM on January 24


Apart from your workplace being a sick system, which is a real possibility, I get the sense that office politics may not come naturally to you (I am the same) and you have suffered for it (because you say this has happened most of your career).

My impression is that deep down, you might believe the world is (or should be) just, and that hard work is (or should be) rewarded. In my experience, these beliefs have not been borne out by reality.

If you have been working long weeks, I wonder if you also have been setting high performance standards for yourself, at least, and perhaps for others; if this is true, I wonder whether these standards might have been too high for the context (what others think is acceptable).

Having - taking on - a lot of responsibility, when you don't have the resources to meet it, and you don't have control over outcomes is the exact recipe for stress.

If you are maybe idealistic, sensitive, and stressed, it might be that you have been unknowingly leaking some of the last, and not picked up on how others have responded (maybe, because of stress). And none of that would make you an awful person.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:00 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


Having worked with a few people whose eventual departure I did not mourn, almost none were actually assholes. One thing that they had in common was a different sense about what was important in our mission or our jobs from mine/the rest of the organization's. Often they would be frustrated and angry, feeling that they "had to do everyone else's job", whereas the rest of us were doing what we felt WAS the job and they were spending loads of time on tasks the rest of us considered non-essential.

The main thing that's making me bring this up is the long hours you say you put into this job. Almost every time I've heard someone complain about how much more time they put in than anyone else, my internal response has been "you wouldn't have to spend so much time if you would just do the job like everyone else." That person was making things hard on themselves by insisting on doing things their way, which generally came with a side helping of The Rest of You are Doing It Wrong. If you wanted to work together with that person on a project, you had to do it Their Way which meant you had to put in their hours, so of course no one wanted to work with them.

Maybe this is you or maybe it isn't, but when you have some perspective away from this position perhaps you can look at what you were doing that took so much time and was yet so unappreciated.
posted by five toed sloth at 5:15 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I agree with some of the above that only finding assholes everywhere probably means that there is a problem, but it doesn't mean that the problem is that you're an asshole or that the only problem is with you. You know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions? It sounds like you fell into a death spiral of being not just a hero in your own story but also a hero at work. The top articles about this are all software development oriented, but it applies in other fields, too. Heros are usually good people, people who are really passionate about what they're doing, who believe deep down that what they're doing is important. The problem is that it's not sustainable and it makes normal employees look/feel bad in comparison (not intentionally on the hero's part). But, look, a lot of people have been there. A lot of times that story ends poorly, but then you get to go on and work on a new story and now you know what to look for and how to avoid it. Therapy to help you sort it out and a lot of work on forgiving yourself, recognizing your limitations, and working on recognizing when this starts happening before it gets out of control.
posted by anaelith at 5:51 PM on January 26


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