"That's what you get, now fix it."
March 7, 2010 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Am I experiencing "bully feelings"? I feel like slapping my coworker for being so insecure.

I'm sure I come off as a total bitch with that headline, but please note I do not plan on acting on my feelings, I'd just like to understand them better.

I have been working with this woman for a year now, she is in her mid 30s and has extremely low self esteem. It's just me and her in a small team of two, so we are working together very closely. Our personalities are very different, probably polar opposites. She doesn't believe in her own abilities despite being brilliant at everything she does. She is a complete doormat and will let people walk all over her. If someone shat all over her she would probably politely thank them and ask if there's anything else she can do for them today, and then go to the bathroom to have a cry. If, in a month, she has aced 999 tasks and failed one, she will cry and beat herself up over the one failed task. I, on the other hand, am borderline cocky - I know my strengths and I use them.

I started off by feeling sorry for her. Despite being 10 years her junior I felt like taking her under my maternal wing. I'm pretty sure her lack of confidence originates in past bullying, both at school and by family, and I realise that this is a deep and complex issue which I have respect for. I have not asked her too much about it. I have tried to offer her my support and encouragement, but she will brush off my efforts, which is somewhat annoying but fine. I understand I am not in a position to "save" her in any way, she'll need some hardcore professional therapy for that, but I have let her know that I am there for her and will also automatically stand up for her in situations where she's incapable of doing so herself.

However, I am now finding that her behaviour is starting to infuriate me. The "poor me I'm a victim" aura isn't evoking nurturing feelings in me anymore, I'm "over it" and it's hampering our work. It makes me feel like if she can't stand up for herself and grow some balls, she deserves to be shat all over, and it almost pleases me when that happens because "that's what you get, now fix it". I know how bad that sounds... I realise that my reactions are unhelpful at best and harmful at worst, they scare me a little bit, and will not tell/show her how I feel - but it leaves me wondering, is this how bullies feel? What am I experiencing here? Why am I so cold all of a sudden?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I understand I am not in a position to "save" her in any way, she'll need some hardcore professional therapy for that, but I have let her know that I am there for her and will also automatically stand up for her in situations where she's incapable of doing so herself.

Stop standing up for her. It doesn't help either of you. One reason she's able to continue behaving the way she does is that you shield her from some of the negative consequences of that behavior. And don't offer your support unless you're asked for it. As altruistic as those kinds of behaviors feel, they're both based in this feeling of wanting to "save" someone.

However, I am now finding that her behaviour is starting to infuriate me. The "poor me I'm a victim" aura isn't evoking nurturing feelings in me anymore, I'm "over it" and it's hampering our work. It makes me feel like if she can't stand up for herself and grow some balls, she deserves to be shat all over, and it almost pleases me when that happens because "that's what you get, now fix it". I know how bad that sounds... I realise that my reactions are unhelpful at best and harmful at worst, they scare me a little bit, and will not tell/show her how I feel - but it leaves me wondering, is this how bullies feel? What am I experiencing here? Why am I so cold all of a sudden?

BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES. As I think you can sense, this is your problem, not hers--just like it's her problem, not yours, she's (too?) sensitive and has poor self-esteem. I think the best path to take in this sort of situation is to detach from--not let yourself become invested in--her feelings and reactions. Stop reacting. Let her say what she wants to say. But recognize that her saying that she thinks she's a failure isn't some command or order that you have to respond to. You work together. Do your work; expect her to do hers. If she wants your help, she'll ask for it. Because it sounds to me like however she's behaving--it's working for her, somehow, some way. Stop getting drawn into it.
posted by liketitanic at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

A perennial favorite of mine. Skip the top block.
posted by rhizome at 11:34 AM on March 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

You're witnessing something that is stressful for you, over and over again. You are powerless to stop it.

That is why you are upset. You want her to change so that you don't have to witness her humiliation and pain (inflicted by herself and by others). You're not a sadist, you find it distressing, and you want to avoid it.

Completely normal reaction which is actually based in empathy. Look up burnout for another angle.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

No, you're not feeling the way a bully feels. You're legitimately frustrated. Taking someone under your wing in an exceptionally nasty situation is a kindness. Doing so regularly, in what should be normal, everyday situations, is just enabling. She likes what you're doing in response to her insecure behaviors, so you're effectively training her to continue. As above, stop it.

When you first stop it, she will spend some time acting even more insecure in an unconscious effort to get you to react the way you used to. Be ready for that.

(PushPushPush. This button used to work so well, dammit! What's wrong with it? PushPushPushPush...)
posted by jon1270 at 11:59 AM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding the relationship with empathy.

Also, seeing expressions of disgust on another's face can set off the feeling of disgust in the viewer. If she is feeling pathetic, as you describe, she may also be feeling disgusted by herself, which may stimulate a mirror response in you. Simulation theory of empathy.
posted by mireille at 12:04 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

My experience has been.. getting angry like that out of a sense of futility. Like they're going to find a way to feel bad and victimized no matter what you do. So if you go out of your way and work extra hard to try and protect them and then they're still all "woe is me," it's exhausting. It's particularly exhausting if, once they figure out that you're sympathetic, they complain to you endlessly about everyone and everything else that has victimized them, as if you're responsible for fixing it & generally responsible for their state of mind. I agree that this is stressful especially for those of us with a little too much empathy..

(Have relatives who do this, the victim thing. Probably have done this myself more than I'd like to admit, though trying not to.)

And frankly sometimes the tough love approach might help? Might. As in, flat out telling somebody "you need to stand up for yourself," and when they're going on again about being victimized, telling them "I've had enough, you need to stand up for yourself. I can tell you how to do it but I won't do it for you."
posted by citron at 12:25 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would put your co-worker in the "emotional vampire" category. Sometimes when one feels helpless one feels like if they give voice to that emotion, it will make things better. If there is someone in your life who tries to make things better for you then that can be even more satisfying. However, some of these problems really cannot be solved by outside parties (in fact, few of our deepest issues can be solved by simply sharing them with a buddy). So, the emotional vampire goes back to the source again and again, seeking validation/commiseration/pity and as long as the source keeps giving it, they are locked into an unhealthy cycle that benefits neither of them too greatly.

It is *very* infuriating to be on the blood-letting side of a relationship. You have to break the cycle by not being responsive to these come-ons. And after that tactic has been employed for some time I think you should also push back. Said in a tart, no-nonsense voice: "Seriously? You did a great job, quit feeling so sorry for yourself. Buck up, little camper, we have work to do."

Best case scenario, your co-worker realizes that they are working against themselves and makes steps to change it. Second best case scenario, co-worker gets hit by a bus and you don't have to work with them anymore!*

*I kid, I kid.
posted by amanda at 12:31 PM on March 7, 2010

This person is an emotional vampire. It's exhausting to try and help those who refuse to help themselves. She's taking your energy and expending none herself. The only solution to this is to build strong boundaries. Her problems are her own, you've tried to help, now it's up to her. There's nothing wrong with having sympathy for this person, but when it crosses the line into pity, and then into disgust, you know that the relationship is unbalanced and that you should step away.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:40 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sometimes had these feelings toward certain clients when I was their therapist and supposedly even better equipped to deal with this sort of thing than the average person. Watching helplessness can be maddening. One thing to consider is that this is working for her in some way. Not well, mind you, but it is a coping skill she is proficient in, and it is getting her needs at least minimally met.

I don't have a lot of advice to offer on how you can deal, other than repeating the advice about good boundaries, but maybe it will make you feel a little less of a "bitch" to know that even trained professionals sometimes feel like kicking a doormat in the ass.
posted by thebrokedown at 1:55 PM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agreeing that setting boundaries and being a bit tougher goes a long way. Meaning, ignore (calmly, without anger) the "poor, me" stuff and other inappropriate acting out, engage positively with appropriate behavior/work product, focus on tasks and next steps. Try to demonstrate that you are not mean/abusive, but that you are not interested in indulging her. Practice feeling okay with letting there be silence (for example, in response to a statement by her, or tears), or practice simple statements such as: "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, it doesn't seem very helpful." Or, "Okay, well, let me know when you're ready to talk about [project X]." "I don't think I can help you with that, but let me know when you want to discuss [task Y], I'm looking forward to it." The more you are able to protect yourself from going down her rabbit hole, the less angry you may feel. Basically, what everyone else is saying.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:04 PM on March 7, 2010

I have been on both sides of this situation. I would say that the answer to your question is yes -- you are feeling "bully feelings." You have expressed strong contempt for this woman, and I do believe bullies feel contempt for those they victimize.

This doesn't mean you're naturally a bully, though. This seems situationally triggered by your frustration that she doesn't change even with your support. This happened to me once too. Someone in my life whined incessantly and I grew cold toward them almost overnight. They weren't a bad person and neither was I, but we were stuck in a horrible pattern. I had to end the relationship. It was a real effort not to shake them and shout at them to stop thinking they were a victim, and it was only because I'd been through similar things that I had the empathy not to do so. (By all accounts the person is doing better now, so obviously part of the problem was my enabling them.)

I do find it commendable that you recognize the bullying feelings your co-worker is triggering in you, and that you have the self-control not to act on those feelings. You are correct in assuming that to do so would be counterproductive. You're right, too, when you say that she doesn't really deserve to be shat all over. People caught up in victim mentality just take this as proof of their victimhood.

At this point it seems like you have invested time and effort in trying to help this woman, and it seems wasted. It may be true that you have been enabling her and that she's just trying to get attention, as others have suggested. However, there may be another reason why she can't get over her habitual self-negation.

Being bullied creates trauma, and can lead to post-traumatic stress, especially if the bullying occurred in childhood and was committed by a parent. Post-traumatic stress can cause a person to be trapped in reactive emotional patterns -- flashbacks, if you will -- that they cannot change even if they try. I think my former partner did have issues like this, and I did as well. Earlier in life, I was more of the victim type, and "hardcore therapy" helped me get past it.

In my experience, realizing I had grown up to be a target for bullying and scapegoating made me learn how to hide my low self-esteem to some extent. But it wasn't until I went into therapy specifically for traumatic flashbacks that I really began to heal and truly stop being a target. I have had great success with a technique called EMDR, focusing on childhood verbal abuse.

I don't know how comfortable you would be suggesting to this woman that she get help, but it really sounds like she needs it. It seems like she is turning to you, and probably other people in her life, for the kind of help only a trained professional can give.

Of course, she may be so down on herself that she would perceive such a suggestion as criticism. Years ago, when a friend suggested to me that I get therapy, they made the suggestion by telling me it had helped them in the past. If they had come off in any way superior, I would have been hurt and angry.

For yourself, the best thing is to detach emotionally from the situation. You don't have any control over her, and you have done what you can to help, to the point where you got burnt out. If you use the "toughlove" approach on someone who may have been verbally abused in the past, it will backfire.

I agree with the people who said you should stop standing up for her, though. Continuing will reinforce in her mind that she can't stand up for herself. It's not good for either of you. Also, if you feed her rumination about her "failures" with too much sympathy, it will reinforce to her that these are indeed big deals that she should be ashamed of.

Do you think you could detach emotionally but with compassion, and kindly but firmly let her know that you believe in her abilities on the job, and her power to become assertive, and suggest that if she has verbal/emotional abuse in her past that she try EMDR? And could you assertively, not angrily, let her know that you feel frustrated and that you have given all the help you can, without becoming cold? Maybe you could address the "emotional vampirism" aspect by telling her you feel drained when you give too much of yourself. Being assertive with her now will stop you from snapping at her later.

Also, remember that your relationship is primarily a professional one. If you can't get out of your unhealthy pattern, is there any way you could change the dynamic of your work team? Get a new partner, add a third person to the team, change the way you work together?
posted by xenophile at 2:05 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have exactly the same problem. I sometimes worry myself with how much I want to grab and shake people who I feel are not only not helping themselves, but also continually stressing how much their emotional needs aren't being met, how much they feel they are being disappointing, how empty they feel despite [what I consider to be] quite a lot of positive reinforcement. I feel that if I act out this frustration in any way [obviously not shaking someone, but just an exasperated "comes OFF it"] then I'm sort of perpetuating their underdog I-am-bullied/antagonized feelings, whether rightly or wrongly. I certainly haven't gotten terribly far in working this out, but here are a few things that have helped me a little

1. realizing that sometimes when I'm super pissed off it's because, hey, things are tough for me too and I sometimes WISH I could just mope and be mopey and still, I don't know, keep my job, maintain my friendships, whatever. I don't know about you, but for me there's a tinge of jealousy because I often wish I could not be so competent, fuck up once in a while, whatever [in real life, i can but I often feel pressure to perform well, at high levels, whatever]
2. realizing that my involvement with this sort of thing is voluntary. While I may not be able to stop working with these people, it's totally okay and appropriate to not engage with the pity party aspect of it. I get this a lot in the computer-teaching world, people have all sorts of issues with their computers, only some of which are technical. I tell people flat out, "I can not help you with the emotional aspects of this problem, and I won't, but I'll come back when you want to fix your email" It works okay. I feel bad still but better about not engaging.
3. Just sometimes a flat "I can't do anything about that" response to the super mope stuff is decent. I mean you can't do anything about her going off to cry, but you can politely say "your responses to this are disproportionate to the problem and I can't help you with them." Not that it will be useful to her necessarily but it makes it clear that you're not going to share this particular interaction with her and that you think it is, at some level, outside of the normal range.

As someone who has always been a little ... non-traditional or what-have-you, I've found that it can be useful to have an idea of normative behavior so that you can draw your own boundaries appropriately. I too share your distaste of people who are, to my mind, in appropriately submissive in a situation where it's necessary to be at least somewhat assertive. It brings out the GRAR in me in a way that most other personal interactions do not. For yourself, you have to be assured that there is a difference between having these feelings and acting out on them. I've found personally that lowering my affect til it's almost not there at all "I can not help you with this" can at least keep things from escalating as far as my interactions with them go.
posted by jessamyn at 2:09 PM on March 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

You're discovering the secret power of professional Victimhood. There are real victims and they deserve support and compassion, and then there are Victims, the people who make sure sympathetic people know how much they are suffering and feed off their sympathy. Careful - Victimhood is contagious - pretty soon everyone around this person will start feeling victimized by her Victimhood. That's when things blow up.

Capital V Victims deserve support and compassion too, but it takes a really different form. This is the kind of compassion that knows that this person has to find her way in the world, playing with the cards she was dealt. Those cards may be truly heartbreaking, or not, but you need to back off your wish to fix her. She may need fixing, but you aren't the person to do it. I try to engage with these people with humor for their foibles, and curiosity and appreciation for their efforts.
posted by jasper411 at 2:17 PM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

The woman is there to teach patience and empathy. She is in a lot more pain than you are.

you may need to resolve the work situation with one of the above posters' suggestions, but the feelings can perhaps be mitigated by patience and empathy.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:21 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like to offer a different perspective, which will sound harsh at first but please read through: It's because of your cockiness (as you put it).

You are in your mid-twenties. As such, you have 10 years less (life and work) experience than your coworker -- who is in an equal position with you at work. Despite that, you want to help her, teach her. But, she's not learning so in that goal, you are failing. People who are cocky do not do well with failure, and sometimes look to blame others for the failing. In this case, it's pretty easy -- blame the person who never asked to be taught or changed, blame the person who will take blame (too) easily. If you blame her, you never have to blame yourself.

If you think this might be true, then the solution might be to stop trying to change someone when that is not your job and you've not been asked to do it. Remove that responsibility from yourself.
posted by Houstonian at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think your reaction is justified. What if instead of treating herself this way, it was directed at another person? I don't think you get to be abusive to yourself just because you're you. Kant's categorical imperative tells us not to make an exception of ourselves, so what she's doing is possibly even outright immoral. And even though we think it's always required to treat other people decently, we think treating yourself the same way is optional.

The situation is complicated because she is both victim and victimizer, but your reaction fits - you simultaneously hate the victimizer and feel sorry for the victim.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:55 PM on March 7, 2010

Not disagreeing with anything that's been said so far, quite the opposite.

This does however remind me of something I read about pecking order amongst some breeds of birds. The birds that were lowest in the pecking order had to display submissive behaviour at all times, and the purpose of this was to behave as if they had already been killed "no need to kill me..." The slightest sign of self-assertion could have provoked a fatal attack, so the constant displays of submission were how they survived.

Maybe this woman was traumatized into submission by events that happened in childhood, but she could also be under the influence of things that happened last week.

Of course her behaviour is self-defeating in her interactions with you and no doubt many others. And maybe she is an emotional vampire, professional Victim, whatever and maybe her "poor me" behaviours bring her rewards. However it is also possible that there is some other force in her life that has responded to attempts at self-assertion with overwhelming threat so that she's now convinced that the victim role is the only one she can play and survive.

Of course you'd still do the same things to stop enabling her, as others have suggested above. I'm just proffering this because it may be true and it may also help you to be less angry with her. Or not.

Anyway, the next time she puts herself down, you could try saying "I'm not comfortable with that kind of talk. It's abusive." If she protests that she was talking about herself, you can say "that makes no difference. You wouldn't say that about anybody else, after all." And then avoid further explanation/discussion with, "look, please don't say such nasty things, I don't like it". Broken record if necessary.
posted by tel3path at 4:15 PM on March 7, 2010

Your not a bully. A bully would enjoy this situation.

Maybe this is just the way she operates in the world. Maybe she knows no other way, and has no idea the damage she does to herself and the people around her. But that seems unlikely. You can bet she has dealt with people far less patient than yourself many times in her life - and gotten the never wavering message that her behavior "isn't ok". Most people would, at some point, adjust per such feedback (subtle or otherwise) if, for no other reason, not to seem foolish.

But she hasn't. She's getting something from this (maybe she's a masochist, maybe it's satisfying for her to witness your disgust-- who knows?). Whatever it is, there's nothing you can do about it and it isn't your problem.

Your problem is that someone is irritating you at work and you can't escape it (or certainly you would). Be compassionate to her? Yes. Don't engage in her self pitying? Yes. But if it were me, I'd start taking steps (even little ones) to find work elsewhere.
posted by marimeko at 4:22 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought for a moment there you were at my place of employ! I work with someone like that as well and it IS infuriating. I spent about a year being sympathetic and encouraging and all kinds of things, sure that if she were just stroked enough, she'd see the light. hahahah what a fool I was. Why? Because, like several upthread have said, it works for her. (Not in a functional way, of course.) She loves being that way. It feeds her in some fashion.

Two things I noticed that helped me set better boundaries:

1) Many of her behaviors reminded me of myself about twenty years back - wanting attention and approval from men, especially. My "ugh, I was so like that and hated myself for it" buttons get pushed hard. this doesn't sound like your case but it's helped me step back a bit knowing that what was being stirred up was about ME and not so much her. (I call her my "Mirror")


2) I show her only the very slightest of interest in anything because if I seem to interested, she will glom onto me with all her stories and I'm just not into that level of friendship. So, I really detached from her, knowing that she will change when she feels that this is no longer working for her and maybe take some responsibility. It's not my work to help her.

I echo the comments about setting better boundaries for yourself and also looking at what in you keeps getting pinged by her helplessness. Good luck!
posted by Mysticalchick at 4:48 PM on March 7, 2010

I've listened to friends complain about "weak" friends who can't or won't stand up for themselves. Sometimes these "weak" friends complain to me later about the "strong" friends try to fix them when they don't want to be fixed. What I have noticed in listening to both sides is that there is a disconnect in how each side sees the issue. One side thinks there is a huge, glaring problem, and the other doesn't really care enough to fix it. You never mentioned whether or not she thinks her low self-esteem is a problem. If she doesn't, I think the reason you're angry may be that you can't get her to agree with you about whether or not standing up for oneself is worthwhile. She's not going to stand up for herself unless she agrees that it's important, and she obviously doesn't think it is. You haven't been able to convince her otherwise, either. So, when her attitude gets her into trouble, you feel validated about your worldview and satisfied that she's being punished for thinking the wrong thing.

Is this the way bullies think? I don't think so. You aren't trying to control her or hurt her for your own amusement.

You may benefit, though, from being more flexible in your thinking and remembering that while she acts like a child sometimes, she isn't one. She is not your responsibility. She is your colleague. Try to respect her for her abilities, if you can't respect her attitude.

I'm sorry if this comes off as harsh; I've been on both sides and I know it is really stressful to be around someone who is fragile and seemingly in need of care.
posted by millions of peaches at 7:59 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you have the best of intentions but really: you should mind your own business. You're not qualified to assess your co-worker's mental health nor is it your job to assess her work performance or caretake for her emotionally. If she's in some way impeding your ability to get your own work done then talk to your supervisor -- beyond that, you should stick to your own knitting. Seriously. Nothing you've written suggests that you're intimate friends, and in fact you say she "brushes off your efforts." So leave her alone.

I've often found that people who spend time worrying about their colleagues can be remarkably obtuse about their own issues. You might give some consideration to whether you've got a beam in your own eye, rather than expending so much energy on the mote in hers.
posted by Susan PG at 10:06 PM on March 7, 2010

I don't think they are bully feelings so much as the feelings of someone who is expecting more than reality will currently provide. You feel angry because the situation is out of your control. You want to take out your feelings on someone who may not know any better.

Neither you nor she are equipped to deal with what might be a lifetime of conditioning that makes her behave the way she does. The fact you want to slap her is proof positive of this; you are not the person who has the ability or knowledge to help her.

Good for you for realizing this.

Mentally, it may help you to wish her the best, while reminding yourself you are not the right person to "help" her.

"Helping" people in situations we don't understand can make beasts of us. In which case it calls to question our true intent. Ask yourself if you were truly interested in helping her as opposed to something else.
posted by thisperon at 2:32 AM on March 9, 2010

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