Mad Woman, [Sad] Woman, That's Just Who You Are
January 7, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my depressed coworker? I work with a woman who is nearing her 70s and she the most depressing person I know. She has a very negative attitude about everything. Talking to her depresses me! Bonus follow-up question about losing a child and grief.

She has had a hard life- divorce, dealing with the death of a child, and estrangement from one of her kids. I feel for her, but she depresses me so much. For instance, one day she mentioned that if she could go back to any age, she would be three again because that was the last time she was happy. She also told me that when a woman loses a child, she may smile again but she will never, ever be happy again. She can be mean, cutting, and sarcastic. She is the victim in every story; every previous manager she has ever had has put special effort into making life hellish for her.

How can I deal with her? In my retail job, we work in the same department and therefore I can't ignore her, because we are often near each other, our schedules usually line up, and I feel so guilty that her life sucks that the only times she has ever been directly inappropriate (two days before Christmas she told me that she would like to pick me up and throw me across the room because I asked her to do something she considers not part of her job description) I haven't told my boss, because he is younger than me and an idiot to boot and completely incapable of discipline, if that would even help. I wouldn't even know how to approach the problem, "Boss, tell her to stop being sad?" And I know she would know it was me, and then I would just have to deal with her anger as well. What is the best way to deal with such a negative person? Is it better to approach negative people with positive responses, negative responses, ignore her as best I can, argue with her pronouncements of the world, or something I haven't thought of at all?

I am also wondering if it is true that women who lose a child can never be happy again. Out of everything depressing she has ever said to me, that has stuck with me the longest, because I can't imagine never being able to improve my own situation. I realize, of course, that even if the answer is "every other woman got over the same thing" that this does not mean she must or can, but I am curious if it is true that that is only reason she is who she is. And given that she has these specific grief issues, is there anything special I should do to make our job more pleasant?
posted by jenlovesponies to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This previous question, about how to deal with people who are chronically gloomy/complainy, had lots of great ideas.
posted by Knicke at 12:05 PM on January 7, 2011

Is there anything special I should do to make our job more pleasant?

Get away from this woman. Change jobs if you need to. You can't make her happier. DTMFA or whatever the coworker equivalent is.
posted by pjaust at 12:05 PM on January 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Just smile and say "I feel for you. I am going to have pork chops for dinner" You really cannot help her. I have worked and still work with a person like this. You can try the distraction method, when she starts whining, say something like, "What beautiful weather we are having!" or "I just had the best lunch." Pretend you didn't hear her, be a ditz. Eventually she will leave you alone because she thinks you are dumb.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:11 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Losing a child is a terrible, terrible thing, it will be with you the rest of your life, and there will, forever, be moments, minutes, maybe hours of grief and loss that will wash over you and permeate everything you do, and everything you are.

But, that said, as for your question "if it is true that women who lose a child can never be happy again", the answer is that this is usually not true.

Eventually most people move forward, and, for much of their lives they find another focus other than that loss, and life returns to some sense of normal, they deal, somehow, with those moments of grief that will never go away.

However, like any event in a person's life, it molds the clay that is already there. If the loss happens to someone that is already depressed, already hurting, whose sense of life and self is weak, the impact will be very different than it would be for someone whose inner being is more positive and stronger.

I speak from experience on this.
posted by HuronBob at 12:12 PM on January 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

My opinion:

You should ignore most of her negativity and any snarky remarks she makes. She has gone through a lot and she is stuck in a state of self-pity. She wants people to feel sorry for her, but anyone who shows interest will be victims of her attacks.

You can just leave it at that and go on with your life. However, I'd put a some effort into trying to make her feel better. Smile at her, give her small gifts on holidays or just once in a while as a thoughtful gesture. Talk to her. Don't make it seem like you're going out of your way to do any of this.

I fear she won't ever change without drastic intervention. I doubt you're willing to go all Patch Adams, or if that's a good idea, so maybe you'll just be doing all this for your own sake. But this is all I can suggest using the information you've given.
posted by jykmf at 12:13 PM on January 7, 2011

Since my son died a year ago I find it extremely difficult to do anything that involves "normal" social gatherings where I'd be expected to talk in a "normally happy" state. The intense sadness is continually just under the surface, and pops into the foreground without warning more often than I'd imagined. I think that as HuronBob says most people find a way to get beyond that, but I can see the misery persisting for a long time, and it wouldn't surprise me to find some people never find happiness again.

However, it sounds as though the bitterness of your colleague is way beyond what grief brings, so your best course is probably to find another place to work, and in the meantime keep a mental umbrella open.
posted by anadem at 12:29 PM on January 7, 2011

Try neutral statements like "I don't know how to respond to that." or "I can't help you with that."

Both of these statements are true.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:35 PM on January 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

Oh --- and when she complains about others you can say "People can be so disappointing."

Which is also true.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:38 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the things I read about animal training in the context of positive vs negative reinforcement is that any kind of reaction fuels behavior, and non-reaction can sometimes starve it off. If they're doing it for a response and get nothing, they give up. You may not be able to get away from her given your particular setup at work, but I wonder if you could experiment with not reacting or responding in some of these situations where she's just spraying out gloom independent of any work issue. So she'd just out of nowhere say "I don't know why I bother with any of this, it's such a stupid waste," or whatever, and instead of feeling like you have to respond, you just keep doing what you're doing, no looks or words or indications that you've even heard it. If, after a while, she finds that you're not fertile ground for her seeds of woe, maybe she'll shut up or redirect them. She'll still be ugly in work-related things like the throwing comment, but maybe you can starve off the excess grief. And in the work-related exchanges, I agree with the others who say ignore it and stick to the practical aspects of the communication. "I'd like to throw you across the room," she says, and maybe you respond, "Thanks for your help. I'll keep an eye out for that email." And then you get back to what you're doing. She'll sit there and stew and fume and rage in her head and you can just leave her to it.

I think another essential thing will be to divorce yourself from any responsibility for her life. I think you have to cut her off in your head. This isn't a person worth dealing with or thinking about more than you have to. She's a negative drag on your life. Don't feel guilty for the state of her life. You're not responsible. You can be sympathetic in general and use her as an example of why to be thankful for your own life, but let go of any idea of keeping up with her life or doing what you can to console her. Be cordial, be professional, and be personally detached.

Good luck. We had a lady at my last job that just ranted all the time. She'd sit down at the lunch table and just dominate the conversation the whole time, complaining complaining complaining. She needed an audience. So we just stopped sitting down for lunch together, eating at other times, etc. It was a subtle message but also a practical step for the rest of us. We'd be cordial and professional but otherwise not ever engage her in non-work chat. She had to point that stuff somewhere else. Don't know where, don't care.
posted by Askr at 12:47 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

As for her grief: "Though I can't help you with that, maybe these folks can." Then give her the number for the local chapter of The Compassionate Friends. Maybe the emotional experience/validation there will drain some of her need to vent at work.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2011

I won't presume to speak on the grief involved with losing a child. However, I will note the following:

She claims she has not been happy since she was three. Yet she would have been much older than that when her child died. Loss of a child does not explain her unhappiness between the time between when she was four and when her child died. So her attitude is unlikely to be explained solely by the loss of her child, although it may be a factor.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:59 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think with this particular situation, I would go deeper in instead of trying to "game" your relationship with her. If you deepen your knowledge of her by being unfailingly friendly and asking about her life, then you might find that she has more dimensions than just sad and mad. On the other hand, you shouldn't let her say mean things to you in the workplace.
posted by yarly at 1:04 PM on January 7, 2011

She claims she has not been happy since she was three. Yet she would have been much older than that when her child died. Loss of a child does not explain her unhappiness between the time between when she was four and when her child died. So her attitude is unlikely to be explained solely by the loss of her child, although it may be a factor.

I quoted the above for truth.

I will add that we have close friends who lost a child, and one thing we've learned from them is to give anyone who has lost a child the chance to talk about the child.

You're either going to have to engage her fully or stand far away. If you choose the "engage her fully" approach, one bit of advice might be to try and engage her in conversation about her child.
posted by anastasiav at 1:10 PM on January 7, 2011

What is stopping you from confronting her directly?

"Coworker, for the last X months that we've worked together I've noticed that you seem obsessively preoccupied with sad and depressing things. As much as I feel for you, as I know you've been through a lot in the past few years, I need you to know that when all you do is complain and discuss how depressed you are, it ruins my day and makes it impossible for me to do my job. I am not your therapist, and I think that it is time that you looked into getting help. From now on, if you start a conversation with me that makes me uncomfortable, I will let you know, and I will leave the vicinity. I am not emotionally or professionally able to let you vent to me anymore. Additionally, if you make threats to me when I ask you to do something, I will report you to the highest level of management in our store that I can. You need help, and I wish I were able to provide you with the support that you need, but this is your life, not mine."

Then stick to it.
posted by patronuscharms at 1:20 PM on January 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

True, you can't entirely ignore her: you need to keep up basic interaction. But why do you "feel guilty that her life sucks"?

My dad once recommended that I see the displeased utterings of unhappy people as "sighs from the vault", unhappiness airing itself out without actually requiring anything from you in particular.

Once you manage to accept her moaning as no more than a sigh from the vault, once you cease putting pressure on yourself to make her happier, you will find it easier to deal with her.

Does she expect any particular reaction from you? If not, a serious nod and an "mhmmm" might do. If yes it will still do, but you'll have to expect resistance at first.

At any rate, work on your own behaviour and stop feeling like you owe her anything. The understanding she deserves is perfectly adequately expressed by your patient and calm acceptance of her moaning.

Does she expect any p
posted by Omnomnom at 2:20 PM on January 7, 2011

Is there an ethnic element to this behavior (e.g. she is from Russia or Eastern Europe, not to reinforce a stereotype)? Kvetching about everything is more normal in some cultures whereas Americans tend to regard it as pathological (annoying or a sign of emotional problems).
posted by bad grammar at 4:00 PM on January 7, 2011

I'm going to write this to help you.

Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for others in life is honor their choices. If she is in her 70's and this negative... eh. You can't change her or alter her experience or overall perspective. You. Can. Not.

It's nice that you want to help her somehow. But I caution you as you hold this urge, because sometimes for people like this the pay-off is making folks like you beholden to them somehow. It's probably subconscious on her part, but there you have it. Don't fall for it.

Honor that her view is intensely negative by acknowledging to yourself every time she tries to infect you with it that your view is different. Try responding with the neutral-but-true statements vitabellosi suggested above. Then think of something you are deeply appreciative for in your life and move on through the day.

PS. Saying she wanted to throw you across the room is an escalation of sorts. She's looking for a way into your psyche (again, probably subconsciously.) Don't be afraid to at least mention it to a superior if it happens again. Or whatever seems appropriate to you. Just letting you know that wasn't acceptable on any level, either personal or professional.
posted by jbenben at 5:16 PM on January 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

anadem and HuronBob, thank you for sharing your experiences.

Omnomnom, I have no idea why she makes me feel guilty. Her life is terrible; mine is not. I suppose it comes down to that. Some sort of urge, inborn or socialized into me to please other people.

jbenben, thank you for pointing out that I probably can't change her. I don't want her in my brain, and I need to protect myself against that.
posted by jenlovesponies at 5:53 PM on January 7, 2011

It literally can't be true that women who lose a child will never be happy again. Having a child die has been such an incredibly normal thing, through all of human history - and many of those children's mothers went on to celebrate at their other children's weddings, etc. It's either an incredibly narrow definition of 'happy' or, more likely, an incredibly miserable worldview.
posted by Lady Li at 7:26 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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