I'm attracted to a new co-worker, it's making me act all stupid, and there's no escape. Halp!
October 10, 2011 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm attracted to a new co-worker, it's making me act all stupid, and there's no escape. What techniques or strategies can I use to turn myself back into a sensible adult when I'm around her?

My job isn't run of the mill. A whole bunch of us live and work in what amounts to a community, and as such, there's little escape from each other. We all live in little more than dorm rooms, we all eat together, and more often than not, play together. It's hard to get some time away from the compound, except on the weekends.

It took some getting used to this way of life at the start, and although it's not what I would call ideal, I think for the sake of a year's contract, it's manageable for me. Well, I thought it was, until this new coworker turns up here. Let's call her Charlotte.

Here, a little context is necessary. In the past few years I haven't been altogether sensible or rational in the relationships I've chosen to pursue. For example, possibly the most important thing I would look for in a wife is that she is someone with whom I can have a properly intelligent conversation, for hours on end. Previous girlfriends haven't even come close to being able to do this. Additionally, even though it is super important to me, I've dated girls without the same faith as mine. By my own standards, I've not been all that grown up about dating.

Charlotte's arrival here has put me rather out of sorts. She shares the same faith and she most definitely could talk me under the table. I know that there are many things we have in common, and that our backgrounds and values are similar. What I am trying to figure out is, how do I stop myself from turning into stupid incarnate around her?

When a bunch of us are playing board games together, instead of trying to enjoy the company and the game, I get ultra-competitive and try to beat Charlotte, and everyone else, at all costs. Of course, it does not help that Charlotte is also ultra-competitive, too, but competition does not bring out the best side in me. In the past, I've played a lot of board games though, and never had problems with being competitive. With her around, if I don't win, I get snarky and sulky.

It's the same thing with discussions. Charlotte and I tend to argue over things of common interest, and again, I somehow turn into my moody teenage self if I'm not the victor. It doesn't matter if the argument eventually dissolves into absurdity: winning does.

I would like to think that avoiding Charlotte for the sake of not turning into a 13 year old was a viable option. However, the trouble with community living means that at some point within the next 8 hours we are going to cross paths. I will want to hang out with mutual friends too, as part of a larger group too, and she's going to be around. So it seems the best solution is to figure out how to not act so stupidly around this woman.

To be clear, while I am attracted to Charlotte, I'm not in a position right now to be able to judge whether or not she wants a relationship. My question is not about her, so please bear this in mind when answering.


1. When around Charlotte, and perhaps trying to impress her too much, what are some good techniques I can use for keeping calm, not trying too hard, and remaining sensible? Not drinking alcohol is a given - I'm thinking things like breathing techniques or something for my head to busy itself with.

FWIW, I'm male and 30, and the place is not my home country.

Throwaway email address, good for one month:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you said your question is not about Charlotte, but it actually is...

And I think you should try to get to know her better and become friends with her. Force yourself to talk to her. You can be friends with people you are attracted to- I do it all the time. And I find that when we are actual friends, I am interested in them as a person and my awkward behavior subsides a bit.

As for "breathing techniques"- just breathe. Period. Breathe in and out and listen to your breath. It helps a lot.
posted by bearette at 6:55 PM on October 10, 2011

Generally speaking, when you're attracted to someone but want to shut it down or slow it down, it's fair to curtail your thoughts about them by focusing on their flaws--at least to the point where you see this person more or less the way other people do.

On the other hand, when you feel your ego defenses kicking in and driving you down the path of one-upmanship, it's fair to change your aim in that social interaction and focus on what other people are doing well--don't aim to lose, but aim to recognize and praise how others are winning.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:05 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two things:

1. Speaking as a woman who can hold her own in a fair number of games and arguments, I just want to let you know that the behavior you've described displaying is very unattractive. It's confusing and there's no good way to deal with it- do you let the guy win, to avoid him getting angry, and then realize that once you're in a (faked) "subordinate" position, he feels comfortable enough and starts hitting on you? Continue to give it your all and put up with his unecessary anger dragging the mood down for no reason? Be aware that her subjective experience of all of this is likely totally different from yours.

2. Oftentimes, when I get the "rivalry" vibe with someone I think I'm romantically attracted to, I'm not actually romantically attracted to them at all, but it's more of a hero-worship thing. The two feelings are very close to each other and wires can get crossed, but they're two different things. Meditating on this, reflecting on what I feel I'm lacking, and remembering that this is another person, a real living breathing human being with flaws and parents who love them and a history of their own, not just an object reflecting my insecurity, helps a lot.
posted by Nixy at 7:13 PM on October 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

I get hyper-competitive around people I'm attracted too, also. In my totally amateur I-am-not-your-psychologist opinion, I think it comes from preempting a fear of rejection. You feel so terrified by the awful possibility that this wonderful, shiny, amazing person might not think that you're wonderful, amazing, and shiny too that you a) seize, like a hyperactive toddler, upon any available opportunity to display how great you are and b) constantly one-up them in an attempt to prove you're worth their attention. I think pick-up artists call this "signaling higher value," but you're not an asshole for doing it: just a guy, doing weird, subconscious things to try to mitigate your fear of rejection.

Which is a long way of saying I agree with the advice to try to become personal friends with her, if possible. Once you know she likes you at least enough to trade pleasantries and basic friendship with you, some of the panicked worst-case scenario stuff your subconscious is constantly throwing at you should subside. And, best-case scenario, she realizes you're super awesome and shiny and you ride off into some foreign sunset together.
posted by libertypie at 7:19 PM on October 10, 2011

I think there is no way around it with breathing techniques and all of that. That seems like a really inadequate band-aid on the larger problem.

I think you just have to screw up your courage and allow yourself to maybe be seen as a loser, stupid, weak, and inadequate in the case of the games. I think you have to allow yourself to maybe be seen as stupid, slow, dull-witted, uneducated, uninteresting, etc., in the case of the arguments.

If you want to use breathing techniques for anything, use them to help you do that.

If I were you, I might start deliberately putting myself in positions where I had to face this. Can't play tennis? Suggest a game of tennis to the group, and learn how. Don't know anything about Chinese politics? Strike up a conversation about Chinese politics with your friend who knows all about it, in a situation where everyone will join in. Just keep putting yourself in these situations over and over and over and over. And eventually it won't be so bad.

If your natural instinct is to try to hard and be competitive, you can still try hard and be competitive -- and you could even turn that urge into an advantage here -- but you're trying too hard on the wrong things and competing against the wrong person.

Nixy is sooooooo right about how unattractive your behavior sounds. I love having long intelligent (and long goofy) conversations and I would never want to have them with someone displaying the sort of behavior you're displaying. Same thing for the games.

You should not be trying to hard at winning games and arguing. Instead, you should be trying hard to demonstrate all your best qualities. Kindness. Thoughtfulness. Flexibility. Being a good sport. Humility. Or whatever it is that your best qualities are. You should not be competing against others but rather against your ideal self.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:40 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Okay, I asked my boyfriend this one because he has competitive must-win-all-arguments tendencies but has gotten pretty good at keeping them in check when we discuss/debate. He said his strategy is to look at 'winning' not as proving me wrong, but as making me still like him when it's over (tongue in cheek, he really means just keeping things harmonious). So instead of refuting everything I say and trying to get me to say he's right, he will focus on finding a place in the argument where we've both said our piece and can see each other's viewpoint. We can still have back-and-forth debate, but if the goal is peace at the end, then things don't get ugly or personal or sulky.

I'd say it's been successful, because I use to just drop out of the discussion completely when I felt like I was being steamrolled, but now I feel like he's actually listening and responding, so I'm more likely to listen in turn.
posted by ella wren at 7:49 PM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Good for you that you're self-aware enough to know this is an emotional reaction. My suggestion would be to use something like CBT to master and overcome it. Cognitive behavior therapy is an evidence-based approach that works very well in reframing and ultimately defusing anxiety and depression. I'm guessing it would work on any emotion-heavy behavior pattern though. Check out Mind Over Mood. You'll need to read between the lines and substitute the particulars of your emotional experience into the process that the book prescribes.

Personal testimonial - I used CBT to overcome my unease in public speaking and public performance situations.
posted by storybored at 7:51 PM on October 10, 2011

yeah, i agree it's much more attractive to lose with grace and be able to admit you are wrong. Can you avoid obviously competitive things like board games?

Honestly this dorm room compound scenario sounds like a recipe for disaster, in this particular type of situation.

You know you could apologize to her for your hostile behavior, however casually. . . maybe whatever develops from that conversation would help you deal with future potentially competitive interactions.

Otherwise. . . yeah breathing is good. Basically what you want to do is slow yourself down, don't just react. If you feel your emotions getting the best of you, take five, excuse yourself, go to the bathroom, splash water on your face and tell yourself you've nothing to prove.
posted by abirdinthehand at 8:13 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't think of her as a potential wife, think of her as a coworker you have lots in common with. Seriously, once you stop emotionally romanticizing the possibility that she presents (and hating that you aren't in a position to pursue it just now) it should be easier to calm down and behave like a reasonable adult.

If you're in a particularly competitive mood, maybe bow out of playing board games that night... and if you're arguing and things start to get whiny, stop and apologize and explain that you don't mean to come off that way you're just dealing with some "stress" and need to adjust.

Maybe pick up a couple of good books and spend a little time alone reading, getting some space away from constant contact may help as well.
posted by myShanon at 8:17 PM on October 10, 2011

It seems like you have made this woman the catalyst for your insecurities. Regression and dominance action are relatively common reactions to being confronted with your anxieties. You're in a strange place, developing a number of intimate and family-like relationships.

What were you like before Charlotte showed up? Did you feel confident, assured, adult? Did you feel out of place, stressed, unsure? It may be helpful to take some time and try to remember when you last felt this sense of prolonged competition and this sense of uncertainty. If that is how you felt when growing up, as you indicate, then it's possible that one of the things you find attractive about Charlotte is how she reminds you of a familiar time and emotional place, even as you dislike the actual emotions involved.

This isn't about Charlotte, it's about what being around Charlotte reminds you of. Figure out what that is, and you'll be able to deal with that directly instead of transferring those feelings to her. Once you do that, you'll be able to better evaluate your actual relationship and feelings with and towards her.
posted by Errant at 9:05 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been Charlotte before. You need to leave the poor woman alone. It is not her fault that you feel insecure. Going around trying to find ways to "impress" her, by which you really mean cut her down to a more manageable size for you to deal with, is just making her life stressful and annoying. She would probably give $20 to be able to sit and relax without you trotting along wanting to thumb wrestle or give her a dissertation on prog rock. (you haven't tried to physically compete with her have you? asked her how tall she is repeatedly while insisting you are taller than her? made other pointed comparisons between the two of you? shoe size? driving prowess? star sign?).

You are not a freak though, lots and lots of men act this way around certain women. It's not winning you any points with her or your other coworkers but she's probably not going to get a restraining order. You can still turn this around by treating her like a normal human being.
Any time you find yourself forming a sentence that compares the two of you or offers unsolicited criticism of her character or actions think to yourself- would I say this to a make friend without getting punched? Any time you delve further into her personal space than you do to your other co-workers stop? Any time everyone else has slunk away and you've got her trapped in the dining room because you won't let her leave until you've made your point? Give yourself a mental bitchslap. Because if you keep on this way she's going to do it for you.

Also what Nixy said.
posted by fshgrl at 11:15 PM on October 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

Be mindful of your behavior in the moment. Shut it down when you think it's getting too competitive. Shut it down when you think you're trying to impress her too much. Note your behavior in the moment and shut it down accordingly.

Also please note that it is possible to have a woman in your life who you can have great conversations with who is not your wife. Please try to remember that. It will take the pressure off both of you.
posted by mleigh at 12:17 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should check out this answer to a somewhat similar question.
posted by solotoro at 8:45 AM on October 11, 2011

It sounds to me like your goals in these endeavors are misplaced in ways that result in stress. Unless you're a professional athlete or politician, the importance of games, sports, and argument is not the outcome of any match, but how you strengthen (or weaken) you relationship with the people involved. Whenever Charlotte is around, it sounds like you can't help but try to impress her. It also sounds like you feel like you're not successful in this and, more importantly, you're doing it in ways that undermine your relationship with your co-workers.

Regardless of whether it's possible or even desirable to date her you shouldn't ignore Charlotte. You'd probably be better off changing your goals and directing your energy toward changing your anti-social behavior. There's nothing wrong with being competitive, but you should focus on playing with grace. If you win, sympathize with your opponent's bad luck (without disparaging your victory), and if you lose, praise the victor's skill. If it's a team game, get Charlotte on your side to minimize the need to compete directly with her. Always play in ways consistent with good sportsmanship and with any eye toward making the game fun. In either case, your opponents and teammates will admire your grace, and enjoy the game.

I don't know what to say about argument, but if you're in it to prove your "dominance" or that you're "right" you're not going to convince anyone of either of those things, and it's not going to do you any good. Refrain from those conversations. If other people are doing that, rather than jumping in, sit back, ask questions, listen, and try to learn something.
posted by Hylas at 11:41 AM on October 11, 2011

Imagine that she's bald or has a beard (or both). Works for me.
posted by troll at 3:56 AM on October 12, 2011

What you have to remember, and that some of the above posts de-emphasize, is that Charlotte is not a friend or acquaintance or some woman in your social circle. She's your co-worker.

Furthermore, she's in a position where she can't get away from you.

Here, in my experience, is how this is going to go. You will make Charlotte uncomfortable for a long time, eventually you will set up a situation where she has to turn you down, and then you will start being Really Honest about her flaws and shortcomings and how difficult it is to work with her. She will exit this situation with her career and emotions badly damaged. To the extent that she has tried to Hold Her Own/Give As Good As She Got/Be One Of The Boys with you (guilty of pouring gasoline on the fire), or alternatively to Ignore And Not Engage (guilty of letting you walk over her and giving silent consent), her credibility will have been damaged and so, whatever recourse is theoretically available to her to defend herself, she won't take it. Nixy is right, this really is a no-win situation for her.

Eventually, a few months later, you will realize that you kind of quasi-harassed her (I mean, you were friends, but coming from some other guy it definitely would have been harassment, and you would have chivalrously punched that guy's lights out) and kind of undermined her at work in a way that possibly may have contributed to her leaving, and you'll give her a half-hearted jollified apology-esque gesture that implies that you are still really good friends just as you always were, you'll establish that she was eventually able to pick up the pieces of her professional life, and then you'll disappear.

I mean, I only say this because I've been Rachel over and over again and while I've learned to refine my adult coping skills, to keep calm and not engage you and set up damage limitation and maintain my professional network and always be ready to leave a job before your hostility hits the fan... well... every workplace seems to have one of you, and your actions always seem to run a predictable course.

Take a look at the Ghost of Christmas Future there. Seriously.
posted by tel3path at 4:24 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

The reason you behave that way is the reason almost everyone does, within the limits of their own natures. You're acting like someone who is attracted to a girl, which is what you are. In other words, realise it or not, you're sending her the age old messages that almost everyone in your position does (the content of the message will come from your personality, but the emotional force of it will come from being human). You're letting her know how you feel, that's great. Now wait and see how she responds. May be great, may make you sad, but definitely makes you a normal human being. Good Luck.
posted by nickji at 4:37 AM on October 12, 2011

ere, in my experience, is how this is going to go. You will make Charlotte uncomfortable for a long time, eventually you will set up a situation where she has to turn you down, and then you will start being Really Honest about her flaws and shortcomings and how difficult it is to work with her. She will exit this situation with her career and emotions badly damaged. To the extent that she has tried to Hold Her Own/Give As Good As She Got/Be One Of The Boys with you (guilty of pouring gasoline on the fire), or alternatively to Ignore And Not Engage (guilty of letting you walk over her and giving silent consent), her credibility will have been damaged and so, whatever recourse is theoretically available to her to defend herself, she won't take it. Nixy is right, this really is a no-win situation for her.

FYI- in similar situations I've asked for and had the man fired or transferred. Or I've fired him. It was not a no-win situation for me, it was an irritation. I did not lose anything, they did. So keep in mind that if you give her enough rope she may very well use it to hang you. Thinking about that should help you treat her with the respect she's due as a co-worker.
posted by fshgrl at 10:35 AM on October 12, 2011

I don't mean to be harsh, OP. I know you're seriously trying to get a grip on yourself here and you don't have some evil master plan to harass Charlotte.

But I think the guys who treated me this way saw it as a primarily emotional drama mainly affecting themselves, as if I were some all-powerful, impervious ice queen, and as if the biggest thing at stake was that they could get embarrassed/rejected/laughed at by all-powerful, impervious me. Meanwhile, I was getting smacked around emotionally and damaged professionally.

I'm pretty sure you're a decent fellow who would be horrified at any suggestion you could be That Guy, so, listen to fshgrl and don't become possessed by the spirit of That Guy.
posted by tel3path at 12:52 PM on October 12, 2011

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