Help me be kind to a former coworker.
November 16, 2012 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Help me be kind to a former coworker.

I work in a role where I'd traditionally work with a partner, but for various reasons I've been flying solo for the past year and a half.

I met Susan at a networking event. We had a number of mutual friends - who'd actually suggested we meet before the event - and I felt we connected very easily. I was very impressed by her work and forwarded her details to my boss. When she was hired I was thrilled. I do okay working by myself, but I'm very ambitious and eager to take my work to the next level, and was really hoping Susan would both complement and challenge me.

Things weren't good from day one. Susan was very fragile and quiet at work, and I found myself giving her constant pep talks. At one stage I missed a meeting because I was stuck talking her through an anxiety attack, which is very unlike me (working by myself has made me very gung-ho and hyper organised at work). I had to coax work out of her.

Eventually Susan disclosed that she was having a very hard time with her mental health. At one point she even admitted to suicidal thoughts, and I spent most of that day at work talking her through her feelings until she went to see her therapist, and then came over to my house for the evening.

Susan quit less than a month after she was hired. She didn't tell me she was quitting; I came across her clearing out her desk and she just casually told me she was clearing out her desk.

It's been a few weeks. She's still in contact with me, but I'm having an enormously hard time with my response. My dad committed suicide when I was a teenager, so learning of her suicidal feelings brought up a lot of painful things for me. I've battled mightily with depression, OCD and anxiety. It still bothers me. I should be able to be compassionate, caring and available to a person in a similar place, right?

Wrong. Every time I see Susan's number pop up on my phone I feel this knot of resentment. Despite myself, I feel used and held back, as though my reserves of 'being a decent human being' were used up. I feel like I'm back to square one, work-wise, since it's difficult to advance without a partner, and I'm back to doing the hardest parts of my job by myself. I feel like I stuck my neck out with my boss, and fear that he now thinks less of me.

This is, of course, ridiculous. I want to be kind and giving to Susan. She's new in town, she's done nothing wrong, and she shared very private details about herself with me.

How do I break through my bullshit to be kind again?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you didn't set up enough boundaries for yourself at work and are feeling resentful for that? Constant pep talks and missing meetings was well past a work boundary.

I think if you still want to talk to her you should first think about what you want your boundaries with her to be and then don't cross them. It will give you a greater sense of control and you won't feel as taken advantage of.
posted by Vaike at 3:47 PM on November 16, 2012

Cut yourself some slack. It's exhausting to be around a depressed person at the best of times, and it's not something you're expecting in a work partner. Not to mention your family history or personal experiences.

What you're feeling is completely and totally normal. I agree you should be kind to Susan, but that doesn't necessarily mean being her best friend and sounding board. Don't let her suck you back into a depression of your own.
posted by barnoley at 3:57 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I should be able to be compassionate, caring and available to a person in a similar place

I can see being the first to everyone, the second to people who exhibit the same level of care back to me, but the third is reserved for people that have established a relationship that is healthy and mutually supportive. Where do your feelings of obligation to be such a good friend to a near stranger come from?

She's new in town, she's done nothing wrong, and she shared very private details about herself with me

There is nothing positive in that description, what is she bringing to a friendship? In what ways has she been supportive, fun and available to you? Do you even have similar values (work ethic, loyalty, honesty)? Honestly, this sounds like a pity friendship that is entirely one sided; she hasn't built up a reserve of goodwill to be so draining so early on in a friendship.
posted by saucysault at 4:17 PM on November 16, 2012 [12 favorites]

Caring people often find themselves in this position. You need to remember that you are not professionally qualified to help your friend. Even though you have history with depression and suicide, you are not capable of giving her the help she needs. You also need to accept the possibility that your well-intentioned kindnesses could be somewhat enabling, as you really have no idea what kind of help she needs. In order to be kind again, for me, it's a matter of accepting my limitations and qualifications, and keeping my head above the fray. Simple acts of kindness and compassion are really all you're qualified to give. So keep it simple and leave the complicated stuff to trained professionals. Sometimes that's enough, and it's really all you have to offer.
posted by raisingsand at 4:20 PM on November 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you took on too much in trying to be her emotional support system. You have to set some clear boundaries and not allow someone else's issue take your valuable emotional stability. She may also have developed a crush on you or some dependency from your attentions so be careful about how you reach out.
posted by i_wear_boots at 4:25 PM on November 16, 2012

She's told you of depressive and suicidal thoughts and you have family history of suicide, no wonder your heart drops when you see she's calling. Therapy, for you.
posted by rhizome at 4:27 PM on November 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, I kind of resent Susan just reading this post. She came into your office, didn't do the required work (ostensibly for health issues, yes, but it doesn't stop there), quit in a weird and bad way, and now she STILL CALLS YOU? I would say that she has done something wrong. There are lots of people with depression who would recognize that this behavior as unacceptable professional behavior. I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just telling you I'd be angry, too, and I don't think your response is out of the normal range.
posted by amodelcitizen at 4:38 PM on November 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am the same way. My older brother committed suicide and I really react poorly to people telling me of suicidal thoughts. I feel a little like it's emotional blackmail. If I could save someone from suicide, I would've saved my brother.
posted by Duffington at 5:02 PM on November 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

It sounds like that you've lost respect for Susan. Does she have any qualities that you admire?

Otherwise, let her know that its unreasonable for her to expect you this level of support from you. Perhaps suggest professional resources especially if you have personal recommendations.
posted by porpoise at 5:42 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

you're not doing anything wrong- undoubtedly you have already done a lot to help Susan, beyond even what would be called for. Which is really kind of you,but eventually when someone is draining us in that way we become stressed. And becoming stressed from a former co-worker who doesn't sound like she was able to give back much, is really taking a lot out of you.

You might even be doing her a favor by not being so available to her. In the past at certain times i have been like Susan, and when friends I'd leaned on too much were less available for support it forced me to help myself.
posted by bearette at 8:00 PM on November 16, 2012

I think that you have no more responsibility to be compassionate towards Susan than she does towards you. Have you told her that you have a personal history of suicide in your family? I know there is a stigma around depression, suicide, mental health in general, but I urge you to do so (you don't have to specify your Dad, just that there's been suicide in your family) and stress that, for the sake of your own mental health, you need some space right now. I would hope that she would be understanding of your emotional needs, as you have tried to be of hers, to the best of your abliity--and that's all anyone can ask of either of you, really.

Also, as far as the work situation goes, some people throw more of themselves into their careers than others do. You strike me as someone who sounds both conscientious about the quality of your work and incredibly enthusiastic about it. That's wonderful!

Susan, though, may not be passionate about her work. She may not have the same work ethic you do. She may see her job as just something she has to do to pay her bills. So please don't feel that her not letting you know she was quitting ahead of time was some kind of slight, or be crushed for Susan because it didn't work out. It sounds like she needed to quit, and now she has, and hopefully now she can move on, too.

Lastly, I understand how uncomfortable Susan's situation makes you feel, after what you've been through. When people are severely clinically depressed, the nature of the disease means their brains are not functioning right--it sabotages their logic, and makes suicide seem like it offers a solution to problems that, were they not depressed, they might be able to solve. Unfortunately, they are also thinking selfishly, and not considering the burden they put on others by confessing those suicidal thoughts; or, in the case of your father, actually acting on them.

I say these things to you as a gentle reminder that you are not responsible for anyone's actions but your own. Though it is kind of you to want to support Susan, you need to take care of yourself first. Should she not be understanding of your own difficulties, please do not feel guilty about cutting off contact with her. Your mental health is every bit as important as hers.
posted by misha at 8:16 PM on November 16, 2012

it's hard to read your post and imagine that you're not her husband or boyfriend- it's good to try to help others, but you've put a lot of yourself into this situation when you're not a husband/boyfriend. The best you can do for her is give her the number of a professional and encourage her to use it.

Then you, unless you want to be her very good friend (do you? you didn't mention whether you considered her a friend), you should back off completely, for your sanity. Sounds like she's becoming dependent on you when you don't have any sort of relationship.

You're not passing her off onto nothing, but onto a professional who can handle this better than you, and is in the appropriate position to do so.
posted by saraindc at 12:36 AM on November 17, 2012

Please give yourself a break. You did a very kind thing for her - got her a job at your own office - and she failed at it (and yes, while your boss hopefully doesn't blame you for not sussing out her mental health issues, this still is not exactly a feather in your cap.) This is plenty of reason in itself to be done with someone. Add to that your particular sensitivity to her particular kind of depression, and I can see why you'd want her well out of your life.

Not only that - I would probably advise anyone with your history to not take on such Project people. How can this be a friendship? Your success at your work and at beating depression would always be a rebuke to her; and believe me it is easy to let depressed people drag you back into it, especially if you feel a little guilty for not suffering right alongside them.

If this were your sister or best friend my answer would be different, but she's someone you've known for a few weeks. Your peace of mind comes first. You can't save everyone.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:27 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, you want to be compassionate, which is a good sign. You gave Susan a job opportunity; despite a lot of help from you, it didn't work out because she is ill. You tried really hard to help her, and you feel resentment. That seems pretty natural. The best help you can give her is to strongly encourage her to get competent mental health care. Maybe have lunch with her from time to time. She needs professional help from a professional. From you, plain old friendship, in which you do not try to fix her, is what you have to offer.
posted by theora55 at 7:49 AM on November 17, 2012

« Older Help my lab have a solid website.   |   SIDS anxiety eating my nights Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.