Help me not dissolve into a stressavoidance puddle at work!
January 30, 2014 3:25 PM   Subscribe

How can I avoid totally unraveling when working with a dismissive/cold person?

In general, I'm a pretty warm, congenial person who can cooperate happily with lots of folks. I lean towards people-pleasing and have anxiety and self-esteem issues that I'm working through in therapy. What I find is that hyper-attuning myself to other people's reactions (and my beliefs about what those cues Really Mean) can lead me to feeling like i'm this little house with all of the windows and doors open, and any old gust of wind can blow through and knock down all the books and break all the plates.

So cue this particular gust of wind: I have a coworker, I will call them J. J is clearly somebody who prides themselves on being smart, no-bullshit, analytical, and kind of mocking in humor. This is widely known about J -- another coworker jokingly tells J they would be an amazing cross-examiner. My boss may have some kind of opinion about J's personality, unclear, but seems to trust J. I think J is competent. I actually have no specific issue with J in and of themselves, as I think analytical no-bullshit people are really necessary on teams.

Except that J's mere presence makes me totally fall apart. I can't explain how profoundly bad about myself I end up feeling when J picks apart something I'm working on (again, ostensibly a reasonable role given that we are on a small team that produces a lot of writing that needs critique), comes in and totally ignores me or begrudgingly engages me (I'm not overbearing in my requests for socializing or anything, I swear! I just try to greet kindly and carry on. but I just feel like waves of dismissiveness radiating out from J).

In the moment, I try to be professional, warm but brief with J, and to match J's tone of analytical specificty when working together. But I just end up feeling like a big fuckup whenever J is in the office. J was absent for several weeks over the winter break, and I felt so much more calm and collected, excited about the work, able to cooperate successfully with other team members, etc. Now with J back, I'm starting to enter into Avoidant Cycles which are really, really toxic for me. Like, hey maybe I should wait a bit to come into work today, okay now I'm there late and I have a brief unsatisfying converastion with J, maybe I should just duck out early to a coffee shop to work from there, shit J must have been doing things with the other members who must all despise me now too, I should just keep avoiding the office whenever possible..

Clearly, my personal attunement to others, and specifically my issues with rejection and self esteem, are sabotaging me. What I'd really like for myself is to be able to say "okay, J is not your ideal person or your ideal coworker, but there's merit to J's approach, and also you need to function as a human being. So here's the best-practices approach to these interactions and these situations. Do it and set aside any other grief."

But I'm not there yet. I'm surprised how poignant my stress about this is -- how it affects everything and just kind of destabilizes me across the board. Again, small house, doors and windows thrown open. I went home today (at a reasonable time) to take Klonopin and write this out, because I know I have to nip this in the bud and get on with my life. But I need help.

tl;dr: How do I come up with some effective way to deal with myself inwardly crumbling in my interactions with dismissive, rejecting J? And what else can I do to build up resilience so folks like J don't totally dismantle me in the future?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you bothering to be "warm" towards this person?

Um, you've probably missed the memo on this (heck - I did for years myself!!) but this person doesn't have feelings the way you do. Internally, J doesn't 't function the same way that you do at all.

- Stop trying to match his coldness with warmth. You 're probably making him feel uncomfortable with that. He's cold because that's the way he likes things! You're not going to change him or teach him anything about manners or politeness, so just quit it.

Not everyone requires politeness. Got it? OK.

- Best Practice is to deal with his information or contributions, but not him. Think of him as a robot or some other sort of non-person, understand that his behaviors are both predictable and impersonal (i.e. - not about you) and really, just ignore him. Remember, he doesn't have feelings like yours. You're not insulting him because he's not connecting with being insulted. He doesn't care, so you stop caring, too.


Another possibility is that he's a secret sadist or sociopath who loves making you feel small and insecure. I doubt it, but I guess ya never know....


Anywho, by following my advice, it really doesn't matter why he acts the way he does towards you, because you've stopped caring or connecting with him on that level.

Whatever is going on, it's not your problem. The quicker you disengage, the easier it will be for you to remain professional and do your job.

Hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 3:47 PM on January 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Getting the jeebies just reading the post. It took a while but I've learned to distance myself from the criticism of the work to read it as a critiquing of the work. Reframing helps.


"This is totally wrong, the xyz doesn't affect the MYL and they shouldn't be using it that way."

"Okay, so they are using it that way, will it work that way in the upgrade? Or will they need to change how they use MYL? If the xyz doesn't affect the MYL, what does it affect and why. What issue does the update/change/enable/disable of xyz affect things?"


"You wrote this completely wrong, the section 3 should be under section 5, and you need to bump out the section on bananas."

"So rearranging it works better, you're saying? Is it because we expect the reader to work through things a specific way, reading along, or because they must do things in a certain order? Or do we expect them to skip around, but they need certain more frequent information up front? Is there another way we can handle this with cross referencing? Are there other documents we produce similar to this that I can model from?"


I worked with a jackass like J, as one of my first "mentors". Took a long time to get over it; it affected my writing for a long time because I "heard" other people's criticism like his. Now I've got more confidence in what I do, and can back it up, and work at not taking it personally when people want it another way; I try to reach a compromise. I still occasionally take 'mental health' days, although not as many as I used to.

I still work with people like J; one of my co workers just about quit after he'd reviewed the document. Talked coworker off of the ledge and are working towards preventing that kind of interaction in the future.

And when they make a cutting "humorous" jab, as part of the criticism, deflect. Without knowing more about it, I can't provide specific scripts. Mostly don't laugh, just blink, and ignore it if it's not germane, or reframe it into a less humorous version of the valid part. Even be clear that you're steering the conversation back towards helpful plain discussion.

Don't talk to J if you don't have to? Keep it to simple bulleted email conversations, or stick to non-work related topics at "chat" intervals when chatting is needed.

Good luck.
posted by tilde at 3:49 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you sat yourself down and written out a list of things "picked apart" to see if those things are things that you, yourself would change if you had 24 to let your work sit in a drawer?

If you can logically and objectively reassure yourself that your problems with J are based on his style and not on his work, you'd have a great starting point.

Also, imagining him in silly costumes or speaking in a cartoon voice might take the edge off.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:49 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

J sounds like he might be introverted. If introverts don't talk to you, it doesn't mean they dislike you; not talking is just their default behavior and silence shouldn't be interpreted as anything more than passivity.

Also, not everybody feels the need to befriend their coworkers; some people just come to work to work, and to keep some distance between their work and personal life. Again, doesn't mean they personally dislike you.

Reading your question I'm not sure if you're upset with the person because they criticize you too much, or because they don't socially engage you enough - or if you simply don't like this person. Which is fine; you're not obligated to like every person and you simply won't like every person. But unless they've done something (actively done something, not just passively not done something) to shown they actively dislike you as well, you shouldn't assume it.
posted by pravit at 3:57 PM on January 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Other people are suggesting distance or even impoliteness, which is exactly the kind of avoidance you are explicitly and rightly trying to avoid. If you do this, you're going to find it very hard to have a successful career because as you say yourself "analytical no-bullshit people are really necessary on teams."

It is truly a beautiful quality to have "all your doors open" to other people's thoughts and feelings — no question about that. But I think it's completely wrong of you to suggest that this quality is sabotaging you in your interactions with J.

The truth is that you need for your esteem to come from yourself. You're not always going to be able to win other people's approval. Part of growing up — of the leaving the parent-child relationship model — is developing your own sense of validation apart from the world. If you reason about it, you'll recognize that this is how J works, and why you find him so imposing.

It is definitely possible to feel what everyone is feeling, while deriving most of your validation from yourself. Think of it as a house with open doors and windows, but your own fireplace to keep you warm. I think experience will show that you need to grow into this person.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 3:58 PM on January 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

Clarification: " working towards preventing that kind of interaction in the future "

By establishing much sooner the 'voice' and pattern they want us to use for the piecework. J is in a position of authority over us for now, and I'm working on getting our management moved under someone who actually understands what we do and why. And has time to provide constructive feedback instead of "yelling" or prescriptive requests instead of "knock out this thing".
posted by tilde at 4:01 PM on January 30, 2014

J could easily just be introverted and/or very logic-oriented and/or lacking in social skills, and is not necessarily a jerk or a sociopath.

Some things you could try:

1) tell J in a non-accusatory way that you're having trouble not taking their advice personally, and asking them to be a bit less harsh with their suggestions (note: don't do this if you're getting a malicious vibe from them, only if they seem like they might be oblivious to your reaction)

2) remind yourself that criticism of your work is not reflecting on you as a person, and that criticism is necessary for you to improve. Criticism of your work is a good thing!

3) remind yourself that not everyone wants to be best friends with all their coworkers, and this doesn't say anything bad about you or about them.

I can't suggest much else because I'm not clear on the exact behaviour J is doing which is bothering you so much (you talk here mainly about your feelings in response to their mostly unspecified behaviour). I'm guessing you already know that your self-esteem issues are a huge factor in this, and you're planning to discuss this with your therapist? It's totally normal to want approval from others, but if you're so dependent on that approval that you're breaking down when you don't get it, that's a problem.

The phrase "and my beliefs about what those cues Really Mean" jumps out at me. It seems like you're reading a lot of negative intentions into what J is saying that are very likely not there at all. Don't try to mind read. People are very different - you might never say anything bad about someone's work unless you hated them, but I'd ruthlessly pick apart my best friend's (or worst enemy's, or anyone in between's) masterpiece if asked, and it wouldn't be related to my personal feelings at all. As long as J is professional with you, it doesn't matter what they're thinking about you. You have no way to know what they're thinking anyway, and making guesses about it is not really a helpful thing to do.
posted by randomnity at 4:41 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

decades ago, my dad came home from a job interview where he was asked "are you a people person?" he laughed derisively for the rest of the interview and didn't get an offer. many of us are not people people. if it's any consolation, you have more friends than J.
posted by bruce at 5:02 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love people like J, and the are one of the personality types who I feel most able to be myself around. So maybe another perspective might help you feel less avoidant/intimidated?

One thing that kind of irks me in life is that, for a mix of social/cultural reasons, I need to be super modest about being right when someone else is wrong. In fact, there have been MANY times where someone who believes something that is completely wrong and/or utterly stupid, has been incredibly aggressive about it and I have had to be ultra polite and even humble/deferent towards them. Even with normal people, if you know that they are wrong, you often have to be very gentle about it and avoid hurting/embarrassing them, and that's fine.

With people like J? When you are right you get to wave it on a freaking banner. You can give them the biggest logical smackdown of their life. If you do it with a certain sarcastic nerdiness, they find it even enjoyable.

If J picks apart something you have done, and you disagree with what he says, you might try to match him in no-bullshit-ness and mocking humor. Be careful and just try a bit in the beginning, if you decide to go that way, because occasionally you run into people who behave that way towards others but absolutely can't handle it coming back towards them. But if he's open to it, you might even find working with him to be enjoyable eventually.
posted by cairdeas at 5:05 PM on January 30, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yes, life would be so much easier if J wasn't around, like on winter break. The reality is that's not going to happen, unless he leaves the office, or you leave the office. Given that you have to work with him, try to make the most of it. I think you have a real opportunity here to learn about yourself and move through your particular issues. Yes, it will be hard, no question. But your options right now are get another job, get even better at avoiding, or work through it.

I love your open little house metaphor. Why not work with that visualization? Instead of a little house with all the windows and doors open, you're a strong, steady, stable house with a strong lock on the door, double paned windows, etc. You're protecting the people living inside, keeping everyone warm and cozy from the wind. All the books and plates are still safe on their shelves. Run with it. Maybe this is *your* best practices approach.

Also, the things he does: he picks apart something you're working on, ignores you or begrudgingly engages you - it has nothing to do with you. That's just who and how he is. Being attuned to other people is great, however, it's not serving you in your interactions with J. Don't try to match J's tone of analytical specificity. Just be yourself. That's always so hard, isn't it? And why is that…

Anyway, it doesn't sound like J has anything against you or doesn't like you. It's possible to get good work done with people who aren't friendly, yet who aren't mean. You're there to do a job, so focus on doing good work.

I can't explain how profoundly bad about myself I end up feeling
I just end up feeling like a big fuckup whenever J is in the office
Own these feelings. They're your responsibility. Please work through them with your therapist. In what way do you feel like a big fuckup? Start putting words to those profoundly bad feelings - bring them to the light and shoo them out the door of your strong, stable house, to be taken away by a gust of wind.
posted by foxjacket at 6:27 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hope I do not come off as unfriendly as J seems to you, but I definitely see some of my personality and work habits in the way that you describe J. I also work with others who are even more J-like than me. And I work with some asshats, some of whom are and some of whom are not J-like.

You point out that he can be short with you and unengaging. I find it exhausting to be engaging all the time; do not be offended by a lack of engagement. Especially at the beginning of a meeting where I know engaging is on deck, or after a meeting, when I have just done a lot of engaging. The way you describe J, it seems like he would be pretty explicitly critical of your behavior if he thought badly of you. But you say that he just doesn't engage. I would take that to mean he just doesn't care one way or the other, and it's not particular to you. HOnestly, sometimes I marvel at the people who are always happy and friendly and warm and "hi how are you?" all day...I run away from these people whenever possible because I just cannot be that way back and then I sit safe at my desk and wonder at how they do it....

You also commented that you feel like J might be conspiring with others about you when you are not around. I work with people that are somewhat J-like and DO conspire with others in people's absences. It does not make me think more of the J-like coworkers; it makes me think they are asshats. If I happen to disagree with these conspirers, I will tend to be supportive of the absent people given the opportunity. If I happen to agree with these conspirers, I STILL think the conspirers are asshats for not being upfront, and I will tend to try to help out the absent people. I can't be the only one in the world who has these tendencies.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:38 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Potentially relevant anecdote:

I once had an emotionally blank boss who often made harshly phrased comments on my work, and it was majorly messing with my head. I spent almost a year trying and failing not to let it get to me, then eventually emailed him about it. After writing and discarding several multi-paragraph drafts, I ended up with 3 cooly professional sentences something along the lines of:

"I welcome your insightful criticism of my work. However, I find it difficult to internalize criticism constructively when it includes pejorative language such as 'totally wrong', 'terrible' etc. Please refrain from using such language when giving me feedback in the future. Thanks."

He wrote back and said that he would do that, but that he thought I was being oversensitive. I said "regardless of whether that's true, it's difficult for me to change my sensitivity level, so it would still help me a lot if you could work with me on this."

He was a lot better after that. In retrospect, I'm super glad that I kept things focused on the behavioral change I was requesting rather than getting dragged into a side debate about whether my feelings were justified - I think it made him more receptive.
posted by introcosm at 7:36 PM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm not overbearing in my requests for socializing

I might be, from his point of view, that you are.

The fact that you are having such a strong emotional reaction to this -you say you need to take a Klonopin, and are actually destabilized, because of this- makes me wonder if you aren't actually aware of the amount of socializing, or affective demands, you are trying to coax out of other people, nor are you aware of why you are doing so. I agree with one of the comments above - it sounds like you need to start looking to yourself, instead of external factors (and other people), to validate yourself.

One of the biggest pet peeves I have, one which repeatedly crops up in my various career activities, is that co-workers or employees view the office as a place for socializing. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily good. But one of the most aggravating things is when I come in to do my job, and instead of focusing on the task at-hand, the people I am working with use up valuable time to socialize. The second aggravating thing is when they act hurt when I don't socialize back at them.

Depending on the nature of one's job, its associated deadlines, and the clients needed to be dealt with, it can be completely appropriate sometimes to just walk into a coworker's office, say "hi," and then immediately jump into job stuff and ask for the TPS report or whatever. Sometimes that information might be needed now. Being polite and non-aggressive about this is pretty much mandatory. However, I think a lot of people view polite, though direct and succinct, communication as cold, or mean.

If the way he interacts (or the way he critiques work) is just direct, terse, or pressed for time, I really don't think he dislikes you at all. I do think he might be trying to do his job, and is trying to avoid the socializing that he feels is impeding his ability to do so.

Maybe you should focus your emotions into the work you are doing, as opposed to the interpersonal relationship who feel you have (or don't have) with him. Depersonalizing it might make it less stressful.

(Full Disclosure: This post was written under the assumption that his critiques and behavior are not abusive or bullying, but are, as you described them, "cold." If he is being scathingly mean, that would obviously change my assessment of things.)
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 9:23 PM on January 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think that what you describe here, especially:
... okay now I'm there late and I have a brief unsatisfying converastion with J, maybe I should just duck out early to a coffee shop to work from there, shit J must have been doing things with the other members who must all despise me now too, I should just keep avoiding the office whenever possible..
Clearly, my personal attunement to others, and specifically my issues with rejection and self esteem, are sabotaging me.
says very clearly to me - and I'm sorry if this sounds unsympathetic - that some of the other posters above are wrong, and this is, in fact, your problem. I want to acknowledge that you in fact seem to be acknowledging this by simply asking the question. When you ask
How do I come up with some effective way to deal with myself inwardly crumbling in my interactions with dismissive, rejecting J?
It might be a better to ask why you think he's dismissing or rejecting you: rejecting what about you? Your friendly overtures? Why do you care? Dismissive of what about you? You're operating in a professional environment. The question I think needs to be asked is whether each of you is behaving/interacting professionally. If no, then address that on those terms. If nobody can fairly be said to be behaving in a way that is inappropriate, then this is a misapprehension on your part of what is reasonable professional behavior given the personalities involved.

To answer your question more directly: J does not want to be your friend; he may not find value in expressing friendliness in the way you do. He may be incapable of acting in ways that leave you feeling valued, and if that's the case, I'm sorry. I think that if I wanted to make you feel more valued, I would make the effort to mirror your interpersonal warmth and friendliness (I am generally more like J in a professional atmosphere and my job title is indeed "Analyst," fwiw). I might suggest that you do the converse here: mirror J's affect-neutral way of conducting himself; he may respond.

On the other hand, don't kill yourself trying to gain his approval. I'm not so very J-like that I can't see this is hurting you, and for that I am sorry.

Operating here under the same caveat as sock puppet: presuming he's not intentionally being an ass.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:48 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

If J is anything like as similar to me as he sounds, then a) his cold demeanour is not because he dislikes you or holds you in contempt, he just isn't a person who wants to socialise at work or finds it easy to socialise with arbitrary people, and b) his criticism is probably his way of trying to deflect away from your attempts to be friendly and warm with him, which may either not interest him or actively make him uncomfortable. Which isn't your fault by any means, but isn't necessarily his fault either.

Anyway, if I was in his position I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable and would probably feel even more self-conscious and inclined to withdraw if I suspected I was doing so. He'd probably be amenable to a short, professional email outlining your concerns and finding a couple of ways to mitigate them but you're unlikely to ever get gregarious warmth out of him.
posted by Drexen at 4:04 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

It took me a long time to adjust to people like J. I came from a previous job where everyone that I worked with was like family. A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. J is from a different world, and this going to take you some time to adjust to his kind.

You're giving him too much power. True, he seems to have the respect of your boss, but you can provide something of value as well. His contributions don't necessarily have any more value than yours.

The kernel of your problem seems to come down to an almost crippling lack of self confidence, and you're spending way too much time focusing on J's effect on you, and not enough on what you have to offer. If you feel like a big fuckup when he's around, that probably has more to do with your own self-talk than what he's actually saying. Look into CBT for changing the tone of voice in your head.
posted by BeBoth at 5:16 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

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