Help me (emotionally) graduate from middle school.
July 25, 2014 6:40 AM   Subscribe

This question is very difficult for me to ask, but it has been on my mind enough that I need to swallow my pride and throw it out to you fine folks. I have not been a teen for over a decade; I am, overall, a well-adjusted adult. I am at the top of my game professionally, I am happily married, and I have some wonderful friends. I also have perspective on "real issues"... I've survived some fairly significant tragedies and dealt with family drama that has rendered my therapist speechless. So why do I let the petty antics of a few former friends (who are also colleagues) ruin my day?

So if you are still reading this nonsense, I hope it's because you've been where I am or at least empathize on some level. Here's the dirt:

I consider several of my colleagues to be friends. Some are work-only friends, and some I spend time with in the real world. There are two in particular (let's call them Ann and Betty) that I became very close with a few years ago, despite some red flags. We work closely together, are the same age, and have some common interests. Red flag: Ann and Betty are major gossipers, and they seem to enjoy when certain people struggle. Whenever I left the room, I felt that Ann and Betty might be discussing me. True confession: I gossiped right along with them; it felt like a requirement for entrance into the friendship, and even though I knew it was shitty, I did indulge (and at times, liked it). Another red flag: everyone who loves me (my husband, my very good friends, family) were never supportive of my friendship with Ann and Betty. They felt that they were self involved, and not to be trusted. I defended Ann and Betty, tried to argue that "if you really knew them..." Another red flag: Ann and Betty never seemed to be genuinely happy for me when something good happened in my life. Ann would flat out ignore any success I had, while Betty would congratulate me in a voice that was way too high-pitched to be sincere. But they definitely came around when I was suffering! They were very supportive (with words, never actions), but there was always a hint of voyeurism when I spilled my guts to them.

A year ago, I was promoted at work to a year-long leadership role. I work in a field that has no "ladder" to climb, so being elected into this role was a big deal for me. It pushed me outside of our little trio a bit, as my job consisted of leading the staff and working with the big bosses. I maintained the friendship with Ann and Betty, but could feel tension. Several months ago, I got wind of the fact that I was the topic of major shit-talking between Ann and Betty. They criticized my work, my character, my choices... everything they observed, they tore to shreds. And since I was often leading staff meetings, there was a lot for them to observe and pick apart. I actually got physically sick when I heard some of their comments, and I found it difficult to lead meetings without worrying about how they would critique me. I am now finished with that role, and sadly, I feel that their behavior is part of the reason why I chose not to continue with it for another year (despite the fact that my boss encouraged me to do so). There are many legitimate reasons why I chose to not continue, but Ann and Betty were two of them for sure.

When I learned of their betrayal, I immediately ended the friendship without a major confrontation. I had no intention of talking it out with them, and I knew that they would gang up on me. I didn't want to cause a scene at work, and there was no way I was going to get together with them on the outside. Neither Ann nor Betty questioned the sudden end of the friendship, which speaks volumes to me. I think it's worth noting that whenever I have encountered strife in a friendship, I have always been transparent and pushed for talking it all out... The way I ended things with Ann and Betty was very unusual for me, and it went against my nature, but given who they are and where we work, I believe it was the best choice.

Ann, Betty and I still work closely together, and the two of them have bonded even further over their shared enemy. They ignore me when I walk into a room. They openly criticize the way staff meetings are run (without naming me, but COME ON). They talk about their outside-of-work adventures nonstop. They boycott me on social media. They check in on facebook EVERYWHERE they go, remarking on what fun this "girls' night" is, what "besties" they are... Because I was in their circle (triangle?) for a few years, I know that some of this behavior is an active attempt to make me feel like shit. And for the same reason, they know it gets under my skin. While I know that I have annoying traits and am far from perfect at my job, I understand the root of the backstabbing: Ann and Betty are deeply unhappy in some major ways (one cheats on her husband, the other is unhappily single), and I actually feel bad for them both to some degree. But their bullshit still bugs me, and they know it bugs me.

I have done a facebook purge, unfriending Ann and Betty (and a lot of other people who are not so much friends as people I know... I was trying to make it less pointed). I have fostered my authentic friendships, and I've gotten a good deal of support from others who see what I see. For a little while I missed Ann and Betty's friendship, because they did take up a lot of space in my life. I'm over that now, and I just want to figure out how to coexist with these two.

Help! How do I rise above this nonsense? How do I work with Ann and Betty and not care about what they think of me? How do I coexist with them and not sink to their level? One major goal I have is to be emotionally impartial to their success or failure. If a colleague talks about how fantastic Ann is, I don't want to cringe on the inside. If someone criticizes Betty, I don't want to secretly rejoice. I don't want to hope for the collapse of their friendship.

I want to smudge them from my mind and heart.
posted by hippychick to Human Relations (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Congratulations on realizing how bad gossip is; from now on you can take a leadership role in discouraging it in the workplace and keeping new people from getting burned by it. It fragments a group and ends up with everyone feeling isolated and powerless. I think it's great that you've done it without being confrontational or holier than thou. I confess to sounding prissy on a few occasions saying things like, "I've made up my mind not to gossip on that topic." (And I have had someone go so far as to follow me out to my car, trying to get me to break down and gossip with them.)

How do I coexist with them and not sink to their level? One major goal I have is to be emotionally impartial to their success or failure. If a colleague talks about how fantastic Ann is, I don't want to cringe on the inside. If someone criticizes Betty, I don't want to secretly rejoice. I don't want to hope for the collapse of their friendship.

I think you're already successful just because you WANT this outcome. A religious person would tell you to pray for them-- pray they get whatever it is they need.
posted by BibiRose at 6:55 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few years ago, I saw someone at work fall under the influence of a Betty -- a backstabbing frenemy who pretended to be his only friend in the office, but spent all of her time tearing down his self-confidence. Betty's relentless toxicity turned the guy into a blob of quivering angst and learned helplessness, and all the while he thought she was his only friend. It was terrifying and upsetting and frankly, it only ended when the Betty in question quit to go elsewhere.

It was AMAZING how fast Betty's former victim turned his career around once she was gone.

People like this are toxic, and I don't think it's a negative judgement on you that you have trouble dealing with that toxicity. In fact, I think it's impressive that you removed yourself from their dynamic.

That being said. I know this isn't the optimum solution, but it's worth considering: Can anyone in this situation find a new job? Either you, by finding work elsewhere, or Ann and/or Betty, by moving one or both of them to a new team? Nothing will smudge someone from your heart and mind like no longer having to interact with them five days/forty hours per week.

If that isn't an option -- what is HR like at your place of work? I'd be very surprised if you were the only victim of Anne and Betty's toxicity at work. If they're impacting other people, you could potentially bring these concerns up with HR, or a supervisor. (However, this won't fly at all workplaces, so evaluate yours accordingly.)
posted by pie ninja at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Fake it till you make it. When you hear your little inner imp cringing or rejoicing say to it: "Hey there, imp. I acknowledge you, but I am not going to indulge you. Bye!"

People like this exist and always need an enemy. They will find a new target soon - particularly if you are 100% disengaged from the nonsense. And if they don't? Well, if you're 100% disengaged, you won't care.

Well, you might still care a tiny bit. But you don't have to indulge the imp. Just say, "Yeah, of course I care. What happened there between us three, it was too bad." And then move on to another topic in your head.

You say you've fostered your other friendships. Good. So good! This is important. When you fill your time and brain up with other things, you simply won't have the brain space for these women.

You also say that you've gotten a lot of support from others who "see what you see." I'm glad you got support, but it is time to stop talking about this with anyone you socialize with. A therapist, or your husband - fine, especially if you limit it, particularly with your husband. But talking about it is giving this stuff a voice. It makes it more salient and real to talk about it. Instead, recognize that you want to talk about it internally, but don't indulge the imp. Stop talking about this, full stop. That will help immensely.

Finally, why not pick up a new hobby? Something fun and different and maybe even physical - kickboxing, or yoga, or rock climbing. Working out is a great way to practice mindfulness, and to get in tune with yourself. And it gives you something to do with your time, and to think about instead of thinking about Ann and Betty. And it will offer you the opportunity to find new friends, people who have never heard of Ann and Betty, and never will. Because you'll be too busy to even remember to mention them.

Good luck. Losing friends, even toxic ones, is the pits.
posted by sockermom at 7:04 AM on July 25, 2014 [21 favorites]

I'm gonna flip this around. Be a little glad about their successes (who doesn't want success? it feels good) and acknowledge that failure feels bad for anyone, even those you don't like. That's how you decouple from this drama. You see them as fellow humans. That is truly neutral. Not wishing fire & brimstone upon enemies; not even seeing people as enemies but merely human beings fumbling through the best they can.

Everyone has good or bad traits. I can't stand a supervisor for eg. but he's very skilled at putting things tactfully and not getting emotionally pulled into a situation. So I acknowledge that positive skill just as equally as I acknowledge the waffling and politicalness that I don't like.

Just remember that gossip and trash-talking comes from insecurity & fear. See them as fearful and operating at a low end of the scale of human strength and character. It's hard to hate that. You just see it for what it is and avoid them where possible.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:04 AM on July 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds from here like

they seem to enjoy when certain people struggle

Ann and Betty are jerks

Ann and Betty are deeply unhappy in some major ways

because Ann and Betty have hard lives they are not coping well with. I mean, sort of ridiculous to distill the entirety of a person down to 'has problems, is jerk,' but you seem to already know all that you need to remind yourself of when drawn to thinking about the two of them.

You're a bit further along down a path than they are; smile and nod and pretend you don't notice any ill will in the same way you'd ignore a fart, and hope that they make it down their own paths without too much more struggle. And forgive yourself for feeling a bit wounded over this. This doesn't sound very 'middle school.' There was a betrayal, you have to work with people who aren't kind to you; it's not a great situation, you're allowed to mourn before moving on.
posted by kmennie at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

they did take up a lot of space in my life

They still do. Congrats on getting rid of them physically, but you're asking how to get them out of your head.

This is going to take time. It's like a breakup from a romantic partner. You just live your life. Other relationships will develop (work/personal) and other activities will crowd them out of your brainspace.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:07 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

People can be awful personally and still good at their jobs. It's okay if someone says Ann is fantastic at her job; she very well may be. You know she's a sucky friend, but that's not really material to her job performance. So, I would work on separating your personal feelings from your evaluation of their work product. Easier said than done, I know, but at least that gives you a clear-cut goal.

And I feel for you. There are people like this at my office, and it's hard not to get caught up in their nonsense, especially when you're new and don't have a clear picture of the social structure yet. I have gone through the special-friends-to-polite-nods progression with more than one person in my 9 years here, and although it does sort of suck that I'm not included in the cliquey lunches, I've also heard how those people talk about others and I know I don't want any part of that awful behavior.

I will also tell you this: I'm the assistant to the CEO and work more closely with our company's Vice Presidents than I do with anyone else here. They are all extremely familiar with who these socially toxic, gossipy people are in our office, and take active steps to make sure said people are not party to any sort of sensitive information or important decision-making. You've done the right thing by distancing yourself - you don't want that reputation. Keep doing what you're doing.
posted by something something at 7:08 AM on July 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

I can't really address the larger issue, here (what to do), but I will say one thing that I think is important: You do not need to beat yourself up about your feelings, here.

You are allowed to be angry, you are allowed to obsess about this a little, and there is nothing wrong with you for giving in and gossiping in order to feel liked. We all do it at least once, and I tend to believe that gossip isn't a purely evil thing (though it gets far more problematic in a workplace than in regular social life, I feel). All this stuff is normal, and you are not foolish for ending up in this situation with these shitty people.
posted by hought20 at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

They gossip, you gossiped, you all gossiped together. It's hard to feel genuinely happy for a person if you're a miserable gossiper and it's hard to show genuine happiness and support for a person who has trash-talked others. So, you were all a bunch of haters. They may be a little jealous or have a bit of a mean-streak, but we can never know if they're truly out to get you. Surely all of their checkins on Facebook are not intended to piss you off.

This is part of your past and you can't erase it. All you can do now is behave with dignity and show a little understanding. Right now you're judging their lives. It isn't productive (or emotionally healthy) for you to judge the state of their happiness. Whether they are happy or unhappy means nothing to your life. It won't make you happy to believe that you have it better than them, or you're somehow superior in some way. We all have struggles and we all mature at different rates. The healthier and happier you are, the less you will judge these two and the less you'll care what they're doing with their lives, with their Facebook, or whatever. I would focus my efforts on my husband and friends. You have to let Ann and Betty go. When you've let it go and are a bit wiser, you'll be able to view them with compassion and you'll see your role and faults more clearly.

About the Facebook thing: Stop reading Facebook until you can get to a place where it doesn't bother you as much. Check-ins mean nothing. Facebook means nothing.
posted by Fairchild at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

So why do I let the petty antics of a few former friends (who are also colleagues) ruin my day?

Maybe because you used to engage in the same behavior as part of the "Mean Girl" Club, and now you feel like crap because you see how destructive it is and you probably feel pretty badly that you were once part of this gossipy nastiness.

But the thing is, you did it, you've stopped doing it, and you see now how horrible it is, especially because it's being turned on you.

It's a healthy growth process to recognize your mistakes, which I think may be at the heart of your question.

So recognize that you did this, that it definitely wasn't nice to do, and that you will no longer do it. Take comfort that you've moved beyond this type of behavior; feel some compassion for their unhappiness and just try to get the job done as best as you can.

It's one of the most basic therapeutic tenets: you can't control what others do but you can control your reactions to them. Try to view their nonsense with compassion. Only deeply miserable people feel the need to create misery for others.
posted by kinetic at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Help! How do I rise above this nonsense? How do I work with Ann and Betty and not care about what they think of me? How do I coexist with them and not sink to their level?

Develop habits. Someone praises the two, then think "Good for them, hope things work out". If someone complains them think "so glad I've left the gossiping behind".

They ignore me when I walk into a room.

So what. Do your job and keep moving.

They openly criticize the way staff meetings are run (without naming me, but COME ON).
Handle their complains professionally. If they feel there's something better that could be done, then ask them to volunteer to do so.

They talk about their outside-of-work adventures nonstop.

How do you know this? Don't you have other stuff to be doing, rather than listening to them?

They boycott me on social media.

Good. Now quit checking whether they boycott you.

They check in on facebook EVERYWHERE they go, remarking on what fun this "girls' night" is, what "besties" they are... Because I was in their circle (triangle?) for a few years, I know that some of this behavior is an active attempt to make me feel like shit.

Uh, how do you know this if you've purged them from Facebook? If you're still checking on their status, develop habits so that when you have that impulse, you can consult a list of other things to do instead. Then DO them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:13 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I left a Betty situation at my former workplace, like, a week ago. After years of putting up with the Betty behavior, which finally came to a head when she spread a load of particularly malicious gossip about me, I ended up walking out because I could. It was not a mistake. My borderline high blood pressure dropped 10 points within two days of my walking out. No joke, that's how much stress I was dealing with because of this horrid person.

My advice is: If you can, get out now. If you can't, fake a smile and do your job for now, all the while planning to get out. And the minute you can manage it, get out.

People like Betty and Ann won't change. They have no reason to. Long after you've moved on to bigger and better things, they'll still be working there, gossiping away, mired in their own shit, all with the boss's tacit approval. (Because trust me, the boss knows about these two and has chosen to do nothing.) So move on.

As a slightly more woo-woo short-term solution: A former neighbor once told me, when I was complaining about another demonic coworker, "Freeze him. It's the only thing to do with demons." Huh? She instructed me to write his name on a piece of red paper and put it in a container of vinegar, then put it all in a freezer and let it freeze. (Yes, you will feel slightly crazy when you do it, but no crazier than Betty and Ann are making you feel already.) Guess what? It worked. I had a freezer full of demons after that. When they stopped being a problem or I stopped caring about them , I would simply let them thaw and pour the whole mess out. Worked a treat. Try it.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 8:18 AM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just a quick question. If you hadn't been friends with them and had been promoted and they talked about you and disrespected a superior at work like they are you would they still have jobs? Would they have been allowed to get away with it. If you are in a position that has some control over their work, and you say you run staff meetings so I am assuming you do, why are they allowed to disrespect you like that? It shows weakness not only to them but to anyone else you are in charge of, does the company have procedures in place to handle these sort of situations?

If you really want to move past them, you need to go to management & get that job back that you gave up because of them. They know they have you right where they want you, that you still care about what they say because you quit it, so like all bullies they are going to keep it up because they are still getting a reaction. They are not & were not your friends, they are dysfunctional people you work with, treat them like it. Block them on Facebook, ignore them at work.

You don't sound like the sort of person who can do it, not everyone is as confrontational as I am, but if you can call them on their bullshit. At the staff meeting, last thing ask if anyone has any questions/problems. If they say no, you go good so we won't be hearing about any problems outside this meeting then? If they say yes, resolve it there or then and make it a none event.

Of course if you are a non confrontational person I'd just start looking for another job. It's just work, it's not worth the BS they are putting you through. Leave them in your dust, find another job and in a year you'll wonder why you were bothered by those idiots at all.
posted by wwax at 8:25 AM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

My wife works with Ann and Betty, and I watch and compassionately listen to (without intervening) the ups and downs this has sometimes created for her personally and professionally.

The commiseration and "loving" understanding displayed with regards to personal challenges shared among the group... only to have it devolve into shit-talking and sometimes brought into play in the workplace at a later date, not just with her but with others, the power plays, currying favor, pointedly cutting off all contact (short of a cold, judgemental "professionalism") to any detractors or fleeing refugees...

These are some of the things I have heard about, and been shown text messages about over the last couple years.

It's a schoolyard mentality. The aspects you don't like about it are the professional bullying. The adult versions of hair-pulling and knocking over your milk are character assassination and passive aggressiveness.

They are sick. Logically, this is evident, but emotionally, their "symptoms" anger you. Logically, you know they are acting out of bitterness and unhappiness of their own lives, but emotionally they are threatening your self-esteem and ambitions. Logically, you know you just "let haters hate" but emotionally, you are compelled to react, whether internally or externally.

Emotions are more powerful than logic. As such, I cannot think my way into feeling differently about anything.

Any relief I can get from logic alone is short-lived, and usually only effective while the antagonisms are dormant. (i.e. "I shouldn't be so scared and angry about my broken car, look at that poor homeless man with no legs" = 2 minutes of perspective before I get a phone call with the $1300 estimate and I start flipping out about the car again)

Emotions can, however, be influenced by action. The result on the emotional state, positive or negative, is directly correlated by the nature of the action.

Actively doing something different, new and positive: Writing a gratitude list, Absorbing and performing suggestions found in self-help books, praying for Ann and Betty... wishing for them to receive everything you want in your own life... Hell, even putting a name on paper and placing it in the freezer (as woo-woo as that sounds, it's not going to hurt anyone).... whatever it is that you choose to do... DO something.

I cannot stress enough how impactful concrete action is on one's emotional state. I literally wasted decades with the belief I could somehow wrangle my emotional state into line with my logical thinking, only to catch myself slipping into fear, depression and rage with the added detriment of being angry at myself because I fucking knew better.

So yeah.... Have a plan of action, not a reaction... An action is on your terms while a reaction will be on the terms of your emotional state, which unfortunately, is heavily influenced by Ann and Betty. Don't give them that much power.

So... Don't wait for the next staff meeting or passive aggressive comment, do something (or a series of things) which are concrete and positive to address the issue, and I promise you that your emotional state will improve...
posted by Debaser626 at 8:29 AM on July 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Start being grateful. Grateful that you got away from their toxic friendship. Grateful that you got to try out a leadership position and rocked it hard enough that your boss encouraged you to keep it up. Grateful that you are doing the right things for yourself in blocking social media and other hurtful channels. Grateful that you now have a Whole Bunch of headspace that can be used for Good instead of Evil.

So what do you want to use that headspace on instead? Planning to move to a better job? Doing your current job even better? Maintaining your current level of professionalism as you move forward? Kickboxing? Breadbaking? Reading something amazing and thinking about that instead?

Find something to be grateful for every time you catch yourself in that bad headspace. Then find other awesome things to think about instead. You're going to come out of this suffering with a whole lot of wisdom and maybe even some new skills if you rock that.
posted by ldthomps at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

My best friend once said the absolute best thing to reframe my relationships with our high school social circle. She didn't say it to school me, either, it was just something she said in passing.

They were all gossipy and weird and insular and whatever as well, and I also felt marginalized by them as well, and the first couple years out of college I was all sullen and grumpy about them as well, much in the way that you're still smarting about Ann and Betty. But I also didn't see too much of them, where she was still in our same home town and saw more of them. She wasn't bothered by their behavior, but she also just had never engaged anyway.

And we were talking once, a few years out of college, about a mini-reunion that had spontaneously happened amongst them all, and she had been there; and she was telling me about it and said that "it was the freakiest thing; but when everyone all got together I was just sitting there and watching them blown away the whole time, because it was like time had stopped."

What she meant was, she realized not just that they all hadn't really moved on from the dynamic they'd all had when they were in high school, but also that....the fact that they hadn't moved on was really, really kind of pathetic.

And that was all it took for me, actually - reminding myself that "wait, how sad is it that they're still acting like it's high school" to get past that. And that helped tremendously going forward. (A couple of them have continued carrying their bitchery into the present, and them I got issues with - but not the others.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:46 AM on July 25, 2014

Best answer: I looked at your posting history and it appears you are a teacher, which I think is a relevant detail which makes it easier for us to help you.

Or for me to, anyway, since that's what I do and I went through something similar. I stopped eating lunch in the staff room and started focusing a lot more on my students. I would let myself be friendly with colleagues, but only ones who understood that we're professionals first, and I used professionalism as the context for a lot of the favors and reciprocal acts to build the relationships. I think colleagues started taking me more seriously when I stopped being present in places where people gossip or complain. It may take a toll on your social life, but I'd avoid social situations, especially ones outside of work and with alcohol, if toxic coworkers are going to be present.

I also developed a clear idea of what my boundaries are and how I'm going to enforce them if there's a problem with a colleague. My first step would be to get agreement that the purpose of the conversation is to find a child-centered solution to a problem that addresses the concerns of all colleagues involved. A colleague who can't agree to that needs to be brought to the attention of an administrator, pronto, and coworkers like the ones you're talking about are unprofessional enough to actually be oblivious to the point where they may tell you to stop making such a big deal over the kids. It has happened to me.

A lot of your colleagues will understand exactly what's going on with these people and will not take their opinions seriously. They will recognize that they can't be trusted or at least that they feel drained or vaguely dirty if they spend too much time in the same room as them.

Since you're in education, there are other ways you can move your career forward even without the leadership position. You could see if one or two members of your department besides Ann and Betty want to get together and give a workshop or a series of workshops or a presentation at a Board Meeting or a PTA meeting. You can ask to serve on a committee, or run an extracurricular.

Alternatively, you could talk to your boss about the leadership position and your concerns about "not feeling like everyone is on-board" without mentioning names and see what happens. Your boss probably knows what's up with these two.
posted by alphanerd at 9:15 AM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

One reason this feels so shitty is that you were down with it, until they did it to you. You have a mixture of feeling left out coupled with shame. I get shame, no one with my personality is going to escape it. I frequently let my mouth write checks my ass can't cash.

So do a forgiveness ceremony, to forgive yourself. The gist of it is that "I was once part of a group that acted shitty to other people. It was small and petty of me and I regret it. I want to ask forgiveness of anyone I may have hurt with my behavior during that time. I especially want to forgive myself. I was younger and more immature at that time, and I've grown and now realize how small my behavior was." It's really cleansing. Light a candle, make a small donation to the charity of your choice and just continue being a better person.

If someone repeats something bad in your presence, just rise above it, don't shame the person. If it's something about you just say, "Stop right there, Ann's opinion of me is none of my business." If it's about someone else, "oh, no need to tell me. So, how 'bout them dawgs?"

Eventually the feelings will fade. I also pray for my 'enemies'. My prayer is, "G-d bless and keep Betty and Ann....far away from me." (Fiddler on the Roof.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:48 AM on July 25, 2014

Sometimes when I have a lot of free time it leaves me enough mind space to focus unhealthily on other people. Are you busy enough at work? Can you take on a new club/committee/class that would take a lot of your time and energy?

Also, if you are a teacher I don't know how easy or desirable to transfer schools. But I would seriously consider it if this is affecting your everyday. People like that are experts at bullying and once they are entrenched in a work atmosphere it is very hard to change things. Good luck.

By the way, I feel you on the difference between "supportive" and "voyeuristic." It can be hard to tell sometimes whether someone is listening to your issues because they are your friend or because they just want to be entertained/compare your experiences to their own. You're right on the money that actions are the proof -- do they celebrate good news with you? Do they follow up with you one-on-one if you are upset? Or is your life just fodder for conversation when you see them during the course of the day to day?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:00 AM on July 25, 2014

I am so sorry you are dealing with this! Women should be supported by other women in the workplace, but too often that does not happen and you have crap like this to deal with.

You are, understandably, taking this all personally. Anne and Betty made it personal. That is why it feels like middle school; they have not natured past that stage. You get past it by realizing you are the adult here, and so you can deal with this like an adult, at another level: the professional one.

This isn't middle school, where the popular girls freeze the others out. This is work, and at work, you have already shown you are just plain better than they are.

If it is at all possible for you to get that leadership role back, I think you should do it. Your boss encouraged you, so if you go to him/her and say you have reconsidered, I think you will be able to get back in that leadership role. I know you had other issues with it, but I think the primary reason this role was so stressful for you was because your stint with a leadership position allowed you to see Anne and Betty for who they really are, right? They don't like themselves, and they don't respect you. They are jealous of anyone successful, in fact. Which makes them a professional liability.

And that's to your advantage. So you go back to leading the staff meetings, and at the start of the very next staff meeting you tackle--not specifying anyone by name! but everyone will know who you mean--the uncomfortable work environment.

You say something like this:
Concerns in the office have been brought to my attention (true, doesn't matter how, even if the concerns are yours, brought to your attention by Anne and Betty being little shits) about employees engaging in petty gossip about their coworkers, dismissing and/or diminishing their coworkers' achievements, possibly sabotaging their rise up the professional ladder, and generally Acting in an unprofessional manner.

This is not acceptable in (your organization, such a great place to work!). Here, we are working together as a united team, and we are all expected to be team players. We don't want anyone at (your company) to feel like the workplace climate makes it tougher to get the job done.

To that end, i want to encourage everyone to feel comfortable reporting any unprofessional behavior that might negatively impact their work performance to (you, their direct supervisor or HR, whoever is appropriate). The company prides itself on its inclusivity and takes complaints like these very seriously, as (our great company!) knows that an inhospitable work climate can eventually lead to losing good people, eventually even a toxic work environment and possible lawsuits. Therefore, (our great company!) will not tolerate this kind of toxic behavior in the workplace, period.
You don't have to, in fact you SHOULD NOT, mention Anne and Betty specifically. They'll get the message. The main thing is that you are showing you are not going to take their shit, and you are speaking from a position of strength and authority to back that up.

Let them keep up their petty negativity and bullshit at home and on Facebook if they want, but get it out of the workplace. It doesn't belong there, anyway.

Good luck, hippychick! We're all on your side here at Team Mefi.
posted by misha at 10:02 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hold on...are you a teacher and this is happening with other teachers?

If that's the case, read on. If not, ignore.

I'm a high school (former middle school) teacher and whenever I go to some teacher training, it always breaks down as this:

* you can spot the elementary school teachers because they happily make hand turkeys and sing the silly songs;

* you can spot the high school teachers because we grumble and we may sing a little;

* you can spot the middle school teachers because they're making fun of everyone else.

It's a strange and sad thing that happens with teachers and most teachers will secretly agree. We all tend to take on the emotional development level of our kids. Elementary teachers look at new ideas and people with wonder and a sense of learning and growth.

High school teachers are know-it-alls but we recognize value in learning. We won't do the silly dance, though.

Middle school teachers, by and large, are just nasty pieces of work. They're critical, short-tempered know-it-alls.

No lie...MANY of my staff are former middle school teachers who did their time and then got the hell out of middle school because the teacher culture is so unbelievably nasty and immature.
posted by kinetic at 11:21 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I am in fact a teacher, so we don't have an HR department (though boy could we use one!!!). The leadership position I passed on was not worth it for other reasons as well. As anyone in education might know, our field is sort of a mess politically right now, and I found that the more time I put into that role, the more I regretted it because the administration is in turmoil, and it was taking time away from my students. I believe I did as well as I could given who I am and what the job was, but I want to devote myself to things that directly impact my students. So Ann and Betty helped with the decision, but even without their sideward glances and petty criticisms, I would have passed up on the leadership position. I very well may get back into it in the future, and I am involved with less "front and center" leadership roles at my school.

Many of you have validated my feelings, which I appreciate because it's not easy to admit that I have them. It's not easy to admit that I joined in their gossip at one point, and its not easy to admit that I care what they think. As far as social media goes, I did the facebook purge just last night. So I will no longer be privy to their updates. I have been blocking them from seeing my stuff for months, because I found myself wanting to post things just for them to see. I know, pathetic. I knew it wouldn't be very easy to change that mindset, so I just blocked what they saw. Now that I do in fact have more free time during the summer, I found myself checking their pages and thinking about them more than I wanted to. I didn't think I would be able to "unfriend" them without causing drama, so I finally did it as a general purge.

I am not sure I am in a position to leave my job, and I think that if I print out your advice, and carry on as I have, I won't feel the toxicity so much next year. I also love my students, and I feel that I have a pretty positive impact on them. I would have a LOT of explaining to do if I were to leave, unless it meant moving.

I feel that I am on my way out of this, but just needed some intelligent, unbiased feedback. I don't speak of this with many people, because I know that would be basically doing what they are doing: backtalk. I do, however discuss it with close friends outside of our workplace, my shrink, and my husband. They are obviously so biased that it's easy to just believe them when they say "well Ann and Betty are miserable and just jealous of your success". I think I posted my question because while my loved ones are right to some degree, this doesn't explain or change the emotional impact it has on me.

Here are my takeaways after reading your thoughtful posts (lists help me, and maybe this can help someone else who is going through something similar):
- Part of the sting is that I feel guilty for partaking in their gossip and unprofessionalism
- I need to continue to live my best life, nurturing positive relationships and activities
- I need to not gossip with others (which is very hard in a high school... teachers are just as bad as the students)
- I need to be compassionate with Ann and Betty (this one will be very hard, but I respect the wisdom here)

Thank you!
posted by hippychick at 11:38 AM on July 25, 2014 [11 favorites]

Similar to the "freeze them" advice above, I like drawing caricature pictures of nasty people on paper plates and then telling them how i really feel then throwing them out. It's like a mental purge. After that they are just person X (like a variable) which is nice because you can still be tickled by positive news for them because they are just some blank X person who could be anybody. Example: X won a trip to Italy! Your reaction: Cool! Italy is beautiful! because X could be that guy that lives up the block, your mom's hairdresser, or bettys.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:44 PM on July 25, 2014

Best answer: Caveat: I pretty much suck at relating with human beings. But in a situation like this, I would be sorely tempted to just say, "We used to be friends, and I haven't done shit to you. Treating somebody who used to be your friend like this is pretty rotten. Grow the F up."

Recently I heard somewhere that humiliation is one of the strongest emotions we can feel, and it makes sense. When we were a bunch of monkeys around the fire, getting ostracized by the tribe could literally mean death. So, we are wired to freak the fuck out when our friends turn on us! Your ex-friends are rejecting you and endlessly picking at you, and that's the kind of stuff that could do a number on anybody. Your feelings of hurt are based on really primal stuff; it's beyond childish, it's simian. Give yourself points for growing beyond them, and do whatever you can to stay out of their cruddy little world.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:00 PM on July 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

I worked with gossipy coworkers 10 years ago. Every day, they made fun of people's clothing, social gaffes, and workplace mistakes. I'm sure they made fun of me when I left the room. The interesting thing is that one of them became extremely successful over the past 10 years, and the more successful she got, the less she gossiped.

Now she's managing a huge project with a million-dollar budget, and she's completely non-gossipy. When she speaks of others, it's always with respect.

I could tell that she was insecure 10 years ago, and felt better about herself by putting others down. For the brief moment when she made a cruel joke, she felt momentarily superior. But now she is very confident, and she knows she's the best at her job, and there's no need to put anyone else down. She's a great mentor and manager.

When Ann and Betty mock you, I know you logically understand that they're projecting because they're miserable. But emotionally you probably wonder, "Is there a kernel of truth to what they said? Are others thinking the same thing but too polite to say it? What does it say about me that I chose them as friends despite my husband's warning? Do I have poor judgement?"

If you can emotionally understand what you already know logically, it will bother you less. Imagine you are swimming in the ocean and suddenly a friend starts pulling you under the water and trying to drown you. You would be livid, and betrayed, and question whether you have poor judgement in friends. Now imagine your friend is still pulling you under, but it's because she can't swim and she's drowning herself, and she's already ingested a bunch of salt water and is sobbing and trying desperately to pull on your arm to avoid falling below the water herself. Now you'll still be irritated, but you won't question your own judgement as much.
posted by vienna at 3:48 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

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