Help me develop better coping strategies for difficult work environment
January 1, 2017 7:09 PM   Subscribe

Hi all, I am looking for some thoughts and ideas on managing stress and emotions better regarding work stuff, because I've found myself being awfully negative lately, getting into anxiety loops, and dwelling on anger & frustration. What I am going to describe is not a great situation, of which I am fully aware, but there are many, many, many reasons why I have no interest in leaving this job now so please do not suggest it.

There are two ways in which my job is hard. The first is the nature of the job itself: my job is overburdened and underresourced, possibly impossible to do well; I often do not have the time necessary to adequately prepare; I am constantly doing something and do not frequently have the time to think through things carefully or take breaks; most people would find the subject matter to be extremely traumatic and triggering; and a huge part of my job is listening to people in extremely difficult situations vent their emotions on me, including most frequently by crying and expressing desperation or anger, sometimes directed at me for things outside my control. My daily job involves delivering very bad news to people and managing usually extremely unreasonable expectations.

The second way that my job is hard is that the work environment itself is rather toxic. We do not have an HR department despite being a large company, most of my colleagues are competitive and are not always supportive or good at answering questions, the gossip mill is intense and people are judgy of one another (including a lot of hazing for newbies), we are expected to work long hours with limited benefits, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there is a culture of fear of upper management in the office and I feel a lot of pressure to stay off the radar.

I knew that the nature of the job would be difficult going into it, and I am very dedicated to the work and want to be strong enough to handle it. The bad office culture was a bit of a surprise, but it's my understanding that bad culture is (depressingly) par for the course in my field, and probably pretty common in this economic climate in general.

I want to get to a place where I am less bitter, anxious, and hurt/angry/filledwithEmotions, but I tend to be rather sensitive, and getting yelled at a lot or told that I am bad at my job despite my best efforts within the constraints is very hard for me to handle, and I dwell on it a lot. Also, I'm pregnant, so I'm in an especially vulnerable place, both in my workplace in general and as far as my emotional keel is concerned (although I have been struggling with these feelings since before the pregnancy).

So, I am looking for coping strategies. It seems like most of my colleagues drink heavily as a way of coping, which is off the table for me right now. Things I find myself doing which may or may not be helping include making up angry rants to myself of things I would say to certain people if I could (but I usually can't freely speak my mind, because doing so would often be unprofessional); hanging out with friends outside of work and trying not to talk too much about work; reminding myself to consider the source and the very real underlying reasons for why people are dumping their frustration on me; and venting a lot to my wonderful partner. What things have worked for you or others you know? What things might I try to help regulate my emotions and reduce stress and anxiety? (And let me urge please not to suggest going to my boss with these issues, as it is very clear that it's a dead end that way, and I really don't want to shake things up right now).
posted by likeatoaster to Work & Money (9 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Here is one very specific suggestion - it won't solve everything but it might help a little. The idea is to let the toxicity of the workplace flow through you or around you with leaving any emotional residue on yourself. Find an image that works for you. My job involves taking in lots of negative emotions but very rarely aimed at me personally. So I envision all their feelings a jangly energy, with high sharp frequencies that enter in my and flow right back out as smooth curvy even energy of patience and loving kindness. Sometimes I breathe in and notice all the negative energy in my body and then as I breath out I see it turn into a clear blue light. Each breath, the light takes up more space and jangly energy gets smaller. Sometimes after a particularly difficult encounter I literally shake out the negative energy. (Yes, literally shake my arms and shoulders to feel it flow out of me and onto the floor). For you may be a Teflon duck, floating thru the oil slick, clean and unruffled would work better.

In any case, practice the imagery at home so you learn to connect it with the feeling of letting go of other people's negative stuff - the goal is to reconnect to your true shiny self and their stuff be their stuff, not yours.
posted by metahawk at 7:35 PM on January 1, 2017 [20 favorites]

This is the thought behind my suggestion above. You obviously care deeply about the basic function of your job - it is an important job and it matter to you that you be the person to do it. Your goal is to do the best you can with the tools that you have. Some of those are pretty crappy tools. Keep the focus on the fact that you have chosen to be there because it is a job that matters. You know that bad parts but you are making this choice for good reasons. You are doing the best you can and allow yourself to feel the satisfaction for that. Don't waste energy fretting about the poor tools (bad management, nasty co-workers), you can't control it. What you can control is how you do with the tool you have and how you feel about it. Which is to say you are doing good and important work as well as you are able and it makes you feel good to know that. Let all the other @#$ just pass through you or roll off of you.
posted by metahawk at 7:43 PM on January 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Write those angry rants down! There is nothing like writing something down to get it out of your system. I find pen and paper (instead of keyboard and screen) particularly therapeutic for this, but whatever works for you. Just never, ever bring it to work.

Physical activity also helps me cope with extreme frustration--both in the short term (just working out my rage) and the long term (regular physical activity just makes me feel better in general, and when I feel better, I cope better). I know this may not be an option for everyone, but if it's an option for you at all, it may be worth finding time to do it.

And, apologies if this is super obvious, but many people in jobs that require them to absorb other people's intense emotions benefit from therapy. It's wonderful that you have a supportive partner to vent to, but venting to a neutral third party can be even more liberating--even more so if they have the professional knowledge to guide you toward other coping and processing strategies you may not have thought of.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:44 PM on January 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Someone once asked me how I managed to stay sane during a few particularly challenging coworker issues. I'm not sure if it'll help you, since your workplace sounds especially toxic, but just in case - can you start to foster a sense of detachment with the problems, and view them as fodder for amusing anecdotes later? The people at work that were starting to really wear on me suddenly became characters in the movie/book about my life and after every encounter, I would think about how I would reframe the interaction to instead be a funny story to tell to someone later, which would lessen the impact and also make my friends and me laugh later.
posted by umwhat at 9:14 PM on January 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

In relation to a different source of unavoidable, intense stress (and other kinds) - the sort of technique metahawk described has helped, for me.

For immediate calming - ice water on the hands, and this breathing app (has easy-to-follow cues), or going outside for some air.

When someone's yelling at you - don't get drawn in on a personal level. By which I mean, don't get sucked into the eyes, or give in to the pull of the emotional thread connecting you. Cut that thread - imagine you're standing further back. Observe them in a cool way - look at some feature of their face as a neutral process (e.g. look at how their eyebrows are moving) instead of at the whole package of energy and intention coming at you. Listen to them for long enough to get the gist of what the upset is about, and spend more time thinking about what angle you figure they might need to hear, or how things could be framed, to calm them down (at least a little). (I've done that with people I've known well enough to guess [well enough] - people vary, but maybe you've seen enough situations and people to get a sense of some tactics that might work. But maybe, try to analyze them, as problems to solve, instead of as individuals you're relating to on a more natural emotional level - more Data than Deanna Troi [from Star Trek TNG, if you know it].)

You have very little control over the pace of your work - is there any way to change that, a bit? Or are there efficiencies you can introduce? (You have to respond to new and complex information all the time, sounds like, but perhaps someone more experienced in your field can suggest some ways to winnow things down a bit so they're even slightly more manageable? Or are there people who can help make things easier? If not your colleagues, other people you have to deal with or get information from day to day? Make friends wherever you can...)

A mentor of some kind might be helpful, even if they don't work at your organization... if you belong to a profession, perhaps your professional association has resources to facilitate this? Or even assistance for burnout prevention, like counselling?
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:22 AM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding the suggestion of writing things down: keep it limited to those things that you really have to get out. I've found that sometimes writing takes up valuable time rehashing crap over and over when I would have just been better off having a soak in the tub or watching a few episodes of my favorite comedy program. A lot of crap just needs to be let go and not allowed to simmer and create more toxicity. Writing can be helpful if you are trying to work something out, but don't dwell too much on it. Your time is valuable, don't let these haters take it from you.

Keep at the heart of your day the reason why you chose this field. I am a high school teacher, so I kind of get it, the emotional baggage we have to carry and how heavy that is sometimes. My mantra has become "I am here to help my students." So instead of wasting my time with others bitching about what a crappy teacher that other person is and how she is wasting her students' time, (getting stuck in the gossip and negativity) I make sure I subtly offer those students some extra help if they need it. Pema Chodron has a wonderful term for this - Not Biting the Hook.
posted by NoraCharles at 5:57 AM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thank you - these are all really great suggestions! Please keep them coming, if others have other ideas.

Also, this is probably clear, but there are a lot of real positives about the job and things that I really enjoy (and I really hope to be in it for the long haul, despite common burnout), it's just that it can be a little much so I'd like to spend the new year working on improving my personal responses to those things I have less control over.
posted by likeatoaster at 6:44 AM on January 2, 2017

I was in a stressful situation while pregnant. Here are some potential tricks that might work a little bit...
1. When someone is being an asshole, listen with one ear while reminding yourself with half your consciousness that they are poor at self control, un-selfaware, not very emotionally responsible. Kinda listen to them with the distance that a therapist might listen to a patient who is getting out old shit towards the therapist, or how a nursery school teacher might listen to a whining toddler who is overtired: overtly remind yourself the whole time THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME and HUH, THIS PERSON IS LOSING IT and I'M HERE FOR A BIGGER REASON.
2. For me, it was really, really helpful to reflect, in calmer moments, about WHY I take in another person's stress when they're inappropriately venting at me. And for me and many other people like me (i.e. this is not very special snowflake though it's mostly unconscious) it's easy to think you have to defend yourself, at least internally, because you have a belief that you're supposed to be seen as perfect and that you're always supposed to be the one to swoop in and fix things, and if you don't, then you're guilty. And when people are saying they don't see you as the perfect competent Best One, it makes you need with a huge adrenaline surge to prove! and explain! and defend! to get that super self-image back, and to rectify that sense that people arent seeing you the way you need to see yourself. (Not "you," likeatoaster, just the generic "you" of this type of interaction, of course.)
3. The other thing that maybe helps: when stress is coming at you, just react halfway to the co-worker, and secretly go into yourself and sing a little mental song or soothing murmur to the baby. Mentally tell the baby not to worry about this fool. Seriously. You'll do a lot of this once the kid is born and some jerk is scaring them with any kind of dumb display. Reassuring the baby is soothing and calming to you as the mother, you'll see. You can start now :).
And sorry, some people are just ugh.
posted by flourpot at 8:50 AM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree with trying to let the negative energy flow around you. The mental image I use is that I am a rock in a river with rapids. The rapids foam around me but they do not move me and I do not absorb them. I also remind myself frequently that it's almost never personal.

I also suggest having a ritual of some kind to mark the end of the day so that you don't get home and feel the need to vent for an hour, which is in some ways good (yay for dedicated partners) but keeps you in that negative headspace and also dumps some of it on them. This might be exercise, it might be a 5-minute mindfulness exercise (there are some good ones on YouTube), it might be taking the train home and reading a book, whatever. Just something to reset a bit. (Note: I'm not suggesting never venting, especially if you have something that needs your partner's involvement, like a career-related decision, but it's easy to get in the habit of just grumping around for 45 minutes after you get home.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:35 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

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