Be Yourself
May 18, 2020 4:45 AM   Subscribe

How to push through my vulnerability and stop being triggered at work?

I have problems with my coworker and it affects the way I interact with her.

I can't physically avoid my coworker. We are a team. We work side by side in healthcare. I've worked in this department for well over a decade, she's been there less than three years.

She's a judgmental person and tends to view life in black and white. She has strict rules for how people should behave. She prides herself and her adult children for being "responsible". She comments on others who she deems irresponsible and calls them a "mess". This could be a myriad of things -- if someone is late, if the contents are falling out of their purse, if their clothes are disheveled, if they have gained weight, if they don't work hard enough, if they can't find their driver's license or insurance card, if they have kids out of wedlock, if they forgot something, if they are on welfare or Medicaid.


1. She doen't like black people. Her racism is not overt, yet I have known her long enough to know that's she views black people as inferior. The way she tells stories, her comments, and the way she focuses on patients who are black is revealing-- Example: If a black patient is a no-show she will want to cancel their future sessions when she doesn't do this nearly as often with white patients. I always talk her out of it. We don't have the authority to cancel patients besides.

2. She is extremely hard on people who have chronic health problems. She essentially blames them for their condition and says "they did this to themselves". She says this often and has condemnation for people with heart disease, COPD, and diabetes type II. She sees them as careless with their health. I am continuously perplexed because:
a. Why does she care?
b. Doesn't she have a basic understanding of how humans cope?
c. Some diseases are hereditary (we have plenty of otherwise healthy patients who have heart disease and their father and grandfather did too) and
d. Hasn't she heard of the ACEs score and lived on the planet Earth long enough to know that people have suffered trauma, have long-ingrained habits, and also rationalize and engage in unhealthy behaviors while not intentionally trying to harm themselves?

She wants to punish people and teach people lessons. If a patient is late, I will see them if we have room and aren't too busy. She would rather refuse to see them in order to teach them a lesson. It's not our business. It's not our money and it's not really our decision to refuse to patients. It doesn't bother me if someone is late. It doesn't affect us and if we genuinely can't see them we will tell them. I'm not their mother and we're all adults. There are no lessons to be taught at this juncture.

I wish I had the guts to say, "you're hard on people" but never have. If she is hating on an overweight patient, or a patient who doesn't come to all of their appointments, or a patient who doesn't work hard enough, is noncompliant, or lazy in her eyes, I will say something like:
"he's depressed" or "he has PTSD" or "she's had a hard life". Or his "father had heart disease too", or "her son committed suicide last year".

I'm trying to remind her that we're all human. People will be noncompliant for a myriad of reasons -- mental health, finances, lack of transportation, the list goes on...I don't know why she doesn't understand this. She has little to no compassion for people who aren't "responsible".

Her tendency to judge others for their health problems especially rubs me the wrong way because she is twenty pounds overweight, drinks beer, and "doesn't like vegetables". She doesn't eat healthy food. She eats nachos and pizza and fruit and vegetables have never been a part of her life since birth. She forces herself to drink a fruit and veg mixture in the morning. She's in her early sixties. She complains that she has gained weight and is off her exercise routine since Covid (this is true with many people). I wonder why she doesn't have understanding for others -- because she is probably hard on herself?

I come from a line of alcoholics and struggle with my weight at times and sometimes I'm a "mess" -- hair is frizzy or whatever. She makes efforts to be polished and ironed and I she most likely thinks I'm a wreck and have an irresponsible and crazy family.

She also has siblings with autoimmune disease and I want to remind her autoimmune disease is common in patients who have suffered trauma, just as it can be with diabetes and COPD, and other chronic health problems like back pain and obesity, which she blames people for as a moral failing. It's also interesting because I think she's a hypochondriac. She's always dragging her husband to the doctor for minor symptoms for what she thinks are major problems that never turn out to be major. She is always going on about his doctor appointments. She also believes she has a "leaky gut" "hormone issues" and other diagnoses I find questionable but perhaps I am wrong.

Also, she loves Trump. Talks about "foreigners" and blames China for "releasing" the virus. This triggers me as well but I tend to be good at avoiding politics.

Because I am so "fragile" and don't talk about politics or anything that I deem to be unpleasant, it changes the dynamic. I notice her effort to be "nicer". I can see that she is tiptoeing around me. I am quiet. I don't like myself for this. I'm afraid my fragility is not helpful or healthy for either of us. We don't have genuine interactions. I wish I could be myself but I'm not going to tell her that I think she's a Neanderthal. I know I'm a hypocrite.

I have a hard time coming up with any topic of conversation because I don't think she deserves my time or thoughts and the topics I want to discuss might cause her to bring up opinions that I think are idiotic or too difficult to talk about honestly. I feel like this is immaturity on my part and mental weakness. I want to be more myself and not care what she thinks.

Occasionally, I can go beyond and have understanding of why she is the way she is and be more myself. Sometimes I think nobody is perfect and she wants my friendship and I shouldn't be so shut down. I don't want her as a friend. We have nothing in common apart from work but I would like to be less quiet and less triggered.

She seems to really like me. She nominated me for an award at work (I was not happy about this. It was our first year of working together. She didn't know me and I have a hard time with stuff like this). She thinks I'm nice. She often tells me "You're so kind to the patients. You're so nice. I don't know how you do it every day. I couldn't do it." "It's a gift." I'm thinking it's basic human decency. It's not a chore to be professional and kind to patients.

How can I be more myself and more mature around this person who I feel triggered by? How would you deal with this kind of person who is flawed (aren't we all) in a more genuine way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The maxim "when you have the finger pointed at someone, three fingers are pointed back at you" is good to remember. And I'm saying that to you, not her. You have her under a microscope and she senses it. It's not your fault... sounds like a trauma response to me. But how would you feel if you were being observed all the time?

Many people here, including me, could regale you with tales of truly awful coworkers. From your description, this lady isn't that, although her politics and racism may be really hard to take. You do NOT have to be "friends" with her, but you may be able to achieve a more relaxed working relationship. This is part of developing a "grownup" way of being in the world.

And yes, that will require effort on your part. You will have to work on the notion that showing concern or making what seems like "idle" chit-chat is somehow hypocritical. It's not. It's simply keeping the social wheels greased. We can't choose our coworkers, not really.

My suggestions:
  • Keep your focus on your own work as much as possible.
  • Occasionally (once or twice a week, as much as you can tolerate) try to engage coworker on a topic that is likely to elicit some pleasant conversation. What does she like to do in her off time? Hobbies? Gardening? Needlecraft? I bet there's something. If you have a hobby, say a little something about it and then ask her what she likes to do on the weekends. Stay away from discussions of family members, though.
  • When she starts going off, and occasionally she will, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. You can also OCCASIONALLY say, as gently as possible, "I'd prefer not to discuss politics here" if it gets really bad.
  • Do a little something nice for her every once in a while, and if it can be based on something she told you a while back, all the better. That will be a way of giving back to her for the professional courtesy she has shown you by nominating you for an award (as one example). I know you didn't like that, but some of us will never have it done for us and it would have made all the difference. Can be as simple as asking if she'd like you to bring her back a coffee when you run out for one.
  • She makes efforts to be polished and ironed and I she most likely thinks I'm a wreck and have an irresponsible and crazy family. This is classic "mind-reading" of the type that cognitive therapy, either on your own with a workbook or with a therapist, can help address. You really have no idea what she, or any other human being, is thinking at any given time unless they tell you.

posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:41 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

She sounds awful and I don’t think you should be blaming yourself for being ‘triggered’ by her openly cruel behavior. You are not the problem, this mean and racist fuck is.

You can try to ignore her for your own peace of mind, maybe write her off as a lost cause. But this bothers you because it is bad, not because you have some character flaw.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:22 AM on May 18, 2020 [14 favorites]

Whenever I’ve known people who are extremely hard on others, it invariably turns out that everyone around them has been extremely hard on them. For example, the people I know who are most judgmental about weight, diabetes, etc., are people who are themselves either overweight (like your colleague) or doing unhealthy things (eating disorders, fad diets, constant performative exercise) to avoid being overweight. And this is because, any time in life where they’ve gained even a couple of pounds, people (it’s usually not just one person) have made fun of them about it. Parents, siblings, spouses, etc. Consequently, these people have internalized the notion that fat is “bad” and should be mocked. To the extent that this is not the case for them personally (i.e., they’re not far), they’ve still witnessed that shaming behavior toward others and their behavior is a manifestation of that.

All that said, your co-worker is 60. You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. Your move is to accommodate yourself to her, not to change her, because you won’t be able to. With that in mind, my advice is to model the tolerance you’d like her to practice. Accept that the disagreeable aspects of her personality are just a fact of life, the way you’d accept diabetes in a patient. It’s not good or bad; it just is. And like patients with diabetes, there’s often an underlying issue that isn’t being addressed. Be patient, don’t let it get to you, and beyond that, just don’t engage.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:31 AM on May 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

I wonder if it would help to try to take her kindness to you at face value.

You don't have to think she's a good person. But the fact that she's being nice and treating you differently is probably not meant as an insult. It doesn't sound like she's trying to shame you for being "fragile" or throw it in your face somehow that she's dialing it back to accommodate you. The most likely explanation is that she's telling the truth, she likes and admires you, and she's making an effort to be kind in a way that works for you.

Can you take that kindness as a token of well-earned respect, and not as evidence that you're being a hypocrite or doing something wrong?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:22 AM on May 18, 2020 [13 favorites]

Your co-worker’s belief in “leaky gut syndrome” negates all her other righteousness.
I’ve never heard of an ACE score; is this a widely-known thing among your fellow professionals?
But really, try to stop caring (about her) so much. Continue to do your best by your patients. As we used to say, “She’ll get hers.”
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:39 AM on May 18, 2020

She often tells me "You're so kind to the patients. You're so nice. I don't know how you do it every day. I couldn't do it." "It's a gift." I'm thinking it's basic human decency. It's not a chore to be professional and kind to patients.

I'm an empathetic person. More than most people I've met. I'm very sensitive. I'm kind and patient. I get remarks like this all the time, I've had people be jealous of me because I find it easier to give the benefit of the doubt, etc. Some of it was conscious work and effort on my part, but a lot of it is natural. I've always been this way. These things are a sign of emotional intelligence. And, like logical intelligence, the skill naturally varies person to person. These "gifts" that people are born with or without are no different than your patients who are born with congenital disease. They can't help it. It's easy for people like you and I, we get all sorts of emotional and mental feedback that punishes us for not being empathetic, and rewards us for being empathetic. Not everyone has this to guide them. Being a good person isn't always doing the right thing, it's wanting or trying to do the right thing, regardless of how you feel. It looks like she's trying to learn from you despite her own shortcomings, which is admirable. Try to view her actions, like the award, from this lens.

Is there a manager or HR person you could speak with? Her shaming, racism, etc is unacceptable. Her poor patients. I am someone she would probably judge, and have encountered people liker her. There's serious bias in the healthcare industry causing people who need it the most to get the worst treatment. The ACE test is a good reminder for her. I wish I could just tell providers "look, I scored a 10, cut me some slack". It's not really slack, though, is it? It's science - morally condemning a coal miner for having lung cancer makes no sense, it's not a personal failure on their part.

I think therapy would be good for you. It seems like you are afraid to stand up for yourself, and that's never a good feeling.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:33 AM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

To me, this person does not really like themselves and builds themselves up by putting others down. She likes you for why she told you she does, she wishes she could be more like you.

Having said that, you do seem empathetic to all sorts of people. Why not her (co-worker)? She has her own issues. Why not appreciate that she has these issues?

I would view her as someone, like your patients/clients that has flaws but is trying to do her best.Her best may not be up to your standards, but like your patients, maybe there are mitigating circumstances that should be considered.
posted by AugustWest at 9:09 AM on May 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I unfortunately don’t have much advice for dealing with her directly. It’s uncomfortable to deal with coworkers like this in any circumstances, and healthcare workplaces are particularly stressful right now.

Speaking as a sometimes-messy chronic illness patient, though, I want to thank you for working to minimize they ways her racism and judginess affect patients. You may or may not be able to change her perceptions and habits, but making sure all your patients have the ability to access medical care even if they’re late or Black or fat or otherwise stigmatized is a really good thing you are doing and central to the work of healthcare. Thank you.
posted by mismatched at 9:33 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seems to me like there are three different problems going on here:
1) You're not comfortable around her because you think she's judging you.
2) You don't like her and feel guilty about it.
3) You are worried about her interactions with patients.

Problem 1:
Your coworker is a judgmental person; you keep hearing her judge others for things that apply to you as well and conclude that's how she also thinks about you. Of course you can't read her mind, but as far as educated guesses go, that one wouldn't be entirely baseless. Still, some things to consider:

a) Yes, it's possible that her friendly ouvertures are fake and she's just flattering you for opportunistic reasons and really has a low opinion of you. That's never pleasant to contemplate, but how much does it matter beyond that? My guess is that it's extremly unlikley that this person's opinion is held in high regard by people whose opinion you would hold in high regard. Even if she starts trashtalking you behind your back, that's probably going to be more damaging to her than you. You're here longer, she'll retire in the forseeable future. Professionally speaking, she's probably no threat.

b) She isn't aware at all that all these mean things she says about others could also apply to, just as she isn't aware that they could apply to herself. I wouldn't expect someone like her to be terrible consistent in her judgment. Some people just have huge blind spots, not just with regard to themselves but also with regard to other people they like. Or alternately, she does judge you for that stuff, but she also really sees all your other merits, so in sum her opinion of you is positive and all the compliments are genuine after all. I wouldn't waste much effort exploring the possibilty - you're perfectly free to dislike her for being mean to others, even if she doesn't intend to be mean to you - but maybe considering that this option is just as likely as the other one makes you a bit more zen about her. Stop trying to find out what's in her heart. You can't know for sure and it doesn't really matter.

Problem 2:
Stop it. You don't need to like her. Even if you couldn't point to any flaw about her whatsever, you wouldn't be obliged to like her. Regardless of whether she likes you or not. Sometimes someone just rubs you the wrong way and the less of a need you feel to justify it, the easier it might be to make your peace with that fact. I suspect that once you allow yourself to just dislike her, you might actually start disliking her _less_ because you won't be subconsciously blaming her for those feelings of guilt you are now apparently torturing yourself with.

You _are_yourself around her. You're professional and polite because those are your values. She doesn't seem to be uncomfortable around you, since she seems to feel so free to express herself. Apparently you're not taking your dislike for her out on her. That professional and polite work persona _is_ a valid part of yourself. It's not fake. And it's perfectly sufficient. You're not inauthentic, just because you're not showing every person you interact with every possible facet of your personality.

Problem 3:
That's the real problem here. Maybe you feel she_should_ feel a bit less comfortable expressing certain things around you, or ideally, in general. (Personally, I would). From your description, it seems to me that you have a good handle on damage control, not letting her get away with taking her issues out on patients. But definitely remain watchful here. Does your workplace offer any sensitive training? It is worth anything? Could you refer to it when you give her feedback on her interactions with patients? It's generally unwise to give people feedback they didn't ask for (since you're not her supervisor), but techically she gave you an opening by pointing out she admired your kindness and couldn't do it herself.
posted by sohalt at 9:48 AM on May 18, 2020 [10 favorites]

I'm with sohalt here. You clearly dislike her for personal reasons, and that is one thing you might be able to work on or might not, but I do think you should seek some advice on how to better stand up for yourself and others when she is acting like an asshole.

But the second and bigger issue is that her behavior and prejudices are actively harming patients. Racial bias, fat bias and other discriminations in health care are extremely well-documented and there is a vast body of research around how harmful they are. Her beliefs and behaviors are *actively harming patients.* You need to address this with superiors and put a stop to it.
posted by Brittanie at 12:13 PM on May 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

I wonder if it would help you to make note of things about her that you like and appreciate, whenever possible. Maybe even at night make a list of three things she did that day that were kind or funny or otherwise welcome.

The things you describe about her that you find challenging I would also find challenging!
posted by spindrifter at 3:13 PM on May 19, 2020

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