*Warning: naughty language ahead
When work stress starts to bleed into our personal lives, shit gets a little uncomfortable.
Based on recent conversations with friends in the traditional working world, and a recollection of my time in that environment, it is hard to argue against the fact that we’ve all been there.
We have all had to deal with that one person at work—the chatter box, the drama king/queen, the inappropriate sales manager, the passive aggressive witch, the less-than-self-aware office mate or cubicle neighbor who just can’t seem to get it together during the nine to five grind.
Every morning, the walk from the car to the doors of our paycheck provider gets a little more strained—the dance begins before we remove our coat and sunglasses, plotting each step with the highest level of care, praying the universe does not allow paths to cross. Lunches and breaks are scheduled outside the confines of the office walls, and close friendships are formed based solely on the frustration that comes with being around that one co-worker.
I have had the privilege of being removed from that scene for a few years now, as being my own boss allows me the freedom to work from my quiet, tiny apartment in peace and solitude. Aside from a grumpy business partner from time to time, I don’t have the worry that the work day will be less than enjoyable due to someone else’s lack of charm.
But I know the stress well.
My traditional office days were spent avoiding a number of others in the office, based on how high my blood pressure would rise simply hearing their voice. Bitching about this and that—focusing only on bull shit tasks when more important client service work needed to be done first—allowing the smallest negative to produce a dark cloud over not only their office door, but the entire suite, setting a tone for the day, usually before 10 am, that was less than pleasant and hardly productive.
There were two specific types in my office back then: the combination talk-until-I’m-blue-in-the-face-about-absolutely-nothing-while-you-try-to-work and passive aggressive senior associate, and the micromanaging Negative Nancy who had a crush on half of the office and didn’t hide it well.
During my three year stay with the firm, securely housed in the cool kids hallway, I would sneak in to my office later and later, and leave through the back door earlier and earlier, all in a weak attempt at avoidance of the two individuals that made my time there as close to work hell as was possible. If I was forced to interact with them, either on joint case work or a firm-wide initiative, I would pop two (or three) Excedrin prior to our encounter, knowing full well a hellish migraine would taint the rest of my otherwise productive day.
I made a good faith effort to understand where each of them were coming from in their somewhat opposite personalities, but failed each time. I didn’t truly care what their plight may have been—I simply wanted it to stop.
Be better, office mates. Just be better. I became more and more frustrated with their presence as time went on, and after making the decision to break away from that environment for good, I didn’t pause to say goodbye. Despite their annoying characteristics, it was clear they both cared about my well-being, not only on the career scene but in my personal life, too. I walked away two years ago, and never talked to them again.
Now, as I am able to clearly see how much my time with that firm has shaped who I am in my own enterprise, I am also able to understand how I, to a select few, was that one co-worker.
I was a bitch.
To my junior reps I was dedicated to train—to my sales manager who was a complete pain in my ass but genuinely cared about my success in the business—to those who didn’t quickly fit into the cool kids hallway. I was a complete bitch. I turned up my nose at silly questions from the newbies, and I talked a copious amount of shit about my manager behind his back, sailing along day in and day out as if that was normal. I felt validated in what I had to say because I was producing well, thought I had my ducks in a row, and had a strong crew of co-workers who let me do it.
It wasn’t until a reunion dinner with a former rep who I (poorly) managed that I was slapped in the face with the fact that I was that one co-worker. Somewhat out of the blue she went off on me—although the two glasses of wine prior to dinner may have prompted the sudden confidence—explaining how terrible I was to be around in the office, especially when I was having a rough go of things. My poker face didn’t exist, nor did my head to mouth filter. I spewed negativity like it was my job.
Having the awareness that I was that one co-worker for another gives me pause in lending advice to those who are currently in a similar situation. But when I gave this some quiet thought since that difficult unloading from my former rep, I realized there are certain things that can be done to help a difficult ease the frustration and heavy environment at the office, from that one co-worker’s perspective.
Attempt to uncover the root of the bitchiness/passive aggressive remarks/micromanaging: Ask questions to the one, even if it’s painful to be in their presence for more than 30 seconds. Looking back, I could have used a few more “How are you really doing?” probes, instead of avoidance and reciprocal bitchiness. I was a year into a separation from my ex-husband, was transitioning into a stressful management position, starting my graduate education journey, and a bevvy of other non-work-related worries.
None of those aspects of my personal life should have interfered with the work I was contracted to do, nor the direction and guidance I was meant to provide to those under my care, but they did. In a big way. No one knew the extent to which I was suffering, and maybe if they did, the experience they had with me would not have been nearly as negative. I would have been better off with some in-office support, too.
Be patient, even after the root of the bitchiness/passive aggressive remarks/micromanaging is understood: Breathe! Take a moment to remember that each of us struggles with one thing or another, despite our best intentions to manage the stress that is inherent to life from time to time. This experience is never a breeze consistently, and having the prowess to sit with that in regard to an annoyance at work can have a powerful impact.
I learned to be patient with those who drove me batty, but not without years of frustration preceding. We don’t have to close with each and every member of the team, but we all have the ability to not get hooked by our emotional reactions. Even during the most blood-boiling interactions with them, we have the opportunity to provide even the smallest degree of understanding.
We have the privilege to create lasting meaningful relationships with those who enter our lives, whether that entrance is graceful and calm or forceful and chaotic. There is no need to be best of friends with every new warm body, but understanding and accepting that we are all here, together doing this life thing is pertinent to enjoying the experience.
Being a bitchy passive aggressive micromanaging mentor at the office only established a reciprocal scene that took much longer than needed to fully comprehend and then accept and work through. So my suggestion to those dreading the walk into the office today because of that one co-worker?
Be open to connections, be willing to dig deeper in those interactions, and remember, above all else, to breathe.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives