I have found myself in a situation in which someone says something either rude or insulting to me. The problem is when I defend my feelings and they respond by saying they were just kidding, now I look like the jerk. What’s the best way to handle this?
I Don’t Get It
Passive aggressive, no? I hate when people do this, though I’ve been guilty of it, too. Humor becomes a weapon when used to mask true feelings or grievances. Rarely does it communicate these issues effectively, and often leaves the target confused and hurt, as you are. It’s a childish way of handling things. You, however, have responded like a grown-up, rather than starting an “I know you are, but what am I?” PeeWee Herman-esque exchange.
It’s not clear to me what role this person holds in your life. If it’s someone you see on occasion, ignore them and their hurtful remarks. “Consider the source” a wise teacher once counseled me. If you’re in an important relationship with them, such as a spouse or close friend, try a one-on-one approach. Instead of confronting them in the moment, ask them to meet for coffee, or write them a letter, and explain your perspective. If they minimize your feelings, what does that say about their relationship with you? Finally, if it’s a boss or coworker who is treating you this way, write down three examples of this behavior and request a meeting. Bring your notes to the meeting, and ask your colleague for a change in behavior in the future. It’s important you have a record of having addressed this issue directly with him or her. If your boss or colleague does not comply, take your concerns to HR if you wish. In all situations, keep your emotions out of it as best you can and critique the behavior, not the person. When you know you’re going to see this person, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself, and remember: what they say or do is really a reflection on how they see themselves. You’re taking good care of yourself. Keep going, even if it means removing this Don Rickles from your life.
I think my co-worker may have a drinking problem. She brags at lunchtime about the partying she does over the weekends. She showed up drunk to a company event, and though she wasn’t falling down or anything, she was slurring her words and fell asleep during a guest presentation. It’s a small company we work for, and there’s no official HR department. She’s been here longer than any of us, including her boss. We used to get along, but now she won’t answer emails I send and doesn’t get me the info I need to do my job. I can’t figure out if she’s upset with me, or if the drinking is becoming a problem, or a combination of the two. I don’t want to go to her boss because I’ll be labeled a snitch and everyone will figure out I was the one who complained. Any suggestions?
Is it 5 O’Clock Yet?
Dear 5 O’Clock,
It’s one thing to party on the weekend, and quite another to show up drunk at work. I suspect you’re not the only one who sees this behavior, but they are reluctant, like you, to speak up. I know a little bit about dealing with alcoholics (and I welcome my readers to add their comments), and one thing I have experienced is that the rules always change. With alcoholics, you never know from one day to the next if you’re in their good graces or not. And if you do fall out of their favor, they won’t tell you in a constructive way. They’ll either passive-aggressively shut you out, or during one of these storied parties they’ll find a way to get in a few good digs or a full-blown rant against you if you’re around and they’re drinking enough.
I suggest you separate the two issues: 1) the stalled communication; and, 2) the drinking during work hours. First, ask for a private meeting with your co-worker. Calmly offer concrete examples of communications that are going unanswered. Ask if you need to clear the air about anything. (Leave your suspicions about her drinking out of it.) Hopefully, she will be receptive, you will have a constructive conversation, and you’ll see improvement in the future. If she shuts you down, and her behavior doesn’t change, then the next step is to talk to your boss. Again, focus on the work-related concerns and see if steps are taken to help improve communication between you two. It’s important that your boss knows that you first addressed the situation directly with your co-worker.
Addressing the drinking is a different issue entirely. Interventions may not go well for the intervenor. Alcoholics function in systems that tacitly allow the drinking to go on. Those around the alcoholic accept increasingly alarming behaviors as normal. Then, a car accident, or a job loss, or a serious injury occurs. Everyone wonders, “How could this have happened?”, when the truth is they DID see it coming in the progressively sloppy actions of the alcoholic. It takes immense courage to be the one who calls out the inappropriate behavior of the alcoholic, because the intervention includes the entire system of people the alcoholic interacts with. The size of the company and the absence of an HR department give you little protection should you air these concerns to your supervisor. Have there been enough instances of suspicious behavior during work hours to merit waving a red flag at management? Are you willing to risk possibly being ostracized by your coworkers and seen as the “bad guy”? Or, are there others who’d be willing to stand with you? Do you want to engage in the drama that will surely follow a public airing of these concerns? Shining a light on your co-worker’s behavior may be the right thing to do, especially if she’s a danger to others or herself. As with most principled stands, however, there’s a price to be paid. Only you can decide if the trade-off is worth it to you.
As you mull over these questions, I recommend taking the high road and initiating the conversation described, above. Be your professional best through the process, and watch how people react: your co-worker, your boss, etc. These observations will give you valuable information about the organization, and if this is an environment you can (and want) to work in. Dust off your resume in the meantime and be open to new opportunities that come along. Her stone-walling is affecting your performance, and you can’t let that impact your professional development. Good luck!
A lifelong friend of mine is going through a very traumatic time. Her husband of 50 years died suddenly, and her daughter has been diagnosed with cancer. Now, she had a car accident and sustained pretty significant injuries. The problem? She is an absolute terror to her family and medical staff. She’s screaming at the nurses and her family. She’s mean to everyone who is trying to help. Honestly, she’s used to having things her way and has been pampered all her life. Now, no one knows what to do for her. They all try to help, and always leave angry, hurt, and confused. What can I do to help her be kinder to the people who love and care her?
On My Last Nerve
Dear On My Last Nerve,
How much can one person take? I’m so sad for your friend. Grief is a powerful emotion, and she’s dealing with losing two people at the top of the Most Painful Losses List, if one exists. There is no how-to process with grief; we all do it differently. But one aspect of grief that we all share: we never know when the feelings will hit us. A song may come on the radio, or a clerk will use an expression our loved one used to say, or we notice while fixing dinner that we’re cooking hard boiled eggs the way mom taught us. These little, daily life reminders hit hard, the tears come, and steal our breath. For someone like your friend, who’s used to being in control, grief is a messy, chaotic, feels-like-you’re-herding-cats emotion. There’s no schedule or clean way to do it. Which is why, for many people, grief goes unresolved for years, tucked deep inside and revisited when the next big loss comes along.
On top of this, she suffers a serious car accident–another loss of control and safety. Automobiles create a false sense of security, with the airtight windows and radios. We plummet down the highway at high speed under the illusion of control. Conditions change in the blink of an eye, and accidents happen at a sickening pace: slow enough to see it coming, and too fast to stop it. Then the pain, slow healing and physical therapy, possibly. Her future is unclear, and all she may know for certain is that more pain and grief are on the way.
I’d be a bit snippy if I were in her place, too. With the heavy emotional weight she’s carrying, it’s hard to find a way to gratitude. On the up side, she has loved ones trying to help, and quality healthcare to guide her recovery. She may be, even before this traumatic time, the kind of person who has difficulty accepting help. If she’s fiercely independent, assistance in what she once did for herself is frustrating. Every act of kindness is a humiliating reminder that she’s dependent on another.
So, what are you to do? Some consolation comes in knowing that the professional staff has no emotional investment in your friend. They deserve to be treated kindly, of course, but her meanness doesn’t get to them the way it does with family or friends. They’ve cared for all kinds of temperaments, and have been trained to deal with difficult personalities. As long as your friend is being treated at a healthcare facility, she should receive the attention she needs from people who are compassionate through a thick skin.
As for her family and friends, this behavior may or may not be surprising. Each person will have to figure out how much they will tolerate. A wise person once advised me to put on a “duck suit” when going into an emotionally-charged situation. Water doesn’t get to a duck. For me, the goal was to let painful remarks roll off my back and not take things personally. Perhaps you can zip into your duck suit before you visit your friend?
As overwhelming as this time is for your friend, it is also an opportunity for personal growth and reflection. Hopefully, she will find inner reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. If she allows herself to cry, her tears will become less frequent, given time. You may be the one holding the tissue box. Perhaps this onslaught of pain will teach her empathy and compassion. Sometimes the keys of life have to be pried from our terrified grasp before we find joy in surrender, and new life on the other side of loss. (Joan Didion, who endured similar losses, wrote a powerful memoir of her experience called The Year of Magical Thinking. Her reflections may encourage your friend.)
I’m so sorry your friend is such a PITA. Let her story unfold. For your part, put on your duck suit, do what you can, and let that s**t go. Hold your friend in thoughts and prayers of healing and peace. When you think of her, imagine her happy, not quarrelsome, self. No amount of fretting will help, and you can’t stand sentry between her angry barbs and the people around her. They all have a part to play, too. Their interactions with your friend are part of their stories. Let them play out.
Maria and her muse celebrated her birthday this week, so we revisited some past questions for this week’s column. These questions are situations that can be exacerbated during a high-stress time like the holidays. Look for a new batch of musings and advice next Thursday!
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Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.