#360: My coworker called me a virgin, why did that hurt my feelings so much?

Patty Hewes and Ellen from Damages, in the breakroom drinking coffee.
Sometimes what we learn from our mentors is how not to be.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I live and work at an isolated location with six other people. We are nearing the end of our work rotation and everyone is wearing a little thin emotionally so that might be partially where this problem stems from.

I have a really good relationship with the woman that I spend the most time working with. She’s about twenty years older than me. (I am twenty-three.) She says shocking things sometimes and it has never bothered me before. She says that she lacks a “filter” and that she always keeps going when other people stop. Anyway, she never seemed mean and her outspokenness was kind of refreshing but today she really knocked me through a loop. Another coworker was in the kitchen with us and we were joking and talking and I’m not even sure what the topic was but someone said “young and a virgin.” She looked at me and said “you’re two for two there.” I was shocked because I had never said “I am a virgin” to her before and I wasn’t aware that it was that obvious. I also have feelings for the coworker that was there with us and it was embarrassing to have that said in front of him.

I am bewildered why this comment hurt so much. I had to fight back tears for the rest of the day and was pretty much incapable of talking to anyone. I know that she felt really bad and she apologized. I didn’t want her to feel bad so I tried to act normally but I really wasn’t able to. The coworker whom I have feelings for knew that something was wrong because I wasn’t talking to him. I wished that I could just tell him which comment specifically bothered me but I really couldn’t because I was afraid I would start crying.

I know that part of my reaction to the comment is embarrassment at never having had a sexual relationship before. But part of the reaction might be because of an earlier conversation that I heard her have with someone else (I wasn’t eavesdropping, there is just no privacy here). She said that she has a tendency to lash out at “sweet” people and it is something that she feels really bad about and has tried really hard to work on. She had a friend who was “really sweet just like (my name)” and she was really mean to this person for a long time until she was aware of what she was doing and made an effort to stop. Hearing this, I automatically replaced “sweet” with “weak”. Since I am small in stature and soft spoken and generally “cute” I struggle a lot against weakness in both body and mind and it is important to me how others see me, at least in that I want to be taken seriously. The way in which this comment ripped me apart has caused me to question myself. I have weathered plenty of criticisms and thoughtless comments with complete calm, but the word “virgin” left me completely speechless for an entire day and caused me to sob in the shower hours after the comment was made. I just wish I knew what triggered these feelings when I am normally very levelheaded. When someone says that I’m “innocent” or “I can never tell when I you’re angry” or “it’s cute when you get angry” it bothers me a little but it doesn’t cause me to cry.

“Sweet.” “Cute.” “Innocent.” “Young.” “Weak.” So many words people use to try to keep you in what they see as your place!

Before we dig into your coworker’s behavior, I want to put your mind at ease about a few things first.

1) While it is certainly no one’s business but yours, there is nothing wrong with being a virgin. Nothing. NOTHING. It is not a millstone around your neck or an impediment to having an awesome sex life when you decide. It is not proof of some kind of unworthiness or, conversely, any kind of proof of superior moral worthiness. You don’t carry your value as a person between your legs, and you don’t increase or decrease in value as a person by virtue of a single heterosexual penetrative sex act that is somehow defined as losing one’s virginity, ok? Recommended reading: The Purity Myth, What You Really, Really Want.

2) Virginity is not visible to others, including your coworker and the Object of Your Affection. Even if she made an unlucky guess, it’s not something they can actually tell by looking at you, and if they could, see #1.

There is nothing wrong with being new to sex, but there is a lot wrong with saying mean, condescending things to coworkers and then trying make it seem like a personality trait instead of a series of decisions. When your coworker uses “sweet” as an insult and tells someone that she used to pick on someone just like you until she one day snapped out of it when she knows you can hear her, she’s threatening you. She’s saying “I have it in me to be so much worse to you than I am right now, and I will decide when and if I stop.” If she’s acknowledging that she has a problem with how she treats people like you (and you), she can go ahead and fix that without you having to see and give her credit for her moves toward self-actualization.

Next time someone tells you that they don’t have a filter, translate it into its native tongue:

I choose to act like an oblivious asshole sometimes and I’ve decided that everyone should think it’s an adorable quirk.”

I don’t think you have a great relationship with this person at all. I think her passing comment and the way it hit you was one of a series of small jabs that have been building for sometime. Does she know or guess about your crush on your coworker? Whether it was a deliberate attempt to bully and humiliate you and keep you in her power, or her blowing off steam at the end of an emotionally draining rotation maybe doesn’t matter – she was still mean and out of line. And I think your reaction later was about feeling stung and betrayed by someone who acts like they like you and who throws a lot of charisma at you but who really treats you not so well in the day to day.

Would you like to gain some power back in this relationship?

Here are some steps:

1. Decide privately that she is not nice, not safe, and not really your friend.

2. Since it’s work, and you don’t want to be in a war with a really mean person, appear to accept whatever crappy apology she gives you. “Sure, whatever, thanks.

3. After that, be cordial to her but only as professionalism dictates. Talk about work. Talk about innocuous things like what to eat for lunch, the weather, what was on TV last night. Don’t share or invite confidences about your personal lives.

4. Don’t be alone with her if you can help it.

5. She may notice the new coolness between you. She may escalate her jabs to try to get your attention. You may not be quick and practiced with a comeback – it takes time and some age and developing a thicker skin and a quicker tongue – so look forward to the day when you can casually say “Maybe don’t brag about that, _____,” when she announces her filter-lessness like it’s something awesome. Stay armed with the ways to deflect and end unpleasant conversations.  And use the comeback I always love to steal from Carolyn Hax: “Wow.”

Whenever she says something awkward and mean, you can say “Wow,” and let the silence hang there. Let her be the one to try to make things less awkward and smooth them over. Picture yourself as teflon or rubber;  her words slide down or bounce off and can’t stick to you.

6. She may try to get you alone to talk about what she may have done wrong and to try to get back in your good graces. She actually cares A LOT about what you think about her and needs your approval/forgiveness if you’re going to continue as her willing sidekick. If you want to stop this while being less confrontational but truthful, you could say “We’re all stressed and sick of each other lately as this rotation winds down, so I’m taking a break from socializing at work. Let’s keep the conversations light, ok?

Don’t get drawn into some emotional conversation with her where she tries to tell you about her issues and turn something she is doing to you into something that you end up comforting her about – it’s a classic Jerk Move for a reason. You’re not actually friends, so you don’t have to give a shit about her moods or childhood or self-realizations about past cruelty to “sweet” people. You just have to stay professional at work and mentally relegate her to “Vaguely Irritating Coworker” status as much as possible.

7. Read this essay by s.e. smith on youth, confidence, work, and mean condescending people who try to keep you small so that they can feel bigger.

8. Be really nice to yourself. Your tears the other day might have been partially a stress reaction from being overworked and near the end of a project. Work on the basics of self-care: Enough sleep, good food at regular intervals, making sure you see the sun and get some fresh air and exercise if possible, calling/Skyping/seeing people who make you feel good and avoiding as much as possible people who drain you and make you feel bad. Don’t neglect the visuals: Put a little love into your workspace and making it tidy and welcoming, put a little love into your habitat, get an awesome haircut, wear colors that suit you. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) call the free number and talk to a nice person about what’s stressing you out. It’s there for moments like this one.

9. Next time you see Object-of-Your-Affection-Coworker, greet him like nothing is wrong. If he asks about the weirdness the other day, say “Eh, sometimes ____’s filterlessness is just annoying and mean,” and change the subject back to something you want to talk about.

You’re feeling stung because the work Mean Girl was trying to sting you. There’s no shame in that. This is survivable. She is survivable. She thinks she can see you clearly and control you, but she can only see a reflection of herself on your cool surface. That isn’t weakness.

277 thoughts on “#360: My coworker called me a virgin, why did that hurt my feelings so much?

  1. I completely agree that this woman is one of those “nice backstabbers and gossips”. She’s not a friend but she is using her lack of a filter, as an excuse to basically put you down. I think CA is right in saying that you need to take your power back from this lady, she’s clearly projecting some sort of her own insecurity to you hence, her blurting of your sensitive information.
    If she was a true friend, she would have understood that this was private information and respected you enough to keep it private.

  2. Word. You’re feeling hurt because you’re around a person who gets off on hurting you, but has managed to convince you (and probably the rest of the office, judging by the conversations she’s having where she tries to pass off her meanness as some kind of endearing personality quirk) that she’s on your side, that you should defer to her feelings. She’s 20 years older than you, she has a forceful, domineering personality, and I’m guessing you like to make people feel good and like it when things run smoothly. That puts you at risk from a person like her.

    In fact, I’m going to take a wild guess that when you read the Captain’s response (which is about to be echoed by many other people), you probably felt guilty that you’d misrepresented this woman somehow – that you should have made a greater effort to emphasize the things you like about her. But if she said these things, she’s a jerk. She’s not ONLY a jerk – she’s probably got great, admirable things about her too. Being forceful and domineering does not make you a jerk; I myself am assertive as hell, and I rock. But she’s treating you badly, period. And that guilt you feel? She’s not feeling it. If the situation were reversed, she wouldn’t be feeling bad about not representing you properly. If you doubt that, if you worry that you’re misrepresenting her, ask yourself if there is ANY situation in which you’d act like she did. Throw a casual, hurtful assumption like that at someone. I’m gonna guess no. I think you need to protect yourself from this person, and it starts with telling yourself that she’s not really your friend and does not have your best interests at heart.

    1. THIS SO MUCH.

      I had a manager at Soulless Corporation Inc. that was a lot like the person you’re describing, LW. She said mean things “to be funny.” She was “just a valley girl at heart” – which apparently meant she could be snarky and rude and think it was cute. She “loved me like a sister,” which of course is why she consistently dumped her responsibilities on me, both work-related and personal! Not to mention the myriad stories of the countless ways she was cheating on her husband (who had committed the unforgivable sin of not being fun enough. Seriously). Ugh.

      And the really fucked up part is that, after every angry rant about her, I’d always end with “But I’d still rather work for her than anyone else in the company.” I made all kinds of excuses for her awful behavior. I swore she was a good person and a good friend… most of the time. Well, some of the time. Every once in a while? Like, sort of, maybe?

      Abusers love nothing more than to convince you that you *like* the way they treat you. Because if you like it, it can’t be abuse, right? It doesn’t matter if they’ve made a conscious choice to abuse you or not… it’s still abuse. LW, your coworker is emotionally abusing you. That is not OK, and you have a right to put a stop to it.

    2. “And that guilt you feel? She’s not feeling it. If the situation were reversed, she wouldn’t be feeling bad about not representing you properly.”
      Truth! It’s easy to feel guilty when a third party tells us that someone who hurt is actually a jerk. But it’s not that the LW misrepresented anyone–it’s that CA has no connection to this woman so she doesn’t feel the need to sugarcoat.

  3. Worth noting that ‘filterlessness’ is occasionally a neurological trait – my roommate has no filter at all because of brain damage as a child. Though the things he says aren’t mean so much as wildly inappropriate.

    But even so, its completely valid not to want to engage with a person because their behaviour is hurting you. And LW your colleague sounds as though she is hurting you, maybe on purpose, and distancing yourself sounds like an excellent plan.

    1. Difficulty understanding or filtering oneself in social interactions can in fact be a neurological trait.

      However, I excluded such considerations from my post on purpose, because using this as a reason to say whatever mean things you want to people is NOT a neurological trait. So even if someone does have a genuine filter problem, if they start using it as a reason to bully people they have a neurological problem AND a being a dick problem.

      1. How can you tell without talking to them that they are choosing to be a jerk versus they don’t understand that what they are saying makes them a jerk?

        1. I worked as a caregiver for people with brain injuries and other developmental disabilities that mean they have fewer filters or have a hard time learning manners and social skills. They can be taught to make appropriate choices and say appropriate things.

          1. True but that doesn’t happen all at once nor happen overnight. They can’t stay away from all people until they are more sociable and knowing what is appropriate sometimes does not cover all circumstances and doesn’t mean they never will make a mistake.

          2. Lady TL, please leave this thread. You are making it about you and your fears of making a mistake, and hijacking it away from the LW and her situation with a jerky coworker.

          3. “They can’t stay away from all people until they are more sociable”

            No, they can’t. But other people can certainly chose to stay the hell away from them until they learn to stop making offensive and hurtful personal remarks. That’s part of the learning process.

        2. The coworker is saying dismissive things, bragging about having no filter, and bragging about bullying a former friend who reminder her of the LW. That’s not a neurological disorder, that’s being a jerk.

          Also, because the reason doesn’t matter if it’s affecting the LW badly. She doesn’t owe her coworker getting to the bottom of why she is behaving that way and helping her to behave better.

          Say for the sake of argument that the LW said:

          “You were mean to me the other day.”

          And the co-worker said “I am sorry, sometimes I have a hard time filtering things that come out of my mouth because I have Asperger’s.”

          The LW’s answer would be:

          “Ok, that must be hard for you. Still, I’d like an apology and for you to stop saying things like that to me.”

        3. This is tough, because I think the answer is “sometimes you can’t” but for the most part I think it’s possible to find out.
          Two acquaintances stand out in my mind as people I knew/know quite well who have a neurological reason for their filterlessness. Both have Aspergers, and I knew both of them at about the same age and place in life- college students in their early twenties.

          If C said something which hurt your feelings and you told her so, she would have snapped, “Well, I was just telling you what I thought. And I’m right. Besides, I have Aspergers.”
          Under the same circumstances, G would have said, “I’m sorry. I have Aspergers and sometimes I don’t communicate very well. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. What if I said it this way [restate, with clarification]. Does that make more sense?”

          So I think that most people will tell you their intentions. C is a jerk- it has nothing to do with her Aspergers, she’s just mean and judgemental. I was all for giving her the benefit of the doubt, but she made it very clear that she considered Aspergers as making her above reproach. You weren’t allowed to criticize anything she said, or ask her to say it nicely. G, on the other hand, is a nice person and means well. When he says something that hurts, his first response is to apologize, because he realizes he is still responsible for his words and he doesn’t hide behind his Aspergers to get away with being rude.

          1. The post about asking the person to leave- I didn’t want to continue a conversation she had asked be ended. And I don’t comment on here often and I’m wary of stepping on toes. 🙂

        4. The woman in question KNOWS that what she’s saying is jerky. She admits it. She says with apparent pride that she “has no filter” and “keeps going after other people stop”. That’s not someone with a neurological deficiency who doesn’t know she’s being hurtful. That’s someone who enjoys being an ass and tries to justify it with “that’s just who I am”.

          Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          1. Ugh, not my intention, I already went through post-by post and cleaned out all username, email, and links. I want to leave the comments up because people responded to them. If anyone has ideas how to fix this, let me know and I’ll circle back to it later when I have time.

          2. Not my business, but I admit I’m curious why it’s important? No one is hating on Anonymous Banned Person; we’ve disagreed with some of what she said, but no one has said “and you’re an awful human being for even thinking that!!” much less implied some sort of “Let’s find ABP’s real-world identity and make her life a living hell! campaign.”

            And it’s not like it was one ill-considered post she realize after hitting “post comment” was not her finest moment, but a sustained series of comments she apparently now wants to distance herself from, without (as far as I know, at least) retracting the substance of them.

            It’s not that I care that she be held accountable for her comments somehow — I am just not sure why this person, of all the people who’ve said stuff on this site that has not been well received (and sometimes gotten them banned), should create a new rule that “if your comments get no traction you can demand that Captain Awkward spend hours erasing all traces of your identity.” There is something to be said for the self-censorship that comes from knowing that once you hit “post comment” it is out there with your “name” on it, so maybe you should tone down your snark, your judgmentalness, whatever the case may be. It works on me (mostly).

          3. No worries–after I saw the rest of the conversation, I’m not too fussed on her behalf, you know? My attempt to be helpful was less than. Sorry, Captain!

            From what I’ve clicked around on, I don’t think you can get anywhere else from a gravatar page, so it maybe isn’t a problem after all.

        5. Observation, for one thing. Someone who is choosing to be a jerk will only direct “unfiltered” comments at people who they perceive as having less power than them. Someone who genuinely does not understand what they are saying will make unfiltered comments indiscriminately, even when doing so is not in their best interest (e.g., at their supervisor).

          Also, “unfiltered” can mean a lot of things–are their socially inappropriate comments always mean, or are they sometimes mean, sometimes overly enthusiastic, and sometimes just plain random and off-topic? Are they using “I’m sorry, I don’t filter well” as an excuse for hurting other people, or as an explanation for how they’ve embarrassed themselves?

          1. I love this observation. If you are on the fence about whether someone’s “unfiltered” conversation is jerky or not, see if they snap to when someone they perceive as higher-status (a boss, a senior coworker) is in the room.

          2. This is so huge. It is why when I interview people for positions in my labbe, I always make sure that they spend substantial amounts of time interacting with current members without me around.

          3. Oh that’s brilliant! We’re hiring new people at my place of business and there’s a log we can fill out about observations for people dropping it off. I had to write “doesn’t respect my time or my job bc kept dragging me into conversations instead of seeing I was trying to close the store.” Felt like a jerk, but honestly? it’s a fairly good sign he doesn’t understand how much work the job entails.

          4. When I was a lawyer the firm I was with for a while had a summer associate who was a total suck up to partners and senior associates and a total jerk to junior associates, including prioritizing the senior person’s work over the less-senior person’s work even when the senior person had said “this thing of mine is not time-sensitive, please do that Really Important Thing for That Junior Associate first.” Oh, did I enjoy his face when he asked casually over lunch one day, toward the end of a summer of such behavior, “So, who gets input into hiring decisions around here?” and I got to answer quite honestly, “We all do.” Smile.

          5. I so agree with this observation. I have a co-worker who is cold to the point of rudeness, who I at first assumed was just reserved or socially awkward. Until I saw her interacting with the manager of our entire department, whereupon she magicked up some social skills and conviviality quick-smart. And maybe she is reserved or socially awkward, but she is also conveying that I am not worth the social skills points or the baseline level of courtesy she’d have to spend to interact with me, because I can’t further her career.

          6. It’s the “how do they treat the waiter” test in reverse. I can understand how someone who finds it hard to be social could end up trying harder around the boss than around coworkers – but that’s also a habit I would (and do) work hard to avoid developing! It does show a very red-flaggy attitude about people’s relative worth.

          7. Whereas I try hard both around the boss AND around the coworkers I deal with the most often, because they’re equally important. I want work to go smoothly. That means getting on with the people I work with. Besides which, while my job doesn’t have promotion options because it’s a fixed term thing, even if it did, I couldn’t know for sure that one of the considerations my manager took into account wasn’t “find out how potential promotees get on with their colleagues”. That’s for sure something I’d want to know if I was deciding who to promote.

          8. In my work environment I go by how people treat (and speak about) the security guards and the administrative assistants. If they are jerks to them then I know who I’m dealing with. It’s like the waiter test.

          9. I’m not so great at being social and I’m pretty sure some of my old co-workers could describe me as ‘cold to the point of rudeness’. The thing is I’m better at talking to outgoing, talkative people (it makes it less obvious how bad I am at holding up my end of a conversation) so I was actually worse at interacting with my manager because he was a quiet, reserved guy.

        6. The occasional “wow, that came out wrong, I’m sorry” or “wow, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry” would be a major clue.

          Considering a lack of filter to be a positive thing – whether the filter is missing for voluntary or involuntary reasons – is mutually exclusive with that and does indeed make one a jerk.

          (It’s not always neurological issues that lead to not having a filter. For example, I’m asexual, and my general lack of thinking about sex means that I often don’t notice that something I’ve said is innuendo-ey until several minutes later, if at all. That’s not neurological except insofar as *all* behavior comes from peoples’ brains, but it’s not voluntary, either, and I do go ‘wow, oops’ on a regular basis.)

          1. People say awkward stuff and mess up all the time. That’s not unforgivable by any stretch. It’s not any one thing that made the coworker ping my “possibly a jerk” filters, but all of them together.

            If the LW thinks the coworker’s apology is sincere, and she sees evidence of changed attitude and behavior, then all is well. I hope it works out like that. But when you’re feeling stepped on around someone it’s good to keep your shields up for a bit.

  4. I love all the Captain’s advice as usual. I just wanted to reiterate that it is both totally okay for you to be a virgin, and okay for you to be upset about having that fact used against you. That’s a very private thing that can be loaded with a lot of personal significance for so many different reasons, it’s just a very insensitive thing to tease someone about.

    It’s like teasing a fat person about their weight. We aren’t necessarily unhappy about being fat, but that kind of teasing can carry a ton of cultural baggage. There is how I feel personally, and then there is the social perceptions and connotations around fatness. The dominant connotation is extremely negative. So while I’m not too upset most days about being fat, if someone else teases me about it I know they don’t mean it in a nice joking fun we’re all buds here kind of way.

    Sometimes a comment is just a comment, and sometimes it carries the force of society’s judgement and slams it into the core of your being. That shit hurts.

    One could say the same about virginity, there are social norms being enforced in a really hostile way when teasing someone about virginity. Especially with this coming from someone who pushes you into the role of being weak and innocent, this isn’t a nice thing to say.

    Also, one of the things that I found very difficult about adjusting to real world work life was getting used to being around people who are not at all in my age group. Until you’re 22 and out of college most of the older people you know are your parents or your teachers. You are rarely in a peer type relationship with people 20 years your senior. It can be difficult to adjust to that dynamic, you can feel like you should defer to this person who is the same age as your mother, regardless of your actual work hierarchy. But you shouldn’t, this woman may be older than you, but she clearly isn’t very mature.

    1. Yes, I agree that the LW may also have been upset, not because they have issues with their virginity per se, but because it’s deeply personal and private information that carries a lot of cultural baggage.

      There are many things about my life of which I’m not ashamed, but which I prefer to keep private just because I like my privacy. Having it violated like that, especially by someone I trusted, in front of someone I liked, would hurt me very much. Almost regardless of the context in which it was done.

    2. I like your analogy. No matter how ok one is with one’s figure or virginity or whatever, the fact that it is being used *as a tease* tells you that the person is using it in a negative way that invokes the hurtful societal baggage.

  5. People who boast about being tactless/brutally honest/having no filter make me immediately suspicious. What they really mean is, “I don’t believe the rules of civilised social interaction apply to me so fuck y’all!”

    Which is ok if you’re a toddler, but once you’re through that stage… really?

    It might be funny when she says outrageous things you wish you said, but there’s a reason you didn’t say them and it’s probably a good one. So handle with caution.

    1. Agreed! What’s equally suspicious is that their “I’m just being HONEST, y’all!” filterless-ness only applies to unpleasant comments. You never hear anyone of those people saying things like, “These Cookies are fuckin’ delicious! Those are some flattering pants! Your new haircut is fuckin’ amazing! I say what I want!” If they were TRULY without a filter, we’d have to hear some positives from time to time, right?

      1. You are so right! That comment is so insightful! And those pants really ARE flattering!



      2. Exactly. If they were “just being honest” they’d say nice things at least as often as mean ones.

      3. ABSOLUTELY this. My best friend of more than a decade is someone who really is naturally incredibly forthright (and some would say “brutally honest” or without a filter), but she’s also a super fantastic person (hence why we’ve been friends for years). Yes, sometimes she goes too far and is too harsh, but sometimes her comments are just off the wall and wacky, and sometimes they’re actually SUPER NICE and complimentary but the kind of stuff that other people might not take the time to comment on. If somebody only seems to not have a filter about hurtful comments, that’s really suspect.

          1. I was super tired in school today and was just pretty much throwing around the word “awesome” to describe all my class mates. And my teacher. And a girl retaking the class. And my mum. And my grandfather… Yeah, and I started ranting about how I needed to shut up and let people study.

      4. Exactly.

        It’s like people don’t notice that the common social filters include filtering out positive things and compliments, too.

      5. I actually know someone like this! “You are so smart!” she says, clapping her hands. “I heard your voice and it made me happy,” and the UPS guy goes, “Um, thanks!” She’s adorable.

  6. I appreciate both the concern of the original poster and the advice given. As a male virgin in my early 30s I am torn between feeling ok with where I am as an individual, and a lingering insecurity that this is something I should feel shame over as well as a fear of being “outed” and ridiculed. Nothing extra to add, really. I’ve had similar panics over sarcastic comments from aquaintances or friends who are generally just flapping their gums to hear themselves talk, since nobody has ever known me to be in a romantic/sexual relationship, committed or otherwise. Hang in there cyberfriend, you are not the only one, and it is nobody’s business or fodder for gossip.

    1. There is also no reason that the topic should ever, ever come up at work. So “Is that really a work discussion?” can shut it right down.

      1. And if you don’t feel you can pull off the calmly professional tone for that sentence (I have a problem with sounding madder than I intend to, which sometimes results in unintentionally raising the stakes or picking a fight when I want to disengage), the same thing but with a more jokey tone can work well too. It gives it a bit of a “wow, it’s almost funny how inappropriate that was, I’m embarrassed for you so let’s laugh it off,” and if they persist, it leaves the door open to follow up with a firmer response.

        Since you said you tend to be perceived as ‘sweet,’ you probably don’t give off a madder-than-you-intended vibe, but I think the joking-but-firm response could also work well as a back door into assertiveness for people who don’t like confrontation?

    2. As a male virgin in my early 30s I am torn between feeling ok with where I am as an individual, and a lingering insecurity that this is something I should feel shame over as well as a fear of being “outed” and ridiculed.

      LW & Anon, neither of you is alone. *joins y’all*

      I’m pushing 40 and only just coming to grips with a lot of shit about myself and my personality and this subject is one of the worst for me to talk about, because there’s so much shame attached to it that I’ve internalized from society (which is completely fucked up when you consider how hysterical people get over the subject of sex in general, especially in the US where we have this Puritanical streak at work while sex is everywhere in every part of the media all the time). But if you’re over 25 and a virgin – and not saving yourself to make babies for Jesus, though those people get their own brand of ridicule in society – everyone thinks you’re broken in some way. It sucks. And it makes it really fucking hard to talk to anyone about it.

  7. “I choose to act like an oblivious asshole sometimes and I’ve decided that everyone should think it’s an adorable quirk.”

    This so much. People say this so that they can turn around their own assholery to blame you for just not being cool with it. I completely understand why you had the reaction you had, letter writer. She said something purposefully to belittle you in front of coworkers and a guy you like, and that fact that you are a virgin probably did make it sting a little bit extra because there is so much societal emphasis on if and when you have sex the first time. It’s really nobody’s business but your own, and it certainly does not determine your value as a person. I’m sure it was/is not obvious to her, as you said. She was taking a shot in the dark, and actually didn’t really care if you were or not. Again, it was a comment made specifically to belittle you because she’s a jerk. I really like the Captain’s advice here, especially number 8. Sadly, it’s these types of experiences that make you a bit wiser for the future. And I say this as someone who spent many days crying in the bathroom over something someone said to me at work. Even at age 30 now, I still struggle to brush off condescending comments from others. I’m looking forward to reading the Tiger Beatdown essay CA linked to with this in mind. But, as she said, it does get easier with time and age. Good luck, LW!

  8. Oh, those kind of people. The ones who thinks it the perfect excuse for being mean. “Me? I’m not mean. I just say what I think straight out, I don’t hold things back.”

    It’s a wonder though how “saying things straight out” never means actually being genuinely nice to people, isn’t it?

    1. Yeah, I agree. I’m probably one of the most direct people I know. When asked for advice I give my honest opinion. I’m often blunt and I do describe myself as a “shoot from the hip” kind of person. But I don’t ever intentionally say nasty or hurtful things, and I don’t make excuses. If I say something direct and it hurts someone’s feelings, I own that. I apologize for it and try to rephrase.

      Now, that said, there are also people out there who need to grow a thicker skin. I think the OP herself admitted that she “struggles with weakness in body and mind” and I think that she might need to learn to not take things so much to heart. To some degree there is truth in the saying that you can’t control what people say to you, but you can control your response. Allowing a rude woman’s comment to make you go home and sob for hours is not reasonable.

      I run a message board for weight loss and I see it all the time in women who come to the board and say that some complete stranger made a rude comment to them about their food or their weight or their exercise and they were “mortified” and went home and cried. Letting someone else who is being rude make YOU feel bad is a complete reversal of how things should be. If someone is rude to you, collapsing in a heap and crying only gives them more power and validates anything they say. Standing up to them and saying “You aren’t allowed to talk to me like that.” or even walking away and thinking to yourself that they’re an asshole is the response that shows you have self respect and doesn’t give anyone else power over you.

      Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

      1. “Growing a thicker skin” can be a valuable skill in surviving fraught interactions and I highly recommend it, but it’s not something you can do on a schedule, and not something you can ever really do at the behest of someone who is bullying you. “Grow a thicker skin so I can keep being mean to you if I want” isn’t really an order you have to follow. It’s like a mean person making you cry and then getting angry at you for crying.

        And what is thicker skin but scar tissue, ie, formed by damage?

        I agree that crying due to a passing comment from a coworker is not normal, and if it continued for more than a day I’d be actively recommending some mental health care, but I think the LW might be reacting more sensitively than usual because, as she says:

        – The project is stressful and the staff is isolated. They’re stretched thin and sick of each other.
        – The “virgin” comment is the culmination of a lot of little jabs and frictions.
        – It happened when the LW felt especially vulnerable (in the presence of her crush).
        – It was totally out of the blue and about something really personal.

        Since you can’t grow a thicker skin on demand, it seems that disengaging and spending less time with this coworker is the best course of action.

        1. I’m not sure I agree that thicker skin is always “scar tissue”. Sometimes a thicker skin comes from having more self-confidence and self-respect. And you’re right – that’s not something that comes on demand. I think that my intended takeaway from this is to treat it as a learning experience – not a scarring one, but an educational one. Not every burn leaves a blister – but it still teaches you that the stove is hot. 😉

          The rest I agree with. It was probably a combination of events and timing and definitely spending less time with the unfiltered co-worker is a good idea. My favorite phrase when people are jerks around me is to smile and say “that’s interesting” and walk away. It gets the point across pretty well.

          Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request. Oh goody, more work!

          1. It seems to me you are making this about the LW and not about the behaviour of a bully. I read both of your comments and both seem to indicate that if the LW would just be, somehow, better then her magical, thick, self confident skin could deflect straight talkin’. Kinda like….yours. Hmm.

          2. You nailed what was bothering me about this comment. It turns responsibility away from the bully and onto the victim, and implies that the victim is doing something wrong for feeling hurt at a hurtful jab. So the answer to bullying in society is for people like the LW to just not feel, to not have inconvenient emotions, rather than for any of us to attempt to make this kind of bullying unacceptable and try to get people to stop doing it? That’s…not cool. It’s especially not cool to make growing a “thicker skin” an imperative for another person, rather than something that a person comes to by and for themselves, when and if they choose/can manage it/it works for them.

        2. I’ve lived and worked in similar isolated, smallish group situations (larger than the LW’s group but under 20 people). We did, indeed, wind up totally sick of each other, mentally and physically exhausted, and homesick to the point of distraction. “Growing a thicker skin” might be a skill the LW can work on when zie’s not under such a huge amount of stress, but right now, I can totally see how a seemingly “small” comment could cause such an outsized reaction. Oh boy can I. I think it’s important to keep in mind the LW’s unique situation when discussion what zie should or should not do — disagreements and Not Speaking in these kinds of situations are going to be much bigger than in an ordinary work situation. So for sure, the best idea for the LW is to disengage, disengage, and disengage.

          LW, good luck, I have an inkling what you’re going through, and I hope that once you’re out of your pressure cooker there, you can learn from the experience and maybe ask out your cute coworker 🙂

      2. It is sooooo easy to say “you are overreacting,” “you need to develop a thicker skin,” “you shouldn’t take it so to heart” — if you are someone who was given that gift when the gods were dispensing life’s blessings. But really, that’s just a form of victim-blaming — the kind kids experience all the time when they report bullies to parents and administrators.

        I’ve come to believe that some of the ability to let stuff roll off is hard-wired in, and rewiring takes a long, hard effort and therapy. I have two kids. One, if insulted by a classmate, says, “Whatever. Jerk.” and goes merrily onward, pretty much unscathed. The other is like, “Ooowwww!! Do people really see me like that? What is it about me that brings out the mean in people?” — or something to that effect. I don’t know why the second child gives the insults foothold, even when they come from a class bully that no one actually likes or respects, and certainly not that child. I do know that saying “you can’t control what people say to you but you can control your response!” is, in that child’s case so far and despite some therapy, a glib, cruel lie. Oh, we’re trying! But so far control is elusive.

        In tort law in the U.S. there’s a concept called “the eggshell plaintiff.” What it means is that if you negligently crash into somebody and their injuries are greater than most people’s would be because they have brittle bone syndrome or something, that’s too bad for you… you’re still responsible. The same should be true for emotional hurts. I don’t think people should get to say “your reaction is not reasonable” (unless, like Captain Awkward was saying, they are saying it in a supportive way, as in ‘you seem disproportionately distraught, maybe some therapy would help,’ and even then they shouldn’t say it as if therapy is some magic wand.)

        1. I don’t believe it’s victim blaming to help someone to realize that there are jerks in the world, and that you don’t have to allow them to control your feelings or responses. Nor do I think telling them that they can control their response is a “glib cruel lie”. I think it’s the beginning of helping them learn that they don’t have to react and they can begin to realize when things are personal to them and when things are just a jerk being a jerk.

          By teaching them to control their reactions, you’re not telling them that they can’t feel .. but you are letting them know that they can be in control, rather than allowing the world to control them. That’s not victim-blaming. That’s empowering. IMO.

          You’re right … “you seem disproportionally distraught” is a much nicer way of saying it than “your reaction is unreasonable” and it’s something I’ll keep in mind. 🙂 As I said, I tend to be direct, but when someone points out a better way to get my point across, I am certainly willing to accept that.

          1. I do understand where you’re coming from. Poke around this blog a bit (if you haven’t already), and you’ll see I’m pretty blunt-spoken myself, and at least in my middle age am pretty good at seeing people’s jerkiness as their problem, which I’m not going to take on as mine thank you very much.

            Still, I’ve also walked alongside someone who has tried and is trying, with the aid of therapy and medication and more therapy to exile those critical little voices to the outside of her skull. And trust me, people’s casual assertions that she can control her reactions and doesn’t have to let those external voices send her into a tailspin has only ever made her feel even worse. ‘Cause so far, not so much. So it’s like saying “yeah, but if you were stronger this wouldn’t be such a problem!” It’s kind of like someone who’s never had issues with their weight telling someone who is trying to diet about how successful the skinny person has been at keeping weight off, and the dieter just needs more willpower! Not so empowering as you seem to think.

            Susceptibility to emotional hurt is not a character flaw… you know?

          2. And for the record, I get that analogy….[truncated]

            Edited by the Captain:

            ANONYMOUS BANNED PERSON , this is a no diet-talk space. Not to take away from something you are obviously happy and proud about, but we’re kind of the son of the bride of Shapely Prose in this regard. It’s spelled out in the site policies here: https://captainawkward.com/site-policies-and-faqs/ I edited out your discussions of your own dieting.

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          3. Wow. You are really determined that not being hurt when people say mean things is just a matter of trying hard enough, aren’t you? And that if you haven’t mastered it, you’re “letting bullies walk all over you.” I think we’ve gone as far as there’s any point in going with this discussion.

          4. Um. I wasn’t the one who brought up the diet analogy. I was just following it along with my own personal experience. Maybe you’re a little oversensitive about the whole body image thing?

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          5. And…after giving you the benefit of the doubt, editing out clear violations of site policies while still retaining constructive parts of your posts, you (Anonymous Banned Person*) are now banned from Captain Awkward Dot Com for being Too Much Fucking Work.

            Edited to Add: In the name of transparency, Alphakitty did bring up the diet analogy (after you mentioned your diet message board), but Anonymous Banned Person you doubled down on how it IS possible if people just try hard and look how you lost x amount of weight so other people can, too in a way that does cross the line. However, it is not any one comment that led to this decision but the string of comments and continued escalation and arguing and becoming openly insulting when asked to back off. Other posters also crossed lines but quickly de-escalated when asked to.

            This is sad because I think you did make some valid points about building up one’s own defenses in the face of bullying and led us to good questions such as “How does one learn to do this?”

            Moral of the story: If you make me spend my entire evening dealing with you, and having to read all of your comments extra closely to make sure they are on topic and maybe edit parts of them, and if I can’t trust you to be civil to other posters or respect site policies, that is Too Much Work. I recognize that this is a subjective decision and see why you might feel badly done by, but you’re not the only commenter and this is not the only thread.

            I’m sure your very thick skin will get you though this difficult and embarrassing moment.

            *Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          6. But you see, Amanda, if people would just suck it up then abrasive people would never have to feel bad about being rude and could keep writing it off as “Just how I am, dear.”

        2. Old-fashioned folks in the southeastern US would say that the second child is “tenderhearted”. I’ve always liked that characterization — it’s not a personality flaw that they need to fix; it’s a character trait that people around them should keep in mind. Most people can’t just decide to switch from being the second child in that example to being the first. Telling them that they should doesn’t help. It just makes them feel worse.

          1. I edited your comment and deleted a follow-up. It got really nasty in here really fast and I don’t care for it. @Anonymous Banned Person, you’re also on notice.

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          2. I’m sorry, why am I on notice for being attacked for “victim blaming” when it’s very obvious that I am doing no such thing?

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          3. I don’t think it is obvious. At least, it isn’t to me, and apparently it isn’t (or wasn’t) to alphakitty either. What I’m hearing — please do correct me if I’m wrong — is that people like the LW shouldn’t feel bad about being picked on, because some people (like the coworker) are just jerks. I get how you could mean that in a cheer-up-it’s-not-so-bad way, but telling someone who is already upset that the mere fact of being upset is a character flaw they need to work on is unhelpful. I hear it as “Your pain is your own fault. If you were stronger and more self-confident, you wouldn’t be in pain right now.” That’s what I’m perceiving as victim-blaming. I don’t think it’s intentional on your part, but intent matters much less than effect.

          4. Anonymous Banned Person, I deleted your nasty follow-up to Other Becky (and I edited out her nasty reply to you, so this is no longer germane).

            I think the “can you grow a thicker skin” discussion is extremely valuable, and would like to continue it without nastiness from anyone.

            If that’s not possible, I suggest that anyone who feels like making a nasty retort or bitching about moderation alt-tab right now away from this site and come back another time.

          5. I really like the discussion about “tenderhearted” vs. “more assertive” people and would like to see it continue. Maybe what we have in the letter is an interaction of styles, like styles of attachment. But not if it’s going to be nasty.

            Sometimes I see it in letters here or in life. I think there are some people whose “tenderheartedness” disguises extreme dysfunction and manipulation. “My feelings are so hurt, you must always apologize and be careful of them, there is no comforting me.” I had to end a friendship with someone who would tell me every time we hung out about something I’d done to inadvertently hurt her feelings the last time we hung out and it was really the most innocuous stuff. We eventually devolved into the useless “I’m sorry you feel that way” apology. It felt if I didn’t constantly try to make up for all of her personal sadnesses and history with abuse and neglect (by romantic partners, and family members) and make her constantly feel okay, I was a bad friend. But there was no making her feel okay, it was impossible, because only she could make herself okay.

            I don’t think that someone has to have always done something wrong for another’s feelings to be hurt, and I agree that we do or should try to have some control over how we react. Unintentionally triggering a person’s issues that you have no way of knowing that they have (which is one aspect of what happened in the letter) can’t always mean that you must walk on eggshells around everyone.

            I think the LW getting a little professional distance from the coworker is a good idea. I think that approaching the person and trying to get an apology is likely to backfire because it calls attention to the fact that the LW is a virgin and feels sensitive about it, so if the coworker IS ill-intentioned it just gives her more ammunition.

          6. “I think there are some people whose “tenderheartedness” disguises extreme dysfunction and manipulation.”

            I think that’s a valid point. I was assuming situations where the mean-speaking was real and deliberate, and then meanie acts like “jeez, I wasn’t *that* mean… you’re totally overreacting.”

          7. I really like your example, Captain, because I think it’s quite possible that your former friend sees it as totally different (especially since, from what I’ve seen, people who manipulate often convince themselves that they aren’t actually doing that). Your ex-friend probably has a story about this Awkward Captain who used to be friends with them but was often mean by accident and in the end wouldn’t bother putting in the effort to stay friends. And I think that’s totally okay, because, regardless of whose fault any of it was, the fact was that the two of you couldn’t be friends and now you aren’t. We don’t have an easy language for breaking up with friends, but sometimes it needs to happen, and, just like with romantic breakups, you don’t need to have a rock-solid reason that the other party agrees with.

          8. She taught me so much when we were friends, so I’m so glad to have known her. And we did have an actual breakup, actually, with my using my words to say “I love you but I feel like we make each other sad all the time, so maybe we should stop that.” She’s the inspiration for African Violets. I don’t dislike her by any stretch, she’s not a bad person, just, we were a very very bad fit for each other, and I could see how I might be the Insensitive Friend Who Bailed When Things Got Hard from her POV – it’s a totally fair assessment.

            I don’t think LW and coworker are a good match for this reason, which is why I didn’t advocate talking/hugging it out. Wishing now I’d made it clearer, but that’s what comments are for.

          9. Some of this was the point I was trying to make, yes. But also .. I think people can be overly “tenderhearted” without the manipulative or guilt aspect, but just to their own detriment. I”m not entirely sure I’m phrasing this in an elegant way, so please forgive any clumsiness. It’s not meant as “victim blaming” … it’s from, as I explained earlier, my perspective as a message board owner having seen many people who have extreme reactions to hurtful comments.

            Sometimes people are jerks. There is no excuse for it, but it happens and saying they shouldn’t be jerks isn’t going to make them go away. Learning to how to respond to (or not respond to, as the case may be) these people should be part of life. If someone doesn’t learn how to handle this, they are setting themselves up for a very painful, hard, potentially debilitating life.

            When someone treats you poorly or when someone bullies you being “mortified” or going home and crying for hours or withdrawing from communication with everyone doesn’t solve anything. It certainly doesn’t make you feel better – it just makes you feel even more helpless and angry and more hurt and creates a vicious cycle. Controlling your reaction is different from controlling your feelings … but often controlling your reaction can lead to having different feelings. It can lead to more self esteem. It’s a variation of the “fake it until you make it” mindset.

            Maybe inside you’re crying and hurt, but on the outside you’re calm and collected and you recognize that they crying and hurt means that you need to say something like “I don’t appreciate that” or “I don’t think that was appropriate” or even just plain “that hurt my feelings”. And as you do that more and more often, it begins to reflect inside you as well. You begin to see that by standing up to the bullies, you are no longer crying and hurt on the inside. The outside actions – even if they are to some degree “faked” – are influencing your inside feelings.

            Again, I’m not saying it’s easy…DIET/WEIGHT-LOSS TALK TRUNCATED BY MODERATOR… But recognizing that it CAN be done is a good first step.

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          10. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, Captain, but I’m decloaking now to throw in my two cents. Pardon me if I’m being presumptuous, but I’d like to express an opinion on a community I would ultimately like to join.

            I think any variation of “just grow a thicker skin” is victim blaming, and justifying it with discussion undermines the safe place you’re trying to make. I feel it’s like a lot of the situations presented here, where a discussion of “Is the LW right/wrong in feeling this way” just derails the actual issue, which is that the LW feels hurt and needs advice on how to deal with it. Sometimes that advice has been “No, you are wrong”, and sometimes “Yes, you are right,” but you have always respected that the way the LW feels is important, and you’ve always given them tools to deal with their problems constructively. I think that makes you a fantastic advice giver, and I think you’ve already given sound advice in your response.

            If, on the other hand, you say, “No, I’ve deliberated and you’re not allowed to feel that way,” you ultimately tell the LW that they do not have the same value as other people, and that’s not okay. Her response may have been an overreaction, but I think I see where she’s coming from. When you don’t have the tools to deal with a problem, it can eat you up inside.

            I’d like to recommend the LW this post (https://captainawkward.com/2012/01/19/question-176-the-perpetual-seething-mass-of-resentment/), if she hasn’t seen it already. You gave great advice in it, and it helped me out a lot.

        3. I completely agree with you about the ability to let some stuff go being hard-wired. I guess I come across as easygoing in some situations that others might find stressful, and I’ve had a couple people ask me how I stay calm, and other people use me as an example of how it’s totally possible to stay calm, because look, Copcher is totally calm and she isn’t even stressing about staying calm. But really, I have no advice about how to stay calm in those situations, because I’ve never had to work on it. People who have an easy time letting things go, or who have a thick skin, or who have always had great organizational skills, or whatever, really shouldn’t tell people who don’t have those things how easy it is to develop them.

          1. I didn’t say it was easy to develop them. I said it’s something worth learning how to do – or teaching your children how to do.

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

          2. I agree with this – it is worth learning how to do and teaching kids how to do to the extent that it’s possible to teach this as a skill.

            So what extent is it possible to teach this as a skill? How do we do that? What steps, specifically?

          3. Hear, hear! No children of my own, and no plans for any, but that’s not the same as no children in my life. As someone whose thicker skin has been almost entirely the result of scar tissue, that’s not a mechanism I endorse. I think I’d be especially interested in looking at the intersection of teaching how to discount others’ opinions and teaching empathy. How do you balance those two? And how do you differentiate “nastiness, disregard” and “unpleasant truth, address”? Sometimes legitimate criticism can be pretty painful.

          4. I’m not certain if this is something that can be learned or taught, but just not really noticing when/if people are talking about you works wonders for me…

            On a more serious note, the few times someone has said something mean about me to my face, I usually didn’t like them much anyway. When it did have an impact or change something about whatever relationship I had with that person, it was generally a “withdraw, regroup, and recalibrate” strategy that worked for me.

            1. disengage for a while.

            2. what did they say/ why was it jarring? (was it jarring?)

            3. process said information, add to pool of knowledge about person.

            4. possible change in label for person from “nice acquaintance/co-worker/etc.” to “not-nice acquaintance/co-worker/etc.” or even from “friend” to “not-friend”

            as far as differentiating between “mean” and “legitimate criticism”, I think considering the source is probably the best way to go about it, as well as considering the other things the source has to say about people generally.

          5. Speaking as someone who was born very sensitive and has been slowly growing thicker skin, what helps me most is seeing people acknowledge feelings without getting worked up about it. I’m awed by people who can say “that was hurtful, and I’m upset” in a calm tone of voice, and possibly be visibly hurt, but without radiating unpleasantness or hostility. When I’m hurting, I really appreciate people who will hear me out and bear witness to my feelings without giving me feedback that reinforces the cycle. It’s the difference between “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they were so mean! You must feel terrible!” and joining in on my rant versus a calm “Yeah, she was way out of line.”

            It’s kind of like a kid who falls down and skins their knee – if you make a big deal about it and coddle them, they’ll cry longer and harder than if you calmly check to see if a bandage is called for, give comfort only as needed, and then send them back to the jungle gym. Learning to parent myself this way has been… difficult but very rewarding. It started with actually believing that my feelings aren’t good or bad, they just ARE, and calmly riding them out rather than berating myself for having the wrong ones. (It took me several years of therapy to start believing that. I hit adulthood with a LOT of bad scripts about emotions installed.)

            What’s been the most helpful for growing thicker skin has been gaining self-respect and confidence. I’m starting to trust my own judgement over other people’s, especially their judgement of me. It used to be that if someone said it about me, I took it to heart, because who am I to contradict them? Now if someone calls me a snob or a bitch I have more ability to say ‘hm, that doesn’t match up with what I’ve observed of my past actions’ and decide that their statement was probably driven by other motives.

            TL; DR: If you have a sensitive kid, I suggest modeling good self control, validating emotions, and being careful not to reinforce the world as a scary place. It would have helped me if my parents had taken the attitude that:

            A) Sensitivity is among my character traits
            B) That’s a good thing – it leads to empathy and seems to be important to artistry, among other things.
            C) It does make me more vulnerable to cruelty.
            D) Some extra work on self confidence and trusting my own judgement is called for.
            E) But mostly, it’s just a part of what makes me who I am.

          6. Hi! Thin skinned person here!

            1. My first step was yoga. The meditation/compassion aspects really helped me understand my own buttons/sensitive spots. It’s probably made me more thin skinned (i.e. sensitive) because I’m even more aware of my feelings, but it has also made me more accepting/proud/fundamentally OK with being who I am (sensitivity included) so it’s a win.
            2. Started looking for the nugget of truth: i.e. am I hurt because this was accurate? Inaccurate (and the misconception bothers me)? Would it be appropriate to correct this person now? Are they being purposefully hurtful? [in which case I take whatever steps necessary to disengage]
            3. Be sad, it’s cool. Being thin skinned can be hard because sometimes (gah, more times than I can count) bullies get a thrill out of making you cry (or near-cry) in public. I used to be ashamed to say, “You’re hurting my feelings. Please stop.” But now, it’s the first thing I say, because it’s not weak to admit pain. In fact, it takes a lot of confidence and bravery. And if the mean person continues to say “blunt” things to goad you, at least it’s clear to everybody that it’s not OK with you because you’ve gone on the record as objecting.
            4. Absolute dorkiest bit, but there’s a Beatles song ‘Across the Universe’ that has a line “Nothing’s going to change my world.” When I feel hurt by someone that I have no choice but to interact with, I will sometimes sing/chant this to myself as a reminder that no matter how mean or abrasive they are, I’m still me and I am happy with that.

            Hope that helps! Also, maybe think about the goal. My goal is not to be more thick skinned, it’s to be better at expressing myself when I feel hurt in a way that is constructive for everybody.

          7. Laura, I like your point #1. I found it really helpful to be able to say (to myself) “yo, I am a sensitive person, this stuff hurts me, sometimes disproportionately.” Once I could say that, it got rid of the “what’s wrong with me, why do I react like that, normal people don’t do that, get a grip on yourself” script, which turned out to be half the battle for me.

          8. Another “thin-skinned”, “too sensitive”, yadda yadda here. Working very hard on coping or whatever… I’m not sure how to say it exactly.

            Having someone in my life who thinks sensitivity is a good thing has been really helpful. (It’s a therapist right now for me) It’s a nice counter-balance to the entire rest of the world. Captain Awkward is pretty good too, but it’s easy to end up in the wrong part of the internet, so for me a real person is nice.

            One thing that helps is forgiving myself for messing up. (And forgiving myself for not forgiving myself for messing up… etc.) Not to say I’m particularly good at it, but I in fact have more successes when it’s ok to fail.

            Another thing I did is pretending to be somebody else when I felt bad. Somebody who (in my imagination at least) acts the way I’d like to be able to act. So say someone says my co-worker hates me. What if someone said that to Angelina Jolie? Or Kim Kardashian. They’d be all, “Whatever. I’m so successful, I don’t care if one person doesn’t like me.” Pretending to be somebody else made it not *me* that the person was being mean to, and so it was easier to think about and tolerate the hurt. (note, this was over timescales of weeks, so I was pretending to be someone else not just when specific bad things were happening)

            And yes. eat , sleep, take care of physical illness, move, and interact. We all know it, yet it’s so hard to do.

          9. Mentally ill, fragile. I’ve learned some coping techniques from therapy. One thing is to just let yourself feel it for a while. Like five minutes. No judgements on your feelings. Feel sad, hurt, angry, whatever. You don’t even have to label it. Then you do something to take your mind off of it as best you can so the jerkbrain doesn’t get going. Then, talk to someone. They can help validate your feelings, and if you want, give you a course of action. I also have little mantras I repeat. Kinda corny, but it’s something to focus on. It can be things like “People (sometimes I list) like me.” “This person doesn’t know or care about me.” I like to think of the people in my life who love me and how time has faded many wounds.

            Thanks for discussing this. My family is often the “toughen up” type. And I want to tell them, you think I get a kick out of being scared and miserable? If I could just brush stuff off I would. That’s where therapy and practice comes in, but it’s still a lot of work.

          10. Another sensitive person who gradually developed a thicker skin. I’ve found that the two things that are most helpful are a really great Team Me and self-assurance. If someone is saying something awful about me, I can either say “I have many friends who appreciate me for my fine qualities, and I care much more about their opinion than I do about the opinion of this jerk,” or I can say “I know myself, and I know either this is grossly inaccurate or that it is accurate but that I love myself anyway.” Either way, it really helps to actively seek out an abundance of love and care, from yourself and others, in helping to shrug off the bullies.

          11. Wow. For a thread that went off the rails, it has sure come back strong. I love all the discussion/advice so far and it’s led me to some really helpful introspection on an issue I thought I’d pretty well figured out. So thanks Awkward Nation!

            My thinking may very likely apply to exactly no humans minus one, but on the off chance it doesn’t…

            I am Weepy McTears times a thousand — have been for my entire 40 years. That has not changed and I’m beginning to believe probably never will. What has happened is that over the years I’ve been able to limit it into a smaller and smaller segment of my interactions. Until now I’d chalked that up to age and “thicker skin” but I don’t know if that’s really accurate.

            The Captain mentioned the power differential in the OP’s situation, and I really connected with that. I think the actual skill I’ve learned may be to better predict and manage the power dynamic in my interactions. Example: in my job I deal with parents, which can be…fraught. And never fully in my control. So I’ve learned to go into fraught situations armed with scripts and data and a host of potential solutions, things that make me much less likely to be caught unaware. Then I plan an exit strategy in case of epic fail and rehearse all of it. It’s not a sure thing, but it works a good 90% of the time. Not because things don’t hurt me, rather that I give less opportunity to receive a direct hit. Something I am much better able to do the more power I have in a given situation.

            So maybe it’s not a case of thicker skin, so much as learning to use the skin you have in a more tactical deployment…? I was so much worse at this when I was younger — which would make sense if it’s a balance of power thing, since I had less understanding of my power back then and often had less actual power, at least at work anyway.

            I mean, shit still bothers me now. But I’m much better at avoiding that shit whenever possible. So maybe, at least for me, it’s less about thicker skin and more about predicting and managing the potential potholes ahead. And, as someone said above, forgiving yourself when you still fall into them.

            It also helped to find someone to act as a bit of an AA sponsor for the weepy, who could help me strategize, debrief, and occasionally talk me down off the emotional ledge.

          12. Seconded on the importance of Team Me. One of the difficulties I’ve always had with criticism is the worry that the blunt person is only saying what everyone else secretly thinks. Having friends who I know will criticise me – gently! – when they think I need it, and still stay friends with me, removes that whole constant-questioning cycle. Do my friends secretly think I’m awful? No, they’d tell me if they did. And also, not kidnap me to feed me wine and cake 🙂

            A great Team Me also once backfired horribly on some anonymous insulting person, who left a vituperative fat-hating random attack on my LJ. Normally this would have reduced me to bits for days; except that by the time I saw it, about five of my friends had already leapt to my defence and thoroughly dogpiled the anonymous hater. So instead of being hurt by the attack, all I felt was the warm glow of happiness at being all loved 🙂

          13. Coming extremely late to this, but here’s what my therapist told me to do:

            1. Therapy, obviously. For me a whole lot of this is him modeling a reasonable, stable, safe person, so I can learn what that looks like.

            2. Exposure. Carefully calibrated exposure: enough to make calluses, not enough to make open wounds.

            2a. In the beginning, medication was a big part of that too: just enough to blunt me down enough to do the rest of the work. I’m now reaching the point where I need to reduce the medication so I can do the rest of the work. (I feel the need to stipulate here that that’s not the role psych meds play for everyone. If you need them your whole life, and they work for you, then that’s GREAT. Yay for things that work!)

            3. My therapist did not suggest this, but it helped me a lot: spending some time on an anon meme. One of the female-majority ones. A very rough and tumble one, with a wide range of personalities from outright trolls to very sensitive people, sometimes both at once, and no persistent identities. That taught me a lot about how I come across to people who don’t know me, and how to decouple my own reaction from what other people say. And the important art of closing the window and taking time out when it gets too much. I wouldn’t advise this for everyone, by any means, but it was useful for me.

          14. @pterino: i think we might be on the same anon meme, lol. it hasn’t been 100% good times – there’s a LOT of trolling – but it’s definitely helped me take a step back irl and go “wait, no, you’re just saying that to rile me up.”

            … i’m still not sure i’d recommend it for the people here. or for me sometimes.

          15. I’m fairly thin-skinned but am trying to parent in a way that leaves my kids with as little scar tissue as possible. I tend to model empathy (“What do you need me to do to help you?” instead of “shake it off, kid.”) and apologies (“I am very frustrated that you made a mess in this room I just cleaned, but I shouldn’t have yelled about it. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”) instead of actively trying to teach something. Though I do tend to fail at this on a regular basis, I at least feel like when I fail and yell or am rude or cranky, at least I’m helping show my kids a productive way to deal with people who’ve been hurt. Who knows if it’ll really work, but I do try.

          16. @Starskita–
            Pretending to be someone else helped me enormously. I was a very shy person in High School–still am, really. But if you ask 100 people who know me to predict whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert, only the two or three in the room that know me well would say introvert.

            What I did, way back around age 16, was decided that I didn’t LIKE being shy and easily hurt. I didn’t like that I was missing out on doing fun things with fun people because chance comments sent me crying to my room. So over the summer I decided to act just like the person I would want to be (PIWTB). If someone insulted PIWTB, she would throw a snappy comeback at them and leave them speechless. PIWTB could talk to anyone. She held her head high, and looked people in they eyes. So I tried it. It was really hard at first. It gave me stress-based stomach cramps the first few weeks. But looking people in the eye got easier and easier, and I’ve gotten really good at telling that scared little girl inside me to buck up, and I rarely see her any more.

            It can be done, but it’s not easy and it’s not a good time and it won’t happen over night. At 40, I still have to take a deep breath before I call someone on the phone, or go over and talk to someone at a party. It’s still not entirely natural for me. But I know that people are more comfortable relating to me on an acquaintance and professional level now, and I’ve made some great friends that know how nervous other people make me and love me anyhow–but I would never have become friends with them in the first place if I hadn’t taken a deep breath, asked myself how PIWTB would act, and asked them if they wanted to go get a coffee some time.

          17. Another one who is very sensitive, I remember middle school especially I cried most days on the way home from school or crying at night or sometimes to my mortification in class! Sensitivity + raging hormones + lots of kids with raging hormones and flexing their social muscles = bad recipe for lots and lots of crying. Thank god for so many good teachers (I still to this day don’t know how they do it), good books, good friends and my parents who always made sure I knew they loved me even though they very much did not get why I was so sensitive. And let me tell you that suggestions to grow thicker skin or toughen up are the opposite of helpful in the moment of emotional upheaval and are pretty useless by themselves without specific advice on how to grow this thicker skin.

            Some specific things that helped me in no particular order:
            1. Assuming the best intentions of people until proved wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt. I really take this too far sometimes TBH, but it was and still is a good coping mechanism.
            2. Really working on loving myself. When you love yourself, comments can still sting, but you also know that they are wrong or mean and don’t have to doubt (as much) that you are a wonderful person.
            2a. Find a few specific things you really like about yourself, it can be anything from your hair color, your singing voice, your ability and love of math, your ability to read quickly, or how you can identify a Star Trek episdoe after 30s of screentime (btw these are IRL examples of things I love about myself 🙂 )
            2b. Make a point to do/think about/write about/focus on/pray about these qualities at least once or twice a day. I find during morning/bedtime rituals or commuting to be good times for this.
            2c. Make up affirmations that apply specifically you to you and say them aloud or at least in your head a few times a day.
            2d. Let yourself smile at the little things. (I hate with a passion when an outsider tells anyone (especially a woman/girl) to smile, but giving myself permission and encouragement to smile has helped me a lot as it helps me feel better.
            2e. Try new things that sound awesome and find more things you like about yourself. Push your boundaries a bit!
            2f. Keep coming back to (2a) and finding more and more things you love.
            2g. Put yourself first sometimes, this is something that is drilled into women by our society to NOT do. Fuck that, you deserve pampering too. Self-care is required once a week minimum and really should be something once a day!
            3. Surrounding yourself with Team You, good friends/family/etc. that you can go to when you need support and love.
            4. Reminding yourself that what random acquaintance/coworker says isn’t that important to you, they aren’t part of Team You.
            5. Getting angry and letting some of that anger show. I now put off a Don’t-Fuck-With-Me vibe that works wonders for strangers most of the time.
            6. Laugh things off literally with a I’m-so-embarrassed-for-you-right-now laugh at assholes and jerks. Sometimes my two choices are to laugh or cry in public, so I laugh and then let out my emotions via crying later if necessary.
            7. Figure out and practice graceful ways of escape. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom so you can have a moment, close your office door, suddenly remember something you forgot in your car or at home, notice a friend that just came in (whether they really did or not), etc. You can also with Team You people work out a signal for them to help run interference if you need or pull them aside and ask if they can explain away to any nosy folks that you aren’t feeling well or whatever.
            8. Find socially acceptable outlets for sensitive outbursts. Crying at sad movies/commercials/books, writing, art, music, dancing, sports, etc. I cry at every sad moment in every movie/TV show/book/commercial ever and it really does help.

            And I completely agree that thicker skin is exactly like a callous. I think you do need to build it as a survival trait in a world with jerks because breaking down crying at work often is generally not acceptable, but you also have to not grow that callous so thick that you lose your empathy which is the absolute positive of being a sensitive person. I’ve actually taken time here in the last year or so to deliberately peel away some of my callouses that were getting in the way of me recognizing my privilege and feeling empathy for people not exactly like me, but I also do sometimes have to have those callouses so that I can get through the day to day, I can’t feel everyone’s pain all the time, but you don’t want to shut it all out all the time either.

          18. Coming a little late to this.

            (I’m trying so hard to phrase this right, and it’s really difficult. I hope this doesn’t come off as “cheer up!”, that’s not the intent at all.)

            The most dramatic moment I’ve had with regards to control over reactions/emotions was an episode right after my first real break up.

            I was crying and crying, and it just wouldn’t stop. And then finally I told myself (out loud) that I was allowed to cry, but that I was also allowed to stop. (My actual words were probably “but I don’t have to if I don’t want to”. The sentiment was that there was no obligation to cry.)
            And then I stopped. Not because I tried to make myself stop, but just because I stopped.

            For me, that’s what was important. I’ve been in situations where I’ve told myself to not feel a certain way – guess what? That never works. In fact (for me) it increases feelings of guilt and stress, on top of whatever feeling I wanted to control in the first place.

            But saying I was allowed both ends of the spektrum… somehow that worked. (And obviously it’s a bit of a strange example. I think there are situations where we are culturally expected to grieve. (Does that make sense? Like you feel that you SHOULD cry when someone dies, or an important relationship ends. Because otherwise maybe it wasn’t a good relationship or you must have hated that person and you are TERRIBLE.) Anyway, I think that’s part of what made “being allowed to stop” so powerful in that situation for me, and it might be less powerful in different circumstances.)

          19. Hey, it’s lizziethebrave/lizzieonawhim (haven’t settled on a handle yet — bear with me), just weighing in to say thank you so much to everyone who has contributed positively to this thread — and especially to the Cap, who has trimmed out some of the nasty stuff, as far as I can see. As an extremely sensitive person myself, I struggle with a lot of shame surrounding that aspect of my personality. I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me that I was too sensitive and condemn/shame me for my personality, which is… kind of a crappy feeling. When I expressed to my therapist, when we discussed this topic, that I couldn’t help the way I was wired, her response was, “I don’t think you have to apologize for that.” It was one of the best things ever in the entire world for me to hear, and I’m really appreciating hearing it again here, in so many different forms from so many different people. And it’s great timing, too, because I’m feeling especially sensitive today for a variety of reasons and it’s really hard not to hate myself for it.

            Existing While Sensitive takes a lot of courage these days.

          20. I feel like other people have said this in different ways, but just to amplify the message: The worse I’m doing with life in general — if I’m sick or stressed, tired, panicked, traumatized, sad, depressed, malnourished, etc. — the more difficult it is to control or engage whatever skin-thickness skills I’ve developed.

            So the best first step for me is self-care.

            In cases where self-care isn’t an option (like right now — totally out of control stress/panic/depression), I’m stuck with my second-best option, which is repeating mantras and otherwise reminding myself that my brain is screwed up and this sad I’m feeling about whatever slight or inconvenience has been visited upon me is likely all in my head. It makes me feel a little better to think that the fact that my friend didn’t respond to my email the next day probably doesn’t actually mean that I’m a horrible person who no one wants to talk to, and to cement that idea by repeating something like, “It’s fine, I’ll get through this.” Even if I am actually a horrible person! I could not get through the day if I couldn’t get unstuck from some of the thoughts I have.

            Anyway, I read the LW as maybe not being a person with especially thin skin, or someone who needs to change, but someone who was already in an emotionally fraught situation who didn’t have enough resources to handle one more thing.

          21. Why do we have to teach ourselves? Seriously. I underwent a really toxic friendship some years ago, and have put up with toxic people around me all my life, hanging on to the good ones and trying the bad ones not hurt me. Why did I do that, I still ask myself today. I have now given up every single toxic person who was close to me. I do not stay near anyone who rings alarm bells, and ignore them if I can’t get away – but I don’t try to pretend they don’t hurt me. They do hurt me. For a reason. The racist classmate hurts me because he’s an awful human being. The abusive coworker hurts me because she is abusive. I do not have to grow thicker skin, they are supposed to hurt. The pain is part of the survival means.

            I can’t believe this conversation got so far in this particular blog.

            We do not need to grow scar tissue. We need to build a world where jerks and abusers are held accountable, and where our alarm bells and pain are taken seriously as what they are: alarm bells.

            Seriously, now.

          22. I second Loro. Like I said before, I’m all for giving people tools to deal with problems, but saying someone is “thin skinned” doesn’t help anyone. It really just hurts.

            Some of the advice here is good, not because it helps people grow a thicker skin, but because it’s the same basic survival skills used when dealing with difficult people that have been described all over this blog. You’ve restated a legitimate problem (an abusive coworker) and made it into the LW’s problem (“You’re too sensitive, fix that”). When you describe it as a basic character flaw, you blame the victim.

            I started out as “thin skinned” and have developed tools to work with people — not verbal armor — and I’m finding more and more that those tools solve my problems where trying to bury my emotions never has. It’s the difference between stating your problem and getting it solved when it happens — sticking up for yourself even in upsetting situations — and staying silent and letting it build until you explode in a self-destructive manner.

            I think a lot of situations like this where responses get out of hand are because the victim either can’t or doesn’t think they can handle the situation a healthier way. Part of that is feeling that if you speak up and express your feelings, someone is going to dismiss your concerns as “thin skinnedness”, which can hurt more than the insult did. We can help solve that problem by refusing to continue that way of thinking.

            I find comments like “thin skinnedness” hurtful because that was how abusers in my past justified their actions, up to and including physical assault. That does not make me weak. That makes me want to speak up for myself so it never happens again. Ignoring my emotions won’t do that.

            I think if the LW had described her coworker as “verbally abusive” as opposed to “kind of mean sometimes”, this conversation would have been shut down before it had begun.

          23. Yeah, sometimes the most useful and effective life skill is the skill of identifying and avoiding people who affect you very negatively. The benefit of this is that gradually over time you eventually end up arranging your life in such a way that you’re surrounded by wonderful decent people because you just won’t put up with anything less.

            I would be willing to and have changed jobs to avoid toxic people, and I don’t see that as a weakness in the least. I see it as having standards for myself and being willing to act on them.

            OTOH, there are degrees of toxicity, as well as genuine accidental hurts. So I can still see the usefulness of learning to let garbage slide off you from time to time.

          24. For me, at least, I have a tenderhearted mode where the mean things will make me freeze up and cry and an icy, detached, “I give zero fucks right now” mode. I’m aware of them as two separate stress responses, and they happen in situations that are just plain stressful where nobody’s being mean (eg, a lot of stuff is going on and I have to be in charge of people). I have no idea what makes me switch between the two modes, and I really wish I did, because control over that would be fantastic.

          25. Ooh, I guess I do sometimes switch deliberately between these two modes. I think it happens when I manage to stop and think, ‘I feel very sad and afraid, like I got attacked for doing something wrong. Did I do something wrong, or did they do something wrong?’ If the answer is (b), I let myself feel the coruscating rage of realising I’ve been treated unfairly. I try to let it move me into ‘icy’ territory fairly quickly so I don’t degenerate into Hulk Rage. I’ve found it helpful to say to myself, ‘Well, they just lost a really useful ally. There will come a time when they need my help, in the form of information, encouragement, or getting others onside – and I am going to quietly deny it to them. Then we’ll see whether they’re as strong as they think.’

    2. Absolutely. Ditto for those people who advertise themselves as having a “sarcastic (or ‘non-PC’) sense of humor.”

  9. 1 – Anyone who would think less of you for being a virgin is a twit.

    2 – Anyone who would think less of people for being virgins and then tease a co-worker about being a virgin is a twit twice over (especially in such a close/intimate work environment which *should* put a premium on being decent to one another).

    3 – She doesn’t know you were a virgin; she was taking a stab because you are so much younger and cuter than she, and maybe she resents your freshness and wants to present it as a negative, which it is *not.*

    4 – It upset you because you started with a baseline of presumed decency and at least friendly-acquaintanceship. You would never do something like that to someone you cared about. In that awful moment, you learned that either she doesn’t reciprocate the workplace-level respect and affection, or she has a fucked up way of acting toward people she likes or cares about. Either way, it was a loss, a betrayal. Nothing wrong with you for feeling dismayed and betrayed. Plus, of course, she did it in front of someone else whose opinion you care about, which made it extra awful… which I bet you she knew when she did it.

    5 – Like Captain Awkward says, now you know. So now you do not let her kid you that you are more than colleagues, ever again. You don’t need to be unpleasant to her, in any way. You just don’t let her draw you out into the vulnerable land of imaginary, manipulative faux-friendship again.

    1. >she has a fucked up way of acting toward people she likes or cares about

      Even if this was the case, that’s not how you do banter. You do not go probing for insecurities to ‘win’ the back-and-forth with (relative) strangers. It’s a sign of trust and understanding between bros, knowing how far you can go with each other and what you can make fun of. And by making pre-emptive excuses about it, she’s already makes clear that she can’t ever make it to that stage in her relationships. Crude levity loses its style the moment you don’t rightly know or care when, where and with whom to turn it off.

      It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and she’s (implicitly) placing the responsibility for that crunk in the interaction on LW instead of on herself. Terribly tacky.

  10. Okay I just wanted to bring up that sometimes a lack of a filter is out of someones complete control. I am an Aspie and I have that same lack of a filter. I am not “choosing to act like an oblivious asshole” and I certainly don’t think people should treat it like “an adorable quirk.” Sometimes it is just a person honestly has no or little filter and is working on it. It’s not like those kinds of problems are fixed overnight. I’ve been working on it for 15 years now and even then still have problems.

    Did this woman ever say she wanted you to like what she is doing because I didn’t see that at all. I did see her try and WARN the LW about her own lack of a filter instead of blindsiding her about it.

    Also why does sweet equal weak? Did this woman say she was only friends with weak people and then add in sweet because the LW says she chose to think of sweet as weak not that the woman said they were the same.

    Additionally if the LW had been acting like she was friends with this woman she needs to tell her they aren’t instead of playing mind games by suddenly distancing herself. For people who honestly don’t have filters, just withdrawing and not giving any reason why or any kind of clue makes you into the jerk. I’ve had that happen to me alot where people act like my friend and then suddenly don’t in reaction to something I guess I did (or didn’t do) and it confuses the heck out of me every time.

    Granted I am viewing this letter through my own experiences as a person with little to no filter and IS NOT CHOOSING TO BE A OBLIVIOUS ASSHOLE but this advice seems like it will make the LW into more of a jerk then the woman she is dealing with by avoiding actually talking about it with this woman, deciding this woman has to “obviously” be trying to be a bully and a jerk, and then badmouthing her to her coworkers behind her back. “Next time you see Object-of-Your-Affection-Coworker, greet him like nothing is wrong. If he asks about the weirdness the other day, say “Eh, sometimes ____’s filterlessness is just annoying and mean,” and change the subject back to something you want to talk about.”

    1. I said this upthread, but I’ll say it again:

      Nonneurotypical folks may have genuine trouble with having a filter.

      However, bragging about how you don’t have a filter and how it means you get to say mean things sometimes if you want to because you can’t help it is not a neurological disorder, it’s a being-a-dick disorder.

      As with the creepy posts, I think we can call out dickish behavior when we see it without casting aspersions on Aspies as if we assume they are all accidental dicks. I deliberately excluded people with Asperger’s or the possibility of Asperger’s because I *don’t* assume they are all accidental dicks.

      Your comment was within bounds, but further “But what about the Aspies?” comments in this thread will be deleted for irrelevance and reasons of “Why, when you hear about someone acting like a dick, do you make the crappy able-ist assumption that they must have a disorder? Stop that.”

      Also, a junior 23 year old coworker might have a hard time saying “Hey, sometimes your filterlessness isn’t charming, it’s out of line” to a senior, older worker without some blowback. She should not assume that the person will go “Oh, I’m sorry” and stop doing what she’s doing, because this person has an acknowledged track record of being mean. It’s also not her job to educate her coworker. Since this is a coworker, and not actually a friend, saying “Let’s not have personal conversations at work anymore” or pulling back from personal conversations isn’t mean, it’s professional, and it’s self-preservation.

      My advice is to disengage, disengage, disengage.

        1. Yeah, I think one of the reasons the LW is feeling so rattled is that in close proximity with the virgin remark, she effectively overheard her mentor saying, “Sometimes I’m an asshole to people just because I can be.” Very different from accidentally screwing up and saying the wrong thing from time to time.

        2. And quite often, you can tell. Tone of voice etc are things that are very hard to convey in writing but I’m pretty sure most people are somewhat familiar with the phenomenon of someone who can make “I’m glad for you” sound like an insult. It’s quite possible that the coworker had some edge to how she did it that the LW picked up on, but couldn’t quite figure out how to convey.

          Either way it’s really not LW’s responsibility to educate this woman in her 40s. That’s hard enough when you’re confident and outgoing and shoot from the hip (in a good way), let alone for us “tenderhearted” folk. If her coworker is genuinely not doing it on purpose, that’s very sad for her, but it’s her problem to work on.

        3. And SNEAKY mean too – by tossing it off as a personality quirk and under the guise of jokes and jibes makes it more… palatable in conversation. It’s not like she went “BWAHAHAHA – LW IS A VIRGIN LOOK EVERYONE!” or is sitting at home maliciously twiddling her thumbs plotting like Mr. Burns.

          It’s one of those tactics that’s designed to deliberately hurt you and gives the person inflicting the comments the routine for the mental gymnastics for not thinking about how they’re behaving like a jerkface. And you’re stuck with all the work trying to figure out why you had an emotional (and justified) reaction days later.

      1. “She says shocking things sometimes and it has never bothered me before. She says that she lacks a “filter” and that she always keeps going when other people stop.” That was what the LW said about it. That didn’t seem like bragging to me, just letting her coworker know about it.

        I still feel not even letting the woman know that what she said was hurtful while telling her coworkers she was mean is more nasty than what the woman (accidentally or on purpose) did.

        1. Ok, your thoughts are noted. Please stop posting in this thread now.

          “Someone was a jerk to me and really hurt my feelings.”
          “Oh man, let’s look at all the ways that it wasn’t really their fault. NOW who’s the jerk?”

          …is not really helping the LW.

          1. Is it just me who reads the ‘sometimes I keep going when others stop’ as showing that the co-worker is very well aware of where the boundaries are, just from observation if nothing else? It sounds totally like bragging to me, and yes, the implicit threat you mentioned above, Captain.

          2. It’s not just you. That’s one of my personal red flags.

            I know people who say the same thing. You will note I do not list them as friends. That’s the reason. They have actively chosen to be jerky, and therefore I keep them at arm’s length if I must interact with them.

          3. Not just you at all. Or the folks that readily take joy in pushing people’s buttons. I call them Jovial Jerks. There’s a tiny sarcastic voice in my head that thinks “Congratulations, you like to annoy/hurt people – good job! Now what?” when I hear admissions like that which aren’t coupled with sincere apologies.

            There was a Yo Is This Racist? blog where he responded to something along the lines of, “There are more ways that exist NOT to offend people than there are to offend them.”

    2. I also disagree with this:

      “For people who honestly don’t have filters, just withdrawing and not giving any reason why or any kind of clue makes you into the jerk.”

      No. It’s not fair, but other people aren’t your social interaction tutors. They can decide not to like you if you say mean things to them, whether it’s your fault or not. I agree that it in a friendship it would be better if they gave you an opportunity to explain or make amends, but in a casual coworker relationship it doesn’t make them a jerk if they just decide to pull back on interaction as long as they keep it within professional courtesy bounds.

      Liking people = not a matter of fairness.

      1. Plus, there was an Incident! If you are nasty to someone, and they pull back, it doesn’t take genius to figure out “maybe she’s still pissed about what I said.” In a small workplace, making a point of spelling that out would be a really bad, ill-feeling-and-drama-escalating move.

        1. Actually for people with filter yeah someone pulling back with no explanation doesn’t usually tell anything. To recognize that someone is pulling back because they don’t like what you did, you have to know what you did was wrong in the first place.

          1. No, you don’t have to know, and they don’t have to give you the blow by blow on every step of why you’re creeping them or being a jerk. No one owes you an explanation for not liking you or your behaviour. In fact, giving you an explanation is just feeding the belief that you can MAKE them like you if you just understand enough – no, you can’t. There is no magic social formula for making everyone like you. Learn to accept that you aren’t going to be liked by everyone and move on.

          2. there’s a real issue of whether it would be safe or not for the LW to make this explanation, i think the LW could have a pretty reasonable expectation that it would not be safe, or at least very uncomfortable, to explain this, & i don’t think the LW should feel that they need to put themselves out there to explain. i know this has already been said, but just want to let the LW know, it’s ok to be intimidated in intimidating situations & that’s not a sign of “weakness” – disengaging & withdrawing as much as possible is a smart way to avoid more danger. thanks to the captain & other commentators, i think it’s really good advice.

          3. I wasn’t suggesting LW would be wise to say such things at all – I was actually responding to LadyTL and her belief that people need to explain explain explain because she identifies with the jerky co-worker. I’ve had plenty of jerky co-workers in cubeville who play that “I’m free to be rude because I’m special,” card – the best shut down is the “Wow,” the second best being, “Is that really appropriate for work?” Repeatedly if needed.

            Aspie myself, but I know how to behave in public for the most part because I work hard at it and have friends who have helped me understand where I get a little overboard. If anything I’m too enthusiastic rather than being the “say mean things guy” – “poor social filter” doesn’t have to mean “excuse for asshattery.”

            HR can sit down and explain WHY it wasn’t appropriate – that’s not my job as a co-worker. This idea that people “owe” an explanation to the “socially inappropriate” person is just derailing and victim blaming.

      2. I don’t have a problem with people not giving others a chance to explain. I have a problem with someone not informing someone that they didn’t like what they did and acting like they “obviously” must know what they did was wrong.

        1. LadyTL, you are overidentifying with the jerky coworker here. You are imagining “What if I accidentally said something wrong and everyone shunned me and didn’t tell me why?

          Can you pull back and see that the coworker is making a bullying power play on a younger woman in the office who she perceives as having less status than she does? Are you a bully? Do you love using Asperger’s as an excuse to make little jabs and stabs at people? No? Then this isn’t about you, or about people with Asperger’s.

          Also, the coworker WITNESSED the thing in the coffee room. If he asks the LW about it, she’s allowed to talk about her perceptions of it without it being evil. If she went to him and brought it up in order to cause trouble, that would be being a jerk.

          I have put your comments on moderation after asking you several times to stop hijacking the thread.

          1. The person later apologized for it, which is a clear indication that they knew what they had done.

          2. Yet not necessarily proof of genuine repentance; some people like to do/say horrible things and then casually apologize mainly to deny the victim’s right to dislike them for it, as in, “What’s your problem? I apologized!” (yes, but now I know the evil that lurks between your ears!) That kind of thing would go right along with someone who uses “lack of filter” as a pass to do/say cruel stuff.

          3. As my father used to say: “if you were really sorry, you wouldn’t keep doing it.” 🙂

            Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

      3. “other people aren’t your social interaction tutors” <– THIS. So much!

        You know who is responsible for developing your social interaction skills after you leave your parent's house (and before that even)? You, yourself and YOU. It's YOUR responsibility to be accountable for YOUR behavior and learning how to deal with others. LW isn't being a jerk by taking away personal conversation, she's maintaining a level of professionalism to keep the work environment to work. She's setting bounds for herself at her job so she can function and also give herself room to work on her own stuff (personal and professional).

        1. OMG YES. The rest of the world doesn’t have to walk on eggshells for me or anyone else. There are things that are not appropriate to talk about in the work place – like work – and things that are not – like someone’s intimate status. Boundries keep the work flowing and the workplace more pleasant.

          One of the hardest times I ever had in cubeville was actually just bad placement of my cube – I was a convenient stop on the way back from the washroom to stall and “chat” – to each other, not to me.

          The number of pregnant women who thought it was entirely appropriate to stand by a man’s desk and loudly discuss their pregnancy details was staggering. I’m not talking X weeks and oh it kicked, I’m taking mucus plugs and things that there are creams for – that level of discomfort.

          Please keep in mind “you” is not you personally, but individuals in general:

          There are some intimate things you simply do not discuss in front of strangers – and definitely not loud enough so someone wearing headphones can hear the words, “mucus plug.” While you spend a lot of time with your co-workers, they are not all automatically your friends or want to be aware of the personal details of your life.

  11. YES. Using conversational filters is a big part of having good manners, and manners are something we learn — not something we either have or do not have. As with every other skill set ever (cooking, throwing a football, reading a book), some people pick these things up more easily than others, but pretty much nobody is completely hopeless. I wasn’t a natural at learning to throw a football when I was a kid, and I will probably never get very good at it because learning and practicing the skill is not important to me. Same thing with your colleague and manners. She’s decided the way she interacts with people is just fine, and that is that.

    I think you were set off in part because after believing for a long time that your boss was just incapable of holding her tongue sometimes (which you could probably empathize with, since we all screw up and say the wrong thing sometimes, or at least worry that we will; what’s more, sometimes tactless, “brutally honest” people can be really entertaining), you heard her telling someone, in effect, Sometimes I’m an asshole just because I can be. Which is fucking chilling, especially if you have to be around this person a lot and want to be able to trust that they won’t embarrass you just for kicks.

    In addition to everything the Captain recommended, I’d suggest thinking about polishing your resume and networking a bit to see what your options are should you decide it’s in your best interest to move on (or should the weirdness escalate to a point where it’s necessary). I say this because being around people who make you feel weak or small, especially at work, can make you feel like a hostage and do a real number on your self-esteem; I’ve stayed in crappy jobs way longer than I had to because of the combination of mean bosses convincing me I wouldn’t be able to work anywhere else and convincing myself I could never enjoy any other kind of work (neither of these things has ever turned out to be true). You may end up deciding you like being where you are (sometimes getting to work on really cool stuff really is worth the tradeoff of working with sharky people); you may end up stumbling onto an opportunity that will be much better for you; you may end up with an exit plan that makes your current situation more bearable. Knowing you have options can make a huge, huge difference.

    1. Yeah, the bit about being extra mean to “sweet” people indicates to me that this is someone who just enjoys being a jerk, not just someone who is tactless. Tactless people are usually equal-opportunity about it. If you’re especially nasty to someone whose behavior indicates low probability of them calling you out, you’re an asshole.

      1. The coworker did say that it was kind of a compulsion and she felt bad about it after it ruined one of her friendships. However, I still read it as a compulsion to be mean when she knows she can get away with it (i.e. to “sweet” people rather than people she perceives as powerful or worthy of respect), and her efforts to keep that compulsion in check are looking spotty at best here.

  12. “When your coworker uses “sweet” as an insult and tells someone that she used to pick on someone just like you until she one day snapped out of it when she knows you can hear her, she’s threatening you.”

    Outstanding insight; well done.

    1. Actually, I didn’t really dig that part of the response. Inferring the intent behind someone’s behavior is hard, and it gets even harder when you have to do it with a small amount of second-hand information. It’s possible that the coworker knew LW was eavesdropping and her attitude is born out of a malicious need to feel controlling. But it’s also possible that the coworker feels like an outsider at work and acts like a total dick to ease the sense of isolation. Or maybe she feels insecure/inferior next to all of her awesome young coworkers and makes up a big/loud personality trait to distract everybody from what she thinks are her real flaws. It may be fun to play armchair psychologist and figure out why somebody acts a certain way, but it’s all incredibly speculative and doesn’t actually fix anything.

      Regardless of this particular peeve, I though that the captain’s advice was spot-on (like always).

      1. I think it’s valid to call that statement a threat even if that wasn’t the coworker’s intent. I suspect that the great majority of cruel, manipulative, and abusive behavior is perpetrated by people who are honestly self-deluded about what they’re doing. No-one’s a villain in their own story, etc. Recognizing the threat in that statement (“I have been very, very nasty to someone like you in the past”) is good for the LW’s protection and strategy going forward.

      2. It could also be that lacking a real sense of humor she says “shocking” things in order to get a reaction out of people and attention. It is likely that she percieves nice sweet innocent people as being more easily shocked and thereby delivering more of her desired attention and accolades.

        However, I don’t really care why she did it. The fact is she crossed a line making personal comments about a coworker in a hurtful way and the LW has every right to withdraw from a more personal relationship with her for her own protection.

  13. Hearing someone use “virgin” as a synonym for powerlessness and naivete may’ve been part of what made you react so strongly, and having it delivered with a dose of sexual shaming in front of someone you LIKE like could not have made it easier. And if, for some reason, you’re semi-kinda-sorta thinking that not having had PIV sex disqualifies you from adult relationships (as noted above, it really really does not, oh BOY does it not), that could have helped trigger your reaction. I dunno, I’m just someone on the internets. But since you asked about why that particular comment evoked that reaction, maybe those ideas will help you figure out why that was the last straw. Sometimes it’s helpful just to know why your brain did what it did; you can’t always stop your reactions, but knowing what they might be can help you prepare to cope with them.

    “Wow” is a classic for a reason. Another useful phrasing, if you can pick your jaw up off the ground in time, is, “I don’t think that that’s an appropriate comment for the workplace,” delivered as calmly as you can manage. It’s like “wow” with a dose of “and you think you’re a professional” for topping. But that’s mostly esprit d’escalier at this point; I offer it on the off-chance that you’ll feel happier with some arrows for your quiver.

    Hang in there. And maybe ask the cute coworker out for a drink! Some of the best coworker-to-friend conversions start with exchanges of workplace horror stories.

  14. I made the same types of mistakes at work when I was in my early to mid-20s, seeking friendship and intimacy with co-workers. Hey, it’s hard not to when you’re with them 8 to 10 hours per day. Even harder if you all live together too!

    But in every case where I loosened up and got close to people and shared personal things, it ended up either damaging the work relationship or severely impacting the productivity of the workplace. Screaming fights as if we were all 10 years old and siblings do NOT belong at work. Luckily there were no customers present to be affected by all this, but I look back at it with shame now.

    Valuing professionalism for you and your co-workers would eliminate a lot of this. There is no place among professionals for discussions of sex lives, mother problems, therapy, or that annoying rash you found yesterday. If you want to seek friendship or explore feelings with any of these people, do it AFTER work. Or after the project ends, preferably. Once I got the clue about remaining professional at work (I worked in lots of places as a technical temp, some long term, some not) I made some good friends, but work was always free of the kind of personal drama that I experienced in my early years.

    I recommend it, going forward. Then you actually have a firm position to stand in and establish boundaries and enforce them. “I don’t discuss things like that at work.” or even, flat out, “I prefer to remain professional at work.” You can say it with a smile, but the message is quite clear.

    1. But this isn’t necessarily the only way. I just left an office where we all liked each other and we were all each other’s people. The big boss, who was in every way a professional, impeccable in her behavior and GREAT at her job (I want to be her!), used to complain when we moved into a new office that she hated being all way way down the hall, because it separated her from everyone else. We talked about personal lives, we loved hanging out at the end of year party, and we knew when things were happening in lives. I can’t tell you how very happy I was to come into that office every day and be surrounded by my people, or how much I will try to keep in touch with all of them now that I’ve left and moved away. I once described that office as my one stable support network, and at the time I said it, it was deeply true. Not a single drama filled fight ever took place, nor were any of our work lives ever impaired.

      I’m fully cognizant that this was a highly fortunate and unusual situation, and that it’s very rare to find an office entirely peopled by Your People, but work-friends can happen safely without damage to your professional life. You just should be careful about it. And, really, your weird rash should only ever come up after work is over.

    2. The rash part of this made me laugh, because there is one coworker I have dragged into the bathroom twice to consult on … a weird rash that showed up. However, this only happened after we had proceeded through the occasional coffee, through regular coffee dates, through the death of her baby, through becoming one another’s confidants.

      But in general? Yeah, rashes can stay away from work.

  15. I occasionally have a filter problem. (Thankfully, less as I grow older and have more brain before words ability.) If it happens, depending on whether it was awkward, out-of-the-blue, or (rarely but awfully) hurtful, I usually apologize like, “Sorry, my mouth sometimes engages before my brain does. I’m working on it.” or “I’m sorry, that was completely out of line; it won’t happen again.” And then it doesn’t, because I make an effort to remember that those kinds of comments are not allowed or shouldn’t be said around X person or in Y circumstances.

    I also randomly blurt out compliments, sometimes to random strangers (which usually leads to amazing conversations or a happy smile in return) – lack of filter should occasionally manifest as a nice thing, unless a person has no nice thoughts.

    I have mentioned to my best friend Y once before that “X is really nice and I love her, but it’s really, really easy for me to walk all over her without noticing.” (Never where I would even dream of X overhearing me!) This was not bragging; I wanted Y to keep an eye on our interactions so that if I was being as ass, she could call me out. And she did. And it was incredibly helpful in teaching me to be more aware of my actions and improving my friendship with X.

    My point is that there’s definitely a context thing here – as has been pointed out, her isolated actions of having a filter problem or noticing she’s pushing you around a bit aren’t the terrible things about this situation; her behaviors surrounding those actions are. She doesn’t seem like someone who’s interested in *modifying* behaviors she realizes are hurtful and that’s rather disturbing.

  16. Something else you might do, if she tries to guilt you into forgiving her, saying her feelings are hurt by your withdrawal, etc. is to follow advice from earlier posts: say “I’m okay with that.” You have a duty to protect yourself and her feelings should not be allowed to get in the way of that.

    Also, “virgin?” Is this seriously an insult now? Your choice is none of her or anybody else’s business. It does not make your life experiences any less valid than if you had slept with the entire football team.

  17. Now, I must admit, I initially read the “I have no filter” comment not as a brag, but in the same tone that I will occasionally warn people about my tendency towards tactless comments. It’s not so that they’ll handwave it, but so they’ll hopefully SAY “X, you’re being tactless,” rather than letting the comment fester where my inability to read social situations would never pick up on it. A sort of “I am aware I have this problem and am trying to work with it, so feel free to correct me when necessary.”

    However! Even if the warning was made with the best of intentions, that doesn’t change the fact that she screwed up. She realised that she did and said sorry, but you are under NO OBLIGATION to accept anyone’s apologies. Particularly if you think they’ll do it again! An apology is a peace offering, but it doesn’t magically undo what happened.

    And what makes me think that this goes beyond simple tactlessness is the reference towards “picking on” a coworker. People with no filter might accidentally voice what’s really on their mind, or make an inappropriate joke, but there’s no maliciousness behind it. This woman just sounds like a nasty person trying to excuse herself.

  18. LW, there is a difference between being outspoken and being a jackass. Along with taking the Captain’s advice, in your mind, do your best to distance your coworker from the positive traits you’ve been trying to assign her in order to excuse her behavior. You view outspokenness as an admirable trait. It’s refreshing to you. Unfortunately, your coworker has gone and ruined it all by being a jackass – a sex-habit-judging, presumptuous, uncaring jackass. There are people above me in the comments who have said that maybe she isn’t neurotypical. That’s possible, but don’t worry about that possibility. It won’t keep her views or her choices from being harmful to you. She has admitted to LASHING OUT at people she perceives as being nicer than her. That is a big red flag.

    So don’t think of her as outspoken. Think of her as a jackass. Or whatever other appropriate swearword or name suits. Douchecanoe. Jerkface. Since the context of how you used outspoken suggests to me that you admire it, this is important. You’re the outspoken one now. You are standing up against the fact that she is wrong and mean and not okay. That’s positive outspokenness – standing up for yourself and others, saying things that are blunt but not offensive or presumptuous. It doesn’t mean being loud or mean. It means having a stance and sticking to it.

  19. Aaaarg, I hate the “Oh, I just have no filter,” and similar lines of excuses. What they translate to for me is: “I’m aware that I have a problem. You should give me credit for being self-aware, and let the problems I create go because that’s just how I am! Also I have/will put in no effort into *fixing* this problem that I’m aware of. Therefore, I’m a jerk.” Though I suppose just saying, “I have no filter,” is quicker.

    Being aware of a problem *can be* a first step to fixing it, but isn’t the same as or a stand in for actually fixing it. Being aware of a problem and then asking the rest of the world to deal with it because you’re so special you don’t have to improve your behavior is not okay.

      1. This! Self-awareness in these situations reads more like self-congratulation, doesn’t it?

        1. YES! They say the FIRST step to fixing something is admitting there’s a problem – not the last.

          (And Kitteh’s Unpaid Help – I do so very like your moniker!)

          1. Totally agree with all of this!

            Put another way, it is a chance to employ one of my favorite metrics: that a person can best be judged not by words/what they SAY but by their actions/what they DO. In almost any situation, regardless of disability/lack of filter/other mitigating issues, a person who has been an ass can take numerous steps to help ensure that assiness doesn’t occur again. Passing that assiness off as “just the way I am” is a strong red flag that you didn’t just act assy, you are an ass.

    1. Yes! Yesyesyes! “I’m just being raw and real and you should accept that” is totally shorthand for “I know this pisses people off and hurts their feelings, but I really just don’t feel like doing anything about it because Reasons. Also, if you get butthurt, it’s because you’re a big sucky baby. So really, this is all your fault. You big sucky baby.”

  20. Aspie with a faulty appropriateness filter here. The way you tell whether someone’s filterlessness is neurological/related to brain damage/harmless personal quirk, or whether they’re being mean (and I’ve met plenty of both kinds), is this: If it is unintentional, when informed of the injury or embarrassment they caused, they will be *truly embarrassed and regretful.* They will say “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” and not something along the lines of “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt.”

    People who say wildly inappropriate things, who simply have a bad filter, do not target someone’s emotional vulnerabilities all that well. And that is what the LW’s coworker did.

    1. Such a good point! I don’t know anyone with fliter problems, Asperger’s or any similar conditions, so haven’t personal experience, but your comment about people with filter problems not targeting other people’s vulnerabilities all that well struck me as very important. What LW’s bully did was very specific and she makes it clear she aims at people she perceives as ‘sweet’ (weak? Vulnerable?) on a regular basis. That doesn’t read at all like someone who’s unaware of the effect of their words or whether they’re appropriate, to me.

    2. *Applauds* Thank you for putting this into words! I know someone whose family has been excusing her cruel comments and terrible behavior with “well, she’s not properly socialized,” and this has seriously caused stress when her sister brings her along on movie nights and group outings. I’ve been trying to figure out why it bugs me so much to have her around (because if it’s just “socialization issues” then I feel bad for wanting to re-form a slightly modified group to exclude that family), and I think this is it right here: she targets emotional vulnerabilities and criticizes constantly in very personal ways. That doesn’t really sound like a “socialization” issue, that sounds like a case of “You’re using this as an excuse for why you’re filling the room with bees.”
      Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem, but at least I can articulate why this bugs me and why I’m just about unwilling to cut her any more slack.
      LW, I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this. It’s hard enough when it’s just someone you shared classes with; I can’t imagine how much more frustrating it must be when it’s a co-worker twenty years older than you.

        1. That’s true, too. I’ve always assumed that since a lot of humor pokes fun at people, she picked up on that for some reason and just doesn’t know when her “humor” is inappropriate or outright cruel. I don’t really want to say that she’s simply a mean person…. but at the same time, I can count on one thumb the number of times she’s been kind to someone for reasons of simply being kind rather than as part of a larger scheme of manipulation. But then, I also don’t know her all that well in comparison to her sister, who is genuinely nice but who is possibly going to get excluded as well.

          I don’t have any good solutions. The Nice Sister doesn’t deserve to be cut out of group picnics or outings, but the Beeful Sister “must” be brought along to “teach her social skills,” and it’s terrible. I mean, at…. eighteen? She might be nineteen already; she’s only a little younger than I am…. I feel like the Beeful Sister should be way, way more socially aware than she is. But then, I could just be speaking from the privelidged position of someone who usually isn’t socially awkward. God knows I make mistakes, but I wouldn’t dream of saying someone was ugly or stupid and acting like it was funny. Doubleplus not while that someone is right there!

    3. Yeah, this is an excellent point. I’m neurotypical, but I have a pretty heinous case of foot-in-mouth disease at times. Here’s the thing: I’ve been aware since I was a child that this was a personality flaw, and I’m always MORTIFIED when I realize that something I meant as funny/ constructive criticism came out as insulting. I try to apologize as soon as possible, because I know that this behavior is not cool. If an apology is not quickly forthcoming, this co-worker of yours is a straight up jerk.

    4. This is so true. I’m neurotypical, but blessed with a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease from time to time. But I see this as a pretty glaring character flaw, and I am always MORTIFIED when I realize that something that I said intending to be funny was actually insulting. I’m always sure to apologize as soon as possible.

      LW, if your co-worker is not forthcoming with an apology, she is a twit.

  21. Sometimes when I get really upset about something I consider to be not worth the kind of reaction it is getting (which is not, in any way, to describe your reaction as unjustified in any manner, I just get the impression that you were surprised at yourself for reacting in this way), I’ve noticed it comes down to feeling bad about *myself*, for having a reaction. And then thinking “I’m upset, why am I so upset, God, this is stupid, what’s wrong with me? I’m embarrassing myself, I can’t stop, this is awful, I’m being ridiculous…” And, of course, this train of thought makes you more upset for longer because you’re becoming upset at yourself, not just the incident.

    So this is kind of an aside to the main advice, which is all really good – which is that, if something happens which hurts you and you feel hurt, allow yourself to feel that. Try to just feel bad and not mentally have a go at yourself because you wish you didn’t feel bad. Sit with the bad feeling, focus on the bad feeling, and try not to turn it inwards.

    A lot of people, especially women who come across as sweet, or emotional, or ‘soft’, try very, very hard to not display any emotions which others might be able to use to support their stupid judgement. That’s not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with being emotional, there’s nothing wrong with being hurt when someone is rude, and there is nothing unprofessional about being ‘sweet’. So don’t beat yourself up about being upset.

    1. Seconding this. I feel like the strong reaction could have been a mix of feeling shitty because someone made a nasty comment about you, feeling embarrassed that you felt shitty because people have told you (maybe?) not to feel shitty about being a virgin, feeling embarrassed about feeling shitty in front of someone you have a crush on, and feeling shitty because you’re trying to stop feeling shitty because it’s embarrassing how shitty you feel. I don’t know if that’s at all helpful, but you’re allowed to feel shitty about things, and you’re also allowed to feel embarrassed, but you don’t have to feel embarrassed, and also feelings are complicated and you’re even allowed to cry.

    2. One of my friends yesterday told us that she didn’t get the job she wanted. Then she followed up by saying she was scheduling 20 minutes to just sit and cry about it. That is a totally good idea! Allow yourself to wallow! It’s okay! Someone you trusted hurt your feelings and that’s terrible and awful.

    3. This really resonated with me, and I think may actually be a smidgen of the help I was looking for elsewhere. Thanks.

    4. Took the words right out of my mouth. There’s nothing wrong with being kind or considerate or gentle or any of the other things people think of when they say someone is “sweet”, there’s everything wrong with someone taking advantage of that or using it as a negative.

    5. As somebody who is totally a crier and feels bad about being one, this was amazing advice. Thank you

    6. This is particularly relevant if you cry after someone has tried to make you feel small/weak/young/childish/pathetic/vulnerable. Your reaction can really feed the hurt further, because they’re saying you’re weak and childish, and you feel like: well, here I am crying like a little kid, so doesn’t that basically prove them right?

      IMO, if you find yourself going into this thought pattern, it might be helpful to try squaring your shoulders and holding your head up, while you are crying. Mentally silently tell the person ‘Yep, I’ve got tears in my eyes, so what? If you’ve got a problem with that, oh well, get over it (shrug).’

      We have way too much mythology in our culture around crying, that it’s an automatic sign of weak character or something. It isn’t. Some weak people cry a lot, some don’t, some strong people cry a lot, some don’t. It doesn’t make you ‘not an adult’ or ‘weak’ if you happen to react to certain emotions with water coming out of your eyes.

      1. And to add to that, there’s not even anything automatically bad about being weak in certain situations. Being a decent ethical person is the important thing, strength is very useful but not something that gives you extra worth as a person.

      2. I more often cry if I’m really angry than sad — which is really frustrating if you’re angry and trying to hold your ground in an interaction and you realize your voice is shaking and you’re crying. It has in the past made me reluctant to get into arguments, even when necessary, for fear I’d cry and ‘humiliate myself.’

  22. I wish I had read this 6 months ago – would have kept me from getting romantically involved with one of these “filterless” mean people!

    The horrifying thing is that at first I conflated it with honesty and integrity, and actually admired her for it.

    Great advice and a well-articulated description of why “Oh, I have no filter!” will forever be a flashing danger sign for me.

  23. This whole situation screams sexual harassment to me. It could just be that I’ve seen situations like this spiral out of control really fast before, or that I’m overreacting, but I would look into your company’s sexual harassment policy and consider making a complaint. Even if you don’t, it’s good information to have.

  24. Hi LW,

    First, I want to point out that being short, slight, and cute does not require you to forever be softspoken. You can learn to project your voice–it’s not the same as yelling! It’s a way to make sure people hear you clearly. It can help you be taken more seriously, and it is NOT an aggressive thing to do. In fact, it can alleviate tension, because people get frustrated if they can’t hear you. Similarly, other body language like looking people in the eye can help.

    Second, let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Suppose your coworker is mostly well intentioned. Suppose she teases everyone, but assertive people shut her down when she goes to far and “nice” people don’t. Suppose she knows she has a bad habit of teasing “nice” people more than they are really comfortable with, and she tries somewhat to keep it in check. Suppose she didn’t really mean to put you on the spot about whether you are or aren’t a virgin, but just popped off a teasing comment without thinking and genuinely feels bad. (In this generous interpretation, it is still clear that she has some bad habits and that changing them is not really her top priority.)

    If all of the above is true, it is still okay for you to do every single thing that CA advised. You have an ongoing issue with not being taken seriously at work. One way to be taken more seriously is to be a little more formal, a little less tolerant of teasing, a little more focused on “we’re here to do work.” In fact, not only is it okay, it’s a good idea! You don’t have to decide you can’t stand her or that she is Deliberately Mean and Bad in order to dial things back a notch. Your professional mentor doesn’t have to be your personal best friend.

    1. I had this thought too. Without knowing the coworker, I can imagine more than one explanation. She could be a jerk and be bragging about her faults that she doesn’t really see as faults, or she could be a person who’s genuinely trying to improve and who didn’t mean her comments about her tendency to bully people as bragging but as a genuine mistake she’s made in the past and had hoped not to repeat.

      The main way one can tell the difference would be if things like that happen again. If someone’s truly sorry they stop doing it. Apologies don’t really help anything, changing does.

      That said, you don’t really owe her anything either way. You aren’t obligated to be buddies with someone who makes you uncomfortable or hurts you, whether they do basically mean well but mess up sometimes, or are knowingly trying to hurt you, or something in between.

      Either way, it’s perfectly 100% fine to protect yourself by drawing back a bit or putting up some professional boundaries.

      1. Same goes for ‘jokes gone bad’, i.e., teasing that was meant to be friendly but where someone clumsily goes too far and doesn’t realize they’ve gone too far until it happens.

        Once they know, they do stop it if it’s meant as genuinely friendly teasing.

        And either way, you’re not obligated to be friends with them or anything. Some people don’t match well, so you just keep the relationship reasonably pleasant but in a slightly distant way.

  25. I have a non-neurologically impaired friend who has a crappy filter. The reason we’re still friends after he made a joke about me being a virgin in front of someone I liked is that he apologized. Immediately after noticing I was upset, when we were alone (did not make an issue in front of other people) and never made a similar joke about anyone else again. And I accept that, because every time I have told him something filterless he said upset me, he has apologized sincerely, and I have never again heard him repeat something that upset me to me or–and this is the important part–TO ANYONE ELSE. Once he has something he can recognize, he stops with everyone, not just with me. And I have never heard him once pull the I have no filter, or I just tell it like it is excuses.

    And, LW, I was not stressed out working long hours on a project, being talked to by someone way older at work. I was sitting in a restaurant hanging out with my friends, when the joke was made by someone I knew didn’t want to hurt me, who I knew would apologize, and I still felt punched and was still swallowing lumps of unhappiness. It SUCKS, and not because it’s something to be ashamed of. It’s okay that it sucked and made you unhappy. You’re not alone. And your person was being genuinely, recognizably mean because she didn’t want to take the effort to control herself.

  26. This isn’t a comment about the coworker, which the Captains has covered wonderfully, but about people’s perceptions in general. LW, I absolutely understand your feelings about the word “sweet”. I also get called sweet often, and most people seem to mean it as a compliment. But there is a connotation of… childlike naivete, isn’t there? It’s very frustrating when you think that people aren’t competent, that you need protecting from the world.
    Some things that have helped me: people who call you sweet may not think you’re weak. I agree that your coworker seems to be using the word to mean “someone I can walk all over”, which is not good. But some people may mean something more along the lines of friendly or caring. Maybe this isn’t exactly how you want others to see you either, but it’s a generally postive interpretation.
    And if there is someone who does seem to think you’re less capable, I find that reminding myself of all the hard and awesome stuff I’ve done can help. I bet you’ve done things that were hard or scary, but that you got through anyway. Remind yourself that you’re not weak, you’ve done awesome things. Maybe this isn’t the best time or place for your awesomeness to shine through, when you’re stressed and tired and around domineering people. But you know what you can do, better than anyone else.

  27. Dear LW,
    There are two reasons I think you may have been as deeply wounded as you were.
    One is that in light of what you overheard, and what she did, you feel she is targeting you.
    I wonder if the other outrageous things that have been said in the past and did not bother you may have been general and not targeted at a specific person. You might want to think about that.
    The other reason is that when you are in the presence of someone you have feelings for, but are not in a relationship with, and someone takes a cheap shot at you, no matter the subject it magnifies the pain.

  28. I’m seeing a bit of a disconnect here. I see a lot of people saying that the person who is excusing themselves for having “no filter” needs to quit using that as an excuse for being a jerk. As another commenter said: “Being aware of a problem and then asking the rest of the world to deal with it because you’re so special you don’t have to improve your behavior is not okay.” And I agree with that.

    But I think there’s a denial of the reverse – that somehow being over-sensitive or “tenderhearted” and expecting people to deal with that because you’re so special you don’t have to improve your behavior, is perfectly acceptable.

    Neither is acceptable, IMO. Being a functioning part of society means both (a) not being a jerk and (b) not expecting everyone to tiptoe around your tender feelings.

    Moderator Note: I’m removing this person’s personal info at their request.

    1. I totally agree with this. However, when someone’s feelings ARE hurt, it’s not the time to deliver that message or be told to learn that lesson Right Now or else it’s your fault you get treated the way you do.

      1. I think that the main point is that you don’t have to be friends with someone who makes you feel that way. Regardless of who is at “fault”.

    2. I was thinking this exact same thing but having trouble putting it into words. There has to be a happy medium between the filter-less and the emotionally fragile? Unfortunately a big part of growing up and joining the professional world can be learning how to take control of and responsibility for your feelings in an environment where you’ll work with sweet people and abrasive people and everything in between.

      CA’s advice to disengage seems like the best solution for everyone involved, and LW should get major props for taking a closer look at what they’re feeling and writing in to the Captain for advice on what to do. Other options would have been a workplace meltdown, drama, or just continuing to feel shitty, none of which are optimal.

    3. You know what? I’m cutting the LW some slack because she’s been in a confined situation with someone who likely sees her as much younger and therefore a target–her coworker admitted to that. And it’s also likely that she’s been somewhat patronizing and button pushing the whole time. And it’s not like the LW has been expecting everyone to “tiptoe around their tender feelings”–they actually took the coworker’s jibes with relative equanimity until now. The LW has been working with several people in close quarters for a while now, and they have no problems with other coworkers.

      But she also knows what the coworker admitted to–the coworker targets and belittles people she sees as somehow weaker–“sweet” or young or perceived as having little power.

    4. We are of one mind when it comes to not validating any kind of over-the-top or even low-grade shitty behavior on the part of the tenderhearted person who has gotten hurt — no tantrums, no defamation of character, no emotional blackmail, no manipulative “poor me” crap. You’re entitled to your feelings, but you are absolutely responsible for how you act on your feelings, no matter how tenderhearted you are. So no, I don’t think anyone is so special they don’t have to rein in their behavior. (Though as a practical matter, the people hurt most by tenderhearted folks’ sensitivity tend to be themselves).

      However, if someone says stuff that is objectively mean and would be hurtful to anyone, tenderhearted or not, neither that person nor anyone else should get to pull out their homemade, subjective Emot-O-Meter and declare the person’s response excessive and therefore not really the mean-speaker’s responsibility. Just as tenderhearted people really do know there are jerks in the world, “plain-spoken” people should bear in mind that not everyone is as impervious and resilient as they are, and make a good faith effort not to casually tromp on people’s feelings. Can we agree on that, too?

    5. Also, we get to decide who we have personal/social relationships with. Even if the LW was being way oversensitive (and I don’t think they were) they still get to choose to withdraw from a personal relationship with the older coworker, which is what the captain recommended. No one is saying that the LW should go to the older coworker and ask her to change her behaviour. The LW isn’t acting like they expect the whole world to accomodate their sensitivities. Even if LW’s reasons are unreasonable (and again, I don’t think they are) they get to choose who they are friends with.

    6. I think the difference is that the question of whether it’s okay to ask people to “tiptoe around your feelings” isn’t as relevant to this letter. “Do not make comments about my sexual history at work” is not an unreasonable boundary. Oversensitivity came up because the LW was surprised by her own reaction and seemed to feel like it was disproportionate, but even if she’d had less of a reaction, I think the response here would still be “That was an inappropriate remark for your co-worker to make and it sounds like she’s engaging in some weird power play or bullying behavior. Here’s how to deal.”

    7. I think there’s a big difference between being wounded by people who are deliberately cruel, like the LW’s co-worker, and expecting society in general to walk on eggshells. I don’t see any of the latter in the comments.

    8. I’m not seeing where anyone is suggesting that other people should be tiptoeing around anything. It is inappropriate to bring up someone else’s sexual history. Period. (But especially in a work situation!)

      This is victim-blaming in the truest sense. One person was an asshole, and said something wildly inappropriate by any measure. Another person was upset by that. Who is supposed to change? The asshole? Noooo…. let’s make the other person change. They shouldn’t be so damn sensitive. (Note that this is different from someone accidentally stumbling on another person’s triggers. That’s not what the letter writer’s situation was.)

      I don’t think that it’s accurate to describe the letter writer as emotionally fragile. She says that normally she’s very levelheaded, and it surprised her that this comment made her react the way she did. The stress building up from being in an isolated work/living environment with the same six people explains that without trying to make it into a personality flaw of the LW.

      Nowhere did the letter writer ask how to get other people to change their behavior. Those “tenderhearted” people (I really don’t care for that term myself, it feels condescending to me) tend to blame themselves for their own emotional reaction.

      1. Feel free to come up with whatever replacement term you feel better about — I offered it up not because I think it should be universal, but because where I come from it means, roughly, “Someone who feels deeply on behalf of others as well as self and is therefore more easily hurt than most; do not make fun of.” (The “on behalf of others” is important — empathy is pretty highly valued.) It doesn’t usually have condescending connotations in my cultural context (Holy unintended alliteration, Batman!), but I can see how it could sound that way.

      2. Also, I would add as someone who started out as “tenderhearted” person who was teased and harassed into shutting that down, those family members now call me cold and an emotionless robot. Basically assholes are going to be assholes no matter what, so advice to stop being sensitive is not actually all that helpful.

    9. I didn’t see anything in the letter or in the Captain’s comments that suggested LW was asking anyone to deal with her tenderheartedness (if that is in fact an accurate label for the LW) or her immediate feelings. In fact, it was all about how the LW can deal with her feelings privately.

      The idea that responding at all by dealing privately and setting boundaries = making other people deal with her feelings or tenderheartedness is another way of saying that she should be okay with how she’s been and being treated, which, no.

    10. I’m obviously way late at returning to this conversation, but I would like to add: I do think there are times and ways in which the tenderhearted need to learn to be less tender, but that’s a learning *process*. And I think there are situations where it applies and ones where it does.

      Example: a boss telling a tenderhearted person they need to improve/change something/fix something/etc at work? People need to be able to take that kind of criticism, even though it can hurt like heck, especially when you’re young and sweet and already stressed out from already working hard. But that’s not what the LW described at all. LW described a coworker targeting her with a mean, non-work-related comment. While it would be great to learn how to never be affected by mean comments from mean people ever, there’s a difference between expecting people to tiptoe around your tender feelings and between expecting people to not be jerks.

      You can’t really expect the world to cater to your whims and no one to call you out or disagree with you ever. But you *can* expect people to not be mean to you just because they feel like it, and you can be upset when they are, and you can set boundaries to try to make sure they stop doing that.

        1. You did not know? Word Press employs gremlins with secret powers to render our typos invisible until *after* we have hit “Post Comment.” Something about keeping us humble, I think.

  29. LW, I hope you’re reading this far.

    Now, I’m going to preface my advice by telling you two things: I only skimmed the other posts here. It’s okay to be upset by something and someone’s mental or neurological condition doesn’t mean you have to put up with their shit. Also–you’re not weak. You’re young, and your coworker thinks that means it’s okay to go after you. I ran into this and after awhile, it would piss me off and I’d retaliate. (Don’t do that. It doesn’t end well.)

    So. First. It doesn’t matter *why* your coworker does this. I don’t care if she has an emotional issue, a psychological issue, if she’s non-neurotypical, deeply insecure like I was, or just a garden variety asshole. I’m going to get shouty here–IT DOESN’T MATTER. I DO NOT CARE WHY SHE’S DOING IT. IF SHE HAD ASPERGERS OR A PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUE IT WOULD STILL HURT YOUR FEELINGS AND IT WOULD NOT MAKE IT OK. IT WOULD NOT OBLIGATE YOU TO PROVIDE HER WITH THERAPY OR WHATEVER THE FUCK.

    Okay? It doesn’t matter.

    Also–it is okay to put some emotional distance and as much physical distance between you and this coworker. I’m going to repeat this, shouty style. IT IS OKAY TO PUT SOME EMOTIONAL DISTANCE AND PHYSICAL DISTANCE BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR COWORKER.

    Now. Maybe something about the way your coworker acts around you makes you feel insecure. Maybe you’re all just really confined and getting on each other’s nerves. Maybe she’s low-grade patronizing and you sense/sensed it on some level.

    You know how CA says that not everyone is going to like you? Well, you’re not going to like everyone, and that’s okay. People you liked just fine will show you they’re douchey and you will want to put yourself and a moat full of zombie alligators between you and them. Other people who are fine and good people may still get on your last damn nerve and you may want the zombie alligator moat for them, too. That’s okay.

    Also? It’s okay to be upset, hurt, or angry at what someone said to you or the way someone acts towards you. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t mean it. It doesn’t matter if it wouldn’t bother someone else. Certain things hurt my feelings that don’t hurt other people’s feelings and vice versa.

    So. Don’t worry about a stunning comeback. You’re coworker knows she’s being a Grade A asshole when she says this crap. So just stick with eyebrows raised/shocked expression and “Wow.” And nothing else. Or the long, cold look. Just keep your face very, very neutral and stare at her for about ten seconds without blinking. Then turn around and go back to what you were doing/leave the room.

    Also–it might be tempting to complain to other coworkers about her. Don’t do it. Not because it isn’t nice (I’m not a nice person), but because it will generate dramz you don’t need. Feel free to do what CA advised and, if the coworker you like (or another coworker) asks you why you seemed upset, sure, say “Oh, [button-pusher] can sometimes wear thin on me.” But if people try to engage you in a gripe session about her (I guarantee you at least some of them see what she’s like), just change the subject. “Eh, let’s skip this. What are you planning on doing when you go back home/to city X” etc.

    And please! Don’t beat yourself up!

    1. “I’m not a nice person.”

      And yet here I was, thinking you’re awesome (and not for the first time, by a long shot)!

      Maybe I’m not nice, either. Or maybe you actually do a phenomenal job of combining plain-speaking with kindness? (Or both).

  30. Returning to the original question of why this comment would have triggered the level of anxiety it did, it occurred to me that it could also be that you’ve been bullied before, and you thought you had left that crap behind (in school, for example), so this incident triggered a flashback of remembered pain, all the more hurtful because you thought you were in a safe space now, and you had a visceral, traumatic reaction to finding out that so-called grownups act like this, too. (Aw, shit, you mean I haven’t left this kind of bullshit behind after all??? It happens in the workplace???)

    In particular, your comment that “I struggle a lot against weakness in both body and mind and it is important to me how others see me, at least in that I want to be taken seriously” made me wonder. Certainly, one possible explanation for feeling that way would be if someone had been picked on and dismissed before and when she got upset was told (as discussed in the thread above) that she needed a thicker skin, that she was overreacting, etc., teaching her to second guess herself and think the problem is her own “excessive” sensitivity.

    Obviously, only you know whether that’s the case.

    I don’t know what good it does to pinpoint that, if it’s true — unless perhaps it is that if you’ve had those intervening years when this kind of crap wasn’t happening, it might actually help to say “WTF? I thought I left this crap in *high school,*” and realize that it totally isn’t you, or you would never have had that period of peace.

    1. Years ago a comedian (Dennis Miller back when he was still funny?) had a line to the effect of ‘Adult life really is just tall gradeschool.’ It’s become a kind of mantra for me, and has gotten me through a lot of workplace and homeplace soap-operas. There are still bullies, and still drama-magnets, still people who don’t like other people because of what those other people said about somebody else entirely…. It helps to remind myself of the utter ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Finding the humor, even if it’s dark humor, makes it easier to let it roll off.

      And that’s not another way of telling you to grow a thicker skin. You can’t do that on command. Time and experience will, if not thicken your skin, eventually increase your lubrication & help things slide off. But in the meantime having a private laugh in your own head at just how *middle school* your co-worker’s behavior is, and how she has managed to grow so old without learning how to behave like an adult, can lessen some of the sting.

    2. This is a good catch. And it’s par for the course that when a kid is bullied, they are told to grow a thicker skin.

      1. I was badly bullied my first year of high school by one boy. It was mostly physical, not verbal (grabbing my arm, pushing me over and on one memorable occasion putting his hand around my neck and squeezing). I did all the right thing, I immediately reported each incident to a teacher if there was one around and if there wasn’t I let it slide off of me (even the choking). By anyone’s measure I was thick skinned.

        The reason I bring this up LW is because this all culminated in a single incident. He stole my pencil case. I broke down. I must have looked like I was majorly overreacting to the rest of my classmates. I felt like I was majorly overreacting. Someone got my pencil case back for me, someone else fetched a teacher and I still couldn’t stop sobbing. It’s been more than a decade since then and I still feel some residual shame for my perceived weakness that day.

        The truth of it is that I didn’t start crying because he stole my pencil case. I was crying because of every other wrong he had done me that had built up because I hadn’t been able to stop him. I do not remember many of the individual instances of bullying but I remember that one as clearly as if I were still there, alone and powerless, crying in the middle of a classroom full of people who couldn’t understand why I was so upset.

        In your case your coworker could be your bully, or maybe it’s your own feelings about your virginity/sweetness/weakness that are the bully, maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe (as you suggest) you’re just worn thin by your job and any off-kilter remark made by anyone would have set you off. Whatever the reason is it needs to be dealt with in a more permanent manner. The Captain’s advice is good if it’s your coworker or your virginity that has been getting to you and it sounds like your job will be wrapping up soon if it’s just that. In the meantime be good to yourself.

        1. Yes! This is helping me to bring into focus some things I wanted to say about thin-skinned vs. thick-skinned, but couldn’t really get right in my head last night. When people label other people as one or the other, it’s based on whatever evidence they have in front of them. Someone watching you blow off the chocking incident would consider you thick-skinned, and someone else who only saw the pencil-case incident would consider you thin-skinned. Neither of those would have been an accurate assessment.

          I don’t really think that thickness of skin is a skill or a personality trait. I’m not going to stand in the way of people self-diagnosing as one or the other, but I think it’s wrong to impose one of those labels on someone else. (And I think this is the same problem I had with the word tenderhearted.)

          Looking back over my life, I’ve been considered to be one or the other at various times. But the “thin-skinned” phases were actually almost perfectly correlated with times when my asthma was bad (and I don’t mean in an acute having-an-attack sense; there were long, long periods of chronic struggling-to-breathe-but-I’m-so-used-to-that -that-it-doesn’t-even-feel-like-a-thing). And really, in retrospect, it makes so much sense– I just didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with asshattery, and so I would break down very easily. People would respond that I was “too sensitive”. And then there were other times (months and years apart) where I was able to easily cope with much, much worse. The difference in response didn’t have anything to do with having learned coping skills (as I said, I’ve gone back and forth repeatedly) but whether at that time I had the emotional energy to deal with the bully.

          My energy level has always been closely tied to my health, but there are other factors of course. A single bully can steadily drain your emotional energy until a minor incident (involving that bully or another one or just bad luck) is all it takes for you to fall to pieces. A strong emotional response is rarely just about the trigger incident– although convincing someone that it is, and that they are “too sensitive” is a common gaslighting technique.

          I decided a long time ago that the correct response to “You’re too sensitive” is “Fuck you, I’m exactly the right amount of sensitive.”

  31. Seems to me there are two possibilities:

    1) The person in question was attempting to be malicious, and using the ‘no filter’ reasoning as an excuse to account for their bad behavior. Unfortunately, for people who -legitimately- have this kind of social dysfunction, this is becoming increasingly popular, especially on the internet where accountability for one’s actions is already minimal, at best.

    2) They legitimately have no social boundaries, and cannot ‘read’ people or predict how they’ll react to things they say. Though, generally speaking, when someone with this particular social dysfunction steps over the line, when they’ve been told (politely, but firmly, I should add) they will genuinely apologize for the remark, because the really didn’t intend to offend anybody. It simply doesn’t register to them that certain remarks, in a certain context, can be construed as offensive.

    Having read the letter several times now, and considered both possibilities, I cannot honestly say which of the two the co-worker could be, just from the details provided. I would have to interact with them personally to get a better ‘read’ of them.

  32. Also adding, LW, that extended periods of stress can play merry hell with your overall health. I’m coming off a 4 year stint in Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Job that came with the attendant stress you’d expect from that description and I’m still fucked up 4 months after escaping. There can be very definite physical, psychological and emotional impacts from stress, but they manifest in a huge variety of ways and vary by person, so it’s not like “Oh I have red spots on my shins, it must be stress!” It can sneak up on you like a sneaky thing.

    DO NOT BLAME YOURSELF FOR BEING UPSET. When you get hurt, it’s okay to be upset. When you’re under a lot of stress, the longer it goes on, the more likely you are to be affected. This is all pretty typical.

    Manage your stress as best you can. Whatever works for you. If you’ve never confronted a situation like this before, try some stuff (good food, extra sleep, meditation, kickboxing, making chocolate chip cookies just to eat the dough raw, block out half an hour every night to listen to music you love and dance around your place in your pajamas, there’s lots of possibilities 🙂 and see if that helps.

    1. You beat me to it, drst! Especially because the LW is in something of a unique situation, with unique stresses that maybe even the LW isn’t entirely aware of. Take care of yourself LW!

      1. Clueless has given us the template for this conversation!

        Co-worker: You’re a virgin who can’t drive!
        You: WAY HARSH, TAI!

  33. Ooo, I have some actual, practical tips on making your skin slightly thicker, if that’s what you want!

    1. Try to identify specific situations that set you off. For me a major one is being unsure if someone is angry or annoyed with me.

    2. Give yourself a script to tell yourself when the situation arises. “She is an adult and I am not responsible for her feelings. If she’s upset she can talk to me about it”. Practice saying it to yourself. No, seriously.

    3. When the thing that makes you feel like you want to die of embarrassment/self-loathing/cringing happens, do the following:
    – Tell yourself it’s OK.
    – Repeat your script.
    – Correct your physicality. I cannot stress this enough. I found that I was adopting cringing, submissive postures whenever I thought I might have angered/annoyed someone. So whenever that happened I made a conscious effort to straighten up and hold myself with confidence. It worked wonders.
    – Listen to what the other person has to say, if this is relevant. Note: “You suck, virgin!” is never relevant.
    – Don’t let yourself get sucked into a self-loathing spiral. If you actually fucked up, apologize, make concrete amends if possible, and try not to do it again. If you didn’t fuck up, do whatever it is you need to do to deal with your interlocutor’s impression that you did. This will vary from “a polite and non-commital non-apology” to “some therapy” to “divorce and a restraining order” depending on the situation and relationship.

    It also helps me to think of really, really painful and difficult things I’ve survived. Not to put myself down – not “what are you complaining about? This is nothing!”, more “Hey, you gave birth without an epidural! That was way harder than so-and-so being mad at you because you accidentally spoiled the Rory-Doctor kiss! You’re going to be OK!”

    You’re going to be OK, LW. I promise. 🙂

    1. Oh yeah, the physicallity I agree. Good posture not only projects confidence, it creates confidence. I recommend walking in high heels for practicing good posture, standing up straight made it easier to balance and it was far more obvious when I stopped standing up straight than it was in my normal shoes

      1. The above comment assumes full mobility. I apologize for the assumption. It is the one of many options for practicing projecting confidence that I happened to use.

  34. From one diminutive and often-condescended-to person to another, my favourite jerk-deflection technique is to just raise my eyebrows and stare at the person for a moment. I’ve learned this is a particularly effective way to leverage your aura of quiet mystery into making the person extremely uncomfortable. And personally, I find it a lot easier than actually saying something cutting, but maybe that’s just me.

    1. I’m another diminutive and occasionally condescended-to person (doesn’t help that I’m additionally quite shy). I’ve adopted what my family pseudo-affectionately calls “going pointy” when I’m being condescended to. Basically, it’s a Dowager Countess stare and a cold tone of voice, and it is very effective. I also endorse liberal use of the phrases “why did you think that was an appropriate thing to say?” and “wow”. Of course, both required some practice before I had the confidence to pull them off.

  35. I’m not sure if this will help you or not, LW, but as someone who’s often been called naive and sweet and LOL Sensitive, I wanted to say what has helped me.

    First, I’ll channel my inner Rosey Grier and say that it’s all right to cry. It might make you feel better! So if there’s a part of you thinking “oh, no, why am I crying, just as Filterless Coworker says, I am weak and small –” NOPE. You have feelings. That is okay.

    Of course, crying/listening to sad music/curling up with some tea and a good book/etc. are all healthy ways of dealing with feelings, but they aren’t really work-appropriate. But it’s very, very hard to say “okay, self, we will deal with Feelings later, at home, where there is hot chocolate and Netflix and fuzzy sweaters.” Feelings don’t usually work like that, and they will bug you until you deal with them. Hence being near-tears all day when you’re upset. I’ve done that.

    I don’t know what was going through your head, but I can tell you what goes through mine: “AUGH, I don’t have time to deal with Feelings right now! I have email to answer and a meeting to go to and I have to meet with Bob about Project X and I need coffee but I can’t GET coffee until Project Y is done and I can’t finish it because of Feelings! AUGH.” This cycle! It is real! It SUCKS. Because here’s the thing — it takes actual energy to deal with feelings, and if you’ve got stressful stuff going on at work (and you, LW, most certainly do), you don’t have that energy to spare right now. So, how do you balance?

    I write a quick note to myself. Currently, I use the notes feature of my personal phone for this, but you could also use a notebook you keep in your bag or whatever. I say this because it’s important: DO NOT use anything associated with your professional identity for this. This is a note for you. All I write is the date, what’s going on, and how I’m feeling. It lets me acknowledge that I’m feeling something, and sometimes it helps me pinpoint exactly what upset me. But mostly, it releases a little bit of the pressure, so I can say to myself “yes, I am experiencing Feelings, and I have documented them, and I will handle them, but first, spreadsheets!”

    I also second the Captain’s recommendation of doing nice things for yourself. If you feel like staying home one night and watching a movie, I recommend Broadcast News, if you haven’t seen it. It’s an eighties movie about journalists, and it’s really funny. It’s also got Holly Hunter, playing this very smart, very awesome, very professional woman … who sometimes gets overwhelmed and needs to cry.

    1. I like your note it down now idea!

      May I also add having fun/happy office supplies around? For me – drawing an emoticon cartoon face or writing RAWR or even just scribbling with a green pen on a florescent pink post-it – does wonders. It’s a quick acknowledgement, but also you can toss out the post-it quick (or tuck away for later) and get back to the work stuff you need to do.

      1. My job is depressing as hell (for example spent an hour today transferring data into a spreadsheet to pay the international bereavement grants, which at least don’t have death certificates in them this time because it’s the second round and most people have already verified that sort of thing) and I bought a pack of 20 gel pens of various colours – I think there’s 5 normal ones, 5 glitter, 5 neon and 5 metallic. Writing all my notes in sparkly green or whatever is sort of helpful just to take a bit of the edge off, though it does mean I have to scramble around for something else when I need to sign outgoing mail. 🙂

    2. it takes actual energy to deal with feelings, and if you’ve got stressful stuff going on at work (and you, LW, most certainly do), you don’t have that energy to spare right now. So, how do you balance?

      I write a quick note to myself. … I can say to myself “yes, I am experiencing Feelings, and I have documented them, and I will handle them, but first, spreadsheets!”

      This is brilliant.

  36. LW, I don’t have any particular advice but I wanted to let the Captain and the commenters know that this post helped me out today. I just started a new job where I’m a librarian in a place that’s never really had a librarian that’s like I am. So I’m still trying to feel out the culture and make changes, mainly its working but sometimes I run up about against ideas that are difficult. I’m also searching for a place to live, staying with someone who works at the school and don’t really have a true space of my own to breathe at the end of today.

    During a meeting today as I was trying to find a compromise for some of the students, it ended in this weird joking discussion that left me highly uncomfortable. Its hard to know when to speak and when not to when you’re not only the younger person but also the one who’s meant to change how things are done. The importance of knowing that even though yes, I’m younger, I was hired into a position of authority and its okay to reach for that. Not everyone’s going to like my ideas and its going to be hard moving forward, but its important.

    Good luck with this job situation and I hope you can figure out how to deal with your co-worker. Trusting yourself and learning to speak up and protect yourself in job situations is hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with it.

  37. I am a formerly fragile person who is now a total bad ass. My elementary school teachers used to send home notes that read, “Not It cries too much.” By the time I was 17, I was facing down the assistant principal and calling him a liar to his face. (He was. I won that one).

    Here is how I evolved:

    1) I found a mentor who empathized with me, but gently pointed out when my fragility was within my control. He gave me advice like: it’s water off a duck’s back, imagine that the words are bouncing off you, etc. Sometime I would hear myself complaining to him and realize, “Huh. He’s right. That person is an idiot whose opinion should be discounted.”

    2) I read the Stoics.

    3) I surrounded myself with awesome people and I decided what those people got to comment on. My brothers don’t get to have an opinion about my clothes. They can comment on my boyfriends. My parents don’t get to question my choice of boyfriends. They can give me advice on my career.

    4) I am selective about who is in the inner circle. There are perhaps five people whom I completely trust.

    5) I got really good at several very different skills, including some physical stuff, so I know I can kick actual ass if I have to.

    6) I decided my self-esteem was not transitory and dependent upon the whims of others. This includes my subordinates and my supervisors. I do treat everyone with the same respect.

    7) I have a strong system of beliefs that I do not compromise. Those beliefs are more important to me than being popular or well-liked. Peer pressure does not work on me. You want to call me a prude because I don’t want to talk about threesomes at work? I can live with that. Maybe the world needs more prudes. You want me to clock you in and out? Sorry, I don’t commit fraud for co-workers. Find another stooge. I have a quick temper and enough righteous indignation to inspire caution in others. [Note: this last bit may not actually be very good advice].

    8) I don’t forget what it was like to be fragile. I remember being young, weak, and powerless. I don’t assume that I can tease people until I know them very well. I have a well-developed filter and I keep my mouth shut and listen. I err on the side of kindness, rather than the cheap laugh. There are certain subjects I NEVER bring up (unless someone directly asks my opinion)–weight, fertility issues/reproductive choices, parenting styles, lack of education or opportunities, etc.

    9) Even though I have a well-developed filter, I have a voice and I use it. I have some prepared comebacks that I deploy when needed. My responses if someone calls me a bitch: “You have no idea” or “So glad you noticed!” I engage the Death Stare and then follow it with a big friendly smile. [Note: this is usually with a random stranger and is usually in a public space, like the mall parking lot at Christmas].

    It takes time and help to transform yourself from someone who dissolves into tears when she is called “Stupid Head” to someone who laughs when she is called “Nappy-Headed Ho.” I had to readjust the lens through which I viewed the world. Calling me a “Nappy-Headed Ho” is simply absurd. I had to retroactively realize that calling me a “Stupid Head” was equally absurd. Those words don’t hold any pain for me. They aren’t true. They are some immature fifth grader’s idea of insulting and some random dude in a parking lot’s attempt to look cool in front of his friends. Those words are about them, not me.

    1. I’d like to second points 3 and 6.

      3) Just because I trust “you” to help me figure out what to wear to a party doesn’t mean I’m taking your advice about who I’m going home with.

      6) Rock on, Not It!

  38. Thanks to anonymous banned this comments section has become kind of a minefield, so I’m going to try to say my piece constructively and respectfully, without going into tangents.

    LW, what your coworker did was really bad. She “typecast” you as a virgin (pick-up artists call this negging) to cause cognitive dissonance between the idea that you are a virgin and something you also believe about yourself, (i.e. that you are adventurous or sexy or experienced where it counts or something else). Negging and typecasting are big red flags for manipulative (and generally unpleasant) people. It is not really odd or surprising that it upset you. If this is the last straw in a series of problems that you have had with your mentor figure or if CA’s advice just feels right, then you should follow it.

    That said, I feel like CA and some of the comments here may be a little extreme (not wrong, extreme) under my interpretation of the LW’s letter. As far as I can tell, this coworker is kind of a friend and has not really done something like this in front of LW ever before. She also apologized immediately. My experience is that sometimes people are dicks and writing off everyone who was mean once leads to not having a lot of friends. Isn’t there a spectrum here from “write this person off, they are not your friend,” to “wait and see if this is a problem”? This has definitely been something I’ve encountered and struggled with and I wouldn’t have the friends I have now if I had fled the first time they had said something mean by accident.

    I guess I just don’t feel comfortable going from “I have a really good relationship with the woman that I spend the most time working with.” to “Decide privately that she is not nice, not safe, and not really your friend…Don’t be alone with her if you can help it.” over one bad experience. I don’t really see anyone in the comments who agrees with me here. Am I missing something big?

    1. I think I saw it as part of a pattern of small, patronizing “typecasting” stuff (I love this) from this coworker to the LW. I’m glad she apologized, and I don’t think the LW should necessarily change her outward behavior or pick a fight, but be wary. The coworker has given off a lot of “you can’t really relax around me” signals.

      The thing that made me the most wary was the whole “I used to really be mean to someone just like (LW) because, sweet people” story retold in the LW’s earshot. Some people have a way of telling stories like this as cautionary tales, and the fact that the LW put that detail together with the comments about being young and being a virgin seemed significant, like her instincts were telling her “this person doesn’t take me seriously.”

      Being watchful and avoiding discussions of personal life seems like a good strategy around this person. Maybe she’s not that bad and things will improve and it was a one-off mistake. I hope so, that would be a good outcome! But sometimes people like this really seize on a perceived weakness and then try to make you feel crazy when your feelings get hurt, and if that’s the case I don’t want the LW second-guessing herself.

      I hope you’re right!

      1. This: “Some people have a way of telling stories like this as cautionary tales, and the fact that the LW put that detail together with the comments about being young and being a virgin seemed significant, like her instincts were telling her ‘this person doesn’t take me seriously.'”

        This definitely helps reconcile my doubt with the gist of your advice. Also LW’s gut feelings; I’m a big de Becker fan.

        1. I didn’t see what the woman did as just saying mean things, LW says she is close to the coworker so I saw it as the coworker *knows* LW likes the guy that was there and she was sabotaging her desire to get to know said guy with the virginity comment. Maybe I’m just too sensitive to that stuff and am seeing something that isn’t there.

  39. Dear LW,
    This has turned into a long, long thread. But if you’re still reading, I just wanted you to know that being sweet is an awesome thing, and the longer I live, the more I treasure the sweet people I know. Being sweet is NOT a weakness, any more than being cruel is a strength. In fact, being nice is often much harder than being mean.

  40. I have a lot of experience listening to people say hurtful things at me without even hearing what they’re saying. While that is definitely not what’s happened to you, LW, I think you might be able to use this tool I’ve got in my toolbox for just such occasions as these.

    When someone says something hurtful and mean, I stop, blink, and say these wonderful words:

    “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

    If it’s a rude customer at your retail counter, you can feign innocence and pretend you didn’t hear them. If it’s your sibling being a jerk, you can slide into sarcasm with your hands on your hips. In any situation, you are asking for clarification, which by definition means that they must process what came out of their mouth before repeating and/or rephrasing it. That usually (but sadly not always) means they will need to *hear* and *understand* what awful thing they said.

    Most of the time this means they refrain from repeating it. Or at least they just say, “Oh, you know what I mean!” Nope, sorry; that’s why I asked!

    Best of luck and use your scripts! Stressful conversations can suck but it gets way easier the more you practice.

    1. Yes–that’s great advice, it makes them own what they said, kind of like the ‘I believe this is yours’ meme.

  41. If the virgin comment hadn’t worked, she would have tried something else until it did. She probably has been making a bunch of comments that didn’t work, that you didn’t notice until hey! This one does.

    She may try to apologise or explain. She may have a bunch of good qualities and those exist and are genuine and… don’t actually matter, because she’s still also the person that will keep saying things that are hurtful, and won’t stop even when she knows they are.

    When someone says, “I’m sorry if I hurt you. You know this is just how I am.” what they mean is “I have no intention of not being the person that hurt you.”

    She might escalate, she might accuse you of being over sensitive (which– she said something to hurt or embarrass you, she doesn’t get act like you’re in the wrong for being *hurt and embarassed*), she might even apologise and hell, she might even mean it.

    This is the thing: It doesn’t matter if someone is utterly sincere in their apology or their guilt in that moment, if they’re not still sorry and feel bad about it the next day, and the day after that and the day after that. I don’t mean that it should, you know, haunt their every waking moment, just that when they think about what they did, they should still feel bad about doing it. She knows this is who she is, she knows she does this before and she’s still doing it. She’s not going to stop and her feeling bad about it right now? That’s not enough to trump her feeling good when she does it the next time.

    Some people, what they do is end up feeling resentful at feeling bad about something (especially something they enjoyed doing!) and taking it out on you, because clearly, the problem isn’t that they did something they know was wrong and hurtful (after all, doing that didn’t make them feel bad at the time). The problem is you, for making them feel bad about something they didn’t before!

  42. Okay, first, I am seriously weirded out by your coworker making ANY sort of comment on your sexual life. That crosses one heck of a line, and I don’t think that has much to do with “filters.” You say she’s in her 40’s–that is old enough to have at some point have picked up on the fact that unless you are Super Close Buds with a coworker, you don’t talk about their sex life. Commenting on a “lack” of sex life is still commenting on it, and that is just weird. And maybe kind of creepy.

    Secondly, I agree with a lot of the above posters that there’s a vicious cycle to feeling upset that you feel so upset, and over something that doesn’t seem like “a big deal.” She called you a virgin and that was upsetting. I’m a virgin myself, and I’m quite fine with that fact. But if someone hurled it at me as an insult, even in a teasing way, it would get under my skin. Sometimes being told a true thing about ourselves–even something we personally are okay with–as an insult hurts, even though we “know” it shouldn’t. It sort of makes you step back, even subconsciously, and feel like maybe if this thing about you that you’re okay with is something that people make fun of…maybe there’s something wrong with it after all. And there’s NOT, but some people have a way of making us feel crappy, even about things we like about ourselves.

    I dunno, it makes me think of the way the other kids in grade school called me “Dragon Lady” because I read fantasy books and drew dragons all the time. “Why yes,” I “should” have thought. “I like dragons. I am awesome at dragons. And ‘Dragon Lady’ is one of Anne McCaffery’s nickname, so that makes me even more awesome.” There was nothing inherently wrong with the name, but because they said it with more snide judgement than not, it stung, and I hated it.

    It sounds like that’s what your coworker’s words are doing in your head. And it is absolutely okay to be upset about that. And about the fact that your coworker is apparently the opposite of a classy lady, and doesn’t have respect for a VERY basic part of the social contract (that is: do not randomly bring up a coworker’s sex life in conversation). Sorry you have to deal with that, LW.

  43. I offer the following as someone who’s been in Afghanistan for the past 6 months or so, with the same small group of people, on the same tiny ass forward operating base, and who is desperately looking forward to just getting out of here and going home for awhile. I have a sneaking suspicion you are in a similiar sort of situation and I wanted to comment on some of the things that are particular to that kind of environment.

    The main thing is that it’s incredibly hard to disengage in this kind of environment. Yes, you can try and keep things focused on work, wear headphones when working at your computer, bring books to lunch (or foreign langugage flashcards, which a friend of mine did constantly for a year in Iraq), that kind of thing, but getting space is hard. Even when you do it in perfectly reasonable ways (listening to more music), feeling and emotions are amplified and there’s DRAMA. It can be exceptionally hard not to get sucked into that.

    I assume part of what’s so upsetting about this is the feeling of being alone, stuck in this isolated location without solid social support. You counted this women among the people you were friendly with and feeling rejected by her hurts. This is 100% understandable and not something you should think of as being wrong with you.

    I think that disengaging will be more difficult in these circumstances than it might otherwise due to the amplification of emotion that comes with close quarters, so to the extent that you can, focus on self care. This can be hard, especially if you (like me) are somewhere particularly isolated and there isn’t anywhere to get an actual haircut or even more than one actual bathroom (plenty of gross portojohns though!) You don’t have a lot of control over the food selection, making eating well trickier. You’re not in your own bed, which makes sleeping well more difficult. Not to say that you can’t focus on these things, but be kind to yourself knowing that it’s a lot harder here than it might be otherwise.

    Other things that are really challenging: not having real space to decompress and be sad. There’s a pressure that comes from close quarters just to get along and suck it up. You don’t have the privacy to go home, have a glass of wine, be teary, and pet the cat while you look at takeout menus. This sucks. It’s okay to admit to yourself that it does. You work on doing the best you can with what you have and know that the end is near and you’re going to be back with Team You before you know it.

    When things here were particularly miserable for me, I e-mailed my sister and asked her to send out the bat signal to Team Me just asking for cheerful e-mails about what people were up to. I’d randomly hear from my cousins and old family friends and that really helped, particularly when I didn’t have the emotional energy to write back.

    Hang in there, LW. I feel you. Jedi hugs!

    1. Linking it here in the hopes that the Spam Filter of Righteousness won’t hate it as much.

      There is a lot of worthiness in being whole-hearted and vulnerable. I hope this experience won’t change those qualities in you.

      1. Brown’s point about how you can’t selectively dampen was really good, I think. As someone who’s gotten more and more thin-skinned (but also more likely to spontaneously laugh and feel a rush of good things too) I really identified with that observation. Also, it reminded me of one of my favorite Joan Armatrading songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvbfMWCRisw Like she says, “Light up if you’re feeling happy, but if it’s bad then let those tears roll down.”

        *Disclaimer: Not at work, obviously. I’m incredibly even-keeled at work because it’s important to maintain a professional demeanor. But if someone does say something cutting, I will certainly take 5 min in the bathroom to feel a bit sad and then will often respond with a relentlessly polite/calm email that addresses the problem. I have also taken abrupt lunch breaks when it felt necessary to have a walk around the block to get away from a toxic situation (at my previous job, I had two coworkers who would yell at one another and make mean personal comments; I am sensitive enough that it was upsetting to even be a bystander). Also, I have no tolerance for bosses who use their position of power as an excuse to not control their behavior (same ex-job involved a boss who would yell mercilessly at people who made pretty understandable/infrequent clerical mistakes and who would then excuse it by saying they just had ‘high standards’ which sure, whatever, express it politely or at a reasonable volume and people wouldn’t secretly hate your guts). It seems to me that the price a lot of ‘straight shooters’ pay for not being willing to take other people’s feelings into consideration, even in a professional environment, is that they often break friendships and push people away. It’s actually probably a pretty lonely way to live, which helps me have some compassion, even when I’m on the receiving end of a blunt comment.

  44. Fervent thanks to everyone who has given support and suggestions on How to Develop a Thicker Skin (or Learn to Function as if You Have)!

    Anyone with a tongue or a keyboard can make other another person feel lousy. It takes compassion and generosity and sometimes the courage to expose your own vulnerabilities in order to help a stranger cope with the challenges life is throwing at them. Yay, Awkward Army!

  45. LW, I don’t know if any of this will help you, but here’s how I dealt with my coworker. My abusive asshole coworker was also older and because of my age and stature mistook me for some shrinking violet ripe for her abuse. When I first started the job, I shared an office with her. The first thing she ever said to me, I thought, “Christ, what an asshole” but said, “hmmmm,” and gave her a weird look.

    Other coworkers actually came in to socialize with her which baffled me, because I came to find out that everyone in the office despised her. EVERYONE. No small wonder, though.

    She started spreading disgusting rumors about me behind my back. When I went to talk to her about it, she said the same thing your coworker did about being filterless and that’s just “the way she is,” but no apology. To which I replied, “Filterless is just what abusive assholes say to excuse their own abuse.” Her face was complete shock and she said, “you just don’t get me.”

    Things changed rapidly from there. Since she had no work-related business to talk me about, every time she spoke to me, I would just hear the words, “ABUSE ABUSE ABUSE ABUSE” over and over again in my head. Then I would respond with a hmmmmm because I heard nothing of what she said. She kept talking about me behind my back and got even more vicious, but fewer and fewer people would speak to her at all since the words “abusive asshole” were ringing in their ears.

    Pretty soon, I decided that this person was just one facet of a completely dysfunctional and somewhat abusive work environment. Even the “nice” people spread the disgusting gossip in an “oh, can you believe she said that” way. I became “WOMAN WHO DOES NOT SOCIALIZE” at work. I applied for other jobs and got one. I counted my blessings and left. Life is so much better now.

    Good luck dealing with your abusive asshole.

  46. This is only very tangentially related and I should probably hold back the urge to share this amazing pun but I just can’t… it’s about the amazing short film in the ‘How to say stfu…’ that was linked to in this post. The title is Schwarzfahrer which literally means ‘Black rider’, but it usually means a person who rides the metro without a ticket. So the identity of the ‘Schwarzfahrer’ changes is the course of the film. I thought that was too awesome not to share 🙂 https://captainawkward.com/2011/01/07/how-to-say-stfu-when-the-f-is-silent-and-other-mantras

  47. Sometimes, I am ashamed to admit, I have fallen on the Evil Co-Worker side of the argument. This has happened less and less as time has gone on and I’ve grown the hell up, but now and then the urge to lash out with a barb is too great and I succumb. Some people are tenderhearted; I am sharp-tongued.


    When my inner Mean Girl gets the best of me, this is what it looks it when I have remorse for that:
    (1) immediate apology. Sincere. Really, really, really sincere. Ideally in front of any third person who was witness to my bad behavior.
    (2) probably a follow-up private apology.
    (3) maybe also a note of apology, or a small token of regret (the anti-African violet?).

    Note that none of these apologies include any justification for what I’ve done. They are not “sorry you feel that way” or “that’s just how I am; deal with it.” They are “what I did was wrong, and I am sorry for doing it, and I will do my best that it doesn’t happen again.”

    And finally, (4) leaving the hurt person alone to decide how they want to respond.

    Also, I don’t brag or announce my sharp tongue — in most situations it isn’t something to be proud of. And I am especially careful around people who I percieve as sweet or passive or weaker than I am, who tend to draw this trait out of me, especially when I don’t know them well. It’s totally a power-play, and it’s totally bull, and it’s totally Not How To Be.

    I hope that the Evil Co-Worker in this scenario is taking steps to get herself right — and she may be on the path to realizing that she’s being hurtful, given that she seems to recognize that some people bring out her nastiness — but, either way, you don’t have to be a stepping stone on that path.

  48. I decided a couple of years ago that the ONLY person who gets to tell me I’m overreacting is me. If anyone else says that, they may just be mistaken or they may be trying to take advantage. (Someone who tells me I am overreacting to what THEY did is probably trying to take advantage.) But I am allowed to have my emotions.

    If I think that I’m overreacting to something, it may well be time for a cup of tea, a walk, a piece of chocolate, stroking the cat, something else comforting.

    There are two aspects of this. One is that I can make that judgment on the basis of having been me for decades: I know my normal level of reaction to things, so if I get much more upset than usual, it might mean there’s something else going on. The other is that if I tell myself “Vicki, you’re overreacting,” what I mean is “you are probably upset about something other than the visible trigger.” It does NOT mean I shouldn’t be reacting strongly. Whether it’s an unrelated problem I’m thinking about, or lack of sleep, something real is going on there.

  49. The ‘that’s just how I am!’ people often seem to have little to no tolerance to others jut ‘being how they are’. I know a guy like this. He is extremely negative and cynical, sometimes jerkish, occasionally a total asshole. He tells people he just ‘tells it how it is’ and ‘that’s just his personality’ and other such things. But he sure does whine about having few friends and how nobody likes hanging out with him. Sorry dude, but not wanting to hang out with negative people who can’t say anything nice ever is ‘just the way I am’!

    1. This!

      Most of the blunt people I’ve known haven’t crossed the line into abusive asshole territory. Their blunt remarks might ruffle my feathers, but I’ll tell myself to blow it off, not take myself so seriously, and get on with my life. Which works fine until they turn into a tenderhearted person over something *I’ve* said. Alas, I’ve never had the presence of mind to say, “Oh, are we no longer valuing a thick skin? I missed the memo.”

      1. Even more THIS.

        Apparently, if my dad and brother rant or yell or engage in all manner of no-filter assholery, it’s just them “being themselves.” But if my feelings are hurt or, God forbid, I cry, well then clearly this is a shameful character defect that must be remedied immediately or I suck. Of course, if I politely call them on this bullshit, then they pout and angrily lecture me about my rude, hurtful comments. Same deal with my local chapter of That Asshole At Work.

        I think this is the difference between people who have no filter and jerks who have no filter. I have a very blunt friend, around whom I occasionally I need to say “uh, ouch.” To which she always responds with a genuine “oops, my bad!” And then we go forward as normal. The jerks are the ones who think simply labeling their behavior means they no longer have to take responsibility for it.

  50. LW, I’ve developed a very thick skin over the years from dealing with various people who thought that the title “professor” gave them the right to lecture everyone about everything, whether they were knew what they were talking about or not. I know these people are jerks, and I stopped considering their point of view a long time ago. And yet last night I ended up in tears at the grocery store because one of them threw a tantrum after an unsuccessful attempt to humiliate me in front of my boss and another of my collaborators.

    So don’t feel bad, or weak, or stupid. Nobody ever reacts to a blitz attack (which is what your coworker did) with perfect poise and witty comebacks.

  51. My two cents:
    Many of us have the impulse of icking those who are down/preying on the defenseless/despising what we see as weak. Regularly acting on that impulse is destructive, shameful, and something one urgently needs to learn not to do. It is much larger than the hurting of the feelings of individuals, although that would be a sufficient reason not to do it; if it goes unchecked, it poisons the commuity where it happens.
    Secondly, while I have eveloped a thicker skin since my teens, I still cry about everything. I finally decided that no matter how awkward it felt and how uncomfortable it made people, I would try to treat it as a physical reflex: I’m stressed or upset or touched – I cry. I spent some time woring on being able to speak in a normal voice through the crying, and then proceeded to act as if I was entirely unaware of the tears running down my face. It has gotten easier with time, and the key was disengaging a bit from the ‘what will everyone think.’

  52. Regarding learning to let things go/developing a thicker skin: that’s most relevant only when the action is in the past. Not holding grudges, not reading too much into a single comment, that sort of thing. However, the letter writer’s situation isn’t just about a single thing that was said, but a pattern of behavior and the very real possibility that it will continue. At that point, asking someone to develop a thicker skin is more like asking them to pretend the person that is bothering them isn’t being a persistent asshole.

    Also, since the letter writer was likely letting little things go – little things that in retrospect were not things that she felt comfortable “letting go” – I rather think the bigger issue here is not developing a thicker skin but, if anything, developing a thinner one along with some calm, cool, and collected responses. Both of which take experience and not being made to feel like one is crazy because one’s feelings are somehow wrong.

    My problem with “develop a thicker skin” is that it is usually code for “ignore when you are being bullied” rather than “learn to deal with bullies more effectively.” The point is usually for the person being hurt to stop making a fuss and bothering everyone else, not for the hurt itself to stop. Somehow the most useful skills: “learn to recognize bullying behavior sooner” and “learn how to deal with bullies effectively” tend to get completely skipped.

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