TW for mention of suicide/suicidal ideation, if you would appreciate the warning (“mention” like “this thing exists in my past” mention).
I started a new office job (my first office job, though not my first 9-5) four months ago, and so far it’s been great! It’s a smallish office- about 30 people- as we’re one branch of a larger corporation. I get along with basically everybody, and I like my work, and I feel really happy that this is part of my life (which, being a graduate of art school, I never expected, but what a happy accident!).
My one issue is with somebody I don’t feel likes me- she works in the cubicle attached and directly facing me, in a department I don’t interact with lots. I am mostly okay with her not liking me-I don’t even know she doesn’t like me for a fact! I asked somebody I interact with daily about it, by saying “hey, Matthew- I’m not asking if Linda has said anything negative about me, I’m asking if Linda is maybe somebody who is hard to read and really into her job and I shouldn’t take anything personally about it”. Matthew was super worried she’d actually done something (I told him if she had, I’d be talking to my supervisor, not him!), but once I assured him it was mostly just my own alarm bells going off about nothing concrete, he did say she wasn’t somebody to mince words and was mostly here to work, and previously, others had been kind of set off by her. This made me feel way better, and now I just think- Linda isn’t here to make friends! Neither am I! We can just do our work and not be friends and that’s totally okay!
My one thing is- sometimes, when talking to others (in person or on the phone), Linda likes to say, “It made me want to kill myself!”. I know she’s in charge of a big system overhaul that started two months ago and everybody’s coming to her with their issues about it, and it sounds super stressful! But- not as stressful as actually attempting suicide… which I did, 9 months ago. The day after my attempt, my girlfriend at the time broke up with me. Luckily I survived, and I did lots of inpatient and outpatient therapy and I’m definitely in a better place in so many ways. But, hearing that just kind of zones me out for a bit. It’s not even that often- maybe once a month- that she says it, but it hits me in a way that’s heartbreaking and yucky and way too MUCH. I’m just there to tap away at my computer, I don’t want an earthquake every four weeks!
I just don’t know what to do, though. If this was somebody else- say, Matthew- I would feel absolutely comfortable quietly telling them that idea affects me for personal reasons, and to please refrain from using it in the office. But Linda and I are firmly not-friends coworkers. The fact that she’s using it in what is, still, a private conversation- but is anything private in a cube maze?- makes me even more uneasy. I have no clue if we have HR- if so, they’re probably located in the home country of the corporation, just like our IT department. I would maybe consider discussing it with my supervisor, but I don’t necessarily want to reveal my personal mental health struggles, and since I’m a temp, not permanent, I want to basically be as bland and “inoffensive” as possible.
I am really, really happy I survived. I want to keep enjoying what basically feels like a second chance as much as possible, in the steady, routine comfort of my tiny cube- without monthly reminders of what I did to myself, and what was done to me. I also just want to keep my head down, type away, and, if I’m fortunate, transition to permanent. Any advice is ridiculously appreciated!
Dear Cube Dweller,
First I want to say, FUCK YEAH, YOU! I so admire how you’ve worked to heal and to knit your life and your health back together after such a horrible experience, and I’m so happy that you’ve found your way into work that you like.
I’m reading the F*ck Feelings book right now and I’m not ready to give a full review since I’m not quite done, but I think it might be a good resource for you, particularly right now. I don’t think it’s a good fit for everyone, but what I am finding useful is a repeated suggested strategy of:
a) Validating your own feelings (not ignoring them as the title suggests) and not trying to talk yourself out of or shame yourself for feeling what you feel,
b) Trying to achieve better emotional resilience and results by choosing your battles more strategically. Does every feeling need to be acted on/Are your feelings the most important factor in how you decide to act? If you are in an unpleasant or unfair situation, can you accurately assess the likelihood that it will change and what your own capacity is for changing it? For example, does changing your behavior change something about the situation, or does any change totally depend on someone else having a change of heart (that evidence shows they are unlikely to have)? Are you trapped (in a relationship, in a workplace, etc.) by your vision of what should be happening at the expense dealing with and taking more care of yourself around of what is happening?
c) If the situation is changeable, do you have the energy budget to try to change the situation/is it worth it to you to try? And can you do it in a timeframe that equals “soon,” or does it require years of costly emotional investment in something that is already not working for you?
d) If the answer to c) is “nope!”, can you figure out other ways to take care of yourself? Can you congratulate & validate yourself for the good things you are doing (carrying on, maintaining your integrity) and apply your energy to something you can do (letting go of a toxic relationship, finding a new job, building new skills, applying your energy to a cause or goal that is important to you)? Can you try letting go of shame and negative self-talk?
If that sounds suspiciously like “Oh God/Flying Spaghetti Monster please grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” you’re not wrong. If it sounds like this approach completely breaks down around activist and social justice movements and unfair, violent systems that must change and must be made to change, and that it assumes the reader has enough privilege to decide whether or not to ignore or accept something that hurts them, you’re not wrong. (Maybe the last third of the book gets into that?)
I still think it applies to you, dear LW, because I’d like to attempt a tiny bit of cognitive reframing. Right now you are worried about whether “Linda” likes you. Better question: Do you like Linda? Or do you find her strange/avoidant/brusque/given to jokes that are in poor taste/hard to read? Right now your internal story of work is, “I like my job and my coworkers so far, and they like me, except for Linda, who I don’t think likes me.” What if we edit your head’s story to “I like my job and all of my coworkers so far except for Linda, who I don’t really like.”
One strategy I find useful in dealing with everything from thoughtless offhand comments to outright trolling is to ask myself, Self, do you even like this person? Are they someone whose opinion is important to you? If Commander Logic or the Goat Lady were to say “You are being a sack of shit right now,” that would hurt my feelings and make me rethink my entire life, but some Trump-loving Twitter Egg is not on Team Me and was never going to be on Team Me and I don’t have to care what they think. That doesn’t mean that mean words don’t sting or eat at me sometimes, or that I can prevent yucky feelings in advance by deciding not to feel them, but I think it is a useful and learnable skill to be able to remind myself that hey, at the end of the day I get to decide whose opinion really matters to me and I get to decide whether something deserves a response and/or continued engagement and attention. If you don’t really like Linda, over time, try describing the situation to yourself as “a person I don’t like sometimes says thoughtless things that I don’t like. Howabout that.” I know there is much more going on than that (trauma reactions and the ubiquity of casual ableism in the workplace are motherfuckers), so I’m not saying “magick yourself into feeling different!” No! I am saying, try telling a different story about what’s going on as a way to practice gaining a little distance from the situation gradually, over time.
You would be well within your rights to say, “Casual suicide jokes: tasteful AND hilarious. Do keep making them,” in your best Professor Snape disdain-voice when Linda says her thing next. See also: “Is that really appropriate at work?” or “Wow, sound really carries in these open offices. Let me give you some privacy” or “I’m sure you don’t mean to be insensitive, but your casual suicide comments really bum me out.”
Right this second, however, I think you’ve assessed the situation exactly correctly: Linda isn’t a friend, she has more status at the company than you do as a temp, sometimes working in open office environments means deciding to pretend to tune out your neighbors’ phone conversations, you need/want this job to last and become permanent, you don’t want to disclose your history in a potentially unfriendly environment, and when you are feeling triggered and sensitive about something it’s not always the best time to escalate a situation. In addition, just as Linda doesn’t know your history with suicide, you don’t know hers. I don’t think her comment is appropriate, in the same way people most certainly have not been “raped” by Ticketmaster surcharges, but I also know that sometimes survivors go very dark and dry in their humor when talking to trusted folks…like her friend on the phone…in what she is thinking of as a private conversation.
It’s not fair that you have to deal with this calculus on top of everything else you’ve got going on. But it is time for a risk/reward assessment. Run this all by your therapist, and try to think through scenarios and what you want and what you value most. Do you put your energy into changing Linda’s attitude and favorite catch phrase in the hopes of preventing another incident where you are triggered by her thoughtless remarks? Do you put energy into spackling over the situation and pretending things are okay, at least until you have a permanent job? Since you’re the one running the risks, you’re the only one who can decide what is worthwhile to you.
One thing you can try is creating a self-care protocol around this. When Linda gets on the phone for a chat, could you use that time to stretch your legs/get something to drink/run that errand on another floor that you need to run? Removing yourself from the situation on your own terms could give you back some agency and power. If she does say something that makes you feel unsteady, what strategies or tools do you have for dealing with that feeling of being overwhelmed? (Deep breaths, grounding yourself in your physical environment, removing yourself from the situation, reaching out to a friend, sitting with the feeling and naming it, imagining everything happening from a great distance, imagining intrusive thoughts as little puffy clouds that implode as they come near you, mentally reciting the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, rewarding yourself with something comforting at the end of the day). It can feel silly at first, but the more you do whatever ritual you decide upon, the more second-nature it will become.
Let’s be real: When I was suffering from PTSD symptoms after witnessing a murder, feeling like an open wound half the time and like I was traveling through jello half the time, a lot of these recommendations would have been beyond me and it’s okay if it’s beyond you right now. It’s early yet, blog posts and books are not a substitute for ongoing mental health care, and you have all the time in the world and infinite tries to practice self-care strategies and rebuild some armor and resilience. Someday this is going to be easier. Someday you are going to help other survivors by being the person who says, “Cool it with the insensitive comments, thanks” like a superhero as you direct dissenters to your Field of No Fucks. In the meantime, can you find a way to be gentle with yourself and give yourself credit and praise for how well you’re handling everything so far? “Self, even thought I felt really awful and overwhelmed for a few moments today, I was able to get through it. I’m alive and well and I’m doing the best I can, and my best is pretty okay.”
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