Hello! It’s time for the monthly ritual where I answer short questions and give priority to the patrons who keep the lights on and the web-hamsters running. We’ve got twelve questions this week, I’ve written up the first batch and will post the rest later in the weekend. Topics: Passive-aggressive coworkers, celebrating a climb out of depression, figuring out fit a new job, settling in in a new town, becoming a therapist to the stars, and becoming better at conflict.
Q1 After CA.com started making it big, did you ever think about going back to school to become a therapist to the stars? (she/her/hers
A1: This question made me smile, not least because of ‘making it big.’
Upon consideration, I think I would like not to ever go to any more grad school, I would make a terrible, unethical therapist unless there is a school of therapy where you tell patients “you know you can dump people who make you feel awful” and then bill their insurance for a jillion dollars, and probably “the stars” are gonna be just fine without me though they are free to write in any time, I don’t discriminate! 🙂
Q2: How do I know if I just have the new job jitters or whether a job is fundamentally wrong for me? I feel like I’m lying when I say I’m doing ok in this job, and it’s very stressful. People say I’m suited for it, but the day to day is so difficult for me. Should I quit and go back to school or stick it out? (she/her/hers)
A2: You’re allowed to quit things you hate and do something else! And as long as you have a plan for how you’ll swing it financially, it’s really nobody’s business but yours. I quit a job after a single day once, another job after just a few months, I regret nothing, there was no amount of money that made it worth…that. But if you have a history of letting jitters/imposter syndrome talk you out of things you actually want to do, it’s worth sitting with the discomfort for a bit and asking yourself some questions before you flee. Here are a couple of workbook/research questions for you to figure out if you’re done here and where you might want to go next:
I) Who is happily doing the kind of work you want to be doing, roughly where you want to be doing it, at the intensity and salary and prominence you want to be doing it someday? Take the annoying “Where do you see yourself in five years?” job interview and actually answer it, for yourself, by looking for some real world examples. Find a few people you admire who do work like the work you’re interested, use social media, LinkedIn, professional associations & publications in your field, alumni networks to read up on them a little bit without being creepy, and see if there’s a story in what they did for you. Did they need more school than you have now? Did they need to move geographically? Was there a period where they did a job like yours and the learning curve just sucked but it was worth it for a year or so to break in to whatever came next?
II) Look at the job description you were given when you were hired. Now add to it/edit it according to what you actually do with your days. Classify the list of tasks according to two categories to start:
a) This is a task/skill that is necessary and useful in multiple companies and fields, there are lots of situations where [creating artifacts like reports, proposals, web pages, apps][creating and managing budgets][planning & coordinating big projects][managing people][whatever it is you do, make it specific to you!] can be useful and the experience I gain here can be applied.
b) This is a task/skill that is useful within this company but not necessarily transferable [figuring out a horrible legacy proprietary system][navigating specific office politics and personalities].
Do you end up with more A things or more B things? Is there a certain subset of duties that contributes the bulk of your stress? Are you spending your time on the things that feel essential to the company’s mission and to your own professional growth? Maybe you’ll see some patterns that tell you that the same role in a better company or team is where you need to go, or maybe you’ll get some insights about the parts of your job that stress you out the most and think about reprioritizing your work or finding roles where you have to do less of that bullshit and more of what you like, or figure out pathways to take advantage of training and professional development opportunities where you are.
III) What is your job role and your employer doing in the world and for the world? Good, ethical things, or not so much? I think that’s an important part of well-being, knowing that what you do makes the world a better, or at least not a worse, place.
IV) If you apply the Sheelzebub principle, what happens? Imagine more of this for another year, another 2 years, another 5 years. At what point do you put a cutoff date on a calendar and say, “if I’m not feeling less stress by _____, time to go.” Does the thought of quitting fill you with relief or more anxiety?
V) Can you afford to do less for the next month or so to give yourself time to breathe? Work within set hours, leave at a reasonable time every day, say no to impossible projects, spend time with friends and family and hobbies, take every single scrap of leave time? If you don’t feel like you can slow down, where is the pressure coming from – since your bosses say you’re doing great, is it them or is it you?
Good luck sorting it!
Q3: How do I get better at confrontation? I finally got a feel for boundaries (Ty!), but when I set them and people ignore them, I just… Avoid them. With people whom I trust and like (and vice versa), I have no trouble addressing stuff again and holding firm. But with those who’re boundary violators anyways, it costs me so much energy to address stuff and then when they ignore it, I tend to resign. Help. (she/her/hers)
A3: I think it’s very good news that you’re having better results with people close to you. You are speaking up for yourself, and the people you like best are listening and respecting you, you’re enjoying more harmonious relationships with them, that’s good!
With people who are “boundary violators anyway” what if you stopped assuming that you aren’t communicating clearly or well enough and gave yourself permission to write them off, to an extent? What if the way you asserted yourself was excellent and necessary, what if others in the group saw it and felt more confidence as a result, and what if someone’s choice to keep being a jerk after they’ve been told to stop isn’t your burden or your fault? You told them what the problem was and how to fix it, they chose not to change anything, time to do your thing without counting on them for anything, avoid them where possible, work around them where possible, build consensus with others where you need to, kick them out of spaces where they aren’t wanted where possible, and stop giving them so much of your time and attention. Maybe the next step in leveling up is telling yourself: “I tried my best, other people’s behavior is their problem, not mine.”
Avoiding someone who can’t take no for an answer after you’ve told them no as an answer isn’t a sign that you failed, it’s okay to save your energy for cooler people who make it easy to be around them. But I don’t think it was wasted effort to speak up, I think it was important even if it doesn’t work the first time or at all, because now you are a person who speaks up for herself and others, and you’re never going back to being afraid. You’ve also got some handy friendship/social scene curation tools for who can be trusted and who cannot. Few people are so “good at conflict” that they can be confident of always persuading assholes to stop being assholes. You’re good enough!
Q4: I’m moving cross-country for the first time in 3ish weeks. Any ideas for settling into and learning a new city? I’ve lived in and around Chicago my whole life… (she/they)
A4: When I moved to Chicago on August 1, 2000 I was on a really, really tight budget and I didn’t know anybody here. MeetUp, etc. hadn’t been invented yet, but The Chicago Reader and a folding laminated map (which I still have) became my new best friend for a while, and what I did for about the first year was to go to as much free stuff as I possibly could. I basically haunted every open mic and art show and free day at the museum and festival for almost a year, and I gave myself permission to be a total tourist. I always carried something to read and something to write in/with along with me in case I got stuck or bored or there was nobody to talk to. I gave myself little challenges, too, like: “I have $20, I’m going to take the CTA to a stop I’ve never ridden to before, hop off, and see what I can find to do/see/eat there, when I run out of cash or if it stops being fun, I’ll go home.” This adapts well as a photography project: Once I spent a day walking through Paris, France and snapped a photo of “everything yellow” I saw, another day it was “blue doors,” another day it was “fun haircuts” (winner) another day it was “cranky statues.”
When I met people, I told them I’d just moved here and asked them what their favorite cheap or free thing to do was, and I wrote down the things they told me in my little notebook, turns out people LOVE to show off about their town and don’t mind being asked in the least. If I met anyone who seemed at all nice, if they invited me to a thing, I would say yes and I would go at least once, which is how I found myself guest-judging the Uptown Poetry Slam one week, volunteering at a film festival devoted to home movies another, and listening to the worst ‘music’ I have ever heard and eating the worst ‘chili’ I have ever tasted in the basement of an anarchist collective that smelled entirely of feet. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have just taken a class at Second City, but I’m not upset about having taken a weirder path.
Not gonna lie, I was 26, single, and internet dating was new and shiny, “I just moved here and am learning my way around, is there a place you really like that’s cheap or free to hang out?” was a pretty irresistible proposition and a fun way to see the city, it’s how I found out about Record Store Day and Free Comic Book Day and Myopic Books, it’s how I learned that sitting under giant ferns at Garfield Park Conservatory on a cold February night didn’t suck, and not everything has to be True Love to be a good time.
You’re leaving Chicago, which has an embarrassment of cultural and culinary riches but the principles of enjoying this place apply anywhere, almost everybody everywhere gets tired of staring at their own four walls and eating their own cooking sometimes, there will be cool stuff to do wherever you’re headed. Find the paper with the best local arts/entertainment/hobby listings, go to breakfast at the place with all the chatty old people and ask them tons of questions, swim at the public pool, check out the wall of flyers and bulletin boards at the library and the cafe and the grocery co-op, see who is coming to give free lectures or play music at the nearby college, find the local ice cream parlor on a hot day, ask everyone you meet who seems the least bit friendly to tell you where they love to buy coffee or groceries or watch birds or where you can find a decent tattoo artist or death metal music scene or board game night or book club. Be generous with compliments: “I love your haircut, do you mind if I ask where you got it? I just moved here and I need a new salon.” “I loved that book. Where’s the best bookstore here?” Pet some strange dogs, see some stuff that you might never otherwise see, show up to some things that sound good to you, if you hate it don’t go back, if you like it, keep going, when you get tired, take breaks. Do that for a year and you’ll probably be some version of home. I hope the move goes smoothly!
Q5: Advice for dealing with a colleague who tends towards passive-aggression in conflicts when your manager won’t let you directly address the potential issue (specifics unknown because: passive-aggression)? This is my peer, senior in time by about a year but not in skills or level, and the comes out through managerial-adjacent behavior. (AKA “I just want to make sure your task xyz that I don’t have a say in has the proper foundation.) (Frustrating!)(she/hers please)
A5: I have met several versions of This Coworker. I vastly prefer to be pleasant, straightforward, constructive, helpful, assume good faith, and get along with people at work and in general. Life is hard enough, work is hard enough, no need to add friction! But when that doesn’t work, and a person decides to self-appoint themselves as my supervisor/editor/gadfly/personal pain in the ass, and my manager is no help, it’s not always pretty (there are no heroes here) but I have been able to mitigate their behavior without getting myself in trouble. Lessons:
Kindness and professionalism isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also a strategy. By making a habit of being generally friendly, constructive, easy to get along with, prompt and professional in my communications, and pleasant to work with to everyone at the company, this one highly difficult person’s picture of me as a The Weakest Link is much less sticky. Make sure all written communications you ever send to this person are friendly and professional. Address them as you would any reasonable person, and use your company/client manners at all times with them.
Stop, drop, and do your due diligence before responding to anything they say. Is it possible they are right about whatever it is even if they are really annoying about how they express it? Don’t let the fact that they have reached “b eating crackers” levels of annoying you cloud the fact that crackers might work with a little cheese on top. A script of “I hadn’t considered that, let me think about it and get back to you” can cut an annoying conversation short AND give you a chance to actually think about what they said.
Ignore all subtext, respond only to text. Hovering, sighing, a tone dripping with condescension, an attitude of “do I have to do everything around here,” barbs and digs, stuff muttered under the breath so only I can hear it, personal insults, the sense that someone is unhappy with my work (but no actual actionable feedback about what to change), generalized complaining, talking behind my back, the problem person dragging their feet about submitting their piece of the work, long rambling emails with no specific suggestions or changes = not my problem or my job, esp. when coming from someone who is not my manager.
“The draft needs to be turned in one day earlier, and can you include/fix these specific details” = my problem and job (to at least consider).
When someone is endlessly complaining or showering me with disapproval (but not telling me anything that would help me fix whatever it is) I’ve had success with reflecting back what the person is telling me they are feeling (“You are unhappy about ______”), both to indicate that I heard them and hopefully get them to stop repeating it, and then re-directing them toward solutions (“How would you like to handle ____ in the future?” “Do you have some ideas for solving ____?”), and it works with coworkers, too. Keep asking this person what they propose to do or if there is something specific they need you to do, and until or unless they come up with something that you can do (or consider doing and reject because: Reasons), it’s okay to consider their complaints as background noise.
Document the living shit out of all interactions with this person. Specifically, put all the things you & this colleague have agreed upon about work that needs done in email form. If they harangue you for half an hour about a project, write that chipper, brief, factual follow-up email every goddamn time.“To review, after our conversation this morning, you’re handling x, I’m handling y, we’ll meet at [time/date] to compare notes and finalize. Thanks!”
It may feel disingenuous to keep saying, “Just to make sure I’ve got this right, we are NOT sending the document out until Friday, August 2, so we can make edits until then. Can you confirm?” when you already know damn well what’s going on, but you need to cover your ass and make sure there is a paper trail in case of problems, and you especially need to document it when they are giving you ridiculous and impossible suggestions.
Strategically invoke your supervisor. When a peer is trying to BE your supervisor, it’s time for a mantra of “Whoa, I should run that by my manager” or “Interesting, have YOU run that by my manager?” or “I really need to check with my manager before I veer off from what she and I agreed upon” or “Hey, why don’t we loop in Manager before we change the strategy.” The person will try to tell you it’s okay, they’ve always done it this way, or they spoke to your manager, etc. Possibly so! That’s cool, but you would just really rather take these questions to your actual manager. If your manager backs up your peer and not you, that’s good information (possibly it’s “Start job hunting, this place sucks” good information, but it’s good information). You can also ask your manager questions like:
- “Hey, do I actually report to Peer? Because if so, this is the first of me hearing about it, do we need to amend the org chart? Are they going to be weighing in on my review?
- “Peer sometimes gives me instructions that are confusing and time-consuming, what do you want me to do when that happens?”
- “I’m trying to stay positive and focused on work, but when Peer drops by my desk to ‘chat’ about work it can suck a whole afternoon away. I’ve tried to ask them to email me changes or schedule a 15 minute catch-up, but it’s not working. Can you speak to them?”
- Show your boss the weird shit, especially if Peer is mean to you in writing, but keep your attitude very professional if you can. “This email from Peer is pretty confusing. Can you help me parse it and figure out what they want?”
Additionally, while it’s annoying and frankly a little hostile to CC your manager on all trivial interactions with a peer, if your peer is micromanaging you and your manager is unhelpful, your peer forfeits the benefit of the doubt and your manager gets to see all the minutia and bullshit you have to deal with.
What this means, in practice, is redirecting all communications with this person to exactly one topic: “Is this helpful or necessary to the work we are trying to get out the door (& what specific piece of information would make it so),” plus setting things up so that you can keep doing your work without them as much as possible, plus making it crystal clear if there are consequences for giving into their “helpful” suggestions, as well as making sure that everything you’ve agreed upon is clearly documented, while also ignoring almost everything else. Fun! A sample email for getting this done:
“Hi Coworker, thanks for the notes about [project/draft] this morning.
I looked into your suggestion to do x, but [company policy][our manager][past project best practices][per our client’s request] shows that y is the best course of action. Is there a specific reason you’re suggesting x in this case? We can do it, but it means adding at least [estimate of time/dollars to the budget][or another unintended consequence].
Manager/Additional Team Members [whom you have definitely cc’d on this message], can you clarify? I’m going to move ahead with y to stay on track for the [date] deadline, so please weigh in by [tomorrow] if we need to revisit the plan. Thank you!”
To review: The goal is for you to seem friendly, reasonable, detail-oriented, constructive, proactive, diligent about raising legitimate questions, thoughtful about how best to apply resources to the problem, open to feedback from the team at large, and focused on the work at hand. You get there by actually BE-ing those things. Over time, this strategy will either defeat the annoying coworker with sheer competence – maybe some people at your company are not on top of their game, but not you! – or they will escalate things to the point of an embarrassing (for them) public meltdown and confrontation, at which time you will have a well-documented practice of being The Cool One, or you will have bought the time necessary to find a new job with fewer irritating people. Good luck wherever this leads!
Q6: I’ve been depressed a long time and finally am having a moment with good self esteem. I want something to remind me how I feel right now, for when I’m feeling depressed in the future. To remind me this will pass, and I’ll like myself again someday. Have you done anything like this? Or have a favorite way/s of saving moments of happiness? Words are good, but I’d like other tangible ways to remind me. (she/her/hers)
A6: How wonderful to know that you’re feeling better!
Things that come to mind:
- Get your portrait taken by a professional photographer. (Or friend who is very handy with a camera). Print it, frame it, and display it somewhere in your home. “The day I felt and looked awesome.”
- Are you a tattoo person? This seems like a good time and reason for a tattoo!
- Go somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, or sign up for a class for something you’ve always wanted to learn. “This is the year I learn to be a blacksmith!”
- Host something fun and relaxing for people close to you. A friend had the greatest theme for a dress-up party ever (that I am definitely going to steal someday): Tell your guests to wear something from their closet that they already own but never wear. Everyone will look AWESOME (I wore my wedding dress), nobody will spend money to look awesome, you can drink punch out of paper cups and eat crackers and have a fun night.
- Write a letter to yourself on nice paper, about how great you are and how good you feel today and how proud of yourself you are for all the work you did to get here. Address it and put a stamp on it, give it to a good friend with the instructions: “If you see me feeling down and depressed again, can you mail this to me?” Alternately/Additionally: Create a round robin of affirming letters with a group of friends.
- Be honest. Do you need kittens?
I’m sure readers will have excellent suggestions for affirming rituals, let the self-care fountain flow!
That’s all for today, comments are open, Part 2 will come later this weekend.