Dear Therapist:

 I recently started a new job which I was very excited about. Things started well enough but there is another woman who has chosen to make my life miserable. I believe she feels threatened by me because we have a similar position (though I don't think her job is in jeopardy at all). She never misses a chance for a nasty comment be it to coworkers or even managers. I tried to have a discussion with her about it, but she totally pretended that she didn't know what I was talking about and that I was being overly sensitive. I am not a sensitive person; she is really truly being nasty. So this opportunity has become completely miserable for me. Going to a supervisor doesn't seem like the right move and I think would just make things worse. Can you please give me some advice on how to deal with her. I am close to quitting and trying to find something else. 



There are two problematic aspects to your situation. Firstly, to what degree is this coworker able to actually cause problems for you at work? Can she make it difficult for you to do your job properly? Can she turn your boss against you to the point that your job may be in jeopardy? Is she getting in the way of your relationships with other coworkers? If any of these is true, you need to identify the specific issues and address them to the best of your capability. This may include having discussions with other coworkers or managers.

The second problematic aspect is the degree to which this coworker’s actions are causing you emotional pain. It is never pleasant to be in a situation where someone is badmouthing you to others. The difference between a situation that can be well-tolerated and one that cannot lies in our emotional reactions. Whereas we have a limited ability to effect change in others’ actions, we have an almost unlimited ability to change our own actions and reactions. This is true for reactions that are verbal or physical as well as for those that are emotional.

It’s important to isolate in your mind these two aspects of your situation, and deal with each separately. Otherwise, it can be easy to become overwhelmed. This is partly due to emotionally focusing on too much at once. Also, however, when we do not clearly separate two distinct issues from one another, they can become emotionally intertwined. For example, you may feel like your job could be in jeopardy simply because you’re feeling hurt by your coworker’s actions. Even if you logically know that your fear doesn’t make sense, when the two aspects of your situation are enmeshed, one can affect the other in ways that are not necessarily logical.

Furthermore, using this example, being afraid of losing your job (even if this is not realistic) can easily cause your emotional reactions to your coworker’s tactics to become all the more hurtful. This vicious cycle may exist, in large part, simply due to trouble separating the issues from one another and dealing with them separately.

This brings us to the question of why you are so strongly affected by your coworker’s actions. Perhaps they affect you in a real way, and are causing logistical problems for you at work. Although this may be true, I don’t believe this is the reason that you directed your question to this column. You’re likely not turning to us for help in your workplace decisions. Furthermore, we don’t have enough information to allow us to come to any proper conclusions as to logistical decisions.

Your emotional response, however, is something that you can change. In addition to dealing with this as separate from job problems per se, you can try and understand the reasons that you are affected in the ways that you are. Perhaps your emotional response is perfectly normal. However, this doesn’t mean that it cannot be changed for the better.

Your coworker sounds similar to a schoolyard bully. She feels threatened or otherwise insecure, and therefore lashes out at someone who appears to feel threatened by her. Bullies typically will continue picking on a target who continues to react in a way that somehow makes them feel good about themselves.

If you were the target of childhood bullying, perhaps this in some way flashes you back to the feelings that you had as a child. Recognizing this and comparing childhood situations to the current one can help you to place things in perspective. Also, recognizing your coworker’s emotional needs, fears, and insecurities can help you to take the emotional onus off of you and place it on her.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200