‘Half of My Co-Workers Hate Me!’

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Photo: Morgan Cowell/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I am really irritated and bothered and sad that some of my co-workers don’t like me. For what it’s worth, I’m in my mid-20s and in a mid-level role at a nonprofit.

I work on a team of six people and have struck up a good relationship with half of them, but the other half give me the cold shoulder while being friendly and warm to all my other team members. They go out to lunch with my teammates, ask about their weekends, spend time together, and often flat-out ignore me. Sometimes when I ask a question to the group, they don’t answer it. When I enter the room and say hello, they don’t say hi back. I ask them questions about their interests and projects, but they never ask about me or my life. Earlier this year, as a new team member, I invited everyone to hang out after work … and only one co-worker showed up. What really drove all this home for me is I got into a serious car accident recently, and half my team didn’t say anything at all to me about it. The other half showed me they valued my existence, asked me how I’m doing, and took an interest in my well-being. The team is dominated by the half that doesn’t like me. I feel like such an outcast. I want to rise above it and just focus on my work and the people who I do connect with, but I can’t seem to overcome that half my team doesn’t like talking to me or being around me. I can’t help but feel like they see that something is deeply wrong with me and I have no clue what it is. And it’s turning into anger toward them.

It’s like this puzzle I’m trying to get to the bottom of. I’m wondering what the heck it is about me that these people don’t like, and what the heck is wrong with them for not being open to getting to know me. I have a theory that I’m embarrassed about because I think it makes me sound arrogant, but I’ll share it with you. Here it is: On the surface, it looks like I’ve won the life lottery. I graduated from one of the top schools in the country, one that many people presume you must be wealthy to attend (I attended on full financial aid); I make great contributions at work that management recognizes often; and I’m in a loving, long-term relationship with someone who has a lucrative job at one of the top tech companies in the world, one that sets the bar for benefits, work culture, and compensation.

My theory: Just based on surface details, they think I have so much already, and they don’t want to give me any more. So when I point out improvements or share new ideas at work, or when I talk about experiences I’ve had, they just check out and completely disengage. Noticing this, I’ve started to really try not to mention anything that could show my privileges, of which I know I have many. I have started even being more quiet at work; even if I have something to contribute in the meeting, I keep it to myself. I have limited myself to one “smart” statement per meeting. I worry they will get annoyed that I am showing off or making them look bad if I really share all the areas I see for improvement and impact. I recognize I’m still relatively new to the organization, and the “you make us look bad” comment is something I’ve gotten in past jobs before. These days I don’t mention my previous work or academic experiences whatsoever even if they are relevant. I don’t offer any details about vacations or activities I do outside of work. I don’t like doing this anymore. I don’t like hiding myself to take care of other people’s feelings. Why can’t I stop shoving myself aside to try to make myself amenable to them?

What they don’t know is that I’m the first in my family to go to college, that I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where I am, that my parents struggle with money issues that break my heart, that I feel perplexed and anxious about being the only nonwhite person on my team and in most offices I’ve worked in, that I have deep insecurities and anxiety, and that I see a therapist regularly to address the remnants of severe childhood emotional abuse.

Also, I don’t even like the people in question. Their personalities really grate on me. I really, really want them to like me, even though I can’t stand them. Maybe they are cold to me because they can sense my disdain, even though I try my best to put on a professional, friendly face. Maybe they think I’m aloof and snobby because I’m smart and know what I stand for, yet I’m shy and introverted. I’ve gotten comments like that before from others, so it’s not out of the question. But amid all this, I wonder what’s up with my need to be liked by everyone and my anger and obsession when I find out when people don’t like me. I really want to just reclaim my time and own all the blessings and flaws about me, but I’m holding myself back in the hopes that the people who don’t like me will see the error in their ways. I know it’s impossible to be palatable to every person out there, so why do I keep trying so hard?

Need to Be Liked

Dear NTBL,

Here’s something I learned pretty recently: When you don’t like people that much but you want them to like you, it never works. You’re friendly and you try really hard, but not only can they tell that you’re ambivalent, they can also tell that you’re putting in an effort because you’re a high-strung overachiever who wants their approval, not because you really care about them.

That’s not exactly your fault, though. Even though you’ve started to focus more and more on their approval, that mostly happened after they started to openly disapprove of you. In the beginning, you were just casually friendly and not all attentive to them, just like anyone in a work situation would be. You weren’t looking to make lifelong friends, you just wanted to get along with these people so you could work together effectively. You were acting like a professional human being, in other words. But there can be a very particular and subversive pressure on women in the workplace to be more casually intimate than that. In many situations, we can’t just be professionally polite and friendly and also extremely detail-oriented and focused on the work at hand, because any sign that we have our own agenda and priorities and principles is taken as a sign of arrogance, selfishness, or self-involvement. Some work groups demand an all-in commitment: “Tell us everything. Recognize the self-proclaimed leaders of the group. Don’t talk too much. Listen raptly when others talk.” It’s like you have to totally surrender yourself to this strange, low-key, mega-basic code of behavior and also seem completely invested in it and also keep your own ego completely divorced from the picture so you don’t give anyone the impression that you want to be heard or need their approval.

It’s almost like giving a talk to a bunch of teenagers. Have you ever done that? Most of them look at you like they hate you. Some are asleep. A few want to please you, so they arrange their faces into a pleasant shape, but they also probably don’t like you that much. Is it important to know why the teenagers hate you? Not really, because this is how they look when pretty much every single adult alive speaks to them. It’s not personal.

Or maybe it is. Maybe your co-workers dislike you because you are seriously irritating. Sure, you could take a poll and try to get to the bottom of why you irritate people like that. But my hunch is that you need to just drop it completely. Because look, you’re a reasonably friendly person and you’re just doing your goddamn job.

It also sounds like some pretty complicated calisthenics are being asked of you in this situation without any respect for differences or for the fact that you’re the only nonwhite person there. And the second you can’t pull that off, you’re treated with open disapproval that is, quite frankly, incredibly unprofessional and juvenile. Believe me, this kind of behavior extends to other sorts of microcosms, too: You can either fit seamlessly and facelessly into the group, or you’re treated with disdain. This is just how insecure herd animals treat an outsider.

And let’s be honest: Your high-strung nature, your baggage, your achievements, your defenses, even your garrulous, confident nature — all of these things are often interpreted as a selfish inability to play nicely with others. That’s a reflection of our culture more than a reflection of anyone’s jealousy. Your complexity makes you untrustworthy. Your sharp mind makes you suspicious. Your separateness makes you unlikable. And even a supernatural effort to be friendlier, better, simpler, sweeter, quieter, and more agreeable will only make it worse. You will only seem fake. You will try too hard. They will delight in the luxury of rejecting you, over and over again.

It’s easy to imagine that these co-workers are envious of you. But I really don’t think that’s the case. I’m betting that even if you didn’t have the things that you have, these people still wouldn’t like you. Maybe they could sense from the start that you were incapable of subsuming your entire ego and agenda to theirs, the way some of the other team members have. They could smell a whiff of anger and conflict within you. It really doesn’t matter why they don’t like you, though. They were never going to like you. You don’t match them.

I understand why that’s maddening, and God knows I’ve been there. But the only thing to do now is accept it. Your efforts to rectify the situation only make it worse. As an overachiever who had to seize control of her life in order to wriggle free from a lot of neglect and abuse, you will believe that you can apply your overachiever can-do spirit to this situation and eventually MAKE THEM LIKE YOU, but it won’t work. Your fixation on the problem only fuels their disrespect.

That’s something that people like you and me have trouble accepting: “Here I am, putting in effort and being nice, and you’re just going to roll your eyes at me?” But that feels familiar, doesn’t it? It feels like your childhood, I bet. So much effort to be seen, to be approved of, to be loved. Somehow, you aren’t loved just for existing. You have to do a frenetic tap dance on the coffee table to be seen at all, let alone loved. That’s where overachievers come from. We are tap-dancing on coffee tables by the age of 4 and rising up in the world and annoying the shit out of people by the age of 24.

Just to be completely fair about this, those of us who grew up around a narcissist or have a history of being neglected (even if it’s benign neglect) sometimes have a little antisocial energy inside of us, too. Strength was modeled for us as a disconnected thing that depended on not giving a shit about what other people thought. And also, we had to not give a fuck about what our parents thought, because they had a tendency not to see us accurately or appreciate how hard we tried to win their love. That desire to please mixed with a secret FUCK YOU is actually a recipe for making other people dislike you.

My personal remedy for this confusion was this: I gave up. I had insecure delusions of grandeur as a kid and did whatever the hell I wanted. Then I tried to please everyone around me for a while, and that worked with the people who really matched me, but it didn’t work with people who were afraid of my complexity and my sharp edges. Because I was conflicted, they felt like I was hiding something or trying to manipulate them. So these days, I just let my sharp teeth show. I don’t hide my edge or my complexity. And in stressful situations, I focus on staying calm and remembering that I have nothing to prove to anyone.

You can tell yourself “I don’t care what they think” and “I have nothing to prove” and “I know who I am!,” but it doesn’t really work when you’re in a situation that makes your heart race. What does work, I think, is to notice when you’re starting to want to scamper around and win people over. That manic placating energy is a bad energy. It’s conflicted: half–goofy clown, half–tenacious predator. When I was younger, I could make you smile, but I also had vicious claws to rip your face off. I was self-deprecating, but I was still a raccoon: adorable and clumsy and also mean as a motherfucker.

Now when I notice I’m feeling wound up and compelled to please others, I remind myself to calm down and resist the urge to do something, say something, fix something, or even speak at all. I observe what’s happening around me. I slow down my words. I make my face go flat. I calm myself first, and then I slowly respond to anything that’s asked of me. I try to notice when nothing is really being asked of me. Sometimes you have to forcibly grab the control panel on your face and shift it from WHAT DO YOU NEED? to a calm, blasé “I am weighing everything, and I will speak when I’m good and ready.”

When you speak from a place of calm and say what you mean, you can thoughtfully articulate your beliefs. You don’t kiss ass, and you also don’t talk a lot of shit for no reason. Suddenly, you have room to be capable and even generous. You can lead from your capabilities and strengths and ideas without clouding them over with “What do you guys think?” and “Is this okay?” and “Am I messing up again?” You can take a strong stand and ask for what you want, because people sense that it’s coming from a place of belief and not a place of reactivity or compulsion.

This will make you more effective and less emotionally tortured in your private moments. But no one will like you more! They’ll just treat you with more respect — eventually! That’s it. But that’s all you need. You have to give up on being included or cared for. You have to get that from close friends you can trust instead.

And maybe that’s just how it is for some people, like you and me: We’re just not that good at these casual kinds of relationships. Maybe we’re bad at them because we’re essentially opposed to them, because they never feel safe or comfortable to us. And maybe we don’t trust groups in general because our early experiences with groups (family) were negative or at least emotionally inconsistent. And let’s be honest, it takes years and years to overcome the compulsion to obsess and hope that the people who don’t like you will see the error in their ways. Don’t beat yourself up for going back to that place in spite of your best intentions. This is your tenacious, problem-solving self. Try to channel that energy into something you love instead. Look, I just wrote 2,000 words about this problem, and I could write 2,000 more words if you asked me to! That makes me a fucking crazy person by most assessments! And when a very chill person asks me a question, I am often tempted to spew out thousands of words, too, all the while gesturing and shouting, “The mysteries of the universe are at my fingertips now, can’t you see that?!”

But no, a very chill person can’t see that. A huge sense of peace came into my life when I finally accepted that. It’s up to me to believe in my own powers. I have to remember how to access my strengths in a vacuum. I am compelled to solve puzzles. My compulsive, high-strung nature helps me to create, slice, dice, build, destroy, and laugh at the mess I’ve made. Only I can delight in that process. A lot of the time, I have to do it alone.

But as long as I work hard to connect with the people I trust and I believe in what I have to offer, I can be calm. I can tolerate disapproval and disdain. I can think before I speak. I can show up and say nothing. I can speak with authority and not worry too much about who feels alienated by an arrogant woman who thinks she knows things. I do know things, motherfucker. I can whisper this instead of screaming it. I can laugh instead of tearing my hair out. I can walk away instead of begging to be liked more.

And sometimes, in spite of my best efforts to stay detached, I care way too much about something, and it shows. That’s okay, too.

No one is that jealous of you, NTBL. But they probably should be. Because you have so much energy, so much emotion, so many wild, brilliant thoughts in your great big head, and you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You are focused, and you don’t mind working hard, and underneath all of this people-pleasing, you really don’t give a fuck. You are a raccoon with hearts bursting over your head, but your claws are ready to strike. They should be envious, and they should also be afraid. Forgive them for not caring that much. Forgive them for not knowing how formidable you are.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Half of My Co-Workers Hate Me!’