ask polly

‘No One at Work Respects Me!’

Photo: michel Setboun/Getty Images

Dear Polly, 

I know how it sounds but, seriously … everyone is mean to me.

Well, okay, not everyone. I happen to be in a great relationship, have a handful of amazing friends, and a pretty vast friend group. I love to make people laugh and I get most people to open up and feel comfortable within the first ten minutes of meeting me. Overall, I am well liked, but … it’s not lost on me that these qualities also make me a target for assholes who take it too far.

Without a doubt, the part of my life that has been most negatively affected by this “gift” has always been work. Sure, I’ve had my share of bad apples in other aspects of life: friends who take their shitty moods out on me, boyfriends’ friends who try to be funny and fail, etc. But I feel like, by now, I’ve been able to cut most of these people out of my life. I can’t cut out a colleague.

For better or for worse, I’ve always been very career-focused, but I’ve had a mix of experiences ranging from fully mentally abusive work environments to just annoying behaviors. I recently started a new job at a very intense company where people are rewarded for being combative and abrasive. It’s been an extremely intimidating experience to go into, so I’ve reverted back to the clown — I make people laugh, I’m super positive, and I try to get everyone to like me, even if it kills me. The outcome has been … mixed. I know I’m not “disliked,” but I’m definitely not respected. People make off-color jokes about me constantly. I’m usually picked on in really immature ways. (It doesn’t help that I work with a bunch of people with ZERO SENSE OF HUMOR, IT’S ACTUALLY INSANE.) I do a lot of fake laughing at my own expense. It sucks.

I’m in my mid-30s, and it just feels like I’m way too old to still be treated this way. But I don’t know how to be any other way. Do I have to change my personality to be successful, or have I just had really bad luck?

Tired of Fake Laughing

Dear TOFL,

People pleasers have a lot of tools (and whistles and horns and tiny bicycles) in their toolboxes (and in their gigantic bags of toys and pranks and pyrotechnics). When we’re thrown into bewildering situations, we dig frantically through our big bags of tricks (and wrenches and ballerina costumes and cocktail shakers) to find something to charm people and win them over.

Unfortunately, people with extremely rigid boundaries operating in a combative environment tend to encounter such efforts as desperate and pathetic. They exert a huge amount of energy to keep their walls up, so those who don’t make the same effort seem sloppy or lazy to them.

But you can’t assume that this kind of judgment and rigidity is happening all around you. Because some people have simply mastered the subtle terrain of their current habitat, they know how to confront others directly and calmly without crossing any lines, and they also know how to feel and show empathy in a professional setting.

Start paying attention to these differences. With insecure, inflexible co-workers, every confrontation feels heated and unsettling. Their defenses are trigger-happy in accordance with their self-doubt, and when they’re cornered, they go for the jugular in a wild and disordered way. These are the people who view your effusive attempts to please others as weak. The others are just observing without much judgement.

There are trustworthy people in your office, I guarantee it. But you have to stop blowing air horns and setting off fireworks and dancing on tabletops in order to recognize who they are. You have to calm down and watch and listen. You have to expunge the word “mean” from your mind and start picturing a much more complicated dance of matching anxiety and defensiveness and shame.

I could take you down a slow, gentle path toward respecting and trusting yourself and embracing all of your moods, which would help you become more authentic in the company of others. But right now you need a short cut: Shift your energy from FIXING to OBSERVING. Every time you find yourself trying to alleviate the bad energy in any room or in any person, I want you to focus instead on being quiet and present and calmly observing who that person really is and what they want.

Keep your eyes and your heart open when you do this. When you see someone you think is very combative and merciless, watch how they operate. Is there malice there? Is there some gentleness behind those firm boundaries? One of the challenges of being a lifelong people pleaser is that we often mistake confidence and boundaries for rejection. We experience simple answers and silence and people who are good at holding their ground (“No thanks.” “That’s all I have to say.” “I prefer not to go into it.”) as brutal. Even when they’re not addressing us, we encounter their calm self-assurance as a rebuke of our open-hearted, flaming-sword-juggling enthusiasm.

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that some of these people with firm boundaries also have giant hearts. This has been one of the most rewarding discoveries I’ve made over the past few years. High-functioning people who wouldn’t have appealed to me at all before — and also wild artist types, and also incredibly confident, scarily serene people — are blossoming before my eyes, because I don’t experience them through the fog of my own shame anymore.

Someone asked me recently, “Why didn’t you start writing for TV a long time ago? You’re funny and you live in L.A, it seems like a natural fit.” Instead of explaining myself through a fog of shame, on a giant wave of neurotic words, I just felt this flood of empathy for myself. I remembered how impossible it felt for me, for more than a decade, to walk out the front door and proclaim myself worthy. I was a professional writer and I socialized a lot, but I couldn’t assert myself professionally or take big risks or say out loud that OF COURSE I was capable of writing truly funny shit and coming up with a million and one ideas and having fun making crazy, entertaining madness out of thin air.

And in that moment, I also looked at how this confident person had asked me the question so simply, like “Hmm, why haven’t you done this? It seems so easy,” and I thought, “Here’s someone healthy who never questioned his right to proclaim what he wants, out loud, in public. From a young age, he could go anywhere and do anything he wanted.”

I felt envious. But I didn’t feel angry at him. That’s the difference between who I was before and who I am now. In that moment, I didn’t hate myself or lament my past. Reality felt bright and informative, not threatening. I felt curious: What’s it like to grow up feeling good and secure about your abilities and your place in the world? What’s it like to be able to sit still and, when someone asks you a question you don’t feel like answering, you just say, “I’d rather not say”? (LIKE YOU HAVE A CHOICE!!!) What’s it like not to treat every single interaction like it holds some special verdict on your worth as a human being?

My self-knowledge and my curiosity make me smarter and happier than I’ve ever been before. I’m open to new information, and I process it quickly — and I LOVE IT. I FUCKING DANCE WITH IT AND ENJOY IT. This is the polar opposite of living in fear, of seeing the world through the lens of your shame, of anticipating rejection, of preemptively doing battle with the rejection you know is coming, no matter what you do. This is the polar opposite of believing that everyone is mean to you, and your choices are to either placate them or dodge their knives or cut them out of your life forever.

Living inside your curiosity is the exact opposite of working hard to please people and proactively answering their imagined complaints and preemptively cutting off their (Aggressive! Mean! Rejecting!) inquiries about you with jokes or flaming arrows or trapeze acts or dancing bears shot out of cannons. Just five years ago, the question, “Why didn’t you do that a long time ago?” would’ve sent me into a deep, dark hole for at least a day or two. And I might’ve eventually decided that the person who asked the question was a fucking dick for asking.

In fact, I remember a very smart, older TV writer asking me, a decade ago, if I would always be a TV critic. And instead of answering honestly, I got defensive and decided he sucked. He was a really brilliant, fascinating guy, and I’d probably still be friends with him if I weren’t so clouded by my own shame and insecurity back then.

But that doesn’t mean that every single thing I did in the past was a stupid mistake. Today, I look at my reasons for living a hermetic life and it all adds up. If I had taken my wild clown show out on the road when I was very young, I wouldn’t have landed where I am today. My hermit ways might’ve been fearful and insecure, but I followed my instincts and I worked very hard to build a career and reinvent it repeatedly to suit my changing needs and desires. I also worked very hard to grow into a flexible human who could leave the fucking house once in a while without flipping out about what a loser I was. And I don’t think I’d be this inventive or this much of a freak (this is a good word in my personal lexicon and worldview) if I’d tried to figure my shit out in the real world, in a high pressure, combative setting like the one you work in right now.

I mention all of this because you do have to look at the big picture and ask yourself if this competitive environment suits you. You need to understand what your values are, too. I’ve always valued creating interesting, odd things over everything else in the world — money, status, security, structure. You have to know what you value in order to make robust decisions about how you want to live.

But before you make any sweeping changes, OBSERVE. Cultivate your curiosity and your compassion for the people around you. Take careful internal notes on who seems attuned to the needs of others, and who seems defensive, threatened, and perpetually locked in a fighting or “fixing” stance. Notice who leaps in with unnecessary words, repeatedly. Pay attention to whether or not the people who loudly proclaim their own power ARE actually powerful. Question your assumptions. Refuse to turn one bad co-worker into a disapproving mob inside your mind. This habitat might be brutal, but all of its inhabitants are not.

This shift toward observation serves many purposes at once: It forces you to abandon your giant bag of tricks for a change. It shuts you up. It powers down the motor that generates your fake laughter. It calms you down. It teaches you things about your environment that you can’t learn while you’re hula dancing and passing out candy and setting your hair on fire. It makes you appear more self-possessed, which will immediately (yes, I do mean immediately) generate more respect from your peers. And it feeds your curiosity.

When you feel curious, you feel more alive and happier. It’s a feeling, though, not a thought. You can’t force yourself to be curious. You have to slow down and feel your way there.

When you’re curious, people don’t seem as mean to you. You can see how your shame translates every interaction into a rejection of who you are. People pleasers are very attuned to what other people think of them, so you’re probably right that people don’t like the compulsive jokes and the fake laughter. But that’s not the same thing as disliking you (as you point out in your letter). The second you shift your energy toward observing and stop keeping tabs on some imaginary running verdict on your value, you’ll feel better.

Brace yourself, because your perspective on your workplace is about to shift so dramatically that it’ll give you vertigo. That’s the power of curiosity and trusting yourself. Try to stay grounded in reality. Try to patiently process the rejections that still feel very real to you without drawing sweeping conclusions from them.

Apply this shift to the rest of your life while you’re at it. You say you’ve cut bad people out of your life, and that’s good. But try to open your mind and notice how often you experience confidence and swagger as a kind of rejection in your personal life, too. Make sure that you haven’t chosen people who make themselves small and who’ll only feel comfortable and good around other people who stay small, too. Experiment with getting to know people who are very big but not toxic or pushy or unfair.

That doesn’t mean you should force yourself into relationships that feel uneasy or unsafe. Some of my confidence today is the product of trusting those times when I needed to feel protected and a little bit hidden from the world. And to be clear, my former self wouldn’t necessarily like my current self all that much. In the past, I didn’t always love people who revealed themselves to others. An open person was usually unwell or needy in my mind, and a closed person with firm boundaries was usually a fucking asshole. I saw everyone through the fog of how someone’s personality made me feel. I could never just take them on their own terms.

You’re still going to feel jittery and shitty and full of fake laughter sometimes. Forgive yourself for that. Maybe your office really is packed full of rat bastards. I’m not necessarily saying that’s not the case. I just think you’re going to experience a sea change once you slow down a little. One thing I like to say to myself when I’m a tiny bit unnerved is: DO LESS. I still get weird after prolonged exposure to a new friend who truly has their shit together and doesn’t make apologies for who they are. This sounds so absurd, but sometimes it erodes my confidence a little. I’m more comfortable with a lot of self-abnegation and apologizing and backtracking, because that’s the culture I grew up in and embraced for years.

Above all, trust yourself and forgive yourself for being you, every goddamn day. It helps. The person you are, with all of your fucked-up, stupid flaws and your fake laughter and your constant fear of rejection, is a person who has the kind of enormous motor that can send a rocketship to the moon. See how goddamn strong and loud and crazy-hot my motor is? I can send shit to Pluto, motherfuckers. That’s some hard-won engineering right there.

Every single time you feel like you have to work really fucking hard at stuff that comes easy for other people, I want you to remind yourself that you’re building a next-generation motor that can rocket you at faster-than-light speed to another galaxy. Your strengths and weaknesses combine to make you a masterful engineer. You really have to embrace the big picture of who you are, for better and for worse, in order to understand what you’re capable of.

Being a broken-ass clown with a giant fucked-up bag of tricks who’s not afraid to look closely at herself is a very, very good way to grow into a goddamn genius. I’m not apologizing for that statement, because I see it in action all the time. Damaged freaks with a lot of empathy and way too much madness rattling around inside their skulls are some of the most brilliant people you will ever meet.

So ask yourself what your destiny is. Expand your dreams to fit the vast scale of your imagination. Stop worrying about the angry little squirrels on this planet, and start building yourself a rocketship to another galaxy instead.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘No One at Work Respects Me!’