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Ask A Therapist: My Co-Worker Is Making Me Miserable. What Should I Do?

Photographed by Franey Miller.
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the cofounder of Harley Therapy Platform, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Question: I have a co-worker who is on pretty much the same level as me at my company and she makes my life miserable. She is always taking credit for my ideas, sucking up to the boss and finding ways to belittle me. I think it might be because she wants my position (which is more creative than hers) though I don’t know that for sure.
We have a small HR team but as she’s not done anything explicitly wrong I don’t want to file a complaint and escalate things. I don’t want to leave my job either – I’ve worked really hard for it and despite everything I know my work is valued. Plus, I haven’t seen any good alternatives. But I feel so beaten down. How can I manage this?
Moira, 26
I want to start by acknowledging how common this problem is and how disheartening it can be. It's a real challenge. Part of the difficulty is understanding that it is both normal and unacceptable, and therefore needing to be alert for signs of bullying and abuse. Is this mild banter that you could handle and you need to change your response to things? Or is this a serious issue where intervention might be required?
Working out the difference is very tricky. Sometimes you need to check in with a third person who can hear you out and try to establish a baseline. There are certain things that are extreme enough that we all think meet the criteria of harassment or abuse. On the other hand there are things most people think are pretty harmless and don’t qualify as abuse. But there are things probably in the middle which are more grey, and that’s where getting an independent person to check it through with you helps. You can talk it through with a friend or therapist and then if you think that it's more likely to be harassment than not, you might want to raise it with someone internally.
Depending on your work environment, you might feel there is no one there who can support you. But it is always worth a try: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the number of people who will take this seriously. In this day and age it's important for HR to take such concerns seriously, otherwise they could get into trouble, so there's a good reason for them to help even if they're not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.
Other than reporting to management, the other big thing you can impact is your internal response and how you react to belittling or inappropriate comments. For example, I’ve found through working with clients that the people who have developed a response that is lighthearted, even humorous, often get the best response. Your instinct may be combative, or using harsh language, but that can escalate a situation. Of course, not everyone is able to defend themselves with wit or wants to accommodate others’ behaviour in that way, but it’s an option.
There are other ways you can deal with people who are making you miserable, especially if you can’t avoid them. There is potential for internal work to be done: working out, for example, if this reminds you of the way your parents treated you, or things you experienced at school, and that’s why it provokes such a strong reaction. Then you can work on building up your internal resources and working on the distorted ways of thinking those experiences create.
So we might say to ourselves: This is never going to end, I can't tolerate this, it's too much for me. And the new response might be: This is awful but of course I can withstand it. Or: I'm intelligent enough to throw a comeback remark if I need to. That kind of internal talk is quite important because often we do the black and white thinking of assuming that because one person is picking on you, everyone is against you, or that work is completely intolerable. That said, that instinct sometimes is correct. If this is serious, it really does need dealing with by escalating to HR or your manager.
Another tricky thing is that people in positions of power do and can sometimes make decisions that affect our career. And so if you push back you might be penalised in some way. However, that shouldn't necessarily stop you from trying to look after yourself, even if it means short-term pain by way of more criticism, a demotion or, in the worst case, being fired. In the end, that is much better than having to stick around with someone whose behaviour you shouldn’t have to tolerate. Don’t be afraid to go with the punches.
Long term, I think you should look at your goals and values and act in congruence with them. There might be some people for whom climbing the career ladder is much more important than how they're treated, in which case they may want to tolerate it. But there are others who really are better off protecting themselves and not cowing to people for the sake of job promotion. And that can change over time! You need to check in with yourself though. Ultimately, it's about one's preferences and long-term aspirations.

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