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Difficult Personalities at Work: Is it Me, or Them?

A black and white picture of a man screaming.

Do you wake up every work day feeling as if you're gearing up to go to battle?

If you find yourself suiting up in what feels like a protective layer of armor or struggling to stake out your territory, you're likely entrenched in a workplace relationship with a difficult personality.

More importantly, you're expending energy that should otherwise be spent being productive or, dare I say, enjoying your job?

But what are you supposed to do about that person? What if it seems as if you're the only one who sees it? Is it possible you're the problem?

Cue Edvard Munch’s portrait of The Scream! Help!

What’s going on?

We’ve all been there–scratching (or possibly banging) our heads, confounded as to how in the world we’ve gotten ourselves into a particularly aggravating situation.

Historically, your workplace relationships have been positive. You've gotten along with supervisors and colleagues alike. So what is it about this relationship that makes you question yourself?

To start, first do a self-reality check and ask yourself these few questions:

  • When you look around, does it seem as if you're the only one who is affected by this person or do you notice others suffering the same plight?
  • Is it the first time you've had to put on a protective facade in the workplace?
  • Have you ever doubted yourself so intensely before?
  • Is paranoia typically not your jam?

Generally, if you're someone who has previously had positive workplace relationships and experiences, then you're your best litmus test.

It's rare that all of a sudden you’ve somehow become the mitigating factor.

Determining whether it's you or them is the first step in managing this issue. Once you've teased out the etiology of the problem (and it's not you), then what?

What's the issue?

Difficult personalities take many forms. They can be competitive, undermining, and narcissistic, among other things. A recent Idealist Careers post highlighted what it's like dealing with passive aggressive behavior in the workplace and many of those strategies can be applied here.

But let’s look at some other conflictual character styles, as well.

  • The Competitor: this is the colleague or supervisor who always seems to make you feel as if you're not enough. Your daily struggle is to prove yourself be it your skill set, your expertise, or your sense of competence.
  • The Underminer: this person who oftentimes leaves you blinking your eyes in bewilderment or constantly looking over your shoulder. Somehow they manage to take credit for something you could have sworn belonged to you.
  • The Saboteur: is this person really out to get you (because it certainly feels like it) or are you just being paranoid? If confronted, they'll assure you it's the latter. But if you aren't prone to paranoia, then why now?

While slightly nuanced, they all share this characteristic: these folks are sneaky and constantly keep you on edge.

What they have in common

Understanding these three types of people is the first step in maintaining your sanity. Most of these behaviors stem from a sense of core insecurity.

  • Feeling inadequate: Whether it began in early childhood via parenting, or with peers as they grew up, these individuals developed a less-than-enough ego narrative.
  • They require constant approval: These poor souls are desperate for acceptance 24/7 and require constant props.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness: These individuals are sad. It’s likely they never learned the concept of self-love or acceptance. So they are desperate to find it through any means necessary.

Remember, the most toxic aspect of this entire situation is the voice of this person’s internal critic–it whispers to them every second of every day that everyone is better than them.

What to do

I’m sure the concept of making friends with your enemies is a familiar one. Understanding, empathy, and a little compassion can sometimes go a long way when trying to play on the same team (so can going to your boss or Human Resources, but give these few strategies a whirl first).

  • Visualize this person as a small child. What must it have been like to be berated by a parent they'd never please? Or, imagine them on the playground being tormented by alpha peers. Kind of sad, right? Start to treat this person as you would treat that small child. It’s fascinating what happens when you do this. I’ve done it repeatedly in my life–and there are times it will work! Give it a shot.
  • Imagine what it must feel like to be them. Trying on someone else’s shoes can often help you eek out the patience necessary to work around their problematic behavior. Spend a few minutes reflecting on what it’s like to feel like everyone around you is better than you (and–generally–out to get you because they are often paranoid, as well).
  • Attempt to learn more about them (gasp!). Sometimes lending our own social graces to others opens up a door this person has sealed shut. They’ve adapted antisocial behavior as a protective mechanism but if there’s nothing to protect themselves against, much of this negative behavior may become unnecessary for them.

The hardest part of implementing these strategies is that you are, once again, going above and beyond. You're not the problem so why should you do the work?

Because an ounce of prevention can be a pound of cure

Imagine if this little bit of extra effort on your part breaks down this other person’s barriers? No more looking over your shoulder, no more scratching your bewildered head; peace in the workplace!

I’m not guaranteeing that any of this will change the dynamic but I am suggesting that, in certain instances, it’s worth a shot.

An added plus is this: on your way up the professional ladder–perhaps when you begin managing others–these types of strategies will only serve to enhance the skills necessary for you to be an effective leader.

Tell us, and our other readers, about your experiences with difficult personalities. Try out these methods, and keep us posted on the comments board. You may be pleasantly surprised and the rest of us can learn from you!

Good luck!


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About the Author | Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions. Prior to this, she counseled patients and families at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Convinced the earth moved after reading Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has become a focal point of Jennifer’s practice.

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