What We All Can Learn from John
In my Todd’s Thursday Thought last week, I wrote about toxic relationships at work. I discussed 3 tips to help you deal with toxic relationships in your work life including going opposite your reflex. When we go with our reflex, it is usually going to bring us the same bad results we have already had. It also does not do anything for our wellbeing or growth. Toxic relationships are unpleasant but they can be fertile ground for learning about ourselves and discovering internal resources that we didn’t know we had. Here is an example of a client I worked with that used the toxic work relationship to grow but the best part of the story is how he handled the toxic coworker.
John (not his real name) came to me because of his severe work situation. He used to love his job; it was a place he had worked at for many years. However, in the last year, a new person was hired and as he became more comfortable with himself in his new job, his critical and judgmental persona came out. He had a very dry sense of humor and the main target of the verbal attacks was my new client John. Here was our initial conversation:
John: I am here because I used to love my work, but now I hate it so much, I don’t even want to go to work. It is getting harder and harder to go to work in the morning.
Todd: What’s changed?
John proceeded to tell me about this relatively new hire and how in the last 6 months or so, it has been ‘hell’ at work.
Todd: Does he pick on everyone or just you?
John: He picks on everyone but BY FAR mostly me. There is no comparison between how much he puts me down and how much he puts everyone else down with that sarcastic sense of humor.
Todd: Why do YOU think he focuses his attacks on you?
John: Well, maybe it is because I wear my emotions on my sleeve and it is obvious that he gets to me.
Todd: Yes, and why do you think it gets to you so much?
John- Well maybe it is because I am too hard on myself; probably always have been.
Todd: I think you hit the nail on the head. We need to work on this inner critic inside of you so that you are freer to accept yourself and be gentle and kind to yourself.
We spent some time talking about where his pattern of being so tough on himself came from and we made a goal to work on this problem through a series of sessions. Then we had this dialogue.
Todd: In the meantime, do you want to get this guy off your back very, very quickly?
John: You could do that?
Todd: No, YOU could. First answer me this question- how frequently does he put you down one way or another?
John: Oh I would say about 16 times per day in an 8 hour workday.
Todd: So you are saying that on average he gives you a hard time every half hour.
John: That is about right!
Todd: OK- So tomorrow, when he comes to you and attacks you verbally, I would suggest that you say something like the following:
Thank you Bob (also, not his real name either) for that. What I have come to realize is that I am very hard on myself and I need to change that. When you put me down like you do, it brings all my personal self-criticism up to the surface and when it is up like that, it is easier for me to work on myself. I really want to be free of this inner critic! Look, I notice you come and give me your putdowns about every 30 minutes. But if you were to come every 15 minutes, I could get through this and reach my goal a lot faster. Would you do that for me?
John: Wow- that would be a different approach and yet it actually makes sense.
We role-played until he got more comfortable with the truth of that response.
The next week, he came in and of course I was curious how things turned out. He told me that the day after our session, Bob gave him his verbal attack at around 8:30 AM. John said the response as we practiced it. What was great was that he felt the inner truth about that; he was not pretending.; it resonated with him. The toxic situation actually COULD be used to help him overcome his harsh self-thinking. When John gave his response, he claims that Bob looked perplexed and confused and most definitely not happy. Bob came back at around 9 AM. John thanked him again with a smile on his face but reminded him that he was 15 minutes late. That was the last time Bob came around for the rest of the week as well as for as long as our sessions continued.
John got that “monkey off his back.” He enjoyed work again. He learned how to be kinder to himself and far less critical as the sessions went on. Bob was the catalyst that got him to the point where John could actually be a happier person.
I know there are times when the best thing to do is to leave or at least avoid a toxic situation. However, as in the case of John, sometimes with a shift in perspective and response, a toxic situation can be transformed into a wonderful growth experience. John was significantly freer from the tyrannical rule of his inner critic AND the toxic relationship disappeared from his life.
Let me know if this true clinical story resonates with you in any way and if it gives you some food for thought. Like John, it would be great if you went from being a victim to being empowered to positively change your feelings and life.