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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Co-Worker Is A Basket Case

On the struggle to set boundaries with a troubled colleague. (Bethany Legg/ Unsplash)
On the struggle to set boundaries with a troubled colleague. (Bethany Legg/ Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I have to work very closely with a colleague who needs a lot of emotional support. I sympathize with his problems, but I find it really toxic that my work life involves absorbing his angst when he feels the need to unload.

Also, he often cites his problems as the reason he can't do more or better work. My supervisors know, but do not intervene. I think it must be hard to understand if you’re not dealing with this day-to-day. When I try to set boundaries, he feels hurt and I feel unkind.

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What’s right here? Where is the line? And how best to proceed?

Thank you,
Needing to Be Less Needed By My Colleague

Dear Needing,

You seem like a really sympathetic soul. And that’s a good thing — in most contexts. But it’s also true that people who are troubled and needy tend to hone in on folks like you. I realize this may sound brutal. After all, your co-worker is clearly unhappy.

But here’s the thing: he’s your co-worker. Not your friend. Not your partner. Not your patient. He has no right to use you as his personal therapist, or to cite his emotional struggles as an excuse for doing sub-par work. More accurately, he has only the rights you grant him. So my advice is to stop granting him those rights.

I am not suggesting that you behave toward him in a cruel manner. But you have to be able to set boundaries without falling victim to his guilt trips, or having him barrel through your red lights.

I realize that’s easier said than done. But you have to start somewhere. So the next time he starts talking with you about his problems, you need to be able to say something like, “That sounds really tough and I can hear that you’re in pain. But we really have to get this project done.” If he’s taken aback, so be it. If he accuses you of being insensitive, so be it. You have to be able to break this pattern of acquiescence.

Otherwise, he’s going to continue to take advantage of your patience. He’s going to continue to make you absorb his anguish, and work double time to cover for his shoddy and incomplete efforts. He’s going to continue to suck your energy.

I realize this is a tough response, but there’s really no way to detach an energy sucker without being blunt.

As the child of two therapists, and a veteran of therapy myself, I am all for people getting the support they need when they’re struggling. But they need this help precisely because it’s inappropriate for them to dump their problems on colleagues. Not only that, it’s ineffective.

So think about it that way: if this guy is really troubled, he needs to find his way to professional help. It may be that politely extricating yourself from your unwanted role as his ad hoc therapist will lead him to seek such treatment. But regardless of that, it will allow you to focus your time and energy on your work, which is what your employer is paying you for.

As for your supervisors, it sounds like they may not realize the extent to which your colleague’s emotional struggles have impaired your own work. Or perhaps they’re passing the buck here, as well. So why not simply tell them the truth about how toxic the dynamic has become? Does that feel like a betrayal of your co-worker? Like you’d be ratting him out? If so, well then, that’s all the more reason for you to level with him yourself.

Defending your own right to work shouldn’t feel like a betrayal. On the contrary, what your co-worker is doing is taking his problems (both psychological and professional) and dumping them onto you.

I realize this is a tough response, but there’s really no way to detach an energy sucker without being blunt. We all want to see ourselves as kind, but a co-worker like this preys on this very virtue. Meanwhile, they often behave in manners that are utterly self-absorbed and inconsiderate. Golden rule? What golden rule?

So yes, the fact that your co-worker is suffering means that he needs help. But that fact has nothing to do with the work you two have to accomplish together. Until he is made to understand that, you’re going to continue to suffer on his behalf.

Good luck,
Steve

Author's note:  Maybe I’ve just had to suffer one too many energy suckers, but I don’t have a lot of patience for them. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Send your thoughts along in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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