No other way

I should have known I was due for a fall when I went into work this morning feeling delightful. Yesterday’s mood had completely lifted – helped no doubt by the promise of another sunny spring morning – and I was so glad to be alive I even felt like being nice to my colleague, P. Sadly, when I want to be nice to her, that’s the time when she won’t reciprocate, and I had to put up with half a day of cold looks and snide, brattish comments tactlessly aimed in my direction.

In our office there are cupboards that we keep locked as they contain sensitive folders, equipment and other stuff that wouldn’t do any good being left in the open; since we started P has kept the keys in her desk. Today she’d had enough of me going round to her desk to retrieve them every five minutes, so she bluntly brandished them at me and said “do you want to keep them instead?” I soon realised it was another one of those moments where I could say something to address her snotty behaviour, but instead I simply shrugged and suggested that I didn’t mind. Luckily our teammate A stepped in and suggested that we move the keys to another drawer in the room that’s currently unused, so I won’t have to put up with endless visits to my desk now.

Later the manager was telling the team about a big project that’s coming up for us soon; she had already mentioned it to me and A so we knew what was on the cards. P noticed that the information wasn’t new to us, and afterwards turned to the manager and pointedly said “did they already know about this?” Her tone implied great annoyance, as if we’d stepped on her toes somehow by knowing something in advance of her. It was another sign of her wanting all the work first; anything that I or anyone else gets to do is viewed as work stolen from her.

As I’ve said before, on their own these little incidents are very minor; they probably sound quite trivial, one might wonder why I bother recording them. For me it’s been six months of these things happening nearly every day – it’s not so much the events themselves, it’s the tone of voice that P always uses when she’s angry. It’s that passive aggressive combination of frowning and slumped shoulders that tells you you’ve done something to offend her. There’s no need to ask any more, it’s just obvious.

For the hundredth time I allowed it to drive me around the bend for an afternoon. Imagined confrontations and arguments went round and round my head for hours. I’m still a bit upset about it now! One of the most upsetting things is that it feels like there’s no way out of the situation. Another upsetting thing is how badly I want to retaliate. If I could just turn to her one day and say “What the hell is wrong with you?! Grow up, woman!”, oh, it would be divine. However, I know about keeping my side of the street clean – I’ve had ten years of AA to teach me that – and I know I’d instantly regret any reckless acts immediately afterwards. Damn, it seems so unfair.

Perhaps the most upsetting thing about it is the compulsive fretting over what other people in the office must think about it all. Part of me approaches this situation convinced that P will collude with others and turn the whole office against me. This type of fear arose frequently at school, when the bullies did turn people against me; I notice that it operates as an exacerbating factor here, because of how unjust it would be if she did that. So far I’ve seen no evidence to conclude that P’s animosity towards me has rubbed off on anyone else, but that hasn’t stopped the possibility from playing on my mind. What I have observed is that she has friends in the office, they don’t seem to notice or be bothered by this unfriendly side of her, so by my child’s logic the problem must be me, therefore the others can be turned against me.

One of those lightbulb moments came this evening after I’d left when I realised that there is a way out of the problem. As I was sinking into more despair on the train about the months or years that I still face as her colleague, a very small voice whispered in my ear: you could just say something to her. Well, what a novel idea. I wouldn’t have to have it out with her; it wouldn’t have to be the shouting match that I envisioned a few paragraphs above. I could wait for an opportunity, a ‘right moment’, gently approach her and ask if I’ve done anything to upset her. That’s the thing I so badly want to know, the thing that would help it all make sense. If I could know what it is that pisses her off so much then I could do something about it. She would either have to lie or tell the truth: either way it would change the game.

Finding that right moment and approaching her in the right way would be so tricky, it’s terrifying to imagine. If I imagine how other people would do it I see them walking up to her quite normally, smiling, saying something casual along the lines of: “Hey, I was just wondering, are we ok?” They’d just know what moment to pick, what to say, how to say it. If I try and imagine myself doing that, it’s almost laughable – I hear the words coming out of my mouth and I sound fake, forced, like someone’s made me do it. Somehow I’d have to do it and seem genuine, because now that the idea has occurred to me I know I have to do it. For better or worse, the responsibility has landed on me to clear the air because I can’t let this carry on forever, and she’s not going to do anything.

As terrifying as the prospect is, it also feels quite freeing the more I stick with it and picture exactly what I’ll say. It strikes me as the kind of thing a genuine, confident counsellor would do with a difficult client. “So, X, I’ve noticed you’ve been quite cold and distant recently. Tell me how you’re feeling.” That’s what good therapists do, they address challenging behaviours. We’ve learnt about this recently and the more I consider it, the more that I know my task in life is to address the things that bother me. Knowing that I’ve done it before and it’s paid off doesn’t quite make me feel better tonight. It makes me want to groan having to face this again, but there is no way around it.

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