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Ask Shari: How to Deal with Work Relationships?

Q1.) Hello Shari, I am hoping you could give me some advice on how to deal with my supervisor at work. I am a female, and my boss is also a female, and I am having a hard time dealing with her day-to-day moods. I pride myself on being as professional as I can in the workplace, especially as a young adult, however, my bosses constant mood swings make it very difficult to not react sometimes.

I do not know of any personal issues going on in her life, but every day I am on my tip-toes trying to determine whether she is in a good mood or bad. Some days she is completely happy with me and my work and others it is like nothing can please her, and it makes it very difficult to maintain a consistency in my work, because I do not know what she wants!

I know I am not the only one in the office that has noticed this about her, but I am the one that works most closely with her, and I am not sure what I can do to try to stabilize my work place. Any advice you may have on how to deal with a boss like this would be appreciated! Thank you!

A1.) Hi there Feeling Unstable, I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling so much in the workplace. I think people underestimate just how important a stable workplace can be (I know my co-workers do :)). After all, most of us spend at least 40 out of 168 hours at work every week, after subtracting sleep, hygiene and meals, work takes up about half our usable time.

The people in our work environment become the main players in our life naturally because of the amount of time we spend with them. We don’t choose these people like we choose friends, or love these people like we do family. The work community is one that forms out of necessity and circumstance, typically not the best way to start a relationship, yet the expectation to get along under serious stress is there regardless, sounds like a set up to me!

Excuse my rant, I think your question was triggering for me and I was responding to my own trauma from more than a few work environments. In all seriousness, I do have advice for you, and it is hopeful. There is an expression that I like (I’m sure I read it on Iliketoquote.com and not psychology literature) “we met for a reason, either you’re a blessing or a lesson”. I like this quote because it reminds me that we can really challenge ourselves to create the boundaries and personal practices necessary to get through any challenge, but… we don’t have to.

So often in my line of work, and my personal experiences, I have been faced with the challenge of clearly identifying a toxic person or environment. Once this is identified, it is really challenging to convince yourself, or someone else that anyone should want to remain in such a circumstance.

I hear you describing that not only are you emotionally affected by your boss, but your work performance may suffer as a result. I hear you describing that the uncertainty of your boss’ mood is causing you to be anxious and negatively affected. I am pretty certain this is a toxic person and your work environment is toxic as well. These are painful experiences that can really affect a person on so many levels, especially if it brings up personal trauma from your past. (I wonder if horrible bosses have any idea how often they trigger unresolved issues with our parents?) There are two schools of thought on this:

1. You are strong enough to separate yourself emotionally from your boss and continue to work for her. If you choose to do this, you will need to have a lot of support in place for yourself. I would not recommend doing this at this time if you are struggling in other areas of your personal life. It would study literature on how to be assertive in the work place and get your needs met. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive in any way. It is the idea of learning how to communicate your needs in a way that asserts that your needs are reasonable and appropriate, while demonstrating respect for your boss. A therapist or career coach can teach you about being assertive in the work place and sometimes fixing the issue is as easy as learning these lifelong skills.

2. You are not up for a challenge in your life right now, in other words, this really isn’t a good time to learn a hard lesson. There is a lot of research and support available on the topic of positive psychology and how important it is to be living a life that is consistent with your ethics and values (this is not from facebook, it is from the works of Martin Seligman, Lissa Rankin and many others). The brilliant folks that are working on this suggest that forcing yourself to stay in a toxic environment can lead to health and emotional breakdowns. I know a lot of us struggle with the idea of giving up, or quitting. I cannot stress enough that making the decision to stop doing something that is hurting you is not quitting! There are always career opportunities for folks who are eager and willing to work hard and be patient. There is nothing wrong with making the choice to move on from this job.

Regardless of what you decide to do, make a choice that demonstrates a commitment to yourself and your happiness. I know it can be easy to get swept away in a challenge or in pride, but do what is best for yourself. Good luck!


Q2.) Shari – I have been with my current girlfriend for just about 2 years now, but the past few weeks I think I have been slowly developing feelings for a coworker. This is uncharted waters for me as I have never been interested in a coworker before, and I have never had feelings for another person while dating someone else.

I am having a hard time deciding what to do here. I love my girlfriend, and I am not sure if these feelings for my coworker are strong enough to even attempt to explore. I obviously do not want to cheat on my girlfriend, emotionally or physically, but I also do not want to break up with her if nothing is going to happen with this coworker. Do I try to ignore these feelings? Do I bring it up to my girlfriend or coworker first? Please help, I don’t know what to do here! Thanks.

A2.) Hi Unchartered Waters, thanks for writing in for advice and for trying so hard to consider everyone’s feelings. I am not sure I can help you by telling you what to do, but I can try to help you look at the big picture and make a good choice. The name of the game here is “what can you live with?” How far can you go before you are cheating on your girlfriend, or cheating yourself?

You wrote above: “I obviously do not want to cheat on my girlfriend, emotionally or physically, but I also do not want to break up with her if nothing is going to happen with this coworker.” Maybe you should look at these pieces individually and not in relation to one another. You seem sure that you do not want to cheat on your girlfriend, but other than that you only want to stay with her if your feelings for your coworker don’t pan out? I am not sure if that is how you feel, but it seems that perhaps you should look at your feelings for your girlfriend independently from the girl you are interested in.

Change the question and get a different view of the situation, start with asking yourself if you could imagine your life without your girlfriend in it? Have you felt unhappy and unfulfilled in the relationship? Is this attraction to your coworker a distraction that you needed in your life because things were not going well? Or perhaps they were going too well and this is an attempt to sabotage? Regardless of new relationship opportunities, you will need to grieve for the relationship that is ending.

I would really recommend that you focus on your relationship separately so that you don’t miss the real issue. Often times we find ourselves in these seemingly random circumstances that are not random at all, but a very real symptom of a very real problem.

On the flip side, I would want you to focus on your coworker and how you really feel about her. I wonder why she is attractive. Is it her similarities to your Girlfriend or her differences? Perhaps she really appeals to you in a way you have never felt and this is an opportunity to explore a new life chapter. Perhaps this is an example of how people are naturally attracted to one another from time to time, especially in the work place. It is reasonable to say people who work together share a common interest, or at least circumstance, as well as spend a typical 8 hours a day together. I think it is easy to see how one could develop attractions out of comradery and sheer proximity.

Look at your issues separately to figure out what you can live with. If you can see that you love your GF and really can’t imagine day to day life without her by your side, than you need to be careful with your co-worker, or even change positions. This is a great test of your love and commitment to each other. If you decide you are excited and interested in your co-worker because she really appeals to you on a whole new level, than your answer is clear, a change is in order and there is no denying it. I think whatever you choose is fine as long as you are honest with yourself and the others involved. I would also recommend taking the time to work through these revelations and feelings, time is usually a good thing. Good luck!


Q3.) Howdy Shari! I am 55 years old and divorced. I am also dating a lovely woman, my age, who has also been divorced. We have been together for about 5 years now, and when we first got together “Diane” was very vocal about not wanting to get married again. Just coming out of my won divorce, I obviously could understand this, but now 5 years later, and many talks about our future together, I have been thinking more and more about wanting to propose and make things official.

I am not sure what my feelings are exactly, if it’s more my declaration of my love to her, or that I want to feel secure in knowing it is legitimate, but the past few months I can’t help but think how much I want to marry this woman! When the subject has been breached over the past several months, she seems to still be firm in her position, but I am wondering if the grand gesture/declaration would change her mind. What do you think? Am I setting myself up for failure?

A3.) Hi there Tying the Knot, congratulations on what sounds like a fantastic relationship with a wonderful woman☺ Thanks for writing in for advice and giving me a chance to help you manage your need to be official in a way that may work for both of you.

I hear that you are feeling like it is time to make some grand gesture or declaration to Diane, but I am a bit unclear about where the motivation behind it is coming from. If this is coming from a deep desire to tell her how much she means to you then I recommend you go for it, but start small and build on it. Tell her how you feel about her, how she makes you feel and how you hope to never lose her. Try not to illicit declarations or gestures from her, but focus on letting her know her worth from your perspective.

I suspect that if you set the culture of sharing your feelings for her, she may slowly begin to appreciate it and reciprocate. If however your need to make your relationship with Diane official stems from a place of insecurity or fear of losing Diane, I would not recommend moving forward with a declaration or proposal. There is no amount of marriage licenses that will make you feel secure in your relationship if you are not secure with your partner. Work on your needs before you bring her into the picture. Feeling insecure is a very common issue and I trust you have your reasons to feel that way.

If you truly want this women to be your wife and life partner forever, there is no rush. Whatever conclusion you come to, do it with her! If she is going to be your wife one day then you will need to work on letting her in on your feelings. Nothing wrong with the idea of telling her that lately you have been so happy you can’t help but think that you want this forever and you want her to be your wife. See how she responds, keep it light and being willing to live in the now. For right now, you have a wonderful women and a happy relationship, enjoy!