I work in a hospital and we have a snobby co-worker who doesn’t actually accomplish anything and he complains about everything that is happening. If you ask him a question he will complain. If he starts a conversation it is always about his complaints. He says his lunch is too cold. The drivers on the road are all stupid. Our co-workers are stupid and his parents do not help him enough. He complains all day and then when someone asks him how he is he always tells them he’s having a good day. Can this be the truth? Can he be complaining so much and still be happy? Is this possible?
Sick of Negativity
You have my sympathies. When we are negative we all tend to be a drain on everyone around us. When these negative people are our co-workers, the workplace sometimes prevents us from limiting our access to them. That being the case, I’ll try to answer your question and provide some approaches that may help you, your co-workers, and the negative person.
Because our culture often defines ‘success’ as being rich and stylish and therefore happy, people will fake those things as much as possible. ‘Rich’ people can convey by buying cars and clothes they can’t afford, or by going on trips or living lifestyles they can’t afford, or by buying fake Fendi purses or Rolex watches etc. that at least appear to signal success.
We want that because we think success equals being happy when in actuality it makes us miserable. But since being happy is self-described, everyone will have stock ‘I am happy’ phrases they throw out whenever they need to convince others that their life is indeed going in an enviable direction, or that other’s directions are somehow lesser, or are otherwise deserving of his derision.
As unpleasant as it is, like most people, your co-worker friend is probably not even aware he’s lying when he says he’s happy. Like most of us, he’s likely said those things for so long that he now perceives those phrases as the actual answers to the question. In reality it’s merely psychological blindness that prevents him from seeing that his life does not seem to be in accord with his description of it.
So your co-worker is subconsciously lying to you and himself, all in an attempt to make his life look successful to you and to him. And he’s based his definition of ‘success’ largely on what his culture has actively taught us —meaning he’s trying to live a life as described by advertising.
Like that famous scene from the movie Fight Club, he pays big prices for the right stuff. Then he must display the emotions that match the successful-getting-of-the-stuff. That’s what they sell right? Buy this and be happy. Yet all the sacrifices required to be snobby mean the negativity leaks out where the happiness narrative is glued together.
All this being the case, and assuming you don’t want to leave your job, your best option is to see if you can either avoid him or assist him in achieving a healthier mental state. So since he wants to be seen as successful to you, you need to signal to him that you see past his camouflage.
You can’t do this directly or he’ll turtle and create a defensive story to explain his contradictory behaviour. The trick is, you have to change him not by wanting him to change, but by accepting him as he is and being honest with him.
If you try to change him he’ll know you’re offering help and that makes him appear weak and you strong, so he won’t move toward that. You have to offer him more strength or less weakness and then he’ll be motivated.
The next time you see a natural opportunity to do so, simply draw his attention to the facts. If someone says, “Hey how are you Dave?” and he says “great,” just pause and look confused. Because that’s the truth. You are confused. It’s why you wrote to me in the first place.
From there you can earnestly offer your own version of this truth: “You’re great?! That’s good news! I was concerned you were doing terrible.” Maybe the concern was more for you than him, but what counts is that you’re sincere about wanting to improve the situation.
When he asks why you would think so little of him (in whatever phrasing he uses), offer back: “Yeah, I heard you say you were okay, it’s just that I hadn’t heard you do anything but complain all day so it felt like your day must have been terrible.” And then just shrug it off and walk away and do whatever you have to do.
The fact that there’s no judgment in it turns your accusation into a description. You don’t think he should change, you’re agreeing with him. You are glad he is happy and that would be true. It’s his negativity that’s bothering you.
So you’re actually acknowledging that you accept his life is good because he’s said so. You’re trusting what he says. And that trust helps him feel safe, which is part of what allows any of us to consider real introspection.
In the end, ‘introspection’ is really just another word for ‘meditation. And that is all that Siddhartha did under the tree to become enlightened. So that introspection is part of your co-worker coming to better-understand his suffering —and that his camouflage of ‘success’ isn’t working.
Egos want to be seen as successful. But if we’re clever, sometimes we can trick an ego into doing spiritual work for us. So by noting —each time— the honest, strange contradiction between his moment-to-moment existence and his description of it after-the-fact, you draw his attention to the fact that his lie is threatened by his own negativity.
This will urge him to focus less on his descriptions and more on what you’re observing. This will lead him to be more conscious of his own thinking, which is good for both of you. He won’t want to complain as much because he’ll be concerned that others are interpreting that as him failing at life.
Of course, that’s not really your concern. You just want better days at work. But because thanks to you, he’ll recognize the fault in his though processes, he’ll start paying more attention to his words, which are nothing more than audible thinking. In fact, you might find that he gets genuinely positive for a time. By being more conscious of the negativity he shares, he won’t be as inclined to feel badly, which means he will actually get a bigger benefit than you will.
Of course there is a decent chance this won’t work, and something else will. But in a very high percentage of cases —due to the nature of ego— it’s very likely to. The only reason he’s lying in the first place is that he wants his life to be impressive to you.
That’s what egos do —they live to impress others, so don’t try to debate him out of his negativity. That’s engaging with it and that will only reinforce it. If he’s defensive he can’t hear you. So just move away from his negativity as much as possible and, in the most non-judgmental way, be honest with him.
That’ll be easier for you and it’ll actually potentially benefit him if he’s wise enough to listen. But you can’t hate him into health. The only way is to love him. He has to trust you, and you have to genuinely care enough to point him toward something better, but not care so much that you get caught up in his dramas.
Again, I’m sorry you have to face that every day at work, but negativity won’t make negativity go away. So modelling healthier behaviour and being more openly honest is your best route to where you want to get to. I wish you —and him— every good fortune.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.