I work in a hospital and we have a 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. Negative people are a drain on everyone around them and the workplace sometimes prevents us from limiting our access to them. 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 defines success as being rich and happy, people will fake both things as much as possible. Rich they can do 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 simply appear to signal success. And 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. But like most people he’s probably not even aware he’s lying. He’s said those things for so long that he now perceives those phrases as the actual answers to the question, when it’s merely psychological blindness that prevents him from seeing that his life is not at all in accord with his description of it.
So your co-worker is lying in an attempt to make his life look successful to you and he’s based his definition of success largely on what his culture has actively taught him—meaning he’s trying to live a life as described by advertising. He wants the right stuff and 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.
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. But 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 appear 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. And then offer your own version of this truth: “You’re great?! That’s good news! I had assumed you were doing terrible.” 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 I assumed your day was terrible.” And then just shrug it off and walk away and do whatever you have to do. This is likely to lead him toward introspection, which is another word for meditation and that is all that Siddhartha did under the tree.
Egos want to be seen as successful. But if you’re clever, sometimes you can trick an ego into doing spiritual work for you. So by noting—each time—the 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 not being believed. 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. He’ll start paying more attention to his words, which are nothing more than audible thinking. In fact, you might find that he gets overly positive for a time. But he won’t be so negative around you, and he will actually benefit from that even more than you will.
There is some chance this won’t work, but in a very high percentage of cases 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.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.