Ask About BPD
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Ask About BPD: Toxic Co-worker

Today’s Ask About BPD Question:

There is a guy who sits next to me for 8 hours a day and he brings my mood down to a massive low. He complains how he can’t cope at work anymore, it’s just constant bad news out his mouth. I’m really struggling to cope with it. He is also the most selfish man I’ve ever met. I need some advice on what to do? Nobody likes his attitude so it is noticed, but he leads me to self harm a lot.

I think most people can identify with a toxic co-worker, but when that person sits next to you and you have BPD it can be a recipe for disaster. I know this because it happened to me at my last job. I was in a toxic work environment with toxic people. It wasn’t until after I left could I see the damage it had done.

Toxic Work Environment

Toxic work environment are more common than we want to believe. There are competing egos, office drama, people (like the man sitting next to you) who split their situation and only see the negative aspects of the job. Most of these things can be navigated unless, at its core, your workplace is toxic.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Office drama? Do your superiors entertain drama? Do they cause it? Do they take sides?
  2. Low work morale? Everyone is miserable. No one comes in with smiles on their faces? The talk is always about wanting to find a new job?
  3. Poor communication between administration and staff? Do you feel like you are always being left out of the loop? Or maybe you feel as if false or half true information is being presented?
  4. Little to no recognition of achievements? You are often looked over for promotions or pay raises?
  5. Others receive credit for your work? Others blame you for what is wrong with their work?
  6. Office bully is looked up to as strong and assertive? No action is taken when (s)he abusive or inappropriate.
  7. Unrealistic work expectations including a lack of work/life balance? You are required to be working 24/7 and seen as incompetent if you ask for time away from work.
  8. You feel physically ill at work or experience physical symptoms of illness at work only?
  9. People are being forced fired or fired without explanation? This one happened to me. People would go missing from one day to the next and we never found out why because silence was company policy. This left us to postulate what had happened, and feel threatened and controlled.

If you answered yes to most of these questions then it may be time to evaluate your choice to be in that environment. Studies have shown that as long as we are in a toxic environment no measure of wellness therapy will overcome the stress.

As a sensitive person, one with BPD, what may seem like small stressors can overwhelm us. If your work environment itself is toxic there may be no other choice but to look for new employment. It will be the only way for you to get out of the patterns you have formed in regards to self-harm.

If your employer and their company is not toxic, maybe you can look for another position within the company or speak directly to your supervisor about being moved to a different location in the office. You do not need to go into great detail about why, but express that sitting next to your current workmate is holding you back from doing the best job you can.

I know it is not easy to walk away from a job, or you may have to wait until a new seating area opens, so we will look at some ways to place a barrier around yourself and these experiences.

  1. Don’t engage. I know it is easier said than done, but when you disengage he will learn not to come to you first with his issues. If you distance yourself from him, and his problems, he will soon disengage from you.
  2. Focus on work. Even if you are not busy act busy. Find something to do. Anything to show you are focused on the work at hand. Not his work, but yours.
  3. Listen to headphones/ear buds. Even having one earphone on and the other one off shows that you are focused on your environment, not any one else’s. Even if you can hear people talking, music will distract your mind and help you ignore other voices around you. If it is against your company’s policy to wear headphones/ear buds speak with your supervisor. Do not make a direct complaint about anyone, but focus on you and what you need to be successful at work.
  4. Create deterrents and distractions. If you are busy working on a big project, place a sign near you that asks for others not to disturb you. If your neighbor starts talking then excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Don’t be afraid to look rude. After a while he will get the hint that you want to be left alone.
  5. Change your seat placement. You may not be able to change your desk, or where you chair sits, but you can change the angle at which you face others. Turning your back, or even turning to your side, is a clear signal you are not in the mood to engage.
  6. Don’t take their moody and toxic behavior personally. This can be difficult with BPD because we often take everything personally or take on people’s emotions in an effort to be sympathetic to their situation. Reminding yourself that the problems and emotions you are facing are his, not yours, and how he feels and reacts is his problem, not yours, is the start of ending the cycle of self-harm.

I would love to say that these tips are enough to solve your problem, but they are not. There will be times you will need to communicate with him. Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate with a toxic co-worker

  1. Set firm time limits. Allow only enough time to discuss work issues then excuse yourself. If he continues to engage then politely walk away. I know that sounds difficult, or worse rude, but it is not. It is protecting your work time so you can complete your responsibilities.
  2. Use I statement. I statements are not about being polite, but about being clear about what you need. They use language that is directed at your feeling and do not attack the other person. Starting phrases with I think, I feel, I want, lets people know you are being assertive and straight forward.
  3. Circle talk. Circle talk is about refocusing and redirecting your conversation by restating the problem and bringing attention back to the matter at hand. If he tries to pull you off topic circle back to why you are having your conversation. If he starts to go on and on about the topic circle back by summarizing what he has said.
  4. Change the topic. Even if it comes to the point where it is almost laughable change the topic to something positive. He starts complaining, ask about the ball game or talk about what you had for dinner last night. If he goes back to negative talk, change the topic again. The goal with any of these exercise is to let him know you are unwilling to engage and if he keeps trying to engage you he will not succeed.
  5. Combat the negative. If he continuously talk about why he does not like his job talk about why you do like yours. In combating the negative make sure to use I statements. If he wishes to argue you can end things by saying you are of different opinions, but that overall you like your job and his experience is not reflective of how you feel.
  6. Don’t beat around the bush. I know in our culture it is tempting to stay quiet because we do not want to seem unsympathetic or rude, but if his negativity is effecting you to such a degree you have a right to say you do not like what is happening and that you do not want to be a part of negative behavior or talk.

These tips may be effective at work, but what happens when you go home and are left with the negative feelings? We need to learn distress tolerance. Distress tolerance is a focus of DBT where life skills are used to help us cope and survive during a crisis, and/or help us tolerate short term or long term situations that cause us pain or upset.


 Activities – Engaging in physical activities helps us feel better by diverting our attention away from distressing thoughts.  The goal is to choose something that will take hold of your attention and keep you absorbed in that activity.  Different things work for different people. Some people like to color in coloring books, play a musical instrument, or go to the gym. The activity can be anything you enjoy and leaves you feeling positive.

Contributing – The idea is to redirect self-destructive energy into healthy actions.  Getting involved with others and contributing to external causes can help us refocus our perspective on life and how to live it. Contributing in the form of volunteering allows us to meet new people and learn new things. Expanding our base of knowledge will expand our worldview which can help us learn how to understand and tolerate life’s differences.

Comparison- Remember a time when you have had a similar problem and compare them. Remember when you felt worse and how you were able to feel better. This is not meant to invalidate your pain, but to remind you that what you are experiencing is on a spectrum of distress.

Emotions – Remind yourself that all emotional states are temporary.  Intense pain, as well as intense joy, are not permanent.  We shift in and out of emotional states. Watching a movie or listening to music that is of the opposite emotion you are experiencing can help you accept that emotions can change and that is not good or bad, but a fact of life and how we live it.

 Pushing Away – Pushing away allows yourself time to accept and deal with emotions or thoughts. It is not meant to deny or invalidate your thoughts or emotions just accept that they need to be placed away from you so you can gain perspective. Once you have placed the problem far enough away, take your time evaluating it and bring it closer again in small portions that you can process.

Thoughts – If you are experiencing a negative mind then counteract that by filling your mind with only positive thoughts. Push out the negative and fill the space with songs, jokes, reading, or your dreams for the future.

Sensations- Consciously decide to engage in an pleasurable activity that utilizes your ability to physically feel. Take a hot bath/shower, hold ice cubes in your hands, smell your favorite perfume/cologne, use scented candles or oils. Whatever engages the physical senses in a constructive way will leave you feeling positive.

Dealing with a toxic co-worker is tough for anyone, but when you have BPD that toxicity can rot you to the core. If you cannot get away from the situation then learn how to build effective and assertive barriers around yourself. Work with a therapist to learn distress tolerance skills. If you are experiencing depression or psychosis, discuss medication options with your doctor. No matter which road you take make sure you are taking care of yourself first. You are what matters most.


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