Whenever I start a new job, I get really excited. I mean, really excited. And nervous. Like a new puppy that hasn’t been fully housetrained (whoops), I want to explore all the interesting things about the new place, and I want people to like me. It’s a little overwhelming for everyone involved.
I’ll be the first to say it: I’m here to make friends. My favorite part about a job isn’t typically the work I do, but the people I get to work with. They make or break a work experience, and I’ve made lifelong friends from some of my former positions.
So when I don’t adjust to a new workplace, or if I find myself struggling to make friends, I take it pretty hard. I may not be the shyest person in the room, but I’ve had my share of jobs where I’ve eaten lunch alone, and it hurts. When the lonely life at work is the default, I’m not as motivated, and my productivity fades. That’s hard when you’re spending a third (or more) of your life at work, and a positive work environment is good for the company, too. And I can’t just up and leave — I’ve got student loans to pay off and I’m saving up for the future.
However, I’ve been working for a long time now, and I’ve learned a few things that have helped me overcome feeling completely isolated at work, adjust to the work culture, and find a greater balance — even when it takes longer than I’d like.
How to combat alienation in the workplace
1. Not everyone has to like you
Earth-shattering, I know. I have struggled with this idea for a long time. What do you mean, I can’t be best friends with everyone?
I’ve long envied people who don’t care about what other people think. I think that everyone cares what other people think, but there’s a real art to caring about what the right people think — and figuring out who those people are. I had to learn this lesson through therapy after working at a job in college for five months and still struggling with my co-workers. (I realize that not everyone can afford therapy, and I was very lucky that my university offered free counseling.)
My therapist said to me, “People may have valid reasons for not liking you. For example, I have a tendency to be blunt and tactless. But it’s made me who I am today and helped me in my career, and I’ve utilized that to help people and businesses grow.”
That was a game-changer.
See, whenever I read or heard those platitudes of “It’s okay if people don’t like me” or “Not everyone has to like you,” I always felt there was an underlying implication that I’m great, but everyone else is stupid for not liking me. For some reason, recognizing that people might find me annoying and overbearing — and that they might be right — was liberating. It didn’t mean I couldn’t change or try to improve myself, because there is always room to grow. But it allowed me to let other people be themselves while still recognizing that my personality trash was another man’s treasure.
2. Make one friend
Start small. What worked for me was finding one person who could be my advocate. Sometimes that person wasn’t even in my department. No matter — I knew that someone not only had my back but also genuinely enjoyed my presence and was fun to be around.
I developed a system for myself where, whenever I got into work, I would set down my stuff and go find a person who I knew liked me and talk to them. It helped wake me up, and it was fun bonding with someone for the morning and finding out what they got up to in their life outside of work. I had something to look forward to every day, and that made a huge difference in my work life.
3. Focus on the little wins, tolerate the losses
It’s easy to focus on the negative. It’s weirdly addictive, in fact. One minute you’re disgruntled by your standoffish co-worker, and the next you’re going over every person who has ever wronged you and plotting out a revenge more elaborate than the Count of Monte Cristo.
I’ve had moments at work where I’ve been really upset — but because I’m in public, I can’t cry. If I’m in a meeting, I’ll find an empty space in my notebook and write down three things that are going well at my job — for example, My boss likes me, this cool person I work with laughed at my joke, I’m going to eat fries at lunch and it’s going to be delicious.
I try to find little wins wherever I can, whether it’s in how productive I am that day or if I meet someone new.
Tolerating the losses can be a challenge. It’s definitely a muscle I’ve had to build, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it. What’s helped me best is a change in atmosphere, typically through taking walks. Sometimes I’ll just get up and walk around outside and talk to myself out loud so I can process my thoughts. Other times I’ll go and talk to someone in another department or on another team so I can see a friendly face.
If you’re in a situation where you can’t just take a quick break, like if you work in retail and you’re dealing with someone unpleasant right now, I’d save those experiences in your head to talk about with someone else later on — maybe when you’re home from work.
4. Hang in there
I’m not exactly known for my patience. It has worked with me and against me, but when I’m feeling frustrated or lonely, it definitely works against me. I recognize that not every moment can be filled with happiness, and so I have to implement one of the tips above, from talking to the one friend I have or to writing down what’s going right for me that day and what makes me happy to be alive. I remind myself that I’m going to be okay no matter what, even if things don’t turn out the way I want them to. And when the good days start to outnumber the bad, I know that I’ve made it through the tunnel.
Liesl Hammer is a writer and editor who likes to try new and scary things and writes about it on her blog, Everything Amateur.
Image via Unsplash