Photo Credit: Yakobchuk – Stockxpert
It can be so hard to get work done when a depressed mind is guiding you into a maze of mirrors. At each moment you seem to see clearly, but what you see is only your own image staring right back at you. I remember an incident, from quite a few years ago, when I was managing a board meeting of a group I had set up and run for some time. In a months’ long depression, I had been isolating myself from the other staff and neglecting key issues that needed to be addressed. That didn’t keep me, though, from imagining that everything was fine. Toward the end of the afternoon session, I suddenly felt the tone of the meeting changing. I became convinced that my fellow staff members – we’d been friends for years as well as colleagues – were turning things against me. Each of the three of them went out of their way to insert one-liners about this or that problem, and each comment seemed a needle of accusation that took me by surprise.
After trying to brush those barbs aside – though they were unsettling me deeply, I brought up a sensitive financial issue. One of the board members at once proposed something that shocked me – that the next step in dealing with that problem should require a detailed board review at the next meeting. I felt that like a total repudiation – they were telling me I was incompetent and needed to be managed by them! I shot back something about that not being a board function, it was strictly a matter the staff had to deal with. At that point I could feel the silent hostility around the table and was convinced my friends had betrayed me by trying to stage a board takeover of my job. Inside, I was crumbling, near tears and deeply wounded. But I brought the meeting to a close and tried to maintain a friendly atmosphere.
At the end of that day, I was on fire with hurt and anger. How could I work in the same office with these people? They had just stabbed me in the back. I kept going over details of the meeting, reliving what I felt were my worst moments of shame, listening again to the biting words that had cut me so deeply. I told my wife what had happened, but that didn’t end it. I couldn’t sleep – I relived each moment again and again, each hostile stare, each silent judgment. The next day I was desperate about going to the office but finally decided I had to confront my colleagues and demand an explanation for the humiliation they had engineered. When I got there I tried to get them together in a meeting right away, but they had already scattered out of the office on different projects. Given our schedules, we couldn’t meet for another two days. Two days! It was a tortured time. I couldn’t concentrate on work, I couldn’t sleep, I was burning with a sense of betrayal and unsure what they would try next.
At last, we had our meeting, and my three friends walked in all smiles and in their usual joking mood. I could hardly get myself to refer to the disaster of that board meeting, but I managed to get the words out. I couldn’t believe what had happened, I told them, it was one of the worst things I’d ever been through. What was that all about?
Each of them was silent for a moment, thinking. And then, one after another, they said:
“I’m not sure what you mean – what exactly happened?”
“Yeah, I was just trying to think back through the meeting – nothing jumps out at me.”
“I thought it was pretty positive. It’s always good to hash things through with them.”
For the first time since that day I began to have doubts.
“You know,” I said, “when X tried to set up that board review…”
“Oh – that. Well, I did think he took that pretty hard.”
“He took it hard? What do you mean?”
“Well, you kind of slapped him down, and I think he got upset about that.”
“Upset?” I said weakly – and then I could see X again quite clearly when we had both been standing in a buffet line after the meeting. He was busying himself with his plate and uncomfortable about looking at me. I could see a pained look in his eyes. Of course, I thought now, he had been embarrassed, even hurt.
I couldn’t believe it – and yet suddenly the huge emotional charge of that meeting just evaporated. I replayed the key moments of that afternoon again in my mind, and I could see what had really been happening. There had been no conspiracy, no betrayal, no vicious attack. My days of torture had been nothing but my obsession, my self-focused imagining and projection. And my mind has done this over and over again.
A depressed mind at work can be a disruptive thing. A straightforward business meeting can become a poisoned experience. I can hear or see only harsh judgment and condemnation all around the table, a perverse affirmation of my own sense of failure. I can make every encounter a judgment on myself instead of the real interaction of a number of people, all with their own issues that preoccupy their minds and feelings. No, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s hard to trust my own thoughts to process the world as it might be out there – because my work world may no longer be out there. It may be inside my mind and little more than a projection of shame and self-hatred. I struggle to catch myself when my assumptions about what’s happening start turning impossibly dark. The number of good days is growing, but it doesn’t take many bad ones to turn me inside out.
And what are your mental traps at work? What do you do to get out of them?