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I sit very close to a co-worker who, while doing her work, keeps saying things like "I am so dumb, I am so stupid, what a dummy I am." I'm at my own desk doing my own work, but I still overhear her saying these things out loud.

At first when I heard this, I would try to tell her that she's not dumb or stupid. But she doesn't listen to me and just proceeds to explain why what she did was a mistake. When she does this, I'm taken away from my own work. I don't perceive that what she is calling herself dumb about is ever anything that would warrant such a harsh word. I've tried to to tell her this, but she doesn't listen and just proceeds to put herself down again.

I realize now that there is no reasoning with her because she just wants to keep calling herself stupid over and over again. Meanwhile, I have just lost fifteen minutes of my own good time that I can't ever get back. She does this "I am dumb" routine at least two to three times per week. I see that there is no convincing her that she is not dumb, so I feel that I am just wasting my time.

The problem is she sits quite close to me and sometimes talks directly to me. How do I get her to stop pulling me into her "I am dumb" conversations so that I can put my own time to good use?

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    Invest in a good pair of headphones. Feb 26, 2023 at 6:15
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    That doesn't really work because I have to be alert to work related issues said to me by other co-workers. Feb 26, 2023 at 10:09
  • Wouldn't it be an option to just ignore her?
    – Philipp
    Feb 27, 2023 at 15:52

4 Answers 4

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If you don't want to get into the conversation, simply don't respond to her grumbles. It isn't your responsibility unless you want to make it your responsibility.

And even then, responding may not be the right answer. For some of us, that kind of thing is ritual mouth-noise upon discovering a mistake; we know we're competent, we're just venting the frustration. Trying to "help" just delays our going back to work. If you do want to engage, ask her flat-out if she's serious; if she says she isn't, leave it alone and let her work through the moment in her own way.

There are also some folks, alas, who do this sort of thing because it gets them attention. If you think that might be what's going on, ignoring it is better than responding to it.

Yes, we all know folks whose self-image needs support. Yes, we all want to help those folks. Yes, women and minorities often get beaten down and could use more advocates to help counter that. But sometimes that isn't what we're dealing with.

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  • Thank you for your response. I have been ignoring her, but oftentimes what she does is stop her work then starts addressing me directly with her scenario. So she's talking at me and we sit right next to each other that there is no mistaking who she is talking to. Feb 26, 2023 at 4:51
  • I also don't want to be her therapist. Feb 26, 2023 at 10:11
  • So take it as "oh wow, I just made a goof I want to.vent about", let her tell you the mistake, commiserate and offer suggestions if you have any, and go back to work. Which may be more useful than focusing on the emotional content. "I've done that" implies "no, you aren't an idiot" without getting into the emotional content.
    – keshlam
    Feb 26, 2023 at 14:20
  • That's the thing. I don't want to commiserate any more. It's never a stupid mistake in my opinion and I've just wasted 15 minutes. Feb 26, 2023 at 16:20
  • Then don't. Or spend two minutes on it rather than 15.
    – keshlam
    Feb 26, 2023 at 16:30
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Some people have psychological problems, and some of them you'll meet in the workplace. I suppose when you hear "I am so dumb, I am so stupid, what a dummy I am.", you disagree, and others disagree, and your employer disagrees because she would have long been fired if it was the truth.

There's not much that you can do not being a trained psychologist, and not being her psychologist. There are things that you can do. She has a false belief, and it gets stronger with re-iterating. And that you can stop to some degree.

Whenever she says this, you can just turn around and say "You keep saying you're stupid, but you are the only one around here who thinks you are". One level stronger: "You keep saying you're stupid, but do you think you would still have a job here if you were as stupid as you think you are?". Another level stronger: "You keep saying you're stupid. You're not, but it gets on my nerves when you repeat this. I don't want to hear it.". If you go to that level, you can interrupt her as soon as she starts saying something about being stupid.

And once she can't say this at least at work, things might actually get better for her.

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    There seems to be an assumption here that the co-worker who says to herself "I'm dumb" has the same internal response as you might have if you were to say to yourself that you were dumb. ... But it ain't necessarily so! I know several people who find that this kind of self-talk helps to focus the mind, increase vigilance in an error-prone task, and so on. Always a mistake to think that all minds are alike, and certainly an extraordinary assumption to think she needs a psychologist! Mar 1, 2023 at 6:57
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Your situation is difficult and understandable. We all have doubts about ourselves at times, but we shouldn't negatively criticize and insult ourselves. You can try approaching your coworker and telling her that these comments are taking up your time and hindering your work. You can express your support and tell her that you don't agree with her and that you think she is intelligent and competent. However, if she doesn't want to stop, you can't force her to change her behavior. In this case, you need to focus on your work and try to ignore these conversations. You can also ask for a change of workspace if it's possible. Remember that it's important to take care of your mental health and not allow the negative comments of others to affect you.

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You have asked her to stop putting herself down, but she carries on. Apparently, she doesn't know or care that this is doing damage to her.

I have stopped people from putting themselves down in the past, by pointing out that it has a negative effect on the people around her as well. Maybe this is a strategy you could employ.

Do you know, I don't like when people talk about you that way. It's insulting. You're a good coworker and we're better off for having you around. How anyone can think it's appropriate/okay/professional to call you dumb, is beyond me.

So this person might realize that her behaviour is affecting you in a negative way.

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