Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Crazymakers in the Office

As a psychotherapist who works part time as an administrative assistant, I’ve come to believe that many employees from CEO on down could have immensely happier workdays if someone taught them just a little bit about what most therapists call “personality disorders.” People with personality disorders have a life history of causing pain and misery to those around them while believing that they themselves are just fine. I call these people “crazymakers” because of the harmful effects they can have on the mental health of others.

What makes dealing with office crazymakers difficult is that most of us want to be good team players. When someone rubs us the wrong way, we assume that this is just because we have differences, and all we need to do is sit down and talk things out. Or we try to be extra nice to the person, telling ourselves that he or she is just having problems at home or under a lot of stress. With most people, these strategies work just fine. But not with crazymakers. The usual rules for building positive relationships will not work with them.

Living or working with a crazymaker is a recipe for depression if you don’t take steps to protect yourself. Crazymakers can be extremely charming until they don’t get what they want, when they may suddenly morph from dearest friend into blood-sucking vampire. This makes them difficult to recognize upon first acquaintance. Even after allowing their true natures to show, they may flip back into their sweetness act again and make you think you imagined all the horrible things they did to you during the vampire phase.

Here are some signs that you may be dealing with a crazymaker:

  1. You often leave a conversation feeling enraged, bewildered, terrified, weepy, or doubting your own sanity.
  2. You feel you have to “walk on eggshells” or the person will do something unpleasant.
  3. You find yourself doing things you know are wrong or changing plans at the last minute in order to give the person what he or she wants, then feel angry at yourself.
  4. You waste hours rehearsing speeches that you’re never able to make when the person is actually there.
  5. Others in your workplace talk about the person, whom they may refer to by such choice terms as jerk, schmuck, asshole, bastard, bitch, etc.. They may also argue about how to deal with him or her, one party favoring lenience and the other strictness. 

Crazymakers, like ice cream, come in different flavors, which you can read about in the “personality disorders” section of the DSM-IV. Some common ones in the office are narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, dependent, antisocial, histrionic (passive-aggressive or otherwise), avoidant, and paranoid. Whatever type of crazymaker you’re dealing with, it’s important to remember that the rules for dealing with normal people don’t apply to them.

It’s quite possible to deal with them effectively, but this requires a different set of rules. Here are some suggestions for dealing with crazymakers:

  1. Minimize contact with a crazymaker whenever possible. If you have to deal with the person, try to do so by phone or e-mail rather than face-to-face. Even dealing effectively with a crazymaker can be draining, and you need to save your energy for better things. If your boss is a crazymaker, you should be looking for another job: you deserve better!
  2. Remain calm at all times. Never let a crazymaker know that he or she has upset you. If you pretend, he or she will not be able to see through this. The keyword is “strength.”
  3. Be rigid. Flexibility is great when you’re dealing with normal people. Crazymakers just see it as a sign of weakness and do what they can to exploit it. Set limits and take action when they're violated. If you make a threat to a crazymaker, you must follow through with it. 
  4. Don’t try to “be yourself” with a crazymaker. Play act. If you have to flatter a narcissist or pretend to agree with a paranoid’s suspicions to come away unscathed, that’s okay. It’s even okay sometimes to lie to a crazymaker. We’re talking survival here.
  5. Don’t try to build a relationship with a crazymaker. You can’t have one. All you can have with a crazymaker is power struggles. Accept this, do what you can to build your power, and survive.
  6. Get support. This will not be hard to find, as a genuine crazymaker hurts lots of people who will love to compare notes with you. If the crazymaker is a coworker, you may need to talk with your boss about the person; if he or she is your boss, you may need to talk to the boss’s boss, though this can be dangerous.

Yes, I know you’re a kind, compassionate person who would much rather be nice to be people than masquerade as a Nazi prison guard, but this really is the only way of surviving daily contact with a crazymaker. What helps is to think about being kind to the next person the crazymaker might hurt if you don’t take care of yourself. Also, remember, that crazymakers tend to feel better when people stand up to them. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for another person is set limits.

Coming next: Dealing with E-mail Overload


  1. I laughed so hard when I was reading this!! I can literally see some of the people this applies to - in fact, I even know a few people at my husband's company that are crazymakers, and one I haven't even met.

    I can add a few things here... for #1, minimizing contact, sometimes it helps if you have another person with you - like if you're on your way to a meeting or the cafeteria...it shortens the time a bit.

    Oh, and here's a question - is a cubicle-jumper a crazymaker? You know the ones - they get their feelings hurt or somehow become outraged, and they spend the rest of the day jumping from cubicle to cubicle, telling the whole boring thing to people while demanding sympathy and vindication. Horrible time wasters, they are!

  2. Thanks, Mitzkity. I'm not sure if I'd say cubicle-jumping alone really qualifies someone for a crazymaker label. Depends on why they're doing it. Some people just have a lot more need for emotional stimulation than office life affords and don't know how to get this need met appropriately because they haven't even acknowledged that it exists. It would good to tactfully point this out to the person and suggest a few better alternatives, such as looking for a soulmate who enjoys sharing gripes more than you do, keeping in closer touch with intimates outside of work, talking to a counselor. Also, as a person who often feels emotionally understimulated at work, I find listening to music with headphones a lifesaver, as music is emotional and a great source of emotional connectedness. While it's appropriate to set firm boundaries with people who inflict unwanted confidences on you while you're trying to work, I think in this case, it's best to start by being empathic. Then, if that doesn't work, you may need to go into crazymaker mode and put your foot down. "I've tried to be nice, but . . . " Good luck!

  3. Hi Officebrainy,
    Here is a good one, my employer, meaning my boss ticks all the boxes described above by far. Not only he chosses to opress the people around him but also demands they stay at that level on cloud 9 at all times.
    Recently I send an e-mail to him basically asking for my late salary (4 months)I decided to include a superficial treat of going to their governing body and complain of my current situation if he did not comply with my request...I notice inmediately his response on line was totally out of control rather full of rage, heaps of miss spelt words, not making sence in his messeges and other clear grammar errors. He wanted to see me straight away, at that particular moment...in fact demanded to see me on the spot, which I calmly decline propossing a three day gap. Please Officebrainy is there any tips of how to go about in my meeting apart from those mentioned in your article, again, merci.
    Kind Regards

    1. For starters, given the fact that your boss is a bully and your employer owes you 4 months' salary, I think you should be looking for another job. I wouldn't worry about your boss's grammar -- he's your boss, and it's not your job to judge this -- but if he's abusive, you need to take care of yourself. What this means depends on your situation and how badly you need to keep this job -- it could be anything from choosing to put up with the bullying while you look for another job to going to higher ups in your organization and complaining to quitting, but be sure to think about the long term effects of whatever you decide to do. Unfortunately, bosses have the power to make your life miserable not only on the job, but when you're looking for another one.