Feeling Out of Place at Work and What to do About It

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFTWork and Social Anxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Feeling socially inhibited at work, that others are watching and judging you, and that everyone else is connected except for you is exhausting.

And we get stuck in a cycle:

  1. Go home after a long, awkward day feeling tired
  2. We overthink interactions and start getting worked up about the next day
  3. We then go to work the next day feeling unrested and experience more of the same
  4. And the cycle repeats.

The cycle beats us down and can lead us to constantly asking ourselves: “Is it ‘them’ or is it me?”

In our head, we switch between getting angry at “them”, to getting angry at ourselves.

Which leads to questions like: Do I stay or leave? If I stay, what should I change and how do I change it? If I leave and find another job, will I find myself in the same situation, feeling the same way?

These are important questions, but in this article I will focus on what actions we can take today, rather than trying to answer the question of should I stay or should I leave.

The reason being, whether we decide to stay or go, and even it is actually “them” that is the problem, there are things we can do now and there are things we can learn.

Waiting for Our Feeling to Change

When it comes to social interactions at work, it’s common for us to wait and avoid until we feel just right to put toward the effort or to take a risk in changing up the dynamic:

  • “Once I feel more confident and accepted by others I’ll invite a colleague to coffee”
  • “I’m not feeling connected enough to accept their invitations to happy hour. I’ll wait until I feel more connected.”

Sitting around waiting until we feel right won’t change anything. It actually digs us deeper into a hole.

At the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the idea that our Thoughts – Feelings – Behaviors all influence one another. They’re all interconnected.

For example, a thought, “I don’t belong here,” may make a person feel shy and awkward at work (Feeling), which then causes them to avoid interacting with colleagues (Behavior).

We can directly change our Thoughts and Behaviors. Feelings we cannot directly change.

For example, try telling someone to stop blushing. They’ll just blush more. Or trying telling someone to calm down when they’re angry. They’ll just get louder.

The only way to change our feelings is indirectly; by changing our thoughts and behaviors.

Waiting around until we feel right is backwards.

Instead of waiting for the right feeling, we must act despite the uncomfortable feelings. And instead of just believing our thoughts to be valid, we must become more aware of them and challenge them.

After that, the change in feelings will follow.

Next, I’ll explain more about thoughts.

Rumination and The Illusion of Problem Solving

Rumination is our mind repetitively thinking and analyzing something in the attempt to solve it. Imagine our mind as a cow chewing grass. Over and over and over. Never ending.

Our Brains Ruminating

Rumination is the illusion of problem solving. Our brains feel like their protecting us if they stay activated and trying to answer something.

If we pay attention though, we notice that it’s working on questions that can’t really be answered:

  • What were they laughing at during lunch break?
  • What did that email really mean?
  • Do they like me?

And if we pay a little more attention, we’ll notice our brain has already come up with its own answers:

  • They were laughing at me.
  • The email really meant, “You’re not doing your job right. Step it up.”
  • They hate you.

How can we tell the difference between problem solving and rumination?

Problem solving is thinking that has an end point with an actionable step to take. “I feel left out at work. I’m going to commit to making small talk with someone new everyday, even though it feels really uncomfortable.”

Rumination is circular and never ending. Rumination is busy work that leads nowhere. “I feel so awkward at work. I wonder if people think I’m a creep. I wonder if my boss regrets hiring me and is trying to find a way to get rid of me. I wonder if it’s that email I sent last week. I can see how it could have been misunderstood . . .”

And again, rumination is often in the form of questions. The answer to those questions are not directly addressed in our heads, but they covertly exist. And the covert answers drive our behavior in negative ways.

Thought Distortions

Our brains are powerful. But, they’re far from perfect. In fact, everyday, all day, we have thoughts that fall into what we call in psychology, Distorted Thinking.

Distorted thoughts are flawed and unrealistic. Some of us experience more of these thoughts than others. And some of us are more sensitive to these thoughts. That is, we put more value into them. We believe them.

Here are some common distortions:

Forecasting: “I’m going to go to work today and be left out again.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.

Mind Reading: “That was a sarcastic email meant to jab me.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking and we know their intentions. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.

Catastrophizing: “Nobody likes me here. I’m not going to be able to make good working relationships with others, I’ll get stuck here forever, and my life will be a never ending hell.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.

Personalization: “Jim didn’t even say ‘Hello’ to me this morning. He must think I’m a weirdo.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. Maybe Jim is just in a bad mood because of an argument with his wife last night.

Black and White Thinking: “I haven’t been able to establish deep working relationships yet. So, that means everyone hates me.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. It’s all good or all bad. Rarely life is all good or bad.

Should Statements: “I should already have friends at work by now.” Should statements are way of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up.

Negative Filter: “Nobody is friendly here” when just the other day a colleague stopped by our office and asked how our weekend was. Negative filter only allows our brain to see and hear negative information. It ignores and minimizes positive information.

Emotional Reasoning: “My heart is racing, I have butterflies in my stomach, I must be in danger.” Just because we feel there is a threat, doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Our emotions mislead us all the time. Especially anxiety. Anxiety is the master bluffer.

Dealing with Thoughts

The goal with our thoughts is to look at them rather than from them.

For example, take these two thoughts:

  1. “My colleagues think I’m a creep”
  2. “I’m having a thought that my colleague think I’m a creep”

#1 is hooked. It’s involved in the chaos and the emotions. #2 is just observing. You’re aware, not ignoring, but outside the chaos.

#1 is the pathway to rumination, intense negative emotions, and most likely avoidant behaviors (which is the fuel for anxiety; more on that below).

#2 gives us a choice. We can choose to engage with the thought if we want. We know where that will lead though. Or we can choose to just watch it pass like a stormy weather system.

Most of the time our thoughts are worthless and flawed. Acknowledging this fact can tempt us to make it a goal to rid of the thoughts, which in psychology we call, Thought Suppression.

Logically, it makes sense to get rid of unhelpful thoughts. But, Thought Suppression doesn’t work.

For example, close your eyes for 15 seconds while trying hard not to think about a pink elephant.

It’s impossible. It’s likely the pink elephant was there the entire time or the pink elephant was coming and going from your awareness.

To focus on stopping a thought, means you turn your focus more toward that thought. When we engage in Thought Suppression the thoughts become louder.

Instead of suppression, when we notice a Thought Distortion simply label it. We simply say, “I’m forecasting.” We stay away from judging it. We stay away from engaging with it. We simply acknowledge it, accept it, and watch it.

This takes practice and maintenance. And it’s never automatic. The more we practice the easier it becomes, but we must always make intention to do it.

Learn more about this process in the Self Help section.

I’ll now go into behaviors.

Avoidance

We are all naturally pulled toward seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort. The problem, however, is that avoidance just adds fuel to the fire. Especially when we feel socially on guard and anxious.

Avoidance is trading short-term comfort for long-term pain.

Examples of avoidant behavior:

  • Making excuses and turning down an invitation to happy hour
  • Calling in sick when you have a big presentation
  • Closing the office door so nobody hears you during a phone conversation
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Rushing through a presentation to get out of the spotlight as quick as possible
  • Avoiding the lunch room and eating lunch alone

All these behaviors bring temporary relief, however long-term, the behaviors act like an addictive drug. We need more avoidant behavior to get the same relief. It spreads quickly.

Anxiety urges us to act. But, almost always, it urges us to act in a way that will increase long-term pain by reinforcing the anxiety.

Anxiety lies to us: “Everyone will judge you, laugh at you, and you will completely lose it during the presentation. Don’t go.”

99% of the time, we need to do the very thing anxiety tells us not to do. “Don’t get on stage? Ok, I will get on stage.”

When we do this, short-term, our anxiety will spike high. Long-term, anxiety will get bored and stop sending us false alarms.

I encourage you to visit the Self-Help Section to learn more behind the science of the brain, and attitudes and behaviors that maintain anxiety.

Now I’ll introduce practical behavioral and thought experiments that can help improve our situation at work.

Behavioral and Thought Experiments

Interact more with the people you feel least connected with

What we resist, persists. And what we resist, often grows.

And it’s likely that we’re resisting the people we feel least connect with the most.

This is a great opportunity to grow.

The more you resist interacting with the people you feel least connected with, the more you will feel out of place. It’s a vicious, reinforcing cycle.

Forcing yourself to interact with others, will break this cycle.

The goal isn’t to make best friends (though if it happens great). The goal is simply to change things up and do the opposite of what the anxiety is telling us to do.

As we stop avoiding, and lean more into the discomfort, we may find the dynamic change and our anxiety to decrease over time. .

You Can’t Connect with Everyone

When we feel out of place, it’s common that we fall into All or Nothing Thinking.

It’s ALL good or it’s ALL bad.

It’s helpful to examine expectations.

Is there an expectation to connect with everyone? To click with everyone?

And if we don’t, we’re failing. We’re flawed. We don’t fit in here.

If so, the expectation is unrealistic. We need to be easier on ourselves.

Of course we hope that we click with everyone at work, but even that hope is unrealistic. It’s impossible to feel deeply connected with everyone. In fact, some interactions are going to be perpetually difficult. And there will be conflict. It’s inevitable.

Just because we don’t connect well with everyone, doesn’t mean we don’t belong here, and can’t eventually feel belonging.

Conclusion

It takes a lot of courage to lean into the discomfort and try to change your part at work. And it takes a lot of courage to not put all the blame on others.

It’s also important to be reminded of the strengths you are bringing to the table. If you struggle with a certain level of social anxiety, it means you’re very attuned to others. You care about what others are thinking. You’re empathetic. You’re thoughtful. And you’re likely aware of many smaller dynamics that others are completely oblivious to.

All of this is even more reason to find a way to participate more. To find your niche at work. The team needs your insight. They need the level of awareness and attunement that you have.

With a game plan, awareness, and courage, you can get the ball rolling in a new direction at work.

About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.