Why Are Some Coworkers Annoying?

They might remind you of family.

Posted Mar 01, 2019

As a therapist, one of the things that is brought up often in therapy is difficulty dealing with annoying people at work. What do you do about that? My usual response is to ask if the annoying people remind them of someone in their family of origin. It’s been my consistent experience that we humans seem to recreate our family of origin in the workplace. And we respond accordingly. There are many ways of understanding difficult relationships at work but for now, I’m concentrating on this one.

It’s interesting to look at the people in your workplace and try to figure out who the characters from your family of origin might be in your coworkers. I suggest examining what it is about the annoying people that precipitates irritation and try to identify if it reminds you of some family member.  For example, the coworker who eats your lunch or constantly borrows your pen and never returns it might be reminiscent of your brother or the bossy coworker who corrects everything you say might be your mom or the grumpy manager might be your dad. It’s interesting to observe the people in your workplace through the lens of identifying them from the perspective of your family—the not-so-great members and the cool ones.

Somehow, the workplace seems to provide fertile ground to both trigger and exacerbate our childhood/family of origin unresolved past or current issues. You are there at your workplace to use your talents and skills to earn a living so what better arena to play out roles from family or childhood? What was it like to share with a sibling, how did you fare with competition, and did mom like you best?  For example, someone shy as a child with a critical parent might find themselves reticent to self -promote as an adult especially in the presence of a coworker who reminds you of the critical parent.  That shy child, now an adult, might recoil at a meeting when a not- so smart-coworker monopolizes the discussion the same way an older brother dominated them in childhood. Perhaps your overbearing supervisor reminds you of your father and just might trigger anger that is disproportionate to the situation at hand. So not only is your coworker annoying, you are doubly triggered by behavior reminiscent of someone annoying or difficult in your family.

The good news is that once you are able to identify the characters from your family who have shown up at your workplace, you are on your way to changing the intensity of your reaction. As you come to realize this added dimension to your irritation, you might just choose to work on solutions that help place some needed emotional distance between you and the triggering coworker. Just identifying the characters goes a long way in helping you understand why you react the way you do to that person.  It also sets the stage for having a more empathetic understanding of your own behavior and helps work toward tempering your reaction. 

When you identify that you are being triggered by something far more complicated than the irritation you are experiencing, you might develop perspective and the ability to distance a bit from the situation at hand. The fact that someone is triggering you based on unresolved issues with a member of your family of origin, you might begin to consider that part of the intensity of the irritation is not about them nor is it about you.