Compliments That Sting and My Short-Sold Self

I had what felt like a funny, appreciative moment at work today. One of my coworkers was introducing a new engineer we’ve hired to everyone, making the rounds of the folks who were present at the time. When he got to me, he introduced me and said (quote edited to use my correct pronouns since I’m not out at work and I’m not going to use the wrong ones on my own dang blog, even in a quote) “I don’t know what [they] do, but [they’re] great in conversation.” I laughed, the new engineer laughed, my coworker laughed, and I shook the new person’s hand before explaining that I’m a tester AND that I have an extensive collection of anecdotes about what you can prepare in a waffle iron. After a bit more small talk, my coworker moved on and I returned to my lunch.

As I ate, I told a few friends about it, using the description as the joke it was and adding that I had never felt more appreciated at work than in that moment. That last bit was part of the framing this whole experience as a joke, but it was also mostly true. This coworker is polite, nice, and great at his job, but he’s also fairly quiet and doesn’t really talk about people that much. I have also never been on a single project with him since we primarily work on different products. That’s changing these days, as my side of things is dying down (from a project cycle perspective only) and his side of things is expanding, so that won’t be true for much longer (it probably won’t even be true when this post goes up since there’s a project I’m going to be on that will probably be delivered to me in the next couple days). Still, most of our interactions happen in meetings and my coworker’s praise is so rare than even this mild, joking praise feels validating.

As one of my friends pointed out, though, and as I confirmed by thinking about it for a few minutes longer, that’s not really a good thing. I work hard and I know my boss appreciates it. I do not feel a lack of validation or appreciation from my manager or most of my coworkers. I don’t feel like my efforts are as appreciated as they ought to be, thus some of the friction and displeasure I associate with my job, but largely my issues at work stem from unresolved interpersonal issues, lack of diverse thinking, few opportunities for growth, and feeling like the work I do largely doesn’t matter (specifically in the “anyone could do this stuff but we’ve got you doing it right now” kind of way). What actually feels the most upsetting about the comment was the “I don’t know what [they] do here” part since I’ve very publicly done a lot of things.

The thing I’m proudest of was taking a horrendous official document about the way projects have to be done (for legal reasons) and turning the entire thing into a single-page, thirteen-step process that anyone could easily read and understand (without losing either the spirit or the letter of the original document, of course). There was also a longer version including an appendix that went into greater detail, but that also included a way for my coworkers to tell which parts they needed to know about for their jobs. I spent a year creating this, refining it, asking good questions, and revising my drafts (including adding a flowchart after the first round of team-wide review) in my spare time at work, and it has already disappeared from everyone’s attention aside from a single coworker who keeps the single-page version pinned to his wall beside his computer.

I get it. My coworker made a joke that hinged on that fact that we’ve never really worked together and I genuinely felt pleased (and still do) by the compliment. I get that this was a mild bit of office humor with someone I’ve worked with for almost six years and we have an established rapport that allows for small jokes like this. I get it. It just still stings that this was the joke and that this was ALSO the most appreciated I’ve felt at this job. It’s not like I feel any different about the joke now than I did earlier. I felt the same bitter taste in my mouth then as I still do now, a few hours later as I think about it. I just now feel like maybe there’s something wrong with my job or the way I’m shown appreciation for the work I do if this bitter-tasting but very complimentary joke felt better than anything else. I’ve gotten raises, a promotion, compliments, been publicly lauded for the work I do, and this is what feels the best?

I recognize that I’m even having these thoughts at all because I’ve been directly working on my ability to value myself, value my time, and feel indignation when I feel that someone else isn’t valuing them as much as they ought to be. I’m only still thinking about it because I’ve done the work to convince myself that the way I feel matters and that the stuff I do matters. A year ago I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d have shared the joke, struggled to not get defensive with the friend who pointed out the issue, and then moved on with my day. Now I’m left thinking about the ways my time and effort are appreciated and wondering all over again if maybe I’ve spent too long selling myself short when it comes to the way I present myself to other people.

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