can I learn to thrive under a hyper-critical boss?

A reader writes:

I work in a competitive, technical field where I need to be able to research, think critically, propose solutions, and write persuasively. I’ve always gotten good feedback on these skills, except in my current role from my boss, Jane. Jane’s style of feedback entails questioning every single detail, where it came from, what evidence I have to support it, and how it plays into a bigger picture. These are all things I should know, and I know she’s trying to coach me. The problem is that her questions are delivered as accusations and even when I say the “right” thing, I still feel like I’m fighting with her. She also doesn’t really give positive feedback — I think her philosophy is that good work is expected and doesn’t need to be commented on. She once said that 95% of my work is good … but I’d say that 95% of her feedback to me is critical, frustrated, or accusatory. I feel like a constant disappointment and burden to her.

Colleagues have said things to me like “there’s not enough money in the world for me to work with Jane” and “talking to her makes me want to pull my hair out.” I’ve seen her make multiple coworkers cry after she interrogates them (including me).

She’s VERY good at the business side of what we do — a very niche speciality that I have over a decade of experience in. I think under a more supportive manager, I would be able to excel at the difficult work that we’re doing. I’m used to being a high performer, and I desperately want to succeed at this job. It feels like a point of pride to get her approval. But it’s been several years, my motivation and self-esteem are non-existent, and my anxiety spikes every time she messages me. I’ve lost the ability to be creative or think out of the box; all I can focus on is the inevitable barrage of questions and Jane not being happy with whatever work I do. It’s at the point where I’m not sure I could speak to her about this without getting emotional.

How do I get my mojo back? How do I learn to use her coaching and feedback as a way to grow? I don’t want to crumble under pressure, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m in therapy and looking for a new job, but I’m in a bit of a golden handcuffs situation and am the primary earner in my family so a new role would need to check a lot of boxes.

Take a minute to imagine a friend coming to you and saying, “I have an abusive person in my life who tears me apart, makes me cry, and is destroying my mental health. How can I use their criticism as a way to grow?” I’m guessing you’d be horrified and would strongly push them away from buying into that person’s assessment of them in any way.

It’s really not that different here. Yes, Jane is your boss and thus the person charged with assessing your work, and probably has some basis of expertise from which to do so. But you know from watching her for years now that she’s accusatory, hostile, incapable of responding to the totality of someone’s work, and, frankly, a jerk. You’ve fallen into the trap of “she’s so exacting that if I can get her approval, it must mean I really succeeded” … but that’s keeping you from seeing that her judgment is off in really fundamental ways. Think about the prize you’re going after here: the approval of someone who’s doing a crucial and highly relevant piece of her own job terribly (management).

Trying to see Jane’s feedback as a way to grow carries a strong risk of deepening your unhappiness — and harming you psychologically — because you would have to buy into the idea that what she’s doing is okay. Bluntly, you’re proposing trying to make yourself buy into the worldview of a person’s whose entire M.O. is to tear you down, assume the worst of you, and make you prove anew each day that you’re good enough for the work you’ve been doing successfully for over a decade. That’s not a worldview you should be trying to buy into — it’s a worldview that’s rooted in some really psychologically damaging (and psychologically damaged) stuff.

I want to be clear: It’s not that a jerk can never be correct about their criticism. Sometimes they are! But the value of feedback plummets when the person offering it isn’t able to recognize what you’re getting right (particularly when that person’s job is to evaluate your work as a whole, as Jane’s is) or when their judgment leads them to treat minor issues as major failings. And more importantly in this case, when things are at the point where you’re describing your motivation and self-esteem as non-existent and you’ve lost your creativity because you’re living in fear, it doesn’t matter if Jane sometimes has useful things to offer. You’ll be much better off focusing on maintaining strong boundaries with her and clearly seeing how truly messed up she is, for as long as you have to stay there.

{ 333 comments… read them below }

  1. Blue*

    When I got to the part where OP had been there for YEARS my heart broke. OP, the fact that you are still managing to do great work in these hostile circumstances is impressive, but “winning” at the Jane game is not worth sacrificing your health, sense of self, and longer term career aspirations. It’s time to move on. Best of luck to you <3

    1. ferrina*

      And you can not win with Jane.

      Best case scenario, Jane genuinely is trying to help LW by being hypercritical. No matter how good LW gets, Jane will find something to nitpick. I had a boss who would do this- after I brought in and executed the largest contract our department had ever handled (by 300%) without proper staffing where I was working 60+ hrs/wk and had an infant at home and executed it so well that the client won an award for our work….my boss gave me a long list of things I could have done better. How I could have made the project bigger. How I should have worked 65 hrs/wk.

      Worst case, Jane is dealing with her own issues that she projects onto LW. This kind of person wants the people around them to feel small. They will deliberately press where it hurts. If you play by the rules, you have already lost, because they will change the rules. Even if you play their game so well that you win, they will just escalate and change the rules until you are either a sociopath or completely broken down. I have dealt with more than my fair share of these people, and I have unfortunately made a study of how to handle it. And the best answer is- you don’t. This is the game that you win by not playing.

      1. Nicosloanica*

        Great point; if OP buys into Jane’s worldview enough that they were somehow able to please Jane, I’m guessing they would wonder why their own interns were afraid of them and colleagues started to cry when they just offer the kind of “constructive feedback” they’ve been trained to accept. Why everyone avoids them at the office and they find out later there were birthday parties and baby showers people went out of their way to hide from them. Why their own personal life seems to be crumbling just as they finally got “good” at this job in the right way!

          1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

            I don’t think it is – I think the person was describing the far end result of “successfully” working with Jane.

          2. ferrina*

            Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen. It can be pretty common that folks manage the way they were managed. We had an issue with this at one place where I worked- the previous leaders were the classic “Good Old Boys Club”, and the new leaders were trying to go in a new direction but had no paradigm for this. They did better, but a lot of bad habits hung around that work place for a long time. It took a very focused organizational effort to uproot the toxic origins.
            I think it’s less common to have it spill over into home, but I’ve seen it happen. The frustration of work gets brought home and contaminates the rest of the household; or unreasonably high standards are thought of as acceptable and normal (I had a parent that genuinely thought it was okay to edit my middle school essays the way she edited her peers at work- she was a professional writer and editor. She was confused when I started crying).

            1. DJ Abbott*

              I’m dealing with this now. Our assistant manager has been here a long time and served under at least one abusive boss. She is rude and disrespectful, and often puts unnecessary pressure on us, and micromanages, telling us basic things we all know. The worse her mood is, the worse this gets.
              The pressure and micromanaging trigger my PTSD from abusive parents. I’ve reached the point of standing up to her, and then I’m afraid I’ll lose my job. Everyone else here is great and our new manager says she would be telling me if my job was in danger, but that’s not helping the PTSD. I would look for a new job but it might be even worse, and also I need rest and stability after 3 years of changes.
              Like LW, I’m looking for a way to not let it get to me. My colleagues have trained themselves not to care what she does or thinks.

              1. allathian*

                I’m a translator and proofreader. This is why I refuse to even *look* at my son’s homework. I’ve never done more than confirm that he’s done his homework, even in the early grades. He’s in 8th now and I just ask him if he has any homework for the next day. Now he’s often done it by the time I ask. I admit that it helps that he’s motivated by doing well at school without being overly perfectionistic to the point of stressing out about it. He used to come to me to ask for further instructions if he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, but beyond that, completing his homework assignments on time is his responsiblity and correcting his errors is his teachers’ job, not mine.

              2. Selina Luna*

                I’m an English teacher whose college specialty was science fiction and fantasy. My husband teaches science and math. We are doing everything we can to not have a kid who feels nitpicked. Of course, he’s three, so right now we’re just annoyed he has homework at all, but I hope we don’t add to his middle school pain.

            2. PerfectionismIsAnInheritedTrait*

              My math-professor dad was concerned about the grade I’d gotten on a recent middle-school math test and asked me if there were concepts I was struggling with.

              I’d gotten a 90%.

              He asked the same (in a joking way this time) when I got a 790 on the math section of the SATs.

              1. Bruce*

                I’m an engineer with a physics degree and my late 1st wife worked in electronics. One son is teaching high school drama and literature, the other is finishing a BA in creative writing… hmm, wonder where that came from? (To be clear, while we encouraged an interest in science we also had a lot of fun and took our kids to music and theater, and sent them to camps with writing and art… still, I’d feel more secure if they’d gone down the science/tech track!)

      2. Ominous Adversary*

        This is the truth.

        I also had a boss like this once. I remember sitting in a post-mortem where a senior colleague had done a fantastic job on a project – Boss just sat there and talked about every imperfection in the things my colleague had done. After a long stretch of this I piped up and asked Boss if there was anything he thought colleague had done RIGHT, so that we would be sure to keep doing that in the future. Boss looked befuddled, and offered about thirty seconds of lukewarm praise before sliding right back into nitpicking.

        Boss genuinely believed that his approach was a tough love way of helping people get better. He didn’t or couldn’t grasp that his approach was harmful and that people stopped bothering to improve under his leadership. Why bother to go above and beyond, when all that would get you was a lecture?

      3. narya*

        “If you play by the rules, you have already lost, because they will change the rules.”

        So much this. You will never win with people like this. They set up moving targets you can never hit, and you’ll find yourself in a perptual state of misery by trying.

        After years of this, OP, I really hope that once you move on, you won’t bring all this with you. Therapy might help. This is an abusive relationship.

          1. AnonORama*

            Yes, working with someone like this is like playing tic-tac-toe with a computer, except that instead of every game being a tie, every game ends Jane 1, OP 0. Not worth it!

      4. cloudy*

        Yes, I once volunteered for someone like this. You absolutely cannot win. Every time we found solutions to her problems, she would immediately find new problems. And if our Jane couldn’t find something to be “wrong”, she would invent new problems that don’t exist so that she could point to those instead. Following her train of feedback would only ever lead you in circles.

        Someone like Jane who is only capable of seeing the negative is never going to be able to accept that something is good as it is, and seeking her approval is just going to lead to more despair.

        If the people above her aren’t willing to stop this from happening, you just have to get out. You deserve a boss who will treat you with respect and kindness, who will help you to grow and learn in a thoughtful way by recognizing your strengths, and Jane won’t ever be able to offer you that.

      5. Jules the 3rd*

        Yep, can not win with Jane. My ‘Jane’ was three levels above me. Our team conducted a computer inventory of $100M of equipment for a Very Large customer, across much of the continental US. After months of hard work, the team found 99.8% (by value) of the machines. A ‘successful’ audit was 98%.

        Jane’s comment was “$200K still missing? That’s two people’s jobs! Who do I fire? You? or you?”

        Our team lead was a very laid back guy. I’d never seen him irritated before. He was *furious*, because he knew how hard people had worked, and how good that result really was.

        After the meeting, he went straight to Jane’s boss. She was removed from managing people and eventually managed out of the company. This is was one of the major reasons why I stayed with the company, even though moving companies would have given me more money.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          I worked for someone like that on a micro scale. Her reports were gradually reduced to just one, which she had to have.

    2. Artemesia*

      I worked with someone like this but doing writing for a professional association publication — so it was not my main job. We each had topics to write and other people’s work to edit but she always barged in and took control. My response was to yield the floor and focus on other parts of my life; there isn’t enough money and certainly not enough volunteer accolades to live with that.

      You have two choices: 1. disassociate and learn to not take her nonsense personally. 2. find a work setting that is not this aversive. Since you have a job you need not be in a rush and can take your time to find a better job and not move until you feel confidence. But I’d sure be looking to see if there was not a better place out there.

      1. Miette*

        I like Artemisia’s point about learning how not to take Jane’s nonsense seriously, and I think it’s the way for you to get your mojo back. Jane is actively harming you–you now need to work out a way to not let that happen. Perhaps your therapist can help you with tactics to deal with that while you continue your job search.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          This is really important, LW. You need an immediate plan and a short-term plan.

          The immediate plan is to stop the hemorrhaging. Work with your therapist and others on ways to emotionally disconnect from this job. Accept that your boss will never praise you and that it isn’t even worth the effort of filtering the valuable from the dross when it comes to her feedback. Spend time focusing on non-work parts of your life, reach out to your support network, take as long a vacation as you can, whatever you can do to mitigate the damage.

          Short term, though, you do need to get out from under Jane. I know you think you can’t leave this job, but what would you do if the company announced you would be laid off in 3 months? Start that process now. I know job searching is exhausting and discouraging at the best of times, but keep in mind that in a few short months, you could hand in your resignation to this awful boss.

          1. DJ Abbott*

            LW, It sounds like you have a good experience in a high-value field. You should find it relatively easy to get a good job. Be sure to especially evaluate the person who will be your boss, and the culture of the employer.
            No matter how long it takes, it’s worth it!

      2. TeapotNinja*

        The LW didn’t mention whether or not they have talked to Jane about this. It seems like they haven’t based on the comment about possibly not being able to do that without getting emotional.

        That’s the third option, and the one I would personally try first (or would have, years ago).

        Tell Jane what’s the impact of her management style. See what she says, and then decide what you want to do.

        I’m not necessarily too optimistic about getting a positive response, but, you never know. Depends on what’s motivating her jerkiness. If she thinks she has to be a jerk to get the best out of people, who knows, maybe having a frank discussion with her will snap her out of it.

        1. I Have RBF*

          Don’t do this. It’s like throwing fresh meat in a school of sharks.

          People like Jane know what they are doing, and believe it is the best way to manage and “keep people in line”. It’s all about power, and the ability to make others feel small.

          Admitting it is getting to you is the worst thing you can do, IMO.

          1. TeapotNinja*

            What is with the people on this board with their absolutes?

            A jerk will always remain a jerk. You should always quit your job at the first instance of trouble.

            You’re wrong.

            1. goddess21*

              dunno friend, what’s with your groundless optimism and willingness to extend charity to obvious abusers?

              1. Busy Middle Manager*

                Very hyperbolic. Someone very critical is a jerk not “abuse.” Calling out someone being a jerk is not “extending charity”

                1. Sacred Ground*

                  What’s the distinction between being a jerk who tears everyone down and routinely makes people cry and being abusive?

                2. Ginger Dynamo*

                  Not sure why you’d think a commenter calling this behavior “abuse” is hyperbolic… Allison herself refers to the OP’s boss as an abusive person in their life within the “talking to a friend” parallel. It’s not something any commenter is baselessly bringing up on this comment thread. If this person is regularly making her subordinates cry and causing them pangs of anxiety whenever they get a message from her, yes, this is an abusive and deeply unhealthy dynamic. I worked for a boss just like this, and at one year after leaving, I’m still struggling not to freeze in fear whenever something happens that reminds me of that workplace. This “management style” causes clear psychological harm to the employees. I think the “willingness to extend charity to abusers” was less so related to “calling out someone being a jerk” and more so in response to the large amount of latitude you are giving this person’s expressly harmful behavior before you will acknowledge that the behavior the OP is describing is abusive.

            2. Lydia*

              Maybe a jerk won’t always be a jerk, but once they’re a jerk to me, I am not required to give them space. The way Jane is talking to the OP is not a misunderstanding or a difference in style, it’s bullying and abusive.

            3. Busy Middle Manager*

              Agreed. Especially now. The job market for GOOD jobs is grinding to a halt. There are loads of jobs on paper, but they either pay horrible, limit hours, or were created because the last person quit in a huff. This is why I really hate the “just quit” comments online. I always wonder what industry these people are in. Even during boom times, people I know and have worked with always took many months of quietly searching before finding a place to land. Now all you hear is “I’ve applied to 500 jobs and only got one interview” type stories.

              Also by 40ish I realized I will literally always be dealing with difficult people. Even the nice people I work with are delusional or lazy at times. Most people are not 100% self-aware in every possible situation. “Just” quitting can easily mean a new batch of people that cause as much stress

              1. I Have RBF*

                If someone has been a nitpicking critic for years they have proven, over a long period of time, that they are a jerk. If you work for a jerk, start looking for a new job!

                The LW and others have been driven to tears by this person. That isn’t mild criticism, it’s chronic abuse!

                I am not one to say “just quit” lightly. At 62, I know damn well what the job market is like. But this person has been abusing the LW for years, is damaging their health and their very image of themselves, to the point that they are seeking therapy about it. It’s time to move away from the toxic hellhole. Don’t quit with nothing lined up, but for FFS find a different job with a less toxic manager.

                Yes, there are some jobs where I will say quit, even without something lined up – jobs where illegal or unsafe activity is happening.

                This isn’t quite that, but having had a friend commit suicide due to a toxic manager, I am particularly sensitive to tales of this kind of abuse. Normal people don’t regularly get driven to tears by normal managers.

                So, in the words of an above poster “You’re wrong.”

                Even in bad economic times you don’t have to stay and be abused. Looking for a new job helps put an end date on the abuse. “This will stop when I find a new job, and I’ve sent out X resumes” is a powerful antidote to that trapped and helpless feeling, IME.

                1. RVA Cat*

                  All of this, plus the problem is larger than Jane. The company knows Jane is abusive and they allow it to continue, so they are complicit in it.

                  LW needs to work this out in therapy. Doubly so if they have any childhood trauma. The pattern with Jane reminds me of growing up with a mentally ill parent and thinking their behaviors were my fault.

              2. Reluctant Mezzo*

                Quitting and scrambling for money is still better than suicide or going to the hospital with stress-induced physical problems.

          2. Goldenrod*

            “Admitting it is getting to you is the worst thing you can do, IMO.”

            HARD AGREE.

            With my evil former boss, I could occasionally – occasionally – put her in her place by being mean back. Overall, “gray rock” (no emotion, no response) is the best plan. But every once in a while, I would lose my temper just the slightest bit, and I did scare her a couple of times. (Not going to lie, felt great. But it doesn’t work as a long-term plan.)

        2. Busy Middle Manager*

          Agreed. This wouldn’t be a once-and-done thing. It needs to be slowly introduced to the person in a bunch of small parts. “why did you criticize that report? Other department I did it for liked it.” “why does it matter I came in 10 minutes late. Weren’t we here late last night?” “TBH I don’t think your edits change the writing in a substantial way”

          Make Jane consistently question why she’s saying what she’s saying

          OP has been there 10 years and has lasted that long for a reason. And has alot of political capital to expend, and some sort of relationship with Jane, even if it’s not a good one

        3. Cat Mom of 4*

          Not sure if that would help. I recently left my job of over 5 years partially because my boss was similar to Jane. She was quick to anger and lash out if mistakes were made. Morale was quite poor on our team due to high workloads, understaffing and how we were spoken to by Jane. When I tried to at least bring up the work conditions, I was told to be grateful for my job. I wouldn’t have even dared trying to bring up how critical she was of us. Eventually, I reached my breaking point and I put in my notice. One of my coworkers resigned soon after due to the same issues. I highly doubt Jane realized her part in driving us away as when I resigned, she told me she didn’t want people who weren’t happy there. Managers like that who can’t recognize how their harsh treatment of their reports kills morale are not going to be receptive to a dialogue about this. The only option is to leave.

        4. Beyond unreasonable (doubt)*

          I had a boss who was very like Jane. I mentioned to them once that their style of feedback was, uh, abrasive (if I’m being honest, bullying) and unhelpful in terms of helping me grow or do better. Their response: I know I can be a dick, so tell me if I’m being a dick, okay.

          Next time they were being abrasively unhelpful, I said (on the verge of tears): Look, you’re being rude, I don’t think this is a useful conversation to have right now.
          Them: No, I’m not being rude!

          Sometimes there’s no winning with these kind of people. And from bitter personal experience it’s unlikely they’ll change. I hope Jane does, for LW’s sake, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath.

        5. Boof*

          I have no idea if it would work, but if op has little to lose (ie, if boss never fires people, just harangues them endlessly) and it would boost OP’s confidence, they could push back. No big argument, don’t expect jane to change, just something like
          (Jane starts digging in to something minor)
          Op: “hm, i think it’s good enough myself! I’ll send you [next thing] by friday” (And exit).
          Don’t work overtime. Don’t do extra. Cheerfully disagree when jane digs into you or someone else. Say “wow, so rude!” If jane resorts to personal attacks (no idea if that’s her style or if it’s just the relentlessly critical thing). Or just keep your head down op, whatever you think will make you feel best at the end of the day

    3. Nicosloanica*

      Yep yep yep. I was like, “I’ve managed to flourish under tough-seeming bosses before, this can work out if you are learning a lot and don’t get too much emotion hung up on her approval” – because I thought OP was a few weeks or a few months in. After a year or more, this relationship is what it is and is not going to change or improve. OP has learned what they’re going to learn. Time to go.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      It’s like staying with an abusive partner because ‘he’ll change! I sense the good in him!’. It. Doesn’t. Work.

      And it’ll destroy you while leaving them unscathed.

      Please people, believe one who has escaped from the hell that is abuse: the mental scars will stay a lot longer than the physical ones and are harder to treat. When someone is being abusive to you it becomes a race against your sanity versus time. As the horror movies put it: Get Out.

      1. Marie*

        It took me a couple of months into a new job last year to realize that what my boss was doing was ABUSE, it wasn’t just him being “difficult to work with” or “a micromanager”, it was straight up ABUSE. I was at that job for six months and it’s only now, a year later, with the help of therapy that I finally feel like I am healing from that terrible time.

      2. TootSweet*

        100%! The triggers never seem to go away. The day I’m most thankful for is the day I woke up in the morning and my first thought was, “I can’t do this anymore.” LW: Time to make a plan to get out.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          “I can’t do this anymore” was the exact phrase I wrote in my resignation letter to the firm from hell. 10+ years on I’m ashamed of how long I stuck it out at that place.

        2. anon for this*

          Hey, my therapist did EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy) with me, and it helped so much with the triggers. You might also find it helpful?

      3. MigraineMonth*

        I’ve never been in a romantic relationship as abusive as my professional relationship with one of my first bosses. Love-bombing, evasion, shaming, compliance testing, the whole 9 yards. My sister once had to interrupt me when I was spiraling about the fact that he’d convinced me I should be willing to work for free. My friends and family could see what was happening, but it took a conversation with another exploited employee (who was working for free) before I got angry and got out.

    5. learnedthehardway*

      On the assumption that Jane is well-intentioned, sometimes you have to confront someone like that and outright tell them that their communication and management style is demotivating and upsetting for you. No guarantees that it will work, of course, and if the person is NOT well-intentioned, or is not open to considering that they may need to change, then it could get even worse.

      I had to do this with a client a couple of years ago – the client was relentlessly negative, picky, etc., as well as disorganized and very bad at giving clear directions. I was ready to walk away from the relationship, but figured I should give it a try. To my surprise, it worked really well. They were LOOKING for someone who could stand up to them, or at least, they only respect people who stand up to them. Not the most healthy approach to managing people, but I realized their insecurities led them to be hypercritical and demanding. Once they realized I had the backbone to deal with them, things became a lot easier. (Now I have the opposite problem – they trust me to do everything and completely disengage. We’re going to have to have another conversation soon about how trust is great, but I still need their input.)

    6. Chauncy Gardener*

      Came here to say all of this! I hope we read about you in the Good News Friday post REALLY REALLY SOON!
      Please flee!

    7. Curious*

      Given they LW says they are currently looking for work, all the comments saying find another job seem off. LW currently is doing that.

      I don’t see many suggestions as what LW can do until they find this new job.

      Does you job require you to engage outside of work hours? If yes, create boundaries by limiting how much/little you engage your boss.

      Do you have a support system of family/friends/loved ones that you can reach out to to participate in activities unrelated to your job? Distraction can be healing.

      You mentioned people telling you how they couldn’t work for Jane. Maybe you don’t talk to those people, so you don’t have to hear about how bad Jane is. It’s not like you don’t already know.

      Your professional mojo may not comeback while you’re working for Jane.

      Good luck on your job search.

    8. Hannah Lee*

      Yeah, this part:

      “But it’s been several years, my motivation and self-esteem are non-existent, and my anxiety spikes every time she messages me.”

      was SO sad to read.

      LW, when I first started out in the work world, I had a series of bosses who were, let’s say difficult. Two of them were cut from the same cloth as your boss Jane. Exacting, hypercritical, focused on the 5-10% that was imperfect instead of the 90-95% that was stellar. I worked for each one for years. And I’d often hear comments from co-workers like what you’re hearing “I don’t know how you work for him” “I could never last if he were my boss”

      My take at the time was that it was a feather in my cap, a badge of honor, a point of pride that I *could* stand to work for them, that I could succeed in a role where others never could, that I managed to keep going, figured out how to best please them, approach them at just the right moment, package what I was presenting just so to minimize the worst of it, avoid setting them off on a tirade. For YEARS.

      But then one day, it hit me. It wasn’t a good thing, a feather in my cap, at all. It was actually a bad bad very bad thing that I’d somehow ever thought it was okay and didn’t run fleeing from the office the first time it happened.

      In my case, it was a symptom of poor self esteem, insecurity from years of childhood emotional, psychological abuse that made smart, engaging, conscientious, insightful, and humanly imperfect me believe I wasn’t worthy of respect, boundaries, kindness, having my own goals and objectives vs serving the loudest most bullying person in my midst.

      It was hurting me professionally and personally to work for them, keeping me stuck. I could even think about my own professional goals, or networking, or other opportunities because it was all about my boss’s expectations. It was SO damaging to my self-esteem to work for them, it was SO damaging to my mental health AND physical health to work for them, it did a number on my social and family life because I was always working long hours to meet impossible standards and stressed/wound tightly/exhausted when I wasn’t at work. It took years to heal from those experiences.

      Run! Flee! Get away from Jane as soon as you can! You deserve SO much better than to work for a boss like her. Her behavior is holding you back, it’s stifling all your abilities and crushing your confidence and sense of normalcy.

      And when you land on your feet, which you will, just be aware that it’s going to take a while to readjust your boundaries, your confidence and likely your mental and physical health back to “normal” Don’t be surprised if you tear up when your next boss shows actual respect or appreciation. If you’ve got a mentor or a close friend you can bounce work queries off of “is this normal? should I push back?” do that. Or submit/post here. And maybe, depending on how/why you think you tolerated Jane for so long, look into speaking with a counselor, therapist to process what you’ve been through, adjust to no longer having a Jane-shaped trauma monster looming.

      Hoping for the best for you OP! You deserve it!

      1. Beyond unreasonable (doubt)*

        I am SO sorry you experienced this. Thank you for writing this comment – it’s very similar to what I experienced with an ex boss. There’s a lot in here I should probably unpack!

  2. NameRequired*

    I understand the urge to look for a silver lining in a terrible situation, even if you have to make that silver lining yourself. I don’t think even the shiniest silver lining could improve the meat of this situation, though.

    1. What The Whatever*

      There is always some silver lining in my experience. Even if it’s just to say I tried it. It didn’t work, this is why, and I learned from it. I’ve put up with some really crap bosses and jobs, but I made the point to draw the lessons from each experience. I’m now in a job I really like that I can easily connect the dots to what I learned in the crap jobs that led this to happen which includes technical skillsets, people skills, and soft skills.

      I can appreciate tough bosses to a point as long as they are indeed experts with something worthwhile to learn from. They make you up your game which is always great. But 10 years? Yeah, there’s nothing more to be learned and your current company is probably underpaying you. Take what you’ve learned and excel in the next role. Good luck!

    2. KTB2*

      100% this. I had this boss for four years, and only after being away from her for the last 9 months have I finally realized just how bad it was. Trying to elicit positive feedback from a boss like that is a losing battle on a good day, and will definitely warp your view of yourself, your abilities, and your overall mental health. All I can say is GET OUT.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      Trying to find the useful feedback in all the shit she’s burying you with is like trying to find dropped pennies in the Augean Stables. It isn’t worth it.

  3. Earlk*

    I’ve been told that for feedback to really help employees/students etc. do well it needs to be at least 2/3s positive (yes, like the clunky sh*t sandwich model, but done well). I’m currently in the process of coaching someone who’s getting around 50% of their work done to the right standard and it’s been a real challenge to keep the ratio balanced. If they ever got close to 95% I’d be singing their praises from the rooftop.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      You are not doing them any favors by trying to achieve some kind of balance. For the stuff they get right, point it out, say that is what you want consistently. Then be clear about how to correct the other stuff in a big picture way.

      Because it is possible the person is only hearing the good stuff and considering the other stuff as not a big deal that will just magically get better.

      1. Pet Jack*

        Right, and although criticism is hard to hear, it CAN be done in a very direct, non-emotional and not unnecessarily mean way.
        I have had employees who were poor performers and it absolutely does not help to try and keep most of what you are saying positive. They will definitely not think they are doing that bad and it is really unfair to them. They need to know the score. If someone is only performing at 50%, then they are in danger of being fired so you need to be clear with them. They are being paid to do a job and they need to do better, so honesty is the best policy.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I did poorly at a job that just wasn’t a good fit for me. I had several conversations with my manager about it, and they were always direct about what would need to change for me to be able to keep my job. The feedback was delivered with respect, never emotionally charged or personal, it was just: here’s where you’re at and here’s where I need you to be.

          Letting me continue to flounder at a job that didn’t match my skills and that I could only do 80% of would not have been a kindness.

      2. Earlk*

        The balance is largely “Here’s something you did good, now can you do this here as well” instead of unrelated positivity.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’ve got a reputation round this office of being very honest and to the point about feedback, but never mean about it. I don’t insert platitudes, I just tell people upfront the actual problem, what I consider a successful outcome and then say that I give feedback because I do believe they CAN do this job, they just need to adapt a bit.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Of course! Because we rarely get it from end users (hardly anyone thanks the IT department). I just do things one at a time – it’s a positive feedback OR a negative one.

          It’s IT, we work well in binary.

  4. TruetalesfromHR*

    Please consider Jane’s cultural background. What you have described is very common for some cultures- for example the French. If you share a common culture, I’d look and until then take everything with a grain of salt.

    1. Jackalope*

      As someone who lived in France for awhile, this doesn’t sound “French”, just mean. For that matter, as someone who lived in another very direct culture in another country, this still just sounds mean.

        1. MsSolo (UK)*

          Someone else downthread suggests that if 95% of the work is awesome, 95% of the feedback should be awesome, and that would absolutely come off as unpleasantly effusive in a lot of other cultures. There is definitely potential for a lot of culture clash in management styles, like the French boss with the American report who struggled when the US report kept answering “Ca va?” with a lengthy response about their emotions.

          However, part of the difference here is that if this were the case, Jane is not expecting her report to win her over or earn her approval. It’s not that the bar is too high, it’s that the bar is in a different gym. If she was a good manager, she’d have recognised that Jane was trying to do that, and set the expectations straight. It could be LW is missing some context clues about the mismatch, but it’s more likely that Jane, regardless of culture, is one of those people who’s good at her job and bad at managing.

          1. Don't Be Longsuffering*

            NC is, by definition, on the coast, and of the choices, East is the winner. However, having lived there for decades, that person’s behavior would be wildly out of place in NC. Wildly!

      1. Goldenrod*

        Hilariously, I am from New York City, and my evil former boss used to claim the reason she was so “direct” was that she was from the East Coast.

        1) She was actually from North Carolina. This is not the East Coast (at least not by any New Yorker’s definition)!

        2) While she loved to say she was “direct,” I realized after a while that she TOTALLY was not. A lot of her mean jabs were delivered indirectly, by her Chief of Staff. She was actually very cowardly about confronting anyone without her goons copied on the email to back her up. And she loved making others do her dirty work. So, no. Not direct. Just mean and hostile.

        1. obscure*

          I have a boss now exactly like this; likes to say they are “blunt” or “direct” to explain why they struggle to communicate with people. They are in fact neither of those things— just mean, and erratic.

          I assume this is just an excuse they tell themselves to excuse not putting any real thought into kind communication. It makes it everyone else’s fault!

        2. David*

          Um… hi. I am the New Yorker who defines North Carolina as being on the east coast.

          Although it definitely is true that the regional culture of the Northeast, in which people are direct or brusqe or whatever (“rude” as it may appear to outsiders), doesn’t extend as far south as the Carolinas.

      1. nonnynonnynonny*

        Agreed. With “my” Jane, it was always “Well, they come from [culture] and that’s just how they are.” No, they’re just an asshole.

        1. Pet Jack*

          And it really doesn’t matter if it’s based in culture or not. It affects the OP the same and they need to get out for their sanity.

          1. I Have RBF*

            Yeah. I’ve had managers who were assholes, both because the “typical” management style in their home country is “Kiss up, kick down” and the fact that they, personally, were assholes. Yes, their home country had a shitty management style for most managers, but then they added their own personal toxic BS on top of it. (He was also a racist arse.)

      2. Psychic Cow*

        …and they ought to have learned that this behavior is unacceptable in whatever culture they’re in now

        1. C.*

          Especially if they’re in a management position.

          Also, if Jane’s reputation precedes her in the office, I have a hard time believing she is completely unaware of her influence. And if she is aware, she’s making a conscious choice to behave the way that she does.

      3. KTB2*

        It reminds me of the quote from the Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

    2. I should really pick a name*

      Jane is treating the LW badly. Whether that’s because of cultural background or not does not make it any less of a problem.

      Additionally, it’s actually insulting to suggest that this kind of behaviour is typical of certain cultures.

      1. TruetalesfromHR*

        I’d suggest reading Erin Myers’ The Culture Map. It can be beneficial to understand context that another person has developed their communication and behavioral styles.

        I work with, on a daily basis, on employee population of 50+ nationalities. It was a huge adjustment at first, especially as an American who was always taught the positive-negative-positive sandwich style of giving feedback. There are some cultures that would never consider softening the message or having to call out what was correct.

        1. I should really pick a name*

          There is a difference between not softening the message and what Jane is doing.
          It’s possible to be direct without being unkind.
          It’s possible to only have feedback about negatives without the antagonism described by the LW.

          Even if Jane’s cultural background justified her behaviour (a premise that I reject), if she’s been there long enough for people to be saying “there’s not enough money in the world for me to work with Jane”, she’s been there long enough to adapt her communication style.

        2. Ominous Adversary*

          I’m sure all the New Yorkers and Bostonians reading this are choking on their coffee at the idea that Americans all “soften the message”, unlike those tough-talking French.

          1. Pizza Rat*

            This New Yorker is.

            Seriously, though. How you lead into constructive feedback determines how the feedback will be absorbed. Being adversarial is not effective, especially from someone who is suppost to lead and coach.

            1. AMT*

              I am also a New Yorker, and you’re spot on. I’m a couples’ therapist and use the Gottman Method. The first thing I teach people in sessions is how to be direct *and* not trigger defensiveness. What you’re describing is a technique we call “gentle start-up.”

              This set of techniques is a skill set I think everyone should learn to have constructive conflicts, including in the workplace. Stuff like stating a positive need (“I need that report on time”) and clarifying it’s impact on you (“because when I don’t get it, we could fail an audit”) rather than using criticism (“You never get it in on time!”), for example. None of this stuff takes away from directness—quite the opposite! It’s so much easier for people to absorb directness when they understand why you’re saying what you’re saying and aren’t feeling like they have to parry your attacks. Cultures vary, sure, but some version of diplomacy is universal.

            1. Ominous Adversary*

              I’m a Californian and even I know that the it’s-just-her-culture-you-provincials argument is silly.

          2. wordswords*

            I mean, as a Bostonian: yes, we do, in contexts like feedback. Regional variation within the US for the amount of padding a message should get is real, but so is cross-cultural variation. And the French school system, among others, does have a significantly different expectation about the amount of blunt criticism one should expect to absorb without padding.

            However, even with cultural differences potentially at play (and I’m guessing OP would have mentioned if they were?) Jane remains a jerk. There’s a difference between bluntness + focusing on actionable things to improve and sending your direct reports off crying constantly, with a company-wide reputation for being impossible to work for and no positive feedback ever, especially when this has been going on for years. And that’s especially true when Jane has a responsibility too to bridge any potential cultural divide and clarify her approach and her assessment.

        3. Alexander Graham Yell*

          I’ve read it. I work in France, for a French company, and have multiple French bosses. Not one of them is like this. The one we did have who was like this was fired because of the way she treated her team. While yes, there is a culture of focusing on errors and being straightforward, Jane tips the line into cruel and no cultural background excuses that.

      2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        “Whether that’s because of cultural background or not does not make it any less of a problem.”

        That is not necessarily true. Jane is fairly extreme, but recognizing when some harshness or more bluntness than you prefer is a them problem and not a you problem can be very helpful in unweighting it. If this is the perfect job for LW except for Jane, finding a way to deal with Jane might be the best thing for the LW. My old boss’s boss was sort of like this (not as bad) and though he was a PITA, I only had to deal with him infrequently. I would never leave my otherwise awesome job for that.

        1. JustKnope*

          OP says she has lost her creative mojo and can’t do her job excellently because of Jane’s behavior. None of the culture debates are relevant because no matter the “why” behind the behavior, it’s very detrimental to the OP.

    3. CL*

      But if Jane can’t communicate across cultures without making staff cry, she should not be supervising people.

      1. Nicosloanica*

        Yeah! What if OP wanted to go work in another culture and just kept insisting forever that she had to offer all feedback “the American way” even if her direct reports were sobbing and nobody wanted to work with them? We’d certainly recommend they adapt their style to the new culture. So try harder, Jane.

    4. bamcheeks*

      It’s been YEARS. If you can adjust to, “this person isn’t being mean, they just have different standards of directness”, you do so after a few months to a year. If it’s several years, your style and their style are not compatible and you should cut your losses.

      If doesn’t matter whether Jane is genuinely mean or just has a different communication style if it has this impact on LW.

      1. Nicosloanica*

        Yep. I have worked for an exacting boss who doesn’t offer any praise (luckily I was forewarned). For a few weeks I was taken aback, then I learned how to adjust and realized she had a lot of great things to offer – and was actually quite supportive, in her own way – just not demonstrative. And she *does* occasionally offer little words of encouragement, you just have to really listen for them. I don’t expect her to fulfil my emotional needs, we just focus on the task at hand and it works. And we reached this status in like three or four months. This is NOT that, OP.

    5. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Culture, disability, membership of a marginalised group, whatever, never gives you carte blanche to be an arsehole.

    6. SereneScientist*

      I don’t buy this argument at all and I’m saying this as someone who immigrated from one country to another that’s drastically different in terms of culture. Yes, it is useful and helpful to recognize when cultural differences are at play, but that does excuse bad managerial behavior and indeed, gives Jane a pass where she doesn’t deserve one.

    7. Peanut Hamper*

      Lol, no.

      Please tell me you’re not actually in HR, because if an employee came to me and told me they were being treated like this for YEARS, I would expect HR to take action, not just chalk it up to imagined cultural differences.

    8. ina*

      I worked in Germany for three years and people were direct without being unkind. It’s a very clear difference because I have met the American brand of “i’m just being real with you” directness, which is just rudeness and as Alison said, a person unable to pick their words correctly. “Truth hurts,” said without regard for how the truth is delivered.

      There is no culture where being a jerk is standard; I do appreciate your point of “is she being hostile or has this built to hostility for you?” but there is a huge difference between just chucking it up to cultural difference and asking ‘is Jane saying this to be mean or is this just Jane, nod along and stop craving her approval and things will feel a little better?’

      1. Alexander Graham Yell*

        Also, I think there’s a difference in accepting pushback. I had a Dutch boss for a couple of years, and he’d very bluntly (but without making it an accusation) point out concerns. If I had a good reason, he accepted it and move on. Once he learned my thought process and saw the result in my work, he backed off because the point wasn’t to make me feel bad or attain some ridiculous expectation of perfection, it was to make sure the work was solid.

        1. Lydia*

          I think American culture has conflated bluntness with rudeness to give themselves a pass for saying out loud their inner thoughts. They are not the same thing and even in cultures where bluntness is normal, people still understand the nuances where it’s appropriate to soften the message.

          1. MigraineMonth*

            “I’m just saying what everyone is thinking!” –Person who thinks everyone else is as terrible as they are

        2. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

          Yes, I think this is the crucial difference – if Jane is just being blunt because she prefers that communication style, she will be able to take blunt and direct pushback. It doesn’t sounds like she can.

    9. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

      No, there is a huge difference between cultures that only correct, never praise and interrogation on every detail.

    10. Not my coffee*

      I think cultural differences could be a factor. LW may consider the “bar is in a different gym” as said above. That’s a great line.

    11. el l*

      Yeah, while I’d completely agree with that (and I liked The Culture Map too) –

      The kicker of this situation is the degree of negativity. 95% sounds pretty excessive and exhausting. Doubt that Dutch, French, or Israeli offices would tolerate that either.

    12. Jaybeetee*

      Broadly speaking – and I say this as someone who lived and worked in a “blunt culture” country many years ago – being an asshole isn’t culturally acceptable anywhere.

      Sure, plenty of places might be more blunt or direct than North American culture tends to be. But “bosses berating their employees to tears” or “people berating other people to tears” isn’t a cultural norm anywhere. There just happen to be abusive people in every culture, who will use whatever existing norms there are, to justify their behaviour. (See: “I’m just being honest with you” in North America.)

      This is important because I saw a very sad post elsewhere recently from a young woman who was dating a guy who was frankly, a critical jerk to her, but had told her it was “normal” in his culture. It wasn’t. He was just a jerk.

    13. Zap R.*

      I’m gonna be charitable here: If Jane is truly abusive because she’s French (lol), then it’s Jane’s responsibility to adapt her management style to her non-French environs. I don’t care where you come from – repeatedly making your direct reports cry is a glaring signal that you are doing something extremely wrong.

    14. Lorgar*

      If someone French treated another French person like Jane is treating the OP, would Jane be understanding and cooperative, or would she be upset?

      No culture will tolerate assholes, but that does seem to be the dividing line between “oh that’s just Jane’s culture” and “oh, Jane is a jerk”. I’ve known people who used culture to explain why they were jerks, but the difference between cultural differences and real jerks was in their tolerance of that behavior in others.

      If you’re willing to be blunt with people but you’re angry when people do the same behavior back, you’re the jerk.

    15. Boof*

      Does french culture etc work a lot less on average compared , say, usa or mexico? Correlation vs causation and all but don’t see any great advantage in being so negative, even if it was “cultural “

    16. RVA Cat*

      I think you have to put any cultural differences into the power contexts of work. A hypercritical French boss cannot fire somebody on a whim and take away their healthcare when they do it. The LW would also be far more likely to be unionized.

      The US has our quirks, to put it mildly, and to be blunt I will say Jane is a prime example of an Overseer Boss. Obviously no (legal) workplace in 2023 is anything like slavery, but I feel a certain mentality has come down through the generations of normalizing abuse as “management”. Just look at how each wave of immigrants have been treated until the next “more foreign” group comes along.

  5. LHOI*

    I had a boss like this several years ago. It took a LONG time for me to recover my self-esteem at work and regain the ability to critically evaluate my own work. I would start looking to get out of this situation as soon as you can.

    1. ferrina*

      I have a parent like this.
      It led to me being unable to see red flags in other relationships, because they weren’t as bad as dealing with my parent. It completely warped my sense of norms and my trust in myself. It teaches you to undermine yourself, because you are always saying “I’m not good enough”.

      It sound like LW is beyond “good enough”- LW is amazing! LW deserves to know that they are amazing. Jane will tear that down if LW listens to Jane. LW should work on that exit plan asap.

      1. Leb*

        The upside to having a boss like this for me was forcing me to go to therapy and realizing a pattern of trying to win hypercritical people over.

        The downside was nearly two years of feeling physically ill just thinking about work.

      2. knitcrazybooknut*

        I have a parent like this, too. It took 41 years to figure it out, but the best thing I ever did was cut contact with them. It’s taken ten years and a BUNCH of therapy, but I’ve (mostly) stopped being hyper-critical of myself and seeing only my flaws. But I had to get out of that poisonous atmosphere to learn how to breathe fresh air. OP, I wish you luck, and a better place to work.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Same, and I need to get back in therapy to get the emotional wounds to scar over when it’s been a few years since my person died. They effing *haunt* you.

      3. MigraineMonth*

        LW, you are amazing and great at your job! You know that you are; many others have told you that you are. You deserve to feel great about your work!

        You also know that your boss is a nightmare to work for and impossible to please. Accept that as a reality: whatever you do, she will never be happy with it. Don’t destroy yourself trying to achieve the impossible.

    2. Leb*

      I’ve been in the same situation and this is the best advice. It’s taken me years to regain confidence and not freak out over tiny mistakes. Having a bad boss seeps into your entire life and makes you miserable in ways you don’t even realize. The only way to make it better is to get out.

    3. TCO*

      I also had a boss like this. She was very talented in many ways, but as a manager she was extremely critical. She’d criticize me (publicly! to the point of tears!) about “shortcomings” that prior managers had praised as strengths of mine. I was often left baffled about how I had all of these “growth areas” that no one had ever mentioned before in my career. Because she always framed it–and I think genuinely intended it–as a desire to help me grow and improve, it took me a long time to see how inaccurate and damaging her feedback was.

      When I got a new job with a new boss who’s incredibly encouraging, believes in my talents, and actually invests in helping me grow in positive ways, it took me a long time to undo the thought patterns that my prior boss had left me with. But I’m so much happier now and my skills are growing much more than they did under her.

      1. JustaTech*

        Honestly Jane sounds a lot like an old boss of mine who took the worst habits of academia to a jerk extreme.
        In academia there is a culture of poking at ideas over and over, to make sure that the *idea* is fully supported and doesn’t have any holes. The trick is to poke at the *idea* and not to pick at the *person* presenting the idea.
        My old boss would start by poking at the idea but then move directly to picking at the person, often until they cried (in public). If you asked he would say he was just trying to get the best out of them. The truth was that he was a Class A Jerk with an ego the size of the moon.

        It doesn’t sound like Jane is poking at ideas to make them better but rather is flaying the LW. Maybe this started as some kind of “tough love” but now it’s just unproductive cruelty.

    4. Joanne*

      Same. I worked for a boss like this for two years, and it took me about two years under a good leader to recover my self-esteem and believe in myself again after I left that job. And one thing I learned from my current (good) leader is that even if someone actually is doing a terrible job, you should never make them feel horrible. Coaching and leadership involve bringing the best out of someone, no matter where they’re at. Not saying OP is doing a bad job, it’s evident from the letter that they are stellar in their position. But if you’re doing a great job and you feel terrible, that’s just an even bigger red flag that your manager is awful.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Exactly. I’ve been let go from jobs I was objectively bad at without dealing with this type of damaging criticism.

  6. ferrina*

    LW, this isn’t coaching.
    I’m a teacher, corporate trainer and sports coach- this is 100% not coaching. Coaching is about helping people get an accurate picture about how they are doing and how they can take things to the next level. If you want someone to get an accurate picture, you need to make sure your feedback reflects their work- if their work is 95% awesome, your feedback should be 95% awesome.

    This is cruelty. Jane may not be doing it intentionally- I have a parent who does this who genuinely has no idea how often they do this. But the truth is that when you are constantly questioned and treated as ignorant or less-than, it takes a toll. It damages your mental health, and it damages your physical health. And it doesn’t matter how well you do- Jane will always find something to nitpick you about. When you find yourself asking “How do I thrive under terrible circumstances?”, pivot that to “How do I get away from terrible circumstances?”

      1. Nicosloanica*

        Or at least, check out emotionally from what Jane is doing to you (since OP says she can’t leave and I know it’s frustrating to keep hear that in the responses when you really can’t quit right now). Don’t let dealing with Jane make you feel “stuck” – can you look for a transfer within the org (keep those “golden handcuffs”) – or could you report to a different supervisor even for a portion of your work? Can you get assigned to a special project that takes you away from her? Can you take a really long vacation this year and come back more emotionally distanced? Can you “quiet quit” while you job search? Could you freelance in your field for a while? Or is FMLA an option?

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          I think that if the LW can’t quit, or has other reasons that they want to stay in their job, these are all great suggestions. If leaving is not an option, doing the minimum is. Finding another project that gives you some distance from Jane might be another.

        2. Helewise*

          Golden handcuffs are such a real thing. Sometime there are things in life that outweigh, by far, the value of being in a great work situation. OP, I agree with the frustration in hearing QUIT NOW if you’re in a position where that would mean giving up important priorities in your real life. Looking for ways not to take the criticism to heart, or to hear more often from healthier voices, might be what carries you through until a move makes sense for your whole life. I think it’s important not to allow her to become your measuring stick for self, but there are a lot of ways to accomplish this. Rooting for you, OP.

  7. Phoenix*

    Another way to check your perceptions of the situation are to compare what you know about others’ work with Jane’s criticisms of them, if you’re aware of what she’s criticized in others. Are her perceptions accurate and worthwhile in other people? Are they perhaps aimed at areas where your coworkers could indeed use improvement, but her sense of proportion is all off?

    This helped me regain perspective after a particularly volatile and negative manager, so I wonder if it could provide some benefit to OP while they look for another position that meets their needs. It might help them gain some distance from Jane’s opinions and re-establish that they are a good judge of their own work, if they can see her distortions more clearly in her perspectives of others.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      I once worked for a “startup CEO” (at least in his mind) who had been incredibly pleased with my work until I asked to be paid for it, when he did a 180 and pointed out that my work wasn’t nearly as good as Employee B’s.

      I wish I could say that I told him off and walked out with my head held high, but it was my first professional job and it nearly reduced me to tears. It wasn’t until I spoke with Employee B and discovered *he wasn’t getting paid at all* that I could separate the CEO’s criticism of me from his own outrageous actions. Sometimes you’re too worn down to get angry on your own behalf, but you can still recognize the wrong done to others.

  8. CommanderBanana*

    OP, you have my sympathy. I worked for someone like this early in my career. She differed from Jane in that she was actually not that good at her job, but she was so vile that the HR person interviewing me warned me about her and basically tried to talk me out of taking the job. She was an equal-opportunity bully, though, and fortunately I didn’t work with her all that closely, but it took a toll on me.

    Jane’s abusive. She’s affected your mental health to the point that you need therapy. I understand the golden handcuffs thing, but you really need to prioritize getting out and healing.

    I became pretty inured to my horrible boss once I realized that:
    1. She had made the organization believe she was indispensable because she just….never left. She wasn’t actually good at her job, beyond the longevity and inertia that kept her there. She actually did leave for a new position after 20ish years and immediately flamed out at her new job and – get this – CAME BACK and was rehired.
    2. The organization itself was toxic for tolerating her and hiring her back. They’d even sent her to anger management therapy twice.
    3. Her critiques were mostly BS. She’d ignore the 99 things that went right and focus on the 1 minor thing that she’d decided wasn’t perfect.
    4. I taught myself to tune her out and stopped trying to win her approval, which was impossible. I was very good at my job – after I left, the 3 people they hired after me all left within a year – and if she didn’t recognize that, she could go pound sand.

    Literally, by the last year I worked there, I just pretended she was making mosquito sounds when she talked.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, this. Thankfully I’ve never been exposed to this sort of abuse at home, at school, or at work, but if the LW really can’t leave an otherwise good job (and I strongly recommend looking at that one more time), then doing your best to ignore the emotional content of the feedback is the way to go. This is far easier said than done, but that’s the only way to thrive under an abusive manager. You’re never going to get Jane’s approval. If you can accept that and even internalize it, while recognizing that other people think you’re doing a great job, you’ll be able to survive a bit longer in this job.

      That said, surviving with your mental health more or less intact under Jane requires adopting a defense mechanism that isn’t going to serve you well when you do change jobs and get a more supportive manager, because ignoring feedback isn’t going to serve you well in jobs with a reasonable manager.

  9. Marzipan Shepherdess*

    LW1, Alison has often written about the danger of normalizing a toxic work environment – becoming so used to a severely dysfunctional workplace that you internalize its twisted culture and values. That’s happened to you and the results have been, predictably, devastating; your morale, self-esteem and creativity have flatlined and you dread any contact with Jane.

    Changing jobs is always a tremendous challenge, but the only alternative to doing just that is bleak; staying in your present position will affect your mental, emotional and, yes, physical health for the worse. Jane is not trying to mentor you or improve your work, and the sooner you realize this and stop chasing after her approval the better off you’ll be.

    1. Dr. Vibrissae*

      I ended up doing something like this with my PhD advisor. They were more neglectful (and tending toward narcisistic) than abusive but would come back to town and try to talk down to me about my work and what I had or hadn’t accomplished. Once I started only paying attention to the parts where I needed them, I was able to disengage from the rest.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Ditto. LW1, you don’t say how long you’ve worked for Jane, other than it’s been “years.” The longer you stay, trying to win her approval, the more warped your professional norms will become.

      And far from giving you a chance to grow professionally, you say yourself that you’re losing your “mojo.” This is a warning: you need to start plotting your exit before Jane completely destroys your talent and self-esteem. As in, right now.

      Try to detach your ego from the situation. You’ll never earn Jane’s approval, because that’s not the way she operates. Instead, update your LinkedIn profile, check out the AAM archives for job search advice, and start discreetly working your network. Start plotting your exit and update us when you find something working for leadership that actually supports your growth.

  10. nonnynonnynonny*

    OP, I’ve worked with a Jane before. Hypercritical, outright hostile, and just a jerk. But, they were very very good at the business side of things, so were basically untouchable. Leadership would constantly defer to them to the point of abdicating all responsibilities to them. We had a big “group hug” meeting to try to get them to be nicer. The end result was they just became more exacting and demanding. I left. It was clear they were never going to change and had no reason to do so. It wasn’t worth my mental and physical health to stay there. It took some bouncing around but I think I’m at a better job now (it’s only been a month but I have reasons to be cautiously optimistic). You spend (at least) almost a quarter of your waking hours working. It doesn’t make sense to stay for a person who makes you miserable.

  11. I Live There*

    I’ll give the advice I’d give myself here: run and don’t look back. Find the mentor in a new boss who will cultivate your skills and enjoyment of your work, not tear you down. This is like the guy who believes beating his dog until it stops barking means he’s successfully trained it right. All that’s going to happen is you’ll grow to doubt yourself and question everything about your knowledge and skills. Even knowing it’s “them” and “not you” won’t help. It’ll just be a slow erosion of your confidence, morale, and spirit. Start looking, shine up your resume, select a great job with a great fit, leave and never look back. Jane sucks.

    1. somehow*

      Yep, seconding. LW, you can get a much clearer view of your work by going elsewhere. Praise lets us know from where we can divert energy to where we need to improve. You’re not getting that.

      Run like the wind.

  12. TootsNYC*

    I had a boss like this; I was a junior editor, and I’d bring her my markups on stories (this was pre-computers).
    She’d demand to know why I’d changed something. It had seemed clear to me–it was grammatically wrong! I once had to explain to her why something was a dangling modifier.

    So I would double-check myself with Words Into Type. Eventually I got so tired of the constant accusatory questions that I got a pad of those newfangled tiny Post-It Notes and write “WIT p. 257” and slap it on every single change I made to the document.

    Then she asked me, accusingly, why I’d changed the spelling of a word. ?!? Because it was spelled wrong. “Did you look it up?!” I was able to say yes, because she had me so spooked. She SNATCHED UP the dictionary on her desk and looked it up right in front of me. It was not even one of the frequently misspelled words.

    It was only 9 months, and I didn’t think I could leave. The nicest thing she ever did for me was to fire me. It was a huge blow to my sense of competence, but I did recover.

    And I’ll say this: I got VERY familiar with Words Into Type, and I learned the language to describe the grammatical things I instinctively knew (and so hadn’t bothered with learning the vocabulary). That came in useful.

  13. Anonymouse*

    Wow, I’ve never worked for a boss like that (well, actually, maybe I have, but not quite that bad), but this is giving me SO MANY riding instructor/choir director flashbacks.

  14. higheredadmin*

    Quick answer: NO. I feel for you OP as I went through something similar. 10 years of experience in a role and after three years with my Jane-like boss I was so stressed I wasn’t sleeping and in a constant panic about myself or my team getting something wrong. As you say, I think the saddest part of it is that you lose that creative spark – there is just no space for it, and that is what makes someone excellent at a job. I’m now two years into my new role and mostly recovered – my new boss is hugely supportive and understanding. It takes time to recover emotionally and professionally from this – you won’t realize how bad it was until you leave. And please – leave. If your organization tolerates this known workplace abuser then you should not work there.

  15. Barrie*

    A friend of mine told me I was in an abusive relationship with my company and boss – which felt like a massive shock to me as I was so deep in the weeds I couldn’t see it. It took me leaving that job to fully realise how awful and toxic my boss was. Before then I was exactly like op- trying to seek approval and “prove” myself to him, and discounting everytime my coworkers flinched and cringed when I told them who I worked for. I’ve done a lot of work since and been able to link the fact I put up with it for so many years back to a legacy of abuse and ptsd from childhood. It’s taken intense therapy to understand and use boundaries! I hope OP can gain clarity and do the work so they can get away and enforce strong boundaries in future jobs! Best of luck to OP- it gets better!

  16. Cat Tree*

    I’ve dealt with people like this in both my personal and professional life. I finally realized something that is really freeing. If you can never satisfy this person no matter what, you don’t even have to try! Of course that doesn’t mean to do a bad job. But frame your goals or success differently. Go into it realizing that whether you do great or do terrible, the outcome from your boss will be the same. So try to ignore that as much as possible (not easy, I realize). Instead make it your goal to perform well based your own metrics, and especially consider other stakeholders if there are any.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Kinda reminds me of Captain Awkward’s response to the letter about “Alice.” Essentially, Alice is going to lash out and be unpleasant no matter what you do, so there’s no actual benefit of walking on eggshells all the time around her.
      (Link in a reply)

    2. Nicosloanica*

      Yep. Some people can do this; I hope OP can. It’s probably still psychologically damaging somewhat to live for a long time feeling emotionally distanced from your experiences, but I find it much, much better than hopelessly begging for scraps of approval from someone who is never going to give it to you.

      1. Cat Tree*

        It actually solidified for me when a driver was aggressively tailgating me on a rural road that I was unfamiliar with. There was no good place to pull over and let him pass, which is my usual strategy. I realized that if he would still tailgate me even if I was going 20 mph over the speed limit. Going faster would bring me no benefit, but would be risky both for safety and for tickets. So I tried to put him out of my mind and focus on getting to my destination.

        1. knitcrazybooknut*

          I sometimes change the mirrors so I can’t see the driver behind me in those situations. Out of sight, out of mind, and I can concentrate on what I’m doing without being distracted.

    3. GreyjoyGardens*

      I think this is a good comment. LW, if it’s not possible for you to leave, then maybe give up on trying to please Jane, and just do what it takes to do a satisfactory job. Drop the Jane rope. There may be other people who can give you more constructive feedback. If not, don’t “quite quit” SO much you get put on a PIP, but don’t try to excel. Do what it takes to keep your job and that’s it. Trying to please Jane is not worth it.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I also found that getting into middle age (particularly as a woman) gave a big boost to the ‘I really don’t care about your opinion of me’ reserve.

      This doesn’t mean I can’t accept criticism but does mean there’s a shorter list of what I will accept as valid. Wrong code patch? Yes I will listen, research and make sure I get it right. I’m wearing my favourite dress and you find it unsexy? Like I give a ****.

  17. WorkplaceSurvivor*

    Please please please OP- get out now. This sort of Abuse will leave scars that can take years to heal. Take it from me. I could have written exactly this post about my previous boss.

    The damage from working with someone like this accumulates. Sounds like you’re seeing some of this already (and I am so very sorry about that). You might not even realize the ways they’ve warped you until you’re having panic attacks at the sound of an email ding, and having to re-write everything you do 10 times to get it perfect. You’ll lose the ability to TRY new things. To be brave and take risks. And then eventually to even try at all. That’s trauma.

    This is the lie: “If it’s not perfect the first time, it’s worthless.” That’s what your brain will start telling you. Shame, guilt, and anxiety can and will eat you up. Burnout starts to dig in, and then suddenly you can’t do your work as well or at all… and maybe you start believing your boss. Because they’ve worn you down until there’s no fuel left to burn. And now you’ve already cut off all the parts of yourself you could to keep the fire burning while staying “alive” to please them.

    Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm. It is not a victory- to be able to take that kind of pain when others can’t. You’re just hurting you.

    Get out. Get therapy. You deserve better.

    Sending you tons of care and support.

  18. Addison DeWitt*

    Yeah, get out of there. Even if you’re learning something genuinely helpful, what you’re mainly going to learn is punishment avoidance.

  19. Sage*

    This scenario looks like a good example on how being too long in a toxic workplace can damage your sense of what is ok and what is not.

    I’m sorry you are in such a situation, and you need to find something better before Jane damages you more.

  20. VermiciousKnid*

    I had a grandboss like this. She was nasty, critical, and made so many of my colleagues cry. I knew whatever her problem was had nothing to do with me – she was an unhappy woman who took it out on us. She didn’t bother me nearly as much as the CEO, who was unhinged and truly believed that public shaming and criticism was the way to run her business.

    I got the hell out of there before the environment affected my mental health. I left after 8 months, which was the average amount of time someone usually stayed. The people who had been there for years were jumpy, agitated, and always on the edge of tears. What I’m getting at, OP, is GET OUT. GET OUT NOW. This is not normal and it is not good for you.

    I did not heed my own advice at the next job, where I stayed for 6 years. The owner of the company was mentally ill and when I quit I started having panic attacks. My doctor said I had PTSD from steeling myself against the volatile boss every day and now that I didn’t have to do that, my body was still in fight or flight mode. It took a while to get past that.

    Look for stability. Big companies, lots of hierarchy and SOPs. There’s protection against this particular type of madness in those places.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      This is such a brilliant and important description of the aftermath of trauma. We can power through so many traumas and then once it’s over, we need dedicated care for you now that it’s over.

      Just like if you went through a terrible besting and ended up with broken legs. Once the beating is over, you need care for your legs – you can’t just say “oh thank goodness the beating is over, what a relief, have a nice day!”

  21. Turn a Flaw into a Feature*

    Not knowing specifics, and granting that some niche occupations only have one employer in a particular geographic area…However, I would be reaching out to the other employers that have the same niche and saying, out loud, “I’ve been working very successfully for years under Jane and am exploring opportunities to grow under new leadership.” I suspect Jane has a reputation in your industry, and, if there are people who wouldn’t work for her in a million years, someone who has survived her would be a catch in my book!

    1. somehow*

      But doesn’t that simply say “I can survive an abusive boss!” (which isn’t even the reality). What is LW to gain from that?

      1. JustaTech*

        Or it can say “I managed to survive Jane for X years, I must be completely awesome” – I’ve worked in industries where this was not uncommon – one of the local academic labs had a Reputation, and folks leaving that lab were welcomed with open arms because 1) they were awesome because that boss would only torment the best of the best and 2) we felt bad for everyone working there. Pity shouldn’t be your main motivator when hiring, but you can absolutely use it in recruiting.

  22. Beth*

    LW, does your vision for your future in this job change if you assume that Jane will absolutely never give you her approval?

    Because it really sounds like she’s a person who simply Does Not Give Approval. Which means she is never going to give it to you–not because your work doesn’t deserve it, but because she’s just like this. She is never going to give you feedback that makes you feel proud of your work. She is never going to acknowledge your high performance. She is never going to stop arguing with your work and tearing you down. And there’s nothing you can do about that, because all of it is about her and who she is, not you or your work.

    The way you get your mojo back is to get a new boss. The way you learn and grow from this situation is to take notes on what not to do when you eventually are managing someone. Leaving this dynamic isn’t crumbling under pressure–it’s saying “If I can do all this under so much pressure, imagine how high I’ll soar when that weight is off my shoulders.” And while job hunting is an awful process, if you’ve accomplished so much here and have a lot of expertise in a niche specialty that’s helpful for business in your field, I bet there’s someone out there who will check your boxes and be thrilled to do it.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      And building on this “if you assume that Jane will absolutely never give you her approval”
      replace approval with recommendation.
      She will never say a nice thing about you no matter how many hoops you jump throw how much abuse you take because that is who she is. Believe her.

  23. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    OP: look at how many goalposts you have reached in your time working for Jane? Any?
    (And I don’t mean the ones you’ve set for yourself, like, “I won’t think about work on Saturday.” and “I won’t let myself cry.” or “I won’t accept the invitation to an argument about my work.”
    I mean the goal posts she has set.
    Have you ever implemented her feedback exactly as she laid it out been told, “yes, that’s it.”
    Have you ever “defended yourself” (good lord) and been told, “oh, yes, your process is better.” Or even, “hey, it’s six of one, if you want to do the X first. Use your judgement.”
    I’m betting no.
    Not one freaking time.
    Accept that you never will. The game is rigged.
    The only way to win is to stop playing.

    1. Nicosloanica*

      Great point. Once you’re getting reality-warped, you need to use objective standards and metrics to evaluate what’s happening. Take out your emotions and her intentions, just shut down that whole side of the equation. It’s spreadsheet time. How are things going, really? Where did you think they’d be a year ago, and where are you? Where do you think you’ll be next year? How is the progress going on that?

  24. Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk*

    I had my own situation similar to this under my last boss (call her Aimee-Leigh, and I’d like to be Baby Billy in this scenario even though we’re not related) and it wound up working itself out. I took this job in late 2019 and on my second day had someone stop by and say, “Oh, have fun working for Hurricane Aimee-Leigh,” and she was indeed hyper-critical and prone to blowing up. I was on eggshells with her for approximately six months before we all went home for a couple of years because of the pandemic.

    The pandemic changed things somewhat – I would still stress whenever I saw messages from her and had a couple of fraught moments, but things were better because of “out of sight, out of mind.” I also think it helped that she saw that our department was still getting things done working from home. It also meant she wasn’t spending as much time with her own hyper-critical boss, our then-CEO, who had the same ultra-high standards but a little bit more palatable bedside manner.

    What really changed things was when we came back to the office last year. (I will point out that we had a new, friendlier, less critical CEO by that point.) We had a personality assessment that we took when we came back, and while I missed the follow-up meeting because I had COVID, evidently someone else volunteered that they were afraid to make mistakes because of her reactions, and I understand things got pretty emotional. Aimee-Leigh really took it to heart – I think she’d been in therapy and also had some woo-woo characteristics that may have made her more open to change. She made the changes that needed to be made, and while she wound up taking a new job a couple of months ago, she’s now a reference and a true friend. She went from the worst boss I ever had, bar none, to one of the best.

    I realize none of this is helpful to OP, but it can work out.

      1. Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk*

        I think COVID helped with it in a lot of ways. Not just “out of sight, out of mind,” but also in the sense of a shared ordeal that we all went through. Our department (~12 people) turned over about half the positions during COVID and hired a couple of others, and I think Aimee-Leigh came to view the ones who stayed as “her people” who were tried and true. (That’s just my own assessment, nothing that she actually said.) I think it came as a real shock to the system to hear that people she had grown to really trust and rely on were so scared and unhappy.

  25. definitely anon for this*

    I had a boss like this. When I was junior and she was middle management, it worked well for many years. She could be pretty demanding, but occasional compliments from her left me over the moon and I made a LOT of progress under her – I liked that I didn’t second-guess whether there were problems, because if there were, I’d hear about them.

    Then we both got promoted at the same time about five years ago. When she was C-suite and I was middle management, the entire small organization changed rapidly. The atmosphere became really negative and punitive. A very minor error I made as a new middle person somehow turned into her spending 45 minutes chewing me out about it, then spending another 45 minutes the next day going back over it and chewing me out again, leaving me on the verge of tears. Keeping in mind that she’d made the very same error when she was new to middle management. The turnover rate spiked, and she kept saying awful things about the new junior people. I left the job, but not before she’d sent me several emails that were so nasty about perceived errors of mine (none of which were errors) that I ended up staring at the screen in amazement, thinking, “Who IS this person?” and “I wouldn’t treat ANYBODY like this.”

  26. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    Jane isn’t going to change. Jane thrives on people like you, a people pleaser. It is how she gets away with this garbage behavior she thinks is management.

    “You’ll be much better off focusing on maintaining strong boundaries with her and clearly seeing how truly messed up she is, for as long as you have to stay there.”

    Keep that in mind as you apply for jobs to get out of there.

  27. Amesip*

    Get out! I understand the golden handcuffs thing (being in a similar, but less soul-crushing situation myself), but at least be actively looking and networking. Working closely with (let alone FOR) these types of people is exhausting and demoralizing.
    When I get too overwhelmed by my job, I try to always remind myself that I have other obligations to my loved ones than money. Being in a situation much of the time that strips you of your joy and creativity damages ones ability to meet those other obligations.
    I hope you are able to find a better (and less abusive!) situation soon!

  28. CatCat*

    Alison is dead on. OP, you are being abused. You can’t “fix” this because this isn’t a you problem.

    I’ve been where you are, primary breadwinner, golden handcuffs and all.

    My therapy focused on developing resiliency and coping mechanisms, which at least got me to a place where I wasn’t crying at my desk, while I worked on getting out.

    Let go of internalizing this. It’s not salvageable and that’s not on you. You cannot get your mojo back in an environment like this. That can’t be the goal. Coping skills and escape are the goals.

  29. kiki*

    It’s been several years, my motivation and self-esteem are non-existent, and my anxiety spikes every time she messages me. I’ve lost the ability to be creative or think out of the box; all I can focus on is the inevitable barrage of questions and Jane not being happy with whatever work I do.

    It’s time to leave. This is negatively affecting LW’s quality of life, both at work and outside of work. LW also knows they are not unique in receiving Boss’s feedback as hypercritical and negative– the Boss is making other working adults cry somewhat regularly! That’s not normal.

    Not to stray too far from work advice, but I remember feeling very similar in a romantic relationship that was, retrospectively, emotionally abusive. Feeling like you’re failing and constantly on edge for years at a time is not good for anyone’s mental health. It’s incredible how leaving the situation can so quickly change your outlook and mood. Sending love and peace to LW!

    1. Dust Bunny*

      TL:DR – Jane might be good at the business part but she’s a terrible boss.

      Those aren’t separate things. She’s actually, at best, half good at her job. Probably less since I would guess that being someone’s boss is the bigger part.

      1. RVA Cat*

        Something I thought about when first reading this is comparing Jane to abusive basketball coach Bob Knight, who wasn’t fired until he literally choked a player. That college athlete went on to die from a heart attack in his 30s.

  30. CatWoman*

    Alison, I just wanted to say that the first paragraph of your response hit hard, and resonated greatly with me. Sometimes I think we need to be reminded that we need to treat ourselves the same way we would treat a dear friend or loved one.

      1. CatCat*

        The first time a loved one said to me, “You’re being abused,” after I was in great distress from work (from the same type of behavior OP writes about), I was SHOOK. I didn’t see it for what it was and that was a startling thing to realize in a work contex.

  31. Lyra Belacqua*

    I’ve worked for a number of people who could be described as critical bosses. In one case, it was challenging but great–my boss had very high (but clear) standards, and there were people who didn’t like working with her for that reason. But she never expressed those standards in a way that was cruel–critical feedback was always constructive, and when I did a good job on something, she let me know exactly what I’d done right. When I did once cry in front of her (due to frustration with a decision made by another colleague), she gently helped me figure out my next step. I learned so much from that boss and still count her as a mentor.

    The other critical bosses…not so much. Their standards were high, but also ever-shifting. They didn’t comment on work that was done well, so I never knew what (from their perspective) was great and what was just ok. My work became focused not on achieving excellence but on avoiding criticism. I never cried in front of them, thank god, but they did make me cry, a lot. In my last few months working with the worst offender, I was so anxious I was paralyzed every time I got an email from him or met with him. I ended up needing to take benzos every day to get any work done, which wasn’t something I’d needed to do before or since leaving that job.

    OP, your boss sounds like the second kind of critical boss! It’s impossible to “rise to the occasion” under that kind of boss, even if you’re someone who has in the past. Alison’s advice to set firm boundaries helps, but I found that the only thing that really worked was leaving. I thought knowing that my boss was abusive and awful, and that this wasn’t a reflection on me, would inoculate me from psychic damage. But that treatment still really got to me, and I didn’t realize how badly it had affected my mental health until I left.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      This. I’ve had both types of boss too. So long as they’re consistent, I don’t really need them to be generous with the praise. I can mentally translate their reaction. Stoic Boss nods and says “OK”, while Effusive Boss is literally weeping with gratitude; I put both of those things on the scale of their normal reactions, and conclude that they’re both saying “good job”.

      I’ve also had the boss with ever-shifting standards. It was fairly obvious what was going on; that boss needed to believe that he was being sabotaged by his incompetent employees, for reasons that lived between his ears, so he would trash everyone’s work for insignificant or even outright made-up flaws. I knew that I wasn’t the problem, yet that boss nearly broke me. It’s really hard to do good work when you know it doesn’t matter.

  32. Dust Bunny*

    Jane is your boss: It’s her job to help you thrive (assuming you’re doing your part, and it definitely sounds like you are). It’s not your job to figure out how to thrive in spite of her.

  33. FruityTooty*

    Wow, it’s like I could’ve written this myself. I feel you OP. One way of getting an objective view of the situation is what feedback have you gotten from people other than Jane. My Jane for example has an impression that I always have time to work more on their whim projects vaguely worded when my coworkers see how busy I really am. Another thing is to understand that nothing you do will ever be good enough because the point for Janes of the world is to feel superior by being hypercritical. Kinda like proving how crappy you are through needless and at times contradictory critiques actually boosts their self perception of how competent they are at their job. There is a reason that James of the world never say a positive thing about your performance while still retaining the ability to hone in on your most minute mistakes. As for solutions, I believe this is one of those your boss is an ass and isn’t going to change so getting out is the only recourse.

  34. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    anecdote: In the wild west internet of 90’s people would email around goofy computer things like the sheep eating your desktop or little games like Elf Bowling. A game came to my office, oh yeah, we passed it around an played it.
    One game hit my desk. A red dot roamed around the screen. Click on it. You win.
    I put the mouse on it. The circle disappeared and popped up somewhere else. I am embarrassed to admit, it took me three times to catch on it was a joke. The person who sent it laughed with me.
    My turn to send it to a coworker friend.
    She would not stop. “I’m going to get it.”
    I told her it is a prank. It is coded to disappear when the mouse hits it.
    “Oh, no. I don’t care. I am going to get it.”
    So yeah, this was a lesson to me.
    I don’t debate automatons.

  35. ThursdaysGeek*

    I’ve heard the warnings about abusive romantic relationships, but abusive friendships and abusive work relationships don’t get the same bad PR. They should. I was in an abusive friendship and didn’t see it, just as the OP is in an abusive work relationship and is probably just now, with Alison’s response, starting to see it. Please, OP, find another job. You won’t fully even recognize the abuse until you have some distance from it. If you’re walking on eggshells, it’s time to walk a different path altogether.

  36. Blarg*

    When I was in a similar space, and I was telling my psychiatrist about this colleague (not my boss, but far more senior and had been allowed to act as quasi-supervisor by the actual boss).

    He looked at me and said, “you know, you can’t make your mother like you.”

    Bingo. That was it. I realized that at least in my case, the dynamic was remarkably similar and I was desperately trying to please this co-worker — which was impossible because she did not want me to succeed — in the same way that I had sought to do this with my mother.

    I don’t know if it is the same for OP, but if there’s childhood stuff lurking, it can really exacerbate the situation.

    In my case, the co-worker retired and my mother died. I felt/feel so much healthier (now in a different job).

    1. WorkplaceSurvivor*

      This is soooo relatable. I was totally primed for my own abusive boss situation due to my personal history.

      The shittiest part of childhood abuse in my experience, is that it sets you up for more abuse. Like blood in the water for sharks.

      Not speculating at all about OP. But for EVERYONE- it’s very important if you’ve ever been abused to realize you’re now more a risk for it happening again.

  37. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Used to have a manager like this. I had a good reputation and was known to deliver results and high-quality work, and my manager acknowledged this. Still, she would pickpickpickpickpick at everything I did, said, or wrote. She questioned it, asked me to explain or justify it, asked why I didn’t do THIS instead of THAT, found fault with my responses, told me how I should have handled it, and so on. Even if I delivered exceptional results, she found something I didn’t do right enough. If I involved her in, say, an idea generation meeting, she might have liked the idea but found fault with how I came up it. Argh.

    I was pretty self-confident but this manager had me twisted in knots. Just seeing our weekly 1:1 in my calendar made my heart race. I tried not to take it personally – she was like that with everyone on our team – but I hit my limit at 6 months and found another job.

    Sad thing is, she was actually a nice person when we talked about literally anything but work topics. She never once yelled or even raised her voice, and never insulted me. But work-related discussions brought out the uber-perfectionist in her, I guess.

  38. bamcheeks*

    LW, there are quite a lot of people saying Jane is just mean or abusive, or has otherwise bad-intentions, and a few people offering explanations for why Jane might be acting this way. What I would encourage you to focus on is that it doesn’t matter. Whatever Jane’s motivations are, this is having a real, and appallingX effect on you. You get to prioritise your mental health and professional comfort regardless of what’s going on with Jane.

    If it helps you to decide that Jane is a bully, that’s 100% legit and you should look for a new job. If you feel that you’re not SURE Jane is a bully and maybe she’s trying or maybe she’s just got a different communication style, that’s also 100% OK. But option 2 does not oblige you to stay in the role or tolerate her style. You can still look at it and go, you know what, whatever this is, it’s not compatible with me, and it’s harming me and I don’t have to do this.

    Good luck!

  39. Make Like A Banana*

    I had a Jane that I worked for for only 4 years. I’ve been away for 4 years, and I still find myself realizing how deeply I was affected. I recently realized that I let her break me down so much that I forgot what I have to offer. She would have us do these corporate personality tests, and then use that information against us. She would take our great qualities and spin it into the worst possible lens. “Thinking quickly on your feet” translated into “Inability to plan ahead.”

    This warped me deeper than I realized, and I internalized things I shouldn’t have. Perhaps you’re a stronger person than I am and it may not affect you for years. But this type of thing has a way of digging in and settling deep in your brain.

    In the words of Jordan Peele: Get Out!

    1. 2 Cents*

      Mine used the personality test that said I like to think and am detail oriented to mean I can’t plan big-picture programs or drive initiatives (which was necessary to get ahead). Turns out I can do that when I have a supportive boss and working atmosphere!

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I worked for a Jane for 18 months and I still feel her influence a decade later. I describe her as wanting me on a three foot leash mounted ten feet in the air.

      LW, flee. Interview out ASAP. Get out while the getting is good.

  40. DramaQ*

    I worked with not one but TWO Janes in my last job. Jane #2 wasn’t quite as bad until Jane #1 was terminated then holy H-E double hockey sticks. It really did a number on my self esteem. I found myself looking myself up on ResearchGate to prove to myself I was indeed second author on several papers because they had driven my confidence so low I found it hard to believe I was ever that successful or knowledgeable. You will NEVER win Jane’s approval because she will constantly move the goal posts on you. They will dig deep deep to the bottom of the barrel to find something ANYTHING to get you on all in the name of “improving and growing”. It got to where I was groveling for even the smallest sliver of validation. I should not be like a toddler looking for praise for going potty, I’m a professional freaking adult with over a decade of experience. It took me seeing a career counselor and therapy before I finally started to get my mojo back. Even then after almost two years I still struggle at times. You need to start looking for another job. Work with someone if you need to to convince yourself you ARE smart you ARE good at your job and it’s Jane’s fault that she doesn’t recognize that. There is a company and a manager out there that will, go find them.

    1. FruityTooty*

      Yes to moving the goal post. That’s a classic sign and a surefire way to justify the endless criticism bc you didn’t satisfy the requirement that you didn’t know about and couldn’t have known about. It’s demoralizing to work under that kind of environment and it’ll eat into your ability to objectively ascertain your work performance. I had broken down three times in four times like crying in fetal position before realizing that the situation isn’t healthy for me. Your mental health is the most important thing and it’d be a shame for you to lose yourself to a manager who doesn’t know good work even when it hits them in the face.

      1. DramaQ*

        In 2020 I hit where I really did not give a crude and challenged Jane #1 on her moving the goal posts.

        She told me that it was justified because if she kept the goal posts the same then I wouldn’t stay hungry. The bar had to keep being shifted in order to keep me motivated and striving to do better.

        I am so glad masks were mandatory at the time because I would have instantly been fired. As it was I had a hard time keeping my eyebrows from shooting off into the stratosphere.

        And I agree with a poster later on about not reporting Jane to the big boss. The big boss is where my Janes were getting their behavior from. They thought exactly like him and therefore it was heavily implied if we pushed back we’d be gone not Jane #1 or Jane #2.

        Jane #1 imploded in front of the really really big wig and got herself fired. Even the owner of our site couldn’t protect her from that one. That was a one in a million event though.

        Jane #2 resorted to outright bullying. It got worse when I left for her next target she made him stay in her office at the desk next to her so she could supervise him at all times.

        The best moment outside of leaving myself was finding him a job at a former lab of mine. My former lab was great and I knew he would thrive since he wanted to get into that type of academic research. I cackled like a madman when he told me he got the job and requested he make sure Jane #2 knew I snatched him out from under her.

  41. Vaca*

    I had this with a boss, years ago. Finally, I sat down with him and said, “Matt, this isn’t working for me. Your feedback is unhelpful and your tone is consistently angry. If we’re going to work together, you need to change.” And he did.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I hope you bought a lottery ticket afterward, because this generally doesn’t happen. This is a verrrrrrrrrrrrrry rare exception.

      My hat is off to you for communicating clearly, and to Matt for actually making the necessary changes.

      1. pally*

        Yeah- usually the ‘issue’ is thrown back at the employee. Sometimes with ‘consequences’ to follow.

  42. Juicebox Hero*

    My mother was a Jane. Every decision I ever tried to make was questioned, challenged, and nitpicked, and anything that went wrong was pointed out and dissected in depth while the good was ignored. I’m talking everything from my choice of friends to my major in college to what I wanted to eat for dinner. If I got 99% on a test, I should have studied for 5 more minutes and gotten 100%.

    Anything bad that happened to me was my own fault because of something that I either did or didn’t do. Failure, even if due to forces outside my control, was punished. And if I tried to ask her for help or guidance, including at some crisis points in my life when I really needed it, it was “oh, no, I’ve tried to give you advice and you never want to hear it.” It got to the point where I was afraid to make a decision about anything, and thought I was a clueless, incompetent, worthless failure as a human being. When she finally died I was 42 and really had no idea of who I was or what to do with myself.

    The worst part is, I thought all of it was normal until I hit a crisis point and finally got some therapy and medication.

    Please do yourself a favor and get away from Jane while you realize her behavior isn’t healthy, normal, or helpful. There are people out there who can help you learn your valuable skills who aren’t hypercritical assholes about it.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Oh yeah, my mom can’t stop nitpicking either. I swear if I had a gun to my head and was screaming, “If you say one more criticism, I’ll shoot,” she would say, “But your hair!!!!” She would not be able to stop herself, she can’t stop nitpicking everything and everybody and she absolutely has to say something. (Virgo rising, y’all.)

      Unfortunately I am really, really used to being picked on and criticized constantly and screaming at people to stop didn’t work, so…..

  43. Bitsy*

    When you’re only told what you did wrong, you never know what you did right!

    You aren’t getting coaching. You aren’t getting development. You aren’t getting the outside perspective that you need to grow.

    Get out, get out, get out!!!!

  44. Anne*

    I had a boss like this once, though the situation was different because I was not performing well in the position (because they never trained me or told me their expectations) and because I was confident that they would not fire me because they would not be able to replace me. I’m definitely glad that I left the position, but one thing that did help me feel less victimized was that I just started implementing healthy boundaries around receiving feedback. For example, one of the issues was that, like this boss, my meetings with my boss would take quick feedback and turn it into an hour-long meeting with personal attacks (usually “you’re defensive” when I asked follow-up questions). I learned to interrupt and say “I don’t need to hear everything I’ve ever done wrong in this position. I need you to answer this very specific question about my work. Are you able to do that?” She would usually respond with more general comments about the job and my personality and I would interrupt with “It doesn’t sound like you can answer that question right now, so it doesn’t help either of us to continue to discuss this” and walk away. I was always calm and polite, but I just stopped sitting there and taking it. Totally took the wind out of her sails. “I really need to get back to work/get home/make a phone call/go to the bathroom” can actually help you get out of these situations. You do not have to wait to be told you can leave a meeting.

    1. pally*

      This is good!
      This is the sort of tactic I used with a semi-Jane type boss. Limit one’s exposure. Use work-related reasons to do this.

      Never knew where you stood with my boss. He wasn’t always hypercritical. But when he was in certain “moods” he became like that. Figured it was his issue-not mine. So I’d let him blather until I’d heard enough. Then I’d have a work-related excuse to scram.

      Other times, when it was clear he didn’t know what he wanted, I learned to offer two options and let him pick. That he seemed to enjoy doing. This resolved a number of issues smoothly.

      Other strategies: After presenting an issue, I’d tell him I’d follow up in a day because I needed to handle something, thus leaving him with time to ponder and come up with an answer.

  45. 2 Cents*

    OP, please find yourself a new job! I worked for a boss who rarely acknowledged my good work, which means I’ve spent years counteracting the voice in my head that still says “but OLD BOSS says you’re no good at that. You can’t trust your instincts.”

    My new boss treats me like an adult and trusts me to do good work–and in fact hired me to do the very things that old boss said I couldn’t. (yes, I was surprised, but then again, I AM good at it. Old Boss was threatened by it.) So, yeah, don’t spend a second longer working for Jane. You deserve better.

  46. Ellis Bell*

    This is why it’s such a terrible idea to award management positions to people with great technical skills and zero management skills. OP, you deserve a skilled manager and mentor! All that energy you’ve spent on justifying good work and bearing up under interrogation could have been spent on observing someone modelling good management or learning a skill that you don’t actually have, or on your mental health!

  47. Mopsy*

    I had a supervisor like this at an older job and just crashed and burned from the stress. I still regret not talking to the department manager about what happened. At the time I blamed it all on myself, just like OP.

  48. Mystery Mongoose*

    Ow, I feel this. I’m in a field that requires review points – and the thing is, review points by their nature are things you got wrong. One of my managers is super, super picky and I am constantly frustrated anytime I get review points from him, and have cried a couple of times in response. However most of my issue has to do with the way he *writes* and not the way he acts in person. He’s definitely more on the critical than complimentary side, but I’ve never walked out of his office feeling like he thinks I’m incompetent… which is what it sounds like your boss is making you feel.

    The best advice is to leave and find a job with someone who is better suited to helping you grow. Until then, my only piece of advice is to care less about her and her feedback. A *lot* less.

    Also, the next time she starts to dig in, I’d be tempted to respond “I’m sorry can we pause for a moment? I’ve been working with you for several years now and every feedback session leaves me feeling that you think I’m terrible at my job. You’ve mentioned that 95% of my work is good, but since all of your focus and attention has been on the stuff that’s wrong and is presented in such extreme measures, I’m afraid I’m going to start regressing because the constant criticism is affecting my own internal calibration. It’s like you’ve blindfolded me, thrown me into a maze, and only communicate by yelling at me anytime I miss a turn. I need you to actually direct me. Do you think that’s something we can work on?”

    1. It's You, Not Me*

      I’d love to hear Jane’s response to that. If OP already has one foot moving out the door, what is there to lose? If the response remains negative or accusatory, giving Jane a purposeful long pause and an, “I see. That’s something to consider. I will take it under advisement. Thank you.” Then internally roll your eyes, laugh at the predictability and her obtuseness, then keep it moving with the job search.

    1. Overit*

      1. A Rule of Life is that when you live in fear, leave that life.
      2. NO ONE can thrive or grow under abuse. Abusers put you in survival mode. No one grows or thrives in survival mode.
      3. An abusive system keeps the victims in thrall because they are always seeking an ever moving carrot, exend all energy avoiding or recovering from abuse, and they cannot see any more that the flaw is in the system/abuser, not themsleves. Victims therefore spend endless time and energy trying to fix themselves and always fail because the abuser sets them up to fail.
      4. Abusers do not change because THEY are thriving under their system. They may be sadists, they may have a superiority complex they need to feed, etc. They abuse because it works for them. But you know what? Who cares? Her personality defects are not your problem. You cannot fix them. You take care of you. See #1.

      1. Goldenrod*

        ” A Rule of Life is that when you live in fear, leave that life.”

        Hallelujah, yes! A big “hell yes” to everything in Overit’s comment.

  49. Aggretsuko*

    I’ll just say that being in a hypercritical environment for the last ten years is why I’m such a horrifying and horrible mess now :/

    That said, I certainly get the golden handcuffs and not being able to leave. People tell me not to take it personally, but you can’t not do that, because work is how you afford to LIVE.

  50. mdc*

    “She once said that 95% of my work is good … but I’d say that 95% of her feedback to me is critical, frustrated, or accusatory. I feel like a constant disappointment and burden to her.”

    What the letter writer is describing is precisely what the Big 3 consulting firms admit to doing – it’s why they have massive turnover and burnout….but it is also a trial by fire that forges pretty tight bonds amongst its employees and alumni.

    I left that world only two years in, particularly because I saw the partners leading generally miserable lives. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t seem to be for Jane either.

  51. hereforthecomments*

    I could have written this letter years ago. I took a job with someone highly respected in her field, in a department that annually won awards for their work. I was beyond thrilled. She was a nightmare. Everyone in the entire building (other departments who didn’t have to work for her) would only come in our area if they knew she was out. She made me a basket case. I cried so many days after leaving work (I’m not a crier about everyday things–this was out of the norm for me). There was gaslighting, negative reinforcement (I do not respond to that method–I’m more of a Napoleon–give me enough medals and I’ll win you any war), psychological abuse, verbal abuse. I wish I had some advice, but I saw that there was no way for me to stay there. I left after four months. I can’t imagine being there for years! At my next job, I had a really hard time believing any praise and made excuses when presenting any of my work–even before feedback. I now see I was having trauma from that toxic workplace. About the only positive I can see is that years later I ended up in another toxic hellhole, recognized it for what it was, used all of their resources to find another job and left after less than a year. It helped that it was grant-funded and I knew they would have a hard time filling a temp role if they got rid of me, so I put blinders on and sat stony-faced through all of the “pep talks” (beatings will continue until morale improves type). Maybe a lot of people respond with great work to that kind of treatment? I just know it makes me shut down, not care and work on clawing my way out to any other job!

    1. Goldenrod*

      “About the only positive I can see is that years later I ended up in another toxic hellhole, recognized it for what it was, used all of their resources to find another job and left after less than a year”

      Ugh! I’m so glad you got out! And, yes, I agree – that is the only positive. After having a boss like that (and sticking it out for a few years), I now am very clear that I am DONE with ever doing any of that ever again. The second I see a red flag, I’m out! That’s my positive takeaway: never again.

  52. Pam*

    My heart breaks for you – this is horrific and I made a point of commenting on this to add to the huge number of people coming here to say this is wrong and you absolutely do not have to have this as part of your work experience. I had a boss like this many years ago, that dynamic destroyed my ability to work in that field. When I got to the point where I was getting sick every morning and all of my pregnancy tests were negative a very kind doctor gave me similar advice that Alison gave you, and also gave me the number of a therapist to process everything that happened. I’m cheering you on and hoping you find yourself back at a better place.

  53. Anne Shirley*

    There are mentors/supervisors who have very high expectations *and are also* decent and respectful in their interactions–the classic “tough but fair” persona. Jane is not one of them. You deserve to be spoken to like a competent professional. Hell, like a decent human being. Best of luck to you in finding something better!

  54. Dust Bunny*

    It feels like a point of pride to get her approval.

    “I have an abusive person in my life who tears me apart, makes me cry, and is destroying my mental health. How can I use their criticism as a way to grow?”

    This does all sound very much like, “I know he screams at me but then he tells me how special I am and he wouldn’t say that if he didn’t love me”.

    This should not be that hard. A working relationship should not be this out of balance. It’s also bulls**t because it’s not even how you get the best work out of your reports.

  55. Trippedamean*

    I work in a similar position for someone who is often perceived this way so my take is a little different.

    With my boss, it’s important to be as direct, to-the-point, and clear as possible. She is not shy about letting you know when you haven’t been and isn’t concerned with whether it hurts your feelings or not. On the other hand, when I do mess up or fall short of expectations, if I am also direct and clear about how I intend to fix or improve (or ask her advice on how to when I don’t know), she will not only be okay with it, she will begin to acknowledge your contributions (albeit clumsily).

    A few of my colleagues don’t get to that point, though, because they are so busy being hurt by her initial response and defending what they did. The LW sounds like one of them.

    My suggestion would therefore be to try to remove the emotion from it. Expect criticism and frame it for yourself as a comment on ways you can improve your work rather than a comment on you or your abilities. For instance, if she says, “Why didn’t you do X?” respond dispassionately with, “I was doing Y, Z, and A. Should I have made X a priority over those?” and if she says yes, reply with something like, “I will do that next time. For now, I’ll work on finishing X before I work on anything else.”

    Caveats: Since the LW has been dealing with this for years, there may be too much accumulated bad feeling to do this. There’s also, of course, the possibility that Allison notes of this manager just being toxic. If either of these are the case, or if removing the emotion isn’t possible or doesn’t help, of course LW should find another job.

  56. Nea*

    Internal transfer, internal transfer, internal transfer! Your colleagues are working for someone else – see if you can get into that department! Their boss and the overall organization would surely prefer to have a known good employee with years of experience working for them rather than lose you to the known hive of angry hornets that is Jane.

  57. wear floral every day*

    THIS is my current boss. And tomorrow is my last day at work because I quit after 4 months working for her. When I announced I’m quitting, she didn’t ask me why I’m leaving but she said – in an overly condescending tone – that it was obvious that I’m not cut out for this job. I told her that I’m effing great at my job and she is the sole reason I’m leaving.
    OP, you know why I’m able to do this? Because I previously worked for another such boss for more than a decade. I reached the point where I was unrecognizable to myself. It took my years to get back into shape but, at least, now I can spot a bad boss from miles away and keep my distance.

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      Damn!! Good for you!! I bet that felt amazing to say. How did she respond?

      Good for you for leaving.

      1. wear floral every day*

        Thanks for your comment :))
        She just..ignored me. She kept on bringing the discussion back to herself and her great achievements so I told her “In my career, this is the first time I see a person quitting, and instead of having a discussion on the reasons why and receiving their feedback, getting a self-centered monologue. There is nothing more to say. Thank you for this opportunity. This is goodbye”
        She made this so easy for me. At least my previous manager put some effort into being manipulative and pretending to like me haha

      1. wear floral every day*

        I hope someday we get a similar comment/update from the LW. Alison and the commenters have been extremely helpful in my professional journey towards normalcy

  58. LabRat*

    I worked for a Jane for two *months*, not years, and it was enough to drive me quit (a job with good pay and benefits for the industry) without a new job to move onto because it was destroying my mental health.

    More to the point though, and something I feel LW is acknowledging without absorbing, the constant hostile criticism and adversarial relationship was doing me terrible damage *as a professional*. Staying for the professional development makes no sense when your creativity, initiative, and drive to excel are all disappearing, as they inevitably will with this kind of boss.

    I had convinced myself to grit my teeth and push through the misery to learn and grow too. I let go when I realized I wasn’t really doing either anymore because the pride and pleasure in those things were gone and all that was left was bracing myself for the next angry lecture.

  59. Night Vale Seems Good By Comparison*

    As of this comment I don’t see one of my favorite quotes, so I’ll add it: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that’s life.” — Captain Picard.

    It sounds like the OP has always managed to succeed so far with hard work. If this is their first encounter with an abusive/unfair/no-win situation, it’s not surprising that they’ve just kept trying what has always worked in the past. And I suspect they may hold a bit of the Just World fallacy, so that failing seems like a reflection on them rather than impossible circumstances.

    Leaving this job isn’t failing. It’s recognizing a bad situation and making the logical conclusion to get out to save yourself and your sanity. Does it really make sense to think that every single person (and apparently there are many!) who told you they can’t work with your boss just wasn’t trying hard enough? Please start looking; you deserve better!

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Very much this, thank you!

      I often see so-called “influencers” who claim that winners never quit, but the fact is that winners do quit the no-win situation and move on to something where they will be more successful.

      OP, Jane isn’t going to change. Give yourself permission to get up and leave. You have very marketable skills and aptitudes. You can and will do better somewhere else.

      1. Nea*

        My experience has shown that people who want to famous for being famous (like influencers), always say things like “Winners never quit” but people who are famous for Being Really Good At Something, like, say, Simone Biles, stop the nanosecond they realize they need a break. That’s how they stay Being Really Good At Something.

    2. Boof*

      Yes, the two options are leaving, or possibly stop caring and assume the manager has no valuable input on how well the OP is doing. Look for some other external validation, if needed and stop caring with this abusive manager thinks. It’s possible that’ll even lessen the abuse since there will be no reaction. Which I’m going to stress does not make the abuse OP’s fault. It’s just what OP can most easily control in the situation.
      I assume if Opie was able to stop caring about the manager, they would have done so. It’s not weakness, but if they haven’t tried it it’s worth doing until they can get out.

  60. Sparkles McFadden*

    LW, I get it. You’re thinking that if you can just control yourself enough, you can make the situation better. Echoing everyone else here to say that that’s not how it works. Plus you’re assuming you can grow and learn under this boss. You can’t. There’s nothing valuable to learn except how not to manage people, and you probably learned that in your first week with her.

    Please, please, please get another job before you convince yourself you’re not worthy of one.

  61. No Longer a Bookkeeper*

    I could have written this letter about my previous boss. She was a nightmare to work for — at first she was really pleased with my work, but then she started nitpicking EVERYTHING and shifting the goal posts constantly — she would literally decide that she didn’t like the way I was making notes in QB, even though SHE was the one who asked for them to be written that way. I tried so long to do everything correctly to win her approval, but I finally realized that I never would because her definition of “correct” changed day to day (sometimes hour to hour).

    The last straw was when she took a month to approve my work for a big tax form project, leaving 4 days to fill out and file HUNDREDS of forms, and then retroactively changed her deadline so that I had missed it (ie the forms were due on Friday, she wanted them done by “Wednesday or Thursday,” I finished on Thursday, and she said “I wanted this on Wednesday.”) I had it IN WRITING and she didn’t care. I got the forms postmarked for the Friday deadline, but I had still “failed.” The icing on the cake was that she was furious I mailed them out on Friday because she was convinced the post office was closed for Good Friday. (She once yelled at a coworker for going to the “wrong” post office, so she had some hang up about the USPS for some reason.) I finally put my foot down, and she did NOT like it. At all. I was persona non grata after that.

    All that to say, you are never going to get your boss’ approval. I know it’s really hard to accept (my mother is also hypercritical, which is probably why I tried to win my boss’ approval for so long). But when it’s affecting your mental and physical health this much, it’s time to leave. It might take time (I had to wait it out for MONTHS because my husband was in a very long interview process for the job that allowed me to quit with nothing else lined up) but you will feel SO much better once you’re gone. I’m sending you all the good thoughts!

  62. Gerri’s Jaunty Hat*

    This response is so well-written and so needed!

    “You’ve fallen into the trap of ‘she’s so exacting that if I can get her approval, it must mean I really succeeded’”. OP, that’s also buying into your terrible boss’s own warped perspective. You know she’s doing this because she doesn’t think that kindness and honest management would get as good results, when in fact it’s the opposite.

    She’s Lucy holding the football. There is no quality of work you could give her that would result in honest praise. She’s tricking you. Don’t give her opinion one penny’s more of your value.

    1. Gerri’s Jaunty Hat*

      Forgot to add, ALL abusers trick their victims in the same way. “If only you were perfect enough, I wouldn’t have to X”. It’s a lie. There is no win condition. The goalposts will move forever.

      1. Ashley*

        I really think this is someone who is trying to get you to perfection and will accept nothing less. If you are 95% great in the vast majority of jobs and situations that is amazing and definitely enough. But I think your boss will always keep you at 95% because the expectations / goalpost will continue to change.
        As you are trying to mentally cope, I tried to think about what expectations this person had for my co-worker. Their standards were much lower, but they knew I tended to be perfectionist so they fed on those tendencies. It isn’t sustainable, and when I know I would get yelled at regardless I just accepted I would make mistakes and sometimes I just aimed for low hanging easy to address issues so there was something to fix for them.

        An example of this was someone I knew had an annual property inspection. They would create an easily identifiable problem like leaving a pile of rocks on the sidewalk to get flagged and then they could be quickly and easily removed. The inspector found something to be fixed, but it didn’t take much time or energy. It doesn’t work perfectly at work but more blatant mistakes can sometimes eat up the focus so things that don’t really matter get skipped. Also see if you can get perspective from other peers / managers about your work product, but hearing no one else will work them always helped me manage the jerk boss.

  63. Champagne Cocktail*

    I’m glad you’re looking for a new position and are in therapy, LW. Your situation sounds like it’s gone all the way to traumatizing.

    There’s a lot of great advice here, and I don’t have anything to add, but I wish you the best of luck and the fastest exit possible.

  64. C.*

    I’m honestly just applauding Alison’s response here. Every word of this rings true, and it’s hard to remember when you’re in the thick of the LW’s situation. Even though my situation isn’t exactly the same, I’m in a work environment that tolerates do-nothing managers who get by on bad behavior and actively stifling the creativity and growth of those around them. It is exhausting. I am burnt out. And while my manager isn’t berating me, I, too, am second-guessing my abilities, skills, and contributions in the workforce. It’s an awful feeling, and I wish nothing but the best to the LW. Let’s both get out—stat!

  65. ina*

    LW, two things remind me of a situation I had: losing motivation and anxiety spiking when she messaged me. I had someone who wasn’t my boss but senior to me and thus I worked on projects they managed. This person was not built for project management — they were a poor communicator, they didn’t let people know the next steps or when deliverables needed to be ready (the program manager would step in for clarity here and there, since the two were in more communication), and she would get overwhelmed and frustrated when things weren’t going fast enough with 3rd party vendors (and we worked for the GOVERNMENT and *not* at a sexy agency with lots of money either!)

    When she was frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed, she snaps at people and could not make her irritation unknown. Even the program manager and the senior data analyst confided (when I finally had enough) that they are on the receiving end of it. However, as I was most junior at the time, she found a special delight in planning meetings with me to monitor my progress. I had one minor part on the project that couldn’t be done until others completed their portions, including her own. But for some reason, she wanted to have meetings with me every other day to discuss my progress and when I would be done — to which I had the same answer and to which see got increasingly irritated by because it was the same one. I have no clue* why she was micromanaging and honestly, bullying me. Again, she is not my boss — I was just helping on this relatively low stakes project. It got to the point where she was coming down on me and being passive aggressive in communications. I got psyched out, doubted my work, lost confidence, and just anxious as hell because she was getting increasingly upset and I couldn’t figure out why.

    *Personally, I think she was comfy doing it as I was the only non-White employee “beneath” her; she was a white woman, I was brown (I am 100% from my home country in Africa, on both sides going back as far as oral tradition will take us and from a very remote mountain village, but she kept asking if I was mixed…one of many inappropriate comments she made toward me that I let slide, so who knows what she thought I was). Most of the senior staff was East Asian women; there was another white woman closer to my age at the time who didn’t receive this treatment (which I learned with speaking to her), and while I’m happy she didn’t get any of this one woman’s wrath on her despite us being the same level in the office, the fact that the senior staff who were POC women did notice this toward them in 1:1 meetings only fuels my suspicion on why she felt comfy doing this with certain people. My actual boss, and everyone who’s apparently witnessed this 3rd hand or 1:1, was very responsive when I finally said something but by then, I just wanted out because no solution other than not having to work with her would work for me (def a me thing). She also claimed she was “trying to be more direct and it’s coming off as aggressive” when my boss spoke to her and she relayed the information back to me — at that point, I had to roll my eyes because she was always direct. She was just being a downright bully. I do not think she would have treated me that way had I been a man, too (even a brown one). This woman is a mess now that I reflect and she over shared so much with me, her very junior coworker…including her messy divorce and other aspects of her life that, now that I am older, would have shut down as inappropriate work conversation a lot quicker.

    Point is, I felt like a million bucks when I put the resignation in. Job hunt aggressively, LW, and just do your best to remind yourself that what they’re doing to you is not ok. No matter how many people let it fester. You have options. Seek them out. You do not deserve to be treated like this, not even in the name of directness and honesty.

  66. EnthusiaticJoy*

    LW – I feel like this was written by me about 4 years ago. I was in an incredibly toxic work situation with a boss who was frankly in over her head and the more she was failing at her job, the more critical, micromanaging and difficult she became. Towards the end, conversations with her literally felt like torture, and that I was being held hostage until she got whatever she wanted from me. She would call me in the evenings to berate me some perceived failing. One time she told me I didn’t know how to communicate with executives, despite the fact that the execs I was communicating with I had been working with for years and had a great relationship with both of them. I just wasn’t communicating with them the way she would communicate with them.

    I would have to travel with her occasionally, and she would always insist we had to eat together in the evenings, even if I wanted a quiet night in my hotel room to catch up on other work, or just call my family. These meals usually involved drinking and bashing other members of our team. She would complain about everything she was frustrated with my team members about, but the entire time I would be thinking… if she talks like this to me, what is she saying about me to them?

    In the end, I didn’t get out on my own…. she was so toxic even outside our team, another department ended up filing multiple HR complaints against her. She ended up let go, and our entire team imploded. They dissolved our department and shipped each of us off to work for other departments. I spent the next year in that new department doing work that was relatively easy and a bit boring for me, but it was good for me and allowed me to recover my self-esteem and heal from this experience.

    After that year, I did end up leaving for a new job that has been an incredible challenge and opportunity for me. I’m now in an executive leadership position at a tech startup and work with an amazing team, who really appreciate me and everyone else on the team. I still have moments of panic or worry when I make a mistake that I’ll get the kind of reaction I would have gotten from her, but they don’t happen, because it’s not normal for managers to behave that way.

    So my advice… if she’s not going anywhere, get out. Find a new job. Work your network – is there are previous manager you can reach out to about other opportunities in the industry? Protect yourself – you’ll likely realize after you get out that you’ve already internalized some of your reactions to her toxic management, and will need to do some work to unlearn those behaviors yourself. But do it now, before it becomes harder for you.

  67. Jade*

    Jane has a boss. Turn her in without being emotional. Be matter of fact. Jane’s abrasive managerial techniques are affecting my day to day job function.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “Jane has a boss. Turn her in without being emotional.”

      In a book about workplace bullying that I read once, it advised, “Don’t ever report your bullying boss to *their* boss. That is always the person who loves them the most.”

      I wish this weren’t the case – but I’ve seen it play out over and over again in workplaces.

  68. thelettermegan*

    One thing you can do (while looking for a new job) is to push back on accusatory questions. When she comes at you with a question, roll a question back at her, or demand she just tells you what she wants.

    If you’ve been doing this for years with great feedback from previous managers, you have the space to say that. Say to yourself, “I’ve been grooming llamas for how many years now, I know what I’m doing,” every time she comes around.

    Accusatory questions are usually a power move that people don’t always realize they are applying in ways that undermine their character rather than making their point.

    Forcing her to acknowledge that she’s using a bad tactic will either force her to improve or (more likely) throw her off her game.

  69. oranges*

    I really, really, really want this LW to come back in a year with an update that they ditched this terrible job and found something new that’s worlds better. That their new boss is respectful, professional, appreciative, and they can’t believe how miserable they’d become under that tyrant.


    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      We don’t even need to see that. We just need an update where the OP repeatedly pushes back on unwarranted criticism and asks for positive feedback. Then sees how Jane responds. 10 years at one job? OP sure has alot of political capital to expend. Use it!

      Qutting just means Jane hires someone else and repeats the pattern

      1. Goldenrod*

        “10 years at one job? OP sure has a lot of political capital to expend. Use it!”

        Not necessarily. You can be great at your job for 10 years and still have zero political capital. It really depends where you work and how much the authority structure respects roles at all levels (which they often don’t).

  70. Yeah...*

    Given that LW said they were looking for another job, I’m surprised at the “You need to get another job” comments.

    1. Anne Shirley*

      The LW said a new job would have to tick a lot of boxes. Understandable. But I think a lot of us are suggesting they do not let “perfect be the enemy of good.” They need to get out ASAP for their mental well-being.

      1. oranges*

        A lot of updates on this site include the LW noting that the comments section was helpful in making them see how unusual their situation really was and gave them the kick to finally do something about it.

        Consider me another cold water splasher and red flag waver on this one.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      We’re using our own experiences to try and impress that getting OUT of this job is a priority – a really, really high priority.

  71. Samwise*

    Sunk cost fallacy. You’ve put so much into this job, that it’s hard for you to see that putting more into it is not advancing you.

    No matter how much you put into this job, OP, you will never make Jane happy, Jane will always be mean, nasty, hypercritical, and negative. She will be the same whether you f*** up or succeed spectacularly. You already have the evidence showing this.

    Strongly recommend that you find another job. And encourage you to work with a therapist to help you get your mojo back :)

  72. wendelenn*

    OP: Listen to the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line.

    “This man is nothing, this class is nothing! If you want something, go find another class! And when you find one, you’ll be an actress–and I assure you that’s what finally came to pass!”

  73. Young Business*

    I’ve been in this exact position with two bosses, at the same company. Our weekly one-on-ones devolved into sessions where my manager would attack my personality and character. I was absolutely burnt out from working hard but it was never good enough.

    There will be no point at which you gain their validation or seal of approval, LW. It’s absolutely not worth the mental anguish, stress, or emotional turmoil to hang in there.

    I rationalized and normalized the behaviour, too. Of course, these managers weren’t trying to make me better. They were undermining my judgement and eroding any sense of autonomy I held under the guise of management and feedback.

    1. ferrina*

      I’m so, so sorry you went through that! I’ve also had a boss that decided to have weekly “feedback” sessions which were just her attacking me however she could. When I had an extraordinarily good week and she couldn’t find enough to fill 30 minutes, she wanted to cancel the meeting rather than give me an actual positive feedback.

      It really messes with your head. And the worst part is, it has nothing to do with you.
      Hope you’re recovering well!

      1. Young Business*

        Thanks, ferrina! I’m sorry to hear that, too, and hope you’re also doing better. As you said, it really does mess with your head and make you doubt yourself.

        I’m in a vastly better role now and recovered from the burn out. :-)

  74. Sara without an H*

    LW, Please go back and rearead this:

    I’m used to being a high performer, and I desperately want to succeed at this job. It feels like a point of pride to get her approval. But it’s been several years, my motivation and self-esteem are non-existent, and my anxiety spikes every time she messages me. I’ve lost the ability to be creative or think out of the box; all I can focus on is the inevitable barrage of questions and Jane not being happy with whatever work I do. It’s at the point where I’m not sure I could speak to her about this without getting emotional.

    Jane will never, never give you approval. Never. She has none to give. She is an abusive bully, and her ego is stoked by withholding approval from people dependent on her.

    You cannot fix this. You need to do two things stat: 1) find a therapist; 2) start job searching. You won’t get a reference from Jane, no matter what you do, so start looking at colleagues/other team leads you’ve worked with. Work your professional network. Check the archives here at AAM.

    But get out now. You can’t “grow” in a pot of poison.

  75. Dawn*

    LW, I’ve been *exactly* where you are – suffering under a rankly abusive, controlling, micromanaging, hypercritical boss; that was the new boss who was forced on me earlier this year, and, several months ago, saw to it that I was terminated without cause because I wouldn’t give her an actual reason to fire me – I was too good at my job for that – and she wanted to keep on her own little team of lackeys and minions. Just like your bad boss, mine never gave me a word of praise or encouragement and was seemingly only hell-bent on making my life miserable each and every day, continually pick-pick-picking at everything I did, treating the tiniest of mistakes (easily and instantly corrected) as abysmal failures, and so on. I spent my time crying and quietly having panic attacks in the bathroom, more often than not.

    Your boss is an abuser and she’s crushing your soul just like mine was slowly killing me. Make your escape plan and *get out*; you deserve *so much better*! I wish I could feel like I did, but it’s several months on and I still can’t find a new position….I’m trying not to feel utterly demoralized and disheartened, but it’s incredibly hard and soul-crushing.

    Regardless, LW, I know exactly how you feel – I know what this boss from hell is putting you through – and you are *not alone*. Get out, find something better like you deserve! Here are some supportive hugs from an internet stranger if you wish them. <3

  76. Bookworm*

    OP, I can relate to much of what you said and what many of the replies said. I had a boss who was such a poor communicator that I didn’t always understand what I was expected or what mistake I had made, good work only earned me more work and I was not being managed/coached at all (forgotten trainings, clear lack of communication between employees because I’d run into genuine scheduling conflicts, etc.).

    It was also clear to me that this was a boss who simply did not want to manage and believed she was actually an amazing one *because* she didn’t understand the difference between micromanaging and genuinely managing (plus not wanting to manage at all). Relatively niche area of a field that is already known to be brutal, had really hoped this was someone who would be willing to work with me but I could not produce to do much beyond the bare minimum because it did not matter.

    You won’t get your mojo back, not here at least. Run. I came to (unfortunately) understand why and how people flee this field of work. My circumstances of my departure from this place wasn’t so great and I’ve been in the job hunt for several months now but the stress was no longer worth it. I hope it works out for you, OP.

  77. Jaybeetee*

    So bosses like this always make me think about how, about ten-ish years ago, the English-speaking world seemed to develop a cultural fascination with “brilliant assholes” in general, and brilliant asshole bosses in particular. Real ones like Gordon Ramsay. Fictional ones like Dr. House, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda Priestly, Rick Sanchez, etc. All predicated on the idea that if you’re smart enough and good enough at what you do, it’s cool for you to abuse people.

    (Then I dated an IRL version of this idea…)

    Fortunately, I think “Janes” are increasingly becoming a relic of a bygone era. Culturally, we *don’t* seem to think this way anymore. These days, it’s not so much, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” as, “dude, if you think it’s okay that the kitchen is on fire, that’s your problem.” These days, many of us recognize more readily that a boss like Jane actually has a huge skill deficit.

    She’s a bad boss! Her technical brilliance may “make up for it” as far as the higher-ups are concerned, but Jane is not a good boss, and therefore not actually good at her job, because she’s never learned how to effectively manage people. Never learning how to *not* be abusive is a huge skill deficit no matter who you are, and trying to use intellect or skill or “I’m just brutally honest” cliches to cover for it is an objectively bad thing to do.

    OP, I get that you feel stuck. I have a “golden handcuffs” career myself (tho luckily I’m happy in my current role and do have options to move around if I’m not). If I were you, I’d look out for internal transfers, even if it’s a demotion at this point.

    But while you’re there – forget trying to “thrive” or “win her approval”. Jane is bad at being a boss, therefore is bad at her job, and is too full of herself to even realize she sucks. Give her opinion all the respect its due. That is… very little.

    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      Began my career under one of these. There used to be a payoff. Bigger income growth, awesome experience.

      I feel like at least corporate jobs have been sort of frozen the past few years. Despite the great recession narrative everyone I know is complaining about lack of promotions, actual good job openings, older people taking up key roles and never retiring, etc.

      Throw inflation and a bubbly rental and home market, now the people who used to take the job for Gordon Ramsey types see no value in putting up with abuse. For what? So they can barely make rent while living with roommates?

      1. Jam on Toast*

        Yes, my spouse has been rewatching House this summer. I love Hugh Laurie and remember really enjoying the show when it aired. Now, I have to literally leave the room while it’s on because the quippy one liners and occasional flashes of humanity can’t mask what a horrible, degrading, miserable character he is and how egregiously toxic the work environment at the hospital would be if it were real life.

  78. Kelly*

    I really feel for you, LW. I worked in a very similar situation in a kind of niche field of veterinary medicine with high maintenance clients and rather delicate patients who had to perform to ridiculous levels. I was heaped with praise from my supervisors and the universities I referred patients to for the first many years of my career until I moved to another practice where day 1 a technician was criticizing me for something that wasn’t even wrong. It was downhill from there. I kept thinking I could prove that I was an excellent clinician to my boss, but all that happened was some horrifying imposter syndrome and clinical depression. Nothing was ever right and I was gaslit and lectured about “communication” over and over. I started forcing myself to cry in these meetings because that’s the only way he would stop his tirades of abuse over things I had no control over. To top it off I was paid very poorly.

    I finally quit after 3 years of this and it really broke me. I didn’t want to spend any time around the animals I previously adored and especially wanted to avoid anyone who owned them after plenty of abuse from bananapants clients. I work in a different sector making twice as much (about 4x hourly pay) and you could not pay me enough to go back.

    For the sake of your health get out as soon as possible. My current job is one I never thought o would do in a million years and the pay and benefits steadily improved over a few years. I figured if I hated it after 6 months I would just start looking again. That was years ago now.

  79. Escapee*

    I currently work for a boss like Jane. I realized it ages ago and have been job hunting for nearly a year to no avail. I get first interviews but no follow ups. I have asked the interviewers for feedback to help me improve but get no reply. I finally realized that I must have internalized her criticisms so much that I’m projecting that in my interviews. I am currently on FMLA to try to be away from that environment long enough that I can jump start the search for a better place. But I am aware that I might not have enough time to do that and I am considering leaving without a job just for my own well-being. I know that’s not the greatest solution and I am the primary breadwinner but I can’t return to the abuse. Best of luck to the OP. I hope we both find better jobs!

    1. Jaybeetee*

      Best of luck to you. If you can, you might want to consider a session with a job coach, or even a friend or relative who does hiring, to see where you might be able to improve on interviews. I used to interview badly early in my career, but it was the most frustrating thing because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong! Some concrete feedback from a couple different sources was immensely helpful for me.

    2. Stopped Using My Name*

      “I finally realized that I must have internalized her criticisms so much that I’m projecting that in my interviews.”

      You’ve given me something to think about. Thank you

    3. Michelle Smith*

      I’m sorry you’re also going through this. I know you and your family will be better off with you away from that toxic boss. My last job search took me two years and was super demoralizing. Everyone I did informational interviews with told me that I was incredibly well qualified for the positions I was trying to get and that I presented very well (professional, strong answers to interview-style questions, friendly and personable, etc.). No one knew why I wasn’t getting more interviews, why I had no offers, and why I had to be selective about positions (because even though I did eventually take a pay cut for the offer I accepted, despite everyone telling me I wouldn’t need to do that, a lot of comparable jobs were paying even less…like 50% less).

      A couple of things that helped me during my two years of hell were having a therapist that validated my feelings and a career coach that helped me rebuild confidence. I don’t know if you can afford those things. For me it was literally the difference between remaining alive and not, so if you’re dealing with the kind of depression I was, I hope you can make it work.

      Some of the tips I used from them was doing power poses before an interview (it sounds stupid tbh, but it does help), repeating mantras that I posted on sticky notes right where I sit in my “home office” (stuff like reminders to not hide my enthusiasm and that I’m accomplished and valuable), and prioritizing my mental health. I prioritized my mental health by refusing to stay late to correct other people’s problems. Whereas before I would spend hours trying to track down the people and information I needed, calling/emailing supervisors, locating other attorneys’ files for my judge, etc., I decided to drop the rope and just…let things fall apart if they had to. I emotionally disengaged from my work to the extent possible, still doing my best on things within my direct control, but refusing to allow other people’s problems become my emotional burden (which was easy to do given how the court I practiced in was structured – I was required to make arguments on other people’s cases on a daily basis, so not having the files/information I needed to do that effectively was anxiety-inducing). I just decided to inform the court when I didn’t have what I needed and let it be the judge’s responsibility to locate the attorney who failed to do their job.

      I also did my best to let go of the things people said to/about me for the sake of my mental health. Easier said than done, but having visible reminders up on sticky notes and regular meetings with my coach and therapist to reinforce this change in thinking helped me get there. I also stopped beating myself up for the things I couldn’t do. My team shrank while I was working there from a height of 2 supervisors and 7 attorneys to 1 supervisor and 2 attorneys, including me. There was no way for me to produce the same quality of work at the same rate with all the additional responsibility that got dumped on my plate. So I had to learn to let go of my perfectionism and accept that it was more important for me to spend my time after hours doing things for myself than it was to work late hours to do the work of 2-3 additional people. That meant that some things were incredibly delayed and some things I had to drop the ball on entirely. I don’t regret that decision for a second.

      I hope any of this is helpful. I wish you the best in getting out of your current situation and into a better one.

      1. Escapee*

        Thank you. I do have a therapist. She helped me take FMLA time. I will consider a career coach.
        I have always had great feedback and performance reviews in my career so (logically) I know it’s not me but the abuser does a good job of wearing you down so you don’t trust yourself anymore.
        You and other commenters have given some good recommendations that I will take it.

        1. Goldenrod*

          Book recommendation: “The Asshole Survival Guide” by Robert Sutton.

          He has a TON of good advice for dealing with abusive people at work, and bonus, it’s funny.

          And extra bonus: when you do get another job, bury it in a drawer and leave it for the next person! That’s what I did at my last toxic job, and it felt so good. (And your boss can never call you on it, because in order to do so, she’d have to say to herself, “Hey! *I’m* an asshole!” :D

          Good luck and send us an update!!!

  80. Something Wicked This Way Comes*

    I think I have the prizewinner for the most hypercritical boss.

    My boss was copied, or received a copy of, an email I had sent. She approached me in the hallway outside of the ladies room, where there were other people passing by, and started berating me for writing an email that was too long. The email was 8 words long. She said I should have said the same thing in 4 words.

  81. Goldenrod*

    To me, this was the giveaway: “I’ve lost the ability to be creative or think out of the box; all I can focus on is the inevitable barrage of questions and Jane not being happy with whatever work I do.”

    Would an exacting, demanding mentor who was actually trying to help do THAT to a mentee?

    Jane is a sadistic creep who enjoys punching down – she doesn’t have your best interests at heart. How do I know? Because it’s not just challenging for you to succeed according to Jane’s method – it’s impossible.

    She has crushed you and killed your ability to be creative and imaginative. Would a good mentor do that? After a few years, she has only succeeded in diminishing you and destroying your spirit. Is that what a skilled leader does?

    Great leaders inspire, coach, lead by example, treat others with respect and encourage reports to become the best they can be. If Jane is instead turning you into the worst version of yourself – so much so that you need therapy! – then Jane is failing as a leader.

    She is the failure. Not you.

  82. Regular Human Accountant*

    I, too, am the primary earner for my family and recently found myself stuck in a job that was making me desperately unhappy. My boss ignored my existence except when she didn’t, and I was never sure which was worse. I was bored witless but had a good salary and benefits and could not afford to lose them.

    Last year I told myself it was time to move on; I spent several months looking for the right role and finally started a new job last winter. I won’t lie; it has taken some time to shake off the habits and emotions from my previous job. But my new boss trusts me, is supportive and helpful, and I have more than enough work to do. Better still, I am HAPPY, and that is reflected in my home life. I didn’t realize how much of my previous unhappiness affected my family.

    Best of luck to you, OP, in finding a new job that will showcase your talents and let you feel successful again. It is a great feeling.

  83. Michelle Smith*

    Yep, the advice is spot on here. You’re in an abusive work relationship. I hope you continue doing what you’re doing, which is looking for another job and using therapy to cope with the mental struggles this boss is causing/exacerbating. I also hope that you update us once you get a new job so that we can all cheer for your success! Just remember that it can take a long time to unlearn all the garbage you pick up from working for a toxic boss. Don’t let that discourage you. Take as much time as you need to heal.

  84. gmg22*

    I interned for a Jane as a young student journalist — we’re talking every single word I tried to write being questioned and changed, every aspect of my work and even my personal presentation constantly and meanly critiqued — and a very revealing moment came when she told a story about her own internship supervisor that was clearly meant by her to be funny, but was equally clearly a story about a verbally abusive boss. I suspect some people who end up as Janes do so because they’ve experienced this too, and at that early career turning point persuade themselves that they have only a binary choice: let it break them, or become what they are being targeted by so that they can “win.” The moment when LW sets the boundaries Alison is describing can be a break-the-cycle moment.

    (Still remember with fond amusement the week my Jane went on vacation, and all the other staff on our desk promptly fell over themselves to be nice to me, give me story assignments, etc.)

  85. Danna*

    Hi OP, it doesn’t sound like Jane is coaching you or trying to coach you; it sounds like she’s verbally abusing you. Only you can know if there are significantly redeeming parts of your job, but this issues you’re dealing with aren’t you problems, they’re Jane problems. If it’s possible for you, it sounds very much like it’s time to move on since this experience seems like it may have already affected what you view as tolerable in the workplace. Jane isn’t trying to support you in the workplace and likely will never help you grow in your career.

  86. High achieving failure*

    I could’ve written this. I stayed in a job too long that was hurting my mental and physical health due to my boss acting this way, and me hoping that it will get me to improve. It turned out to be a cycle and my performance was continually decreasing. I’m now confident that my boss was trying to push me out, and he succeeded. I recently left this job on bad terms without having anything else lined up because of it, and my confidence is shattered. If I had admitted to myself that it wasn’t ever going to get better earlier, then I could’ve looked for another gig while still employed. But I didn’t, and am suffering the consequences.

  87. Indolent Libertine*

    I have worked for orchestra conductors like Jane. The professional classical music world used to be absolutely inundated with them, in large part because society has so thoroughly bought into the “complicated genius/tortured artist” myth that we often see bad behavior as some kind of twisted validation that their art is truly good, and of course geniuses have unattainable standards and therefore mere mortals have to expect to be browbeaten for their inevitable failure to meet them, poor lambs, because ART!!1!!!!1!! Thankfully, unions and collective bargaining agreements have made that much taster than it once was in the era of Toscanini etc.

  88. It's the start of the semester so all I can think about is teaching, sorry*

    Goodness, I need the final paragraph of Alison’s response as a tattoo or a laptop sticker or something… I work in higher education, and I come from an academic background where praise was very thin on the ground (especially for women, which is a whole thing). I got very used to rationalising this with some variant of the poster’s justification for Jane’s behaviour – ‘I think her philosophy is that good work is expected and doesn’t need to be commented on’ – and developed pretty terrible imposter syndrome. I actively try to break this cycle with my students – praiseworthy stuff gets praised! Explicitly and repeatedly! – and while I ofc have many areas to improve, the results I get in my teaching are categorically better than the results my teachers got. Good management (and pedagogy) is, as Alison says, seeing and commenting on the whole of someone’s work, not just the mistakes.

    1. Jam on Toast*

      +1000! Good for you. Too many folks in positions of power in higher ed have weaponized the expectation of excellence and salivate at the prospect of destroying the self-worth of those who come after. It’s sick, it’s hurtful and it’s destroyed so many good people, and driven them from the field, all under the guise of perpetuating an agnostic, intellectual meritocracy.

  89. JLC*

    I’ve worked with a Jane before. I could not change my Jane and even a line like “I’d appreciate if you could point out a few things I’m doing well so I don’t put additional effort into them as I look to continually improve” was not acted upon.

    What I could change was how I received Jane’s feedback. We all knew Jane was the best at X and I wanted to get really REALLY good at X so everything Jane offered was taken into consideration. However my frame of reference was Jane was talking about how X appeared in a work product, not me personally. Additionally I separated myself from the work product. What if this deliverable was created by someone else, what could I learn from it through Jane’s eyes?

    I learned a lot and more importantly felt a lot better. I haven’t worked for Jane for a while but I’d be less than honest if her sometimes absurdly high bar didn’t make it really easy for me to find the next positions I’d take and give me the evidence to boost my salary over an over.

    FWIW I think Jane could do a better job herself by spending time improving her feedback, coaching, and interpersonal relation skills. I hope in whatever large or small ponds I find myself in, I am delivering Jane quality work and helping others work toward a higher bar albeit as a better peer and mentor than Jane.

  90. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Everyone is calling out the abuser, which is good. Everyone is relating their own work abuse stories, also good, so you understand you’re not alone. Getting a different job is the long-term answer; for now, let’s talk short-term relief:

    On the day you read this, take the next day off, you’re out sick. Mental health days are REAL sick days, and you need one. On your mental health day, feel however you feel. Don’t beat yourself up for any reason: if you’re stressing over boss, give yourself leave to do so, instead of telling your self how weak or stupid you are for worrying so. If you want to distract yourself, do it. If you want to wallow, do it. If you have absolutely no idea how you feel or what to do, fine — don’t just do something, sit there. Be as generous and patient and kind to yourself as you would be to another person.

    Someone up-thread mentioned how freeing it is to realize that you will never please Jane, so you can basically do whatever you want. That’s true, but it can take a while to get there. There is no point to pressuring yourself. You WILL get there. If you can work constructively with Heinous Bitch for that long, you’ve proven that your patience and determination is superhuman.

    Be kind to yourself. We’re all rooting for you.

    1. anonymous 5*

      YES to all of this. OP, I hope you come here and see this because it is GOLD.

      Rooting for you, and hope you’ll soon have a Friday Good News (and that you’ll be willing to share the news with us)!

  91. EscapedJane*

    wow I wish I had gotten this advice years ago. I escaped my Jane but it took me years to build back the confidence that I was worthy. now that I have it I’m happy and thriving again, and also have been pretty up front with my current boss about what I need.

  92. mayo girl*

    Just add in some personal attacks, and this could be my boss. My self esteem, confidence, etc. are also ruined, so you are not alone LW!

  93. This one is from anon*

    I currently work for a “Jane,” though I am attempting to get out. Our team all respects their work, but knows they fail as a manager and in being a good human. After years with a supportive mentor, my public speaking anxiety had become a manageable nervousness. I never dreaded speaking to my mentor, even when work was not progressing as we expected. Less than a year with this supervisor, and my speaking anxiety is worse than ever, and I’m anxious to even speak to “Jane” one on one. Where do you think I have the most room to achieve my potential? I realized that I will be more likely to progress somewhere with management more similar to my previous job.
    OP, that you’ve lasted this long without being totally unable to function says so much about your mental endurance but it isn’t sustainable. When you are calculating whether or not it makes sense to accept a new position, please factor in the mental and physical toll the stress your current position is taking on you. Also add in the barriers to upward momentum this position is throwing in your way. If it’s preventing you from achieving your career goals (and any chance of increasing income for upper level positions) then that is a strike against staying too.

  94. teensyslews*

    OP, while you are there and when you transition into your next role – talk to a therapist (hopefully one who specializes in workplace dynamics) about this! They can help re-ground your sense of how well you’re doing at work and give you tools so when you move on to a competent, supportive manager you’re not constantly doubting your work. Otherwise it’s easy to let the ghost of Jane’s expectations linger over you.

  95. Olj*

    I absolutely love the advice given here because my heart broke for the letter writer. I CANNOT CONCEIVE of a world in which I wouldn’t acknowledge that a mentee/line report had done a good job! What a jerk ! Letter writer you deserve to thrive, and I really hope you can get into a place where you have a boss who gives you all the support, kindness and encouragement that you deserve.

  96. RedinSC*

    It’s probably been said a lot, but OP, if you can, get a new job. Jane is a nightmare and you need to get away from that

  97. WhyAreThereSoManyBadManagers*

    Thank you Alison for voicing and attesting to the fact that too many bad managers out there can actually be legitimately abusive, causing real and lasting psychological and emotional harm to employees in the path of their wrath. I’m still experiencing PTSD and lingering trauma from the abusive boss at my last job that I was finally able to escape. Workplace bullying is real and so damaging; Canada and some European countries have actual laws and legal protections against it, I wish the US did, but US bosses are allowed to psychologically torment employees far too often with often zero ramifications or consequences. I hope OP gets out of that job and away from that boss as fast as they can. It’s not easy but it’s necessary.

  98. All these small things*

    I worked for a boss like this for 5 years. It messed with my idea of a normal work environment, put me in a state of constant anxiety, and ruined my self esteem. my creativity suffered, as did my health. I’ve been reading this site for years, never commenting, but I felt I needed to now: get out! Find a better boss! I did, and it was the best thing I ever did. I’m doing awesome in my new job, learning so much more and faster because of the trust they give me, and no more migraines and other illnesses. I wish you all these good things as well!

  99. Part time lab tech*

    With a hyper-critical person, it is not possible to please them.
    If you get it 95% right, they’ll spend 95% of their time criticising the 5%.
    If you get 80% right they’ll spend 95% criticising the 20% (which is at least reasonable).
    If you get it 99.5% right, they will spend 95% of the time criticising 0.5%, (and probably add in stuff that is not really wrong but there’s more than one right option, and they’ve decided whatever you’ve done is not as good as the other option).
    It’s less about how good you are and more about them being better than you, so they have the right to be more powerful than you (and sometimes not being criticised themselves).

  100. Riss*

    My manager is like this. And oh, they have both praises and criticism when in front of me, and when he told my director it’s all” she can’t do shit except only when she is told “

    1. Riss*

      I am not sure what’s this for and plan to ask my psych this week . In any sense he has a huge temper swing and probably some debt issue as he once complained he barely able to saved.

      And oh, he only coaches me on strategic decision after he told me to resigns . Which leads me to think it’s on purpose or he has some mental issues going on

  101. Lady Sally*

    I feel you, OP. I worked under a Jane for ten years. Ultimately, I earned her trust and also learned how to “manage up” or perhaps just how to manage my own emotions and response in a way that insulated me from letting her destroy me. Now, I’ve moved teams and no longer work for her.
    I’ve seen many people leave because of her. Leaving may be the right choice. For me, it worked out to stay. As a people pleaser, I think I learned some lessons for myself through the process, but it wasn’t easy. Good luck.

  102. HappyEveryDayNow*

    Reading this post, I could feel my heart start to race. The division in the company I worked for prided itself on the “tough love” management style. Criticism was the way. It was a toxic environment from my direct manager on up. Even though I was a valued, respected performer, I dreaded opening emails from my manager. Feedback always focused on the negative to “help me grow”. (I was 30 years into a successful career at this point).

    Fortunately, I was laid off during the pandemic; took the remainder of the year to de-stress. reset my mind and normalize. And what a difference in my new job. There’s respect for people and kindness. There are still demanding work expectations — but people look for the good. What a difference. When you’re in a bad environment, you sometimes don’t realize how toxic and insane it is until you get away and look back.

    OP, like many others here, I’m rooting for you, whether you decide to stay or find another opportunity. You deserve respect and support.

  103. Jor*

    My eyes got misty reading this. Oh man, did I need to hear this advice today. (Actually, I needed it in 2019 but here we are.)

  104. NinaUK*

    Are you working for my former boss? I had a job with a very similar description to yours and with a boss that was exactly like yours, and with many people (including myself) saying that I wouldn’t work with her again under any circumstance.
    What I have found is that some people are able to deal with it for whatever reason (survival? benefits? take your pick), but most people couldn’t and eventually left to never look back. I am one of those, but at my time I worked with someone who “survived” and moved on to a better job.
    Truth to be told, the whole behavior your described (which again, is very similar to what I experienced) was only the tip of the iceberg. I am still of the opinion to learn whatever you can from her to upgrade your skill, but leave as soon as you are able. But be careful picking your next job — don’t do it like me who was so keen to leave that I ignored several red flags about the next job (since the crap was so normalized from this one) and ended up in a worse, more dangerous situation.

  105. Polly Hedron*

    How did Jane ever slip up enough to admit that 95% of your work is good?
    Get out. Jane sucks and isn’t going to change.

  106. TheOppositeIsEvenWorse*

    OP, this probably won’t help you, but believe it or not, I’ve found this style easier to deal with than someone who gives effusive praise, sometimes when it’s clear they never even looked at what they’re praising. I cringe everytime I hear or see a good work because it seems to be hiding their real thoughts and I have no opportunity to course correct or improve based on either their preferences or if I’m making genuine mistakes.

    Maybe you can think about it as having an opportunity to evaluate possible areas for improvement and address a fraction of the things identified moving forward? It may not stop the onslaught if that’s the point, but perhaps addressing a few things will help, and even if you don’t (or you do and it doesn’t help) you’ll have a chance for some self reflection? Or not – disregard if you prefer.

  107. Might as Well be this OP*

    I could have written this. I worked under a Jane for 5 years and had so many of the same feelings. I knew it wasn’t right but I also thought I was learning so much.

    I finally did find a new job and so many things came clear to me. I did learn a few things from my Jane, but the biggest and most important one was how NOT to be as a boss. (And in my new job, for the first time, I had to be one.) Now years later, I still do think of how Jane would handle just about any issue and I go out there and do it the RIGHT way. But man, does she make a great frame of reference on that!

    OP, get a new job. Please. Mine was one of the best decisions I made in my life.

    Weirdly, my Jane and I are lasting friends now. Once she wasn’t my boss anymore the fear lifted so quickly and as a person, she’s lovely. But I would never ever ever recommend anyone go work for her.

    1. Might as Well be this OP*

      Adding: I know you’re already looking for one. I guess what I hope is for you to have faith things ARE better out there and that not all bosses are James. (Though wow, per comments, a lot of them.)

      The thing that helped me most dealing with mine was finding a friend I trusted at work and we’d vent every word to one another, privately. I think we kept one another from being gaslit by the wildly disproportional praise/shame ratio. We’d make all sorts of joke plans about how to expose Jane’s evil… nothing we’d actually do but man it was therapeutic to talk that through.

      Also, I sought my Jane’s approval desperately, and the only compliment she loved giving me was how good and professional I was at taking criticism.

      My husband said I had Stockholm Syndrome and she doesn’t deserve that we’re friends now. My therapist says “Stockholm Syndrome” is imprecise but he’s got the right general idea, and “you know you don’t have to be friends, right?”

      For whatever reason being friends now makes me feel like I won.

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