Real-life lessons in rising above horrible bosses

Some people graduate from college and immediately fall into their dream job, complete with huge salary and complimentary posh apartment—but those people are also fictional, and there is usually an ’80s montage song playing in the background as all of this unfolds. For the rest of us humans working to pay the rent, we take the jobs we can get and try to make the best of it while we work toward that looming dream career just out of reach.

So you’ve taken a job. Now, most employers understand that you are gifting them with forty of your best hours each week and they will do their best to make the experience as bearable as possible. Every once in a while, however, you find yourself working under the thumb of a jerk. This was the case for me in my first out-of-college job.

I graduated all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a fancy English degree and no idea what to do with myself, but I was certain that life would be all smooth sailing. This optimism dimmed a bit after six months of unanswered job applications, and I put aside my hopes of nabbing the perfect beginner job and instead took the first position that came along. Unfortunately, this job entailed working for a man who took bossing people around to new levels. What he lacked in people skills, he made up for in heavily-vocalized, blatantly rude comments.

I wallowed in a fair amount of misery and self pity for a few months before I decided to change my outlook and use this opportunity to study my boss’ ways up close in his natural habitat. It was a great opportunity to learn new life skills, and how to make any job with a horrible boss just a little bit better.

It all boils down to an easy six step process.

1. Smile!

There is something about joy that short circuits the brain of a Debbie-Downer. When my boss would systematically try to ruin my day and I wanted so badly to be petty, I would instead think about that YouTube video of a penguin being tickled and it would inevitably trigger my inner happiness, leaving me with an unshakable smile. No matter what words came from my horrible boss, I just saw that adorable penguin laughing and I achieved a state of Zen.

2. Do not engage

I am Switzerland, peaceful and non-confrontational. I understand that you are in a workplace and occasional contact will be inevitable, but limit these encounters to only the most necessary of occasions. The rest of the time you are a ninja, slipping unnoticed from cubicle to cubicle. I turned the entire office into a game of hide and seek that nobody else knew we were playing, daring my nemesis to try to find me. Here’s a hint: nobody ever rides the back elevator, and I know this because I rode that thing for hours.

3. Music is the great de-stressor

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to remain calm, things still boil over, and on those occasions music is tantamount to therapy.  It’s important to find your own personal detox song; for me it was Sara Bareilles’ “Sweet as Hole” (NSFW). I drove home so many days blasting that song and singing along until I lost my voice, wearing down the repeat button until I felt better. It worked every time.

4. No eye contact

I don’t know for certain why this works so well, but I can vouch for it with 100% certainty. It’s really the greatest office party trick that I learned, and it goes like this: when they are talking to you DO NOT LOOK AT THEM. That’s it! Answer them verbally when you need to but do not make eye contact. Keep your eyes on the computer, on the papers in your hand, or even up at the ceiling if you’re cornered away from your desk.  They will not know how to handle this. I must hypothesize that their power and authority are derived from your attention (you know, like a toddlers) so when you carry on with your business while they are trying so hard to bother you it leads to a complete meltdown (also like a toddler).

5. Safety in numbers

There are plenty of other people in that office; good and lovely people who haven’t made it their mission to drain you of happiness. Befriend these people. Things don’t seem as bleak when others are there to offer support.  This also proves valuable when you have a sassy cubicle mate who adores you and springs to your defense when El Capitan comes around spoiling for a fight.

6. Choose to give them no power

The lovely Eleanor Roosevelt nailed it when she said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” You also have to consent to anger, bitterness, sadness, and hatred, so don’t give it to them. This person is a jerk, true, but only you can choose how you react to their baiting. I could have chosen to be as miserable as he wanted me to be, or I could have chosen happiness for myself. And I did! I chose to rise above the pettiness he so badly wanted me to wallow in. I chose to be happy in spite of him (and possibly a smidge TO spite him). I was so jolly that I (literally) skipped through that office. It was only a season, and I opted to make the best of the time there until I was able to move forward.

The horrible bosses may circle round, but you are savvy and determined enough to outsmart them. So cheers to all of you choosing to bring joy into the trenches and grabbing your own happiness daily!

Tracy Lynn is a writer, blogger, nomad and quasi-adult with a wanderlust that regularly zeroes out her bank account. She loves used book stores, Arrested Development, her dog Willow and sweatpants. Tina Fey is her kindred spirit. If you enjoy made up statistics you should check out her blog at

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