My mean boss is ill -- and I'm not sorry!

This woman has been a bully and made my life hell, so now that she's sick, is it wrong to not feel so sad for her?

Published May 21, 2010 1:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a social worker. I have worked for a particular agency that does foster care work for almost four years. The pay is good and the benefits are great, which keeps me from actually quitting my job.

Though intensely stressful, it was not the actual job that has repeatedly made me want to quit over the years. Rather, it's the mean, mean CEO of the company. She is a classic micromanaging bully -- but very good at running the company.

I'm a boisterous person and frankly have not done my best to escape attention. But I believe she has targeted me through the years.

Once I was assigned a youth to my caseload after he died of a drug overdose; she specifically blamed me for the youth's death and told me to think about what I could have done differently to save him. This happened when I was home with my family on Thanksgiving. On another occasion, I spent many hours writing a proposal for a new programming direction. As I waited in the hallway outside of her office for our appointment, she got a phone call from someone that made her angry, and she basically ripped me to shreds for an entire hour.

It's not just me that she been mean or insensitive toward. She famously called the company janitor at the hospital, after he had a heart attack, just to ask him for the telephone number of an electrician. She also made fun of a close friend's ability to breast-feed because she is small-chested. Suffice it to say that I truly hate this woman and she has worked overtime to earn it.

Recently, however, I found out that she is very ill and may have a very poor prognosis. The thing is, I don't feel sad. I don't feel one ounce of sorrow for her. In fact, if I weren't an atheist, I'd be certain that cosmic justice may be finally making sentence against her. I know that it is not healthy to feel so smug about someone being in pain, but I can't turn on the sad faucet for this she-beast.

Am I justified or wrong to feel this way?

Should I Care?

Dear Should I Care?,

Here is what I want to say to you in a nutshell: You have been mistreated by this woman. So it's understandable that your first thought is not a charitable one.

You may not want to express this first thought at the office. But it's real, and it's OK to feel this. It doesn't make you a bad person. It isn't right and it isn't wrong. It's a feeling.

In our emotional lives, we are often the people that we cannot be in public. We are children; we are soldiers; we are murderers; we are vengeful judge and jury. Or helpless victim. Or whatever. Choose your shadow. We lead shadow lives. And these shadow lives inform us; they are very much who we are. So we must acknowledge them.

The important thing is to acknowledge these shadow selves and invite them in. The part of you that cackles with glee because your abusive boss is sick deserves a place at the table. Hear her out; let her speak. She's there for a reason: She's there to protect you. She's there to remind you that you have indeed been mistreated by this woman. So hear her out.

What you express to others is a different matter. Standards of conduct apply. You could harm your own reputation and singe the feelings of others if you were to give voice to this schadenfreude.

So keep this little bit of satisfaction to yourself, or only express it to a trusted friend. This is especially important since you admit to being a little boisterous. If you are not careful, in an unguarded moment, you might well let slip some unwise remark and thus sabotage your own standing among your co-workers.

So be careful. You have a right to feel the way you do. But for your own good, show your best self in public. Acknowledge that this person may have had her faults but make clear that you would not wish serious illness on anyone -- not even on her!

p.s. Please welcome research associate Stephannie Behrens, who has provided today's annotation on the word "schadenfreude."

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By Cary Tennis

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