THE BLOG
09/04/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

My Coworker Shamed Me (And I Let Him)

Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

By Haley Herfurth

For me, my workplace has always been a haven. I've been there for years now, sharing the same 600-or-so square feet of gray walls and carpet for hours upon end, with the same set of people. I tell people it is the best place to work ("It is the best job in the world!") and they always look at me incredulously. I know that it is rare for a 23-year-old to find such happiness in her job. I understand that. But it doesn't mean it's not true.

I work at a place that employs thousands of people. Almost everyone with whom I have interacted has treated me with at least respect, if not outright kindness. I am lucky to work in the environment that I do -- so many of my friends loathe their jobs and their co-workers, and spend their time poring over the Internet searching for a way out. I've had moments of irrationality where I felt that way, sure. But at the end of the day, when my boss asks me if I want to share her french fries or her boss asks me how my current project is going, I know I'm in the right place. Because people care about me.

My tiny office, my boss's office down the hall and the production room filled with computers and keyboards have been a home to me through some of the most trying times of my life. For lack of a better cliché, it has always been my safe place.

I've always been different, but in a way that I feel a lot of people are. I'm bookish and a bit (read: a lot) nerdy. I like history or the future significantly more than the present and I've always been happy in my own company. I don't mind silence; I actually prefer it. I have always had a small group of close friends, with a larger group of peripheral friends ever-changing and circling around me. I'm an introverted extrovert. And I like myself and who I am. I am comfortable with it. At least until recently.

I'm not even sure how it happened. One of my co-workers popped in to say hello. He is one I know simply from the duration of our respective careers, but rarely see because, as I mentioned above, I have about 5,000 co-workers, and beyond that, our work paths do not often intersect. But I like when people say hi. Sometimes it's nice to shoot the breeze. So when he started up a conversation, I played along.

He asked me about my life, what I was up to. (It's not unlike him to inquire, not strange or out of the ordinary.) I told him I'd recently joined a book club with a friend and was looking forward to it, and that I was continuing my additional work with Literally, Darling, in addition to what I was doing for my full-time job. He just looked at me.

"I know, but... what are you doing to get outside of your box?"

I just looked at him and blinked. I wasn't aware I had to get out of my box. Curious as to what he meant, I stammered a quick string of "erms" and "ums" and let him continue to talk.

"Books and writing, those are your things. But what are you doing to get out of that comfort zone? You know, get out and meet new people?"

I realized where he was heading with it. I let him continue on for another minute or so as I thought over what he was saying. You see, I live in a small subsection of the world where only a few things matter. Conformity reigns. Sameness reigns. Khaki pants and Super Cuts and "yes-I'm-fine-how-are-you's" all reign, each with its own iron scepter. And that's OK. It has its place here. I like where I am, for the most part. I know people, and they know me, and I have this great job, and I can make it work. But I've always told myself I wouldn't be the same as everyone else. I've never felt I had to be.

My father, the perennial dork and singer of 1970s cereal slogans at the dinner table, raised me to be proud of who I am. My mother, the beautiful and tough 120-lb. full-time Momma Bear and part-time dragon-slayer, taught me not to let anybody tell me otherwise, or else. These are the people who have encouraged my love of words from the first day I picked up a book, who told me it was OK to go to school to study journalism rather than pharmaceuticals even though I'd take a 60 percent pay cut when I was out in the real world (it was true. I did.). Middle school and high school brought the typical struggle to fit in, but I never felt like I had to change who I was to be accepted. I more or less thought people should change who they are to accept me (or else).

But all those years, those 23 years of lessons taught to me by my parents, faded to black as my co-worker asked me how I planned to meet people, to "get out of my box." I wanted to tell him I wasn't interested in meeting anybody right now, that I'm not in a place in my life that encourages relationships. I wanted to say how I like my box, and how I'm happy with my life as it is, thanks for asking.

But I didn't say any of that. He was relentless in his inquiries, and kept pressing for more information about just how I planned to get involved in new things, to test new waters. I repeated what I'd said about my book club and LD, to no avail. But I didn't let it stop there, or tell him I wasn't interested in talking about the subject further.

Instead, I surprised myself. Instead, I lied.

I told him I was thinking about volunteering some more. (I'm not.) I told him I'd heard about a jogging club and was considering joining. (I'm not. I hate running.) I told him my book club was planning on meeting in another city nearby, so I was hoping to maybe meet someone there. (Meeting in another city? Yes. Hoping to meet someone? You guessed it, I'm not.)

His change in attitude upon hearing my lies was actually astounding to me. Suddenly, he was even more warm and encouraging, telling me how great it was to go out into the world to find people you're compatible with, how fun exercise clubs are, how I should consider the United Way for my volunteering efforts. I smiled and nodded, and soon after that, he left.

I sank into my office chair. What had I done? Where was my treasured self-confidence, the one I flaunt on social media and in my day-to-day life? Where was the self-assurance I spent years learning? I'd had the opportunity to tell him, nicely but firmly, that sometimes people are different, that they aren't interested in cocktail parties or country clubs (not that there is anything wrong with those things for some people) and that being different is OK. But I didn't.

I don't think my co-worker is a bad person. Most of my interactions with him have been light-hearted. He has always been kind to me. He's a good person, and I think he meant well. He just wants me to be happy and fulfilled, using the methods with which he has found happiness and fulfillment. I respect that, and I respect his intentions. I never wanted to be one of those people crying on the Internet, wailing about "how my co-worker shamed me." In retrospect, and I'm sure to the outside world, the encounter with my co-worker seems kind of small-time, or even inconsequential in the bigger scheme of existence.

But it has left a mark on me. I haven't been able to shake this particular brand of shame quite as easily as I would have before. I can't tell you how many times I've told my boss or my family or my friends that I just don't care what people think. And usually I don't. But being repeatedly questioned, being made to feel like my life choices and my interests -- the ones that make me happy and content -- were wrong and somehow inadequate, was like a hard blow to the chest. And coupled with that is the shame that accompanies the fact that I lied, in essence, to protect myself, like a coward, like a fake. I'd let down all the people out there who are different but who were never told that was alright, who may never have the strength to look at someone in the face and tell them to be OK with who they are.

So consider this my second chance. I am staring the whole world in the face. I don't want to join a jogging club or meet someone in the city right now or join another volunteer effort. I am OK with my interests and my choices and who I am, and starting now I will be OK with all of that out loud. And you better be OK with all that, too. Or else.

Originally posted on Literally, Darling an online magazine by and for twenty-something women, which features the personal, provocative, awkward, pop-filled and pressing issues of our gender and generation. This is an exact representation of our exaggerated selves.