By Amanda Hoey – Washington, DC
I used to work in a toxic environment with an emotionally abusive boss. I went to work every day knowing there was a very good chance my boss would yell at me or a coworker, belittle us or make us feel incompetent. I’d spend my days at work with headphones on, trying to block-out everything happening around me and forget that I worked there for a while.
On days when that wasn’t enough, and I got yelled at for things like not preparing a document that my boss was literally holding in her hand as she lectured me (true story), I’d routinely stop for a bottle of wine and some junk food on the way home, just to have a quick way to feel a little better.
The misery came to an end when I was lucky enough to score a great opportunity with a different company, one that gave me the chance to work with a supportive, insanely talented team and advance my career. So everything is wonderful now that I’ve left the old job, right? Just like I thought it would be when I was fantasizing about making my great escape?
Um, not quite.
It turns out that a toxic work environment can turn anyone into a neurotic mess. It’s easy to develop bad habits and anxious behaviors that help you get through the day in a bad environment, but are counterproductive in a normal workplace.
Here’s what I’ve learned since I left that job, along with tips from friends who have been in the same situation at other workplaces. I raise my glass to all of you finding bosses who will give you the respect you deserve!
Don’t Beat Yourself Up: In my old job, I was often told my work wasn’t good enough and that I had to meet impossible expectations. It was so easy to believe those things were true, even though they weren’t, when they came from someone who’s supposed to be an expert in the field. These days, the people I work with have confidence in my work – but I can’t always share that confidence.
I struggle with this lack of confidence all the time. I’ve found it helpful to remember that my time in a bad environment is a strength, not a weakness. I was good enough at my job to survive impossible expectations. I was able to escape the bad situation and get a better job. It doesn’t matter what my old boss used to say when she was upset with me – what matters is that I got the job done then and I’m still getting the job done. I don’t have to hold myself to the ridiculous standards of my previous job.
You Don’t Have To Be On High Alert: It’s common for people leaving toxic work environments to be anxious about their new jobs, even after they’ve been there for a while. Understandably, they assume the new workplace is going to be like the old one. Many of my friends have described situations where everyone in their new job is treating them with respect, but they can’t stop worrying things will go wrong soon.
This is an issue that gets better with time – the longer you are in a new environment without everything falling apart, the more likely you realize it’s just not going to happen. I’ve also found it helpful to observe how people in my new environment handle difficult situations when they arise. What steps do they take to resolve conflicts? If they need to give critical feedback, how do they do it? How do they handle their emotions when reacting to a challenge? Try watching closely as problems arise, then making a list of what behaviors you notice. Compare it to what happened at your previous job in similar situations, or what you think would have happened, and note the differences. It can help reassure you that the new job really is better!
It can also help to talk to your new supervisor about the challenges you’ve faced before, if you feel comfortable doing so. Explain what didn’t work for you at your last job and what you’re worried about experiencing now. You don’t have to talk about it if you’re not ready – but if you do, a good leader can use that feedback to find ways to make you more comfortable in your new job while avoiding old anxieties.
I Don’t Know Why We’re Yelling!: We’re all only human. Sometimes even the best leaders lose their temper and yell or inadvertently say something hurtful. Unfortunately, when you’re just out of an environment where those things happened all the time, witnessing it in your new job is really hard. It can revive all those fears we just talked about – that things are going to be just as bad here. The first time I overheard someone yelling at someone else at my new job (after I’d been there for nearly two months), I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry at my desk.
My best strategy for dealing with those feelings is to disengage as best I can for a little while. I put on headphones or I find an excuse to leave the office for a few minutes – going for a short walk helps clear my head, and I often come back to find everyone has calmed down and found a way to work out the problem.
It’s Okay To Ask Your Boss Questions Now: In my old job, I used to say that asking my boss about a project was like poking a sleeping bear. If I was being left alone to work, it felt way easier to grit my teeth and get through anything I was struggling with on my own than to ask a question and risk hearing I was doing everything wrong – that I shouldn’t have needed to ask the question in the first place, that we should have discussed it way sooner, or that she’d be calling in a more senior colleague to make sure I didn’t screw anything else up.
This mentality has its drawbacks, though. Sometimes I’d figure it out on my own and avoid a potential freakout, but other times I’d end up crying at 4 a.m. on a Sunday because I’d tried everything I knew how to do and my data match still didn’t work.
But I’ve learned something important: good managers like being asked questions. It means they have a chance to teach new skills, help you do your job better and faster and catch potential issues before they turn into full-blown crises. It can also highlight places where their instructions might not have been clear and give them a chance to correct that in the future (because we live in a brave new world where bosses can admit they sometimes have room for improvement too!).
All Of This Takes Time: Change is hard, even if it’s good change. Breaking habits and getting over fears takes time. If you’ve been in your new job for a few months and still find yourself reacting strongly to old triggers or falling back into old habits, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job of adjusting or that your old job broke you. It just means you need time to recover from a bad experience – perfectly normal! Enjoy your new gig – you’ve earned it!