It’s been several months since I left my last job – a job that destroyed my self-esteem and left me doubting every choice I’ve made in my life – and I am still struggling with the aftermath. What’s even more shocking is that I was only at the job for a year or so, but the damage was fierce and pervasive.
Truthfully, I probably should have had my doubts even before I took the job. My mom asked me, how is this better than what you’re doing now? During the interview process, my flaws and vulnerabilities seemed magnified. I felt defensive and inadequate before I even started. I suppose I wanted to feel wanted, professionally speaking, so I came up with lots of justifications that it made sense.
The first few months were filled with that “new job” glow, which faded pretty quickly. Over the next several months, I started to feel gaslit as leaders bragged about the “culture” (whatever that is) but repeatedly behaved in ways that undermined it. People with less experience were hired and promoted. Expertise and knowledge were disregarded. Managers didn’t stand up for their team. And slowly, morale eroded away.
To be clear, there was no harassment. No obvious abuse. And yet I felt my self-worth crumble. I am a strong woman with a post-graduate degree and decades of experience working with, and for, major players in the industry. And still I had never felt as demoralized and unsure of myself as I did while working at this job. I left that job several months ago and I still feel shaken, insecure, and disheartened.
Before this experience, I would have thought that toxic workplaces are those where employees are filing class action lawsuits or there’s blatant harassment and discrimination. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes all it takes is one narcissistic boss to create a toxic environment. A manager who tells their team one thing and their own boss something else. A micromanaging supervisor who’s all up in your business and second-guessing everything you do.
“It’s not just the ‘oh no it’s Monday morning’ feeling or the one off high stressor of a day,” says Deborah Byrne, a psychologist in Ireland. “It’s the dread you get at the very thought of going to work. This could come from many sources within the workplace. For example: the high turnover of staff, gossip, the undermining behaviours among colleagues or the bad communication.”
The ultimate sign for me was the huge hit to my emotional and mental wellbeing. It was a gut feeling of “I have to get out of here.” As written on Career Contessa, “Just like when you eat spoiled food or too much candy, your gut is your best warning sign. If your gut is telling you that your workplace is bad, it’s probably bad.”
Sometimes leaving the toxic workplace can be enough to fix the problem. For most of us, however, it can take weeks or months to recover. A toxic workplace can leave wounds and scars on our self-esteem and confidence. So what can you do to feel more grounded and sure of yourself?
1. Acknowledge your strengths.
Write down all the things you are good at – professional or not. If this is too much of a challenge, ask a good friend to list some of their favorite things about you or the things they think you do really well. Think back on positive work experiences and identify things you excelled at in that previous role. Write them down, add to the list, and refer to it often.
2. Be intentional with the remnants from your old job.
Go ahead and unfollow your boss on LinkedIn. Snooze posts from old colleagues on Instagram for a few months. You don’t need to burn any bridges or destroy your network, but be intentional about the people and remnants from your old job that are still in your life.
3. Talk about it.
If you can’t afford a therapist, consider confiding in a friend who may have been through a similar experience. Ask them what worked for them. Find books on career changes and recovering from career burnout or toxic workplaces. This has been a key step for me. Talking about my experience with my therapist has helped me understand that my feelings aren’t “wrong,” talking with my husband has helped to boost my self-esteem and confidence, and talking with friends has reminded me that I’m not alone in this experience.
4. Take some time to recalibrate.
For some people, this might mean taking some time off before starting a new job. For others, it might mean jumping into a new job but finding some time to meditate each day or take a long lunch break. Or you might need to completely hibernate for a little while, turning off social media and binging on Netflix for a few days, as suggested by Claire Hanrahan on Girlboss.
5. Do things you’re good at.
Now’s the time to refer back to that list from #1. These things don’t have to be related to professional skills either. If you’re good at scrapbooking, make books for your family and friends. Do things that build your confidence.
6. Don’t believe the lies you’re telling yourself.
Acknowledge that your calibration is a bit off right now, and resist the urge to believe the lies you’re telling yourself about your self-worth and capabilities. You will feel like yourself again. In the meantime, surround yourself with people and things that lift you up until you’re on more solid ground.
I know, this is all easier said than done. Believe me. I’m living it right now. But trust that it will get better. You will feel better. We will feel better.