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When Your Workplace Is Toxic

When Your Workplace Is ToxicIf you find yourself in a toxic relationship, you always have the option of ditching the friend and moving on. However, when the environment in which you make your bread and butter damages your self-esteem and robs you of self-confidence, you can’t exactly walk out… if you want to eat that night.

What to do?

More than a few friends have complained to me recently about toxic workplaces and their dilemma of how to live sanely within insane walls. So I thought about this more, consulted some experts, and offer a few suggestions.

1. Keep the focus on you.

Just like you learn in a 12-step groups for friends and families of alcoholics, the only person you can totally control is yourself, so it’s best to begin there. Theoretically, no one can make you feel a certain way unless you allow them to. Theoretically (because I, for one, would not be able to do this), if your boss screams at you for being incompetent — the biggest idiot she’s ever worked with — you don’t have to claim that insult. You can let it float over your head, missing your brain altogether. I think that just knowing you hold the helm of your sympathetic nervous system (which rings the alarm bells of panic in your brain) is going to give you some relief and empower you.

2. Schedule daily debriefings.

If you are surrounded with folks who like to list your character defects and have made a pastime of making you feel bad, you are going to have to schedule some “reality checks” throughout the day, where you can make your own list of character strengths, and why you are actually overqualified for this dinky little job. If you can’t make that list, then make a self-esteem file, where you ask friends to make the list for you. I suppose it’s like being exposed to a cult — after awhile you see everything from their point of view. However, if you are diligent about breaking out of that culture for a few times a day to remind yourself of your own personal values, you are less likely to be sucked into the group philosophy.

3. Develop a personal renewal program.

Along with your debriefings, you are going to need to develop a personal renewal program. This isn’t an option, writes Robert Wicks, in his book Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, it’s an absolute necessity for your health. He writes:

We must have a self-care protocol in place that we can employ as a daily guide, while being alert to rationalizations and excuses for not doing it. Not to have such a personal renewal program may court disaster for both our personal and professional lives. It is also, at its core, an act of profound disrespect for the gift of life we have been give.

What, exactly, qualifies as a personal renewal program? Wicks gives some suggestions:

  • Quiet walks by yourself
  • Time and space for meditation
  • Spiritual and recreational reading—including the diaries and biographies of others whom you admire
  • Some light exercise
  • Opportunities to laugh offered by movies, cheerful friends, a regular card game
  • A hobby such as gardening or knitting
  • Listening to music you enjoy

For me that activity is swimming in the early morning with a group of friends who don’t take themselves seriously and like to laugh as much as I do. Morning swimming was especially important when I commuted two hours every day to a job I absolutely hated. I got through it knowing that at least my morning would start out right.

4. Try a different approach.

This is going to seem like the most counterintuitive activity you could ever dream of doing, but it has worked several times in my life when I have landed in a forest full of land mines: kiss some butt. Yes, compliment the boss who tears you apart. Tell her that her platform shoes are so stylish, that you love the shade of her sweater… because it makes the beautiful color of her eyes pop, and that she sure does know how to manage a sales team — that you are impressed. I agree that it’s not good to lie.

But if a few white lies make your life more tolerable and allow you to make a living without losing your sanity, I think that the heavenly creator would grant you a dispensation on the whole honesty thing. It’s just amazing how one compliment can change the relationship dynamics. The manager who might be threatened by you and, in her race to the corner office, feels the need to cut you in half, now sees you as a colleague, a co-worker who is a partner on the job, not an enemy or menace to her success. Try it. You’ll see.

5. Go elsewhere for validation.

We’ve indirectly covered this one in the point about debriefs; however, I wanted to emphasize again how important it is to have a support network outside of the hellish job. When I was at my satanic consulting firm, I was lucky enough to come home to a husband who didn’t think I was on crack and totally incompetent. Even though I still can’t make macaroni and cheese and can’t keep a plant alive in our house, he continues to tell me he loves me for other qualities. All of us needs a few cheerleaders in our lives to remind us of our redeemable qualities or else we will begin to believe our negative co-workers. If you can’t find any cheerleaders at home, you need to hang out with a friend or two who can shower you with sunshine every now and then.

6. Don’t take it personally.

Some of the above point touch on this one, as well, but it needs it’s own paragraph because it is, essentially, the one tool that effectively protects you from all the toxic you experience at work. This maxim is the second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic book, The Four Agreements.

“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you,” writes Ruiz. “What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds… Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians… But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell.”

Just reading those sentences frees me from any prison of hurt I’m feeling.

7. Get the hell out.

That was is obvious enough. If you are in a situation that is intolerable, start looking, interviewing, getting your resume out, because even if you don’t land anything immediately, the process of looking will help you feel as if you’re not trapped and there are other options.

When Your Workplace Is Toxic

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). When Your Workplace Is Toxic. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 Jun 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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