What I Wish I Knew When I Felt Stuck in a Toxic Workplace

Overworking business woman suffering from headache
Overworking business woman suffering from headache

True story: I was once part of a toxic team at work.

We're talking turf wars, schemes, gossip, passive aggressiveness and dysfunctional leadership. I felt the people I was expected to work closest with were deliberately trying to prove I was incompetent. It sucked!

My relationships suffered. I was negative and complained a lot. I barely slept. I cried on Sunday mornings because Monday was near. I was constantly in fear of looking stupid. The office felt like a black hole. I was stuck.

The situation wasn't pretty.

Here's what I wish I knew then and what I'd tell anyone in a similar situation:

1. Everything Will Be Okay

I was stuck in that fight or flight response to stress. Everything felt like a threat. All I needed was to hear these words: Everything's going to be okay.

I don't deny I felt horrible, but I learned we're all resilient, courageous and strong in ways we don't know yet. I just needed to know I was going to be fine.

No matter how bad it gets, no matter how alone, afraid and overwhelmed you feel: It will get better.

2. Don't Make It Personal

Wait, it's not all about me?

The condescending remarks, deliberately renaming meetings so I was excluded, the silent glares were nothing personal. What my colleagues did and said was a reflection of their own perception of reality and had nothing to do with me.

Liberating, right?

If knew that then, I probably would've spent less time worrying about what other people thought and more time worrying about what I thought of myself.

This leads to my next point which feels paradoxical.

3. It Is Personal

What I was experiencing was deeply personal. While my co-workers' behavior was nothing to take personally, how I was reacting to it was.

The toxic nature of that place was an external reflection of how I felt inside. All the judging, blaming, condescending, criticizing and disengaging was how I treated myself. Perfectionism was strangling the life out of me.

I'm not saying take ownership of other peoples' stuff. Heck, no! Put that back. I'm saying when we find ourselves in a toxic space or relationship it has more to do with our relationship with ourselves than changing others. I had to take responsibility for my stuff before anything got better.

Change happens when we're brave enough to turn our focus inward.

Only when we're in a healthy, positive relationship with ourselves will the world reflect that back at us. Healthy relationships start with healthy limits.

4. Set Healthy Boundaries

Uh, a boundary isn't just on a map?

Yes, it was that bad.

My boss called me on weekends. I accepted assignments when I was beyond my limit. I took three weeks off to be with my mum after she was diagnosed with cancer and worked the whole time. I didn't defend myself (or others) when we were treated disrespectfully. Boundaries? I had none.

If I'd believed it was okay to say "no" at work, I wouldn't have taken on so much. If I'd stayed true to my values of respect and acceptance, I'd have taken a stand when I was treated with disdain. I probably would have taken a stand for others too.

When we communicate our limits clearly we're setting healthy expectations for our interactions with others. We're preventing burn out and resentment too. So, draw those lines.

5. Find Support

I was lucky to have some good friends at work and my fiancé at home. My only problem was asking for help.

I felt alone and like no one understood me. Mostly because I complained and blamed others without opening up about how much I was suffering. Asking for help felt like weakness. Sigh.

Now, I know reaching out is courageous.

Go to Human Resources. Get a coach or a therapist. There's no reason to feel alone and stuck. We're all in this together. Asking for help shows us we care about our own needs and think we matter.

6. Go Play in Nature

I wish someone had reminded me to prioritize play time. Maybe they did and I didn't listen...

I didn't recognize the connection between my state of mind and time spent outdoors. When I wasn't working I was numbing myself with alcohol, stress eating, complaining and gossiping. Now, time in nature is number one on my self-care repertoire.

We're natural beings. Nature is where we come from. When I get outside I feel grounded. My perspective shifts. The forest path takes me back to the basics and to what really matters. The mountain air, the salty ocean breeze... helps everything make sense.

So when you feel down and can't take another moment -- go play! Get outside. Hug a tree. Lie on the green grass and just breathe.

I know what it's like to wake up somewhere that feels awful and wonder how you got there. Now that I'm out on the other side I know that challenge was designed to teach me the most important lesson of my life.

We're filled with courage, compassion and strength. We can look inside to find the change we need. Nature will help us heal. And when we reach out to others and stop taking everything so darn personally, things get better.