How do you move on from a bad job?
December 16, 2012 12:28 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to process a period of professional turmoil in my life that occured over a year ago. Things are okay now but I am still dealing with painful emotions and memories from that experience. How can I go about finding closure?

I am thirty years old and live near a major urban centre with my wife of six years and our 2.5 year old daughter. I am the primary breadwinner for our family. I have worked full-time in financial services since graduating business school five years ago. Upon leaving school, I landed a job as a trainee at a large company. I should stress that I enjoy working in this field and it is a good fit for me professional and personally. I plan to keep working in it for the foreseeable future.

After getting the job, I worked for two years as a trainee and then a junior analyst. I did notice the culture was much more cutthroat and political than I preferred, however, I was too junior to really be caught in the middle of it. Shortly before my daughter was born, management approached me and offered me a job as an account manager – that is, someone who manages a portfolio of clients. The position came with a large raise and they strongly recommended I take it so I could “check off” that box on my career. Also, the company had problems keeping qualified people in the role. In retrospect, I should have paid attention to the warning signs, but let myself be talked into it since the raise would help balance out my wife’s leaving work.

The job was more challenging than I realized. The hours were long (say 60 hours a week) and exhausting, since I was the point of contact for nearly seventy clients and at any time had several fires to put out each day. This put a real strain on my marriage since my wife had little help from me with our newborn.

In addition, I now had to deal with some tough personalities. I reported into two managers. One of them was a deeply paranoid and mistrustful person whom everyone, including my other manager, was afraid to confront. In addition, two of my clients were clients from hell – demanding, passive-aggressive bullies who would throw abusive temper tantrums if they didn’t get their way. If any of you have experienced these types of people, then you can understand why just seeing their phone numbers on call display would make me break into a cold sweat. I consider myself a professional and tried to do my best in the job while staying sane, but the pressure from doing so exhausted me emotionally and physically.

Around this time last year, I had three projects experience trouble in quick succession. The type of trouble they experienced happens from time to time and came with the job – every experienced person in my industry has a story or three. Now, in my case, I had missed several signs that things were about to go bottoms up due to my exhaustion and inexperience. I took responsibility for the misses since I am a professional. The paranoid manager missed the warning signs as well, so, to protect herself, she claimed I had lied to her about the situations and covered up the warning signs. She was flat-out wrong, but, to my dismay, my other manager believed her instead of me and escalated it. After a series of very uncomfortable meetings where my character was called into question, management told me they would not document anything with HR, but step out of line again and they’d start disciplinary proceedings against me. I was shocked by the attack but even more disturbed by the “let’s keep it off the books” attitude. The situation told me that this was a very dysfunctional workplace and I needed to get out – I could not trust these people anymore.

I reached out to a few colleagues to see if I could get a job at another company. Fortunately, one friend did know of a job opening at his company and recommended me for it. Much to my surprise, the hiring manager turned out to be a former employee of my current company – we never worked together but knew many of the same people. So, I did not hide any of the issues that had caused me to leave although I obviously discussed them in an appropriate way for an interview setting. He called me back a week later and offered me the job.

Afterwards I discovered he had asked some of his former colleagues about my story and, to their credit, they told him I had been railroaded unfairly by management. He explained that he knew the culture there was very dysfunctional and the managers who went after me were not to be trusted. By contrast, he felt he could trust me.

Anyway, once I got the offer I cleaned up any outstanding issues and then handed in my notice – one of the most satisfying moments of my life. I’ve now been in this position for eight months. My career is back on track, I have a great relationship with my boss and the other people I interact with, I am making a higher salary then I did at my old job, and I have fantastic work-life balance. My wife and I have our marriage back on track and I am there to see my daughter grow up. I feel truly blessed and very, very lucky this turned out as well as it did.

But, I’m still haunted by the memories of the crap I went through at my last job - particularly that one manager who accused me of dishonesty, and the two clients from hell I mentioned above. I had nightmares about dealing with them for months afterwards. Even now, thinking of them makes me break out in cold sweats or makes me so angry my hands shake. This happens several times a week.

As well, I feel guilty about still experiencing these negative emotions since I never had real closure with these individuals. I know rationally there was no real way for me to do so – protocol required I had to be escorted right out of the building as soon as I gave my notice - but I needed it emotionally and didn’t get it.

Now that it’s been a year since most of this went down, I need to come to terms with all of this. I suspect most of you will recommend therapy and yes, I will be looking into it in the new year. For now, I would love to hear from any of you who went through similar situations. How did you deal with it? What did you do to cope with the emotional fallout of leaving a terrible job? What lessons did you learn for your own career? How can I better spot situations like this in the future?

TL;DR – I successfully got out of a terrible job where my character was called into question and the stress impacted my home life. I’m at a much better position now, but am still dealing with the anger/guilt from the bad job. How can I best process all of this and put it behind me?
posted by rasselas81 to Work & Money (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and EMDR might be for you. The experience you went through sounds really frustrating and even semi-traumatic -- having someone objective around to help you sort through everything that's happened and process it all in a logical way can really, really speed up the recovery process. I can recommend someone if you're anywhere in SoCal.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's very difficult to spot these kinds of situations in the future and not make yourself crazy. Next time, you'll have a better sense of what's happening and know when it's time to bow out.
posted by discopolo at 12:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went through a very, very similar experience over fifteen years ago. Some of those memories still sting a little, even though I've been vindicated over and over in my professional career. When you set your standards high and make your ethics and reputation a priority but still get caught up in this kind of crap, you feel like you've been an idiot for missing all those warning signs. I just remind myself that all I was really guilty of was a little naivete and trusting the wrong people to do the right thing. I know that I just don't have a hard enough shell to be successful in that kind of atmosphere, and I'm really glad that I'm not dysfunctional enough to do so. I try to be grateful that it ended when it did, that I didn't waste one more day in that situation. Looking on the bright side, man did I learn a LOT! And when I moved forward I know I was a better person, manager, and employee for going through it. My advice is that if you focus on the positive things you brought from it and use that knowledge in your present situation, then you're really better off and a more well-rounded person for having gone through it. Maybe it would help you to sit down and make a list of those lessons you learned the hard way. It might give you a better perspective and some closure.
posted by raisingsand at 12:52 PM on December 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm feeling a little shaky just reading about your experience, it must have been hellish to live through.

You behaved honorably and are both talented & professional enough to move swiftly to another company where that awful period will serve as invaluable experience in the future (both as a confidence booster and a means of seeing the warning flags should they ever reappear).

Could you try and reframe it in your mind as an awful but necessary path to the much better place you're at now?

Congratulations, there are too few people like you in this world.
posted by humph at 1:18 PM on December 16, 2012

I agree with raisingsand that making a list of what you learned is a good idea. I would also suggest listing all the ways people helped you along the way, i.e. the colleagues who spoke up for you, and the manager at the new place who took the time to investigate the situation and then did the right thing and hired you. Not all managers would have done that; many blame the victim. This experience showed you some of the positive aspects of human nature as well as the negative ones.

I had a very bad experience early in my career and it took me a long time to get over it. In retrospect, I wish I had done what you are doing and recognized that it was tainting my view of the word, then taken concrete action to help me let go. CBT is a good idea, and in the shorter-term, it might be worth looking into the Emotional Freedom Technique, a method of letting go of trauma.
posted by rpfields at 1:24 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Good for you for being willing to pursue therapy. The fact that this is still so charged for you over a year later makes it more than you should wisely try to deal with by yourself.

When I experienced an unexpected termination, I was tormented by resentment and feelings of unfairness. I was spending a lot of mental energy arguing with the person who misjudged me, and also felt resentment for the co-workers who didn't stand up for me and didn't reach out to support me.

The way I worked with it was to burn a company T-shirt in the fireplace in a ceremonial way. As it went up in flames, the intense heat reminded me of the heat of my resentment. I realized that even if my anger was righteous, holding onto it would hurt me most of all.

When the hurt and anger came up later, I just imagined those flames and that heat, and somehow it helped.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:25 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Three things:

1. I think a lot of people go through similar types of workplace experiences - so you're not alone.

2. You've managed to get yourself out of the situation and into a far better one where people understand very clearly that you were in the right and that you were treated unfairly (perhaps this can be part of your closure - your justice if you will). You now how more experience with these types of situations (tho I'm sure you'd prefer you didn't) that will make situations like these easier to deal with in the future should they occur again.

3. For further closure, therapy is an option - getting those loose ends tied up with a therapist can be cathartic. Or you can write letters to all the people involved, saying how you feel, and then don't send them but shred or burn them instead. But sometimes people just need that release.
posted by heyjude at 1:28 PM on December 16, 2012

Oh, yeah. The nightmares. I was in Broadcast TV for a while back in the day. Totally cutthroat, totally dysfunctional.

- I was young at the time, so I drank. (Don't do this;))

- I started meditating. Just guided meditations for 20 minutes or so after exercise. This REALLY helped.

- Time and perspective.

- After many many years, I no longer ever ever work with people who make me nuts like that. Drawing boundaries helps, developing confidence. But when dealing with the truly ill and dysfunctional,it is best to jump ship. I have a family, too. Staying true to myself and instead of believing I had to put up with crap has never backfired on me financially, just so you know. That crappy job usually never really supports you, IMHO. YMMV.

Give it time and build new positive professional experiences. The trauma will fade.

We all go through it. The important thing is not to let it happen again. Ask me how I know!
posted by jbenben at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had the job from hell back in year 2000. It's kind of like a bad relationship; only success in a future one (and some time) will really cause you to get over it. January 2013 will mark 12 years to the day I got sacked from that place (but who's counting!?!)

I know it's a cliche, but a few years from now you'll look back and laugh.

If you're of the sort who needs to feel "you went through this for a reason" (which is sort of how I'm wired), consider this: you learned some things about how you respond in a crisis, and from the sound of things you did well. One of my takeaways was how to manage people. In a difficult situation, I just imagined how my old boss would do things and tried to do the opposite.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:35 PM on December 16, 2012

Wow. It sounds like you handled this very elegantly.

I was in a similar situation not once but several times in near-succession. There was nobody outside the first several companies that I could reach out to and my reputation depended entirely on the word of my slanderers. So each time I started at a new place, I was starting my career again from the year zero, with all past achievements struck from my record.

The final time, I had the support of a colleague, I thought, but in hindsight who can tell. He hinted several times in a darkly humorous way that he might have written bad things on my reference. I think in retrospect these were not jokes, that he either wrote or wanted to write bad things about me, but whatever he did write wasn't bad enough to prevent my hire. After I was hired at the new place he was outright malicious to me, cut off contact, and publicly flaunted his (entirely voluntary) allegiance to Teh Bad Guyz. (He tried to slither back a while later when my new project hit the big time, so, revenge? karma? I guess. Bit hard to feel triumphant there, if I'm honest.)

This is all years behind me now. I'm astonished at the end of every day by the amount of trouble I *didn't* have and the amount of malice that *wasn't* directed at me. For some time now I've been allowed to show up at work, do the job and go home, as if that were normal. I think for some people it actually is, and now I'm among them. I'll never take it for granted, and if it all goes wahoonie-shaped in the future I'll look for another job that I'm allowed to just *do* without getting punished for it.

Thing is, if you process these things the right way, you unlock the next level of the game. I can't easily describe it. It has something to do with taking a lead and not being ruled by a spirit of fear - of course these things are scary but you didn't give in to it, you stood up for yourself and used every bit of your power to maintain the good in your life, right?

So all I can suggest is that you stay honest, maintain your network with other honest people, and don't get too attached to any one situation or workplace. Be a man of principle and know that you have the coping skills to handle it all. Dishonest people really count on your lowering yourself in various ways, be it morally or just in your self-respect, and if you refuse to cooperate it really frustrates them.

But your gut feelings don't really understand this do they? I was supposed to get EMDR for my troubles but nothing was ever done in the end. I was told that it would wear off with time, and it took a few years but I've been feeling better for a while now. But if I were you I'd try EMDR.
posted by tel3path at 4:33 PM on December 16, 2012

one thing to add: let as few people as possible know that you had a bad time in your previous workplace and don't share any more detail than necessary.

I think I had repetitive trouble in part because of malicious people getting their stories straight. I'm sure your new coworkers are fine, but you never know who people talk to and if they only know exactly as much as they need to know, that limits what they can possibly pass on.
posted by tel3path at 4:42 PM on December 16, 2012

Yuck, what an awful situation, congratulations for getting out of it! You're doing really great.

I have a practical suggestion for getting some closure.

If you are any good at writing, or even if you're not, how about writing a short story where you get the ending you fantasize about. Waltzing into her office, calling her out, people standing up for you and cheering your name in departure. Calling up those clients and giving them a piece of your mind.

About 3 years ago I had a confrontation with my ex mother in law in the school yard of my daughters school. It haunted me for weeks as I said some things I shouldn't have and didn't say what I should have. So I gave it a re-write. Honestly, those feelings then disappeared. I was surprised at how good it worked.

You could give it a try, it won't hurt and you wont lose anything in the process.

Good luck.
posted by Youremyworld at 4:57 PM on December 16, 2012

OP here - thanks for the good answers. I appreciate them.

To expand on a couple points from some of the answers:

humph - it was a hellish experience. For the first time in my life I developed physical symptoms of stress: I got eczema all over my hands, I had severe insomnia and lost about ten pounds which I couldn't afford to lose. Thankfully, I had about 3 weeks off between jobs to recover.

jbenben - coincidentally, I was just out at a dinner with friends and we were discussing some of the "life lessons" I learned from this job - and one of them is to avoid working with toxic people as much as possible. It is simply not worth it. I remember realizing halfway through this experience that no matter what I did, the manager in question was determined to see me take the fall for what happened. That was the first time in my career I had experienced that and so it was pretty shocking. But in retrospect, I'm glad it happened as early on as it did.

Youremyworld - thanks for the suggestion, I am certainly going to take some time over the holidays to do some creative writing - although it will likely take the form of a letter than a story.
posted by rasselas81 at 6:29 PM on December 16, 2012

I went through a similar situation, although it took me five (FIVE!) years to move on to a new position. I've been in the "new" position for a year now. I recently had lunch with some friends who still work for the old company and it brought up all sorts of anxiety for me. It's funny what sticks with you.

Things I do to work through the negative stuff.

1. Read this when you have some time to process the anxiety it will bring up: Understand that you are nowhere near the only one who has gone through this.

2. Read up on how to deal with the aftermath of bullying.

3. I like to do an honest assessment of where things are at for me. This is something you may learn how to do if you do CBT (which I highly recommend). Basically, whenever I start to panic or feel anxious about my current job (which is wonderful), I look at what's really going on in reality and compare it to what I'm panicking about. For instance:

Panic thought: My coworkers all hate me and are going to turn on me the first chance I get.
Reality: (I then list why this may or may not be true):
Not true: I've been there a year and everyone is still open/helpful.
Not true: My boss just gave me a really plum assignment.
Not true: I was invited to go out to lunch with my team on Friday.

And finally, don't blame yourself for what happened. You did the best you could with what you had, and got out assoon as you realized what was going on. You learned from the situation. Focus on the fact that you were strong enough and smart enough to get out, and got a better deal in the bargain.
posted by RogueTech at 6:41 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great! I find that writing those types of letters gets me more worked up about the situation, however if it works for you then I think it's worth a shot.

I am the type of person to mull things over to death, so just accepting that and knowing it will pass helps me too.

You're in a great place now, everything is working out and you have learnt some valuble life lessons. So in a way you can be grateful for your experiences, try to draw on that when you feel it overwhelming you.
posted by Youremyworld at 6:44 PM on December 16, 2012

Looking on the bright side, man did I learn a LOT!

Could you try and reframe it in your mind as an awful but necessary path to the much better place you're at now?

I went through a rough patch in the development of a product. I was an engineer in a little over my depth on a program. The two lines above remind me of the engineer working for the supplier that was providing a major component of the system. It was, in the beginning, very buggy and once literally starting jumping around as smoke poured out of it. As I was practically in tears considering the inevitable delay this would cause the program, the engineer from the supplier stated, "No, this is good! We are learning something!"

I've had other times in my career where it seemed like the bottom was falling out, and I've gone back to that moment to help put it in perspective. I've had subsequent points where I've been in over my head and tried to keep that in mind, even while going through the rough patch. It's almost like taking the negative and turning it into a positive. I realize now that those rough patches have made me a much better, more fearless engineer.

There's a line from an old Supertramp song that captures this:

Does it feel that you life's become a catastrophe,
oh it has to be
for you to grow boy.

In fact, the lyrics sound a lot like your story.
posted by Doohickie at 8:18 AM on December 17, 2012

Hoo Boy! I've been there. I'm writing a novel that incorporates my experience. Writing it, and reading/editing it still makes me as angry as I was back when it happened....20 years ago.

My mantra on this stuff is 'what goes around, comes around'. The manager who put the kibosh on three possible promotions, while telling me that the reason I didn't get the jobs was because I sucked, was eventually fired for integrity issues (Really? You don't say.)

It's never enough. No matter what, your professional enemies/nemisises will never get the punishment they truly deserve.

I'll tell you what, it makes one a but suspicious of things and trepedatious, which may be the appropriate attitude to have when working in a corporate environment.

I'm going through a huge re-org right now and while everyone assures me that it's only good news for me, I'm keeping irons in the fire. Because everyone has the best of intentions, but you just never know.

Bio-feedback, calming and meditation will help you not react physically, also, distance from the situation will help. You have PTSD, so it needs to be treated as such.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:41 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

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