Help me navigate my relationships with well-meaning former coworkers.
June 21, 2013 7:16 PM   Subscribe

I left a toxic workplace six months ago for a new job. I'm happy with my new gig, but running into former coworkers still puts me in a funk -- and I see them constantly. How do I handle interactions with them if I work in the same field and/or travel in the same social circles? Snowflakery inside.

I spent years at Old Job waking up in the middle of the night from work stress due to impossible deadlines, arbitrary job role changes and near-constant firings. Now I sleep like a baby every night.

But. As happy as I am with my departure from Old Job, I can't seem to get it out of my brain.

My old workplace was very social, and I've maintained connections, some social, some professional, with many former coworkers. Whenever I spend time with them, in groups or individually, the conversation invariably drifts to the (never-ending, and always very juicy) drama at Old Job. After a momentary thrill (and rush of relief at having left), listening to complaints or idle gossip about Old Job puts me in a funk for days after.

Also -- which I believe is related -- I continue to be plagued by angry, embarrassed and/or fearful thoughts connected to Old Job. Old Job was full of hyper-aggressive folks of the "I win, you lose" variety; I was terrible at navigating office alliances and got stuck in a progression of low-status, underpaid roles. Even though it's been six months and I'm super happy with what I'm doing now (and getting great feedback from new coworkers), I still regret my failure to succeed professionally in the old environment, and feel ashamed when I see former colleagues.

You might say, "Just find new friends and throw yourself into your work!" But it's a bit more complicated than that. New Job is in the same realm as Old Job so it is professionally useful for me to stay in touch with former coworkers. There are also specific former coworkers who I do value and would like to keep in my life as friends -- and I'd feel guilty ditching those relationships.

Three questions:

- Is it possible to maintain social ties with former coworkers without constantly being reminded of Old Job, or do I need to quit cold turkey?

- In professional settings where it is unavoidable to encounter former coworkers, what can I say or do to avoid being privy to venting sessions about Old Job?

- It's been six months and I'm still falling into bad feelings about Old Job. Is this normal?

I'd love to hear if anyone else has gone through this experience and lived to tell the tale.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Being around these people is obviously causing you a great deal of anxiety. I suggest severing ties with them, except for the ones you really want to stay friends with. I read a lot of AskMe questions from people who are miserable at their jobs and dying to move on to something at least more tolerable. You have done this and more, so congratulations, you got the really hard part over with. As for maintaining professional relationships, do just that. Be friendly and courteous (you never know who knows who...) but don't engage the drama. Now you have the power to just politely excuse yourself from such conversations.
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:35 PM on June 21, 2013

I've worked in an industry like that, where keeping connections to former coworkers was critical but workplaces were always toxic. Here are a couple of unconnected thoughts about the situation.

1. You can totally be social with former coworkers, but at this point I would try to stick to one-on-one interactions. Any group of people who work together are pretty much guaranteed to bitch about work when they're hanging out, and it's fine that you don't want to do that right now.

2. In professional settings, when people start venting about the old job, say "Yup, that sounds like Old Job, I'm so much happier where I am." and then either change the subject or excuse yourself. You don't ever *have* to stand around and listen to people bitch about anything or anyone. And you really shouldn't. It's also totally fine to say, early in the conversation, "Ugh, I don't want to hear about how Old Job is still horrible, it's depressing," or something along those lines, and then opt out if people can't resist. (And by "opt out" I mean "pretend to have to go answer a text" or "go to the bathroom" or "wander off and talk to current coworkers" or whatever works.)

3. Toxic jobs leave scars. The last one I was in left me twitching about some things for at least six months, if not a year. It eventually got better, especially since there was nothing about my new jobs that poked me in the same places. But if you're in a funk for days after hearing gossip, it's probably worth looking into some CBT or other strategies for managing intrusive thoughts and breaking unhealthy thought patterns. You don't necessarily have to see a therapist, although you certainly could, but there are lots of self-directed CBT resources to give you some skills for not getting stuck.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:47 PM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

You are allowed, for any reason, to cut ties with those who do you more harm than good regardless of fault. They don't have to be willful in the harm they bring you, they just have to bring you harm. It's like if you started dating a woman who looked like an ex...and it brought you pain every time you see her, it would be okay to dump her even though she was not at fault.
posted by inturnaround at 7:50 PM on June 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I still regret my failure to succeed professionally in the old environment, and feel ashamed when I see former colleagues.

andddd here's the crux of your problem.

It's not an overnight process, but what you've got to tell yourself (because it's true) is that it's no failing to not succeed in a shitty environment, nor are these people "winning" at something by succeeding in whatever gotcha games they were playing.

I've known a lot of people like this, and they're really good at manipulating one into feeling small. Stay cordial, but drop them socially, and contact as little as possible. No supposed career or professional ties are worth it. I had a professor from college who always made me feel like a 12 year old. Always.

And the shitty job he recruited me into where I lasted 5 months gave me literal nightmares for 3-4 years, so remember the words of 20th century philosopher A.G. Grant*, who said "it takes a little time, sometimes..."

*okay, it's an Amy Grant lyric. The song came out about the time I was in the shitty job...
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:18 PM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

It sounds like your former colleagues were okay people to work with, and you want to socialize, but don't want to talk about the Old Mess. I recommend maintaining cordial relationships because you're likely to be seeing these people at various employers for years to come.

- Is it possible to maintain social ties with former coworkers without constantly being reminded of Old Job, or do I need to quit cold turkey? Go meet people for a drink, but leave after 1 drink. Arrive armed with conversational topics to help keep the subject away from The Bad Place.

- In professional settings where it is unavoidable to encounter former coworkers, what can I say or do to avoid being privy to venting sessions about Old Job? Shorten your time spent with them. Have other topics to discuss. Learn about their kids, outside interests, etc.

- It's been six months and I'm still falling into bad feelings about Old Job. Is this normal? It's not unusual, and it has a name - anxiety. You can see a therapist and get some help on ways to deal with anxiety. Remind yourself that you didn't cause the problems, you didn't deserve to be treated badly, and you were smart enough to leave. A lot of people recommend the Feeling Good Handbook.
posted by theora55 at 10:23 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

1. No. You have to quit. Maybe not cold turkey, but slow fade to polite-but-distant. Cool quail, perhaps.

Socialising with colleagues is the main vector for spreading toxicity, you need to keep your professional and social lives separate. You can do this while still maintaining a thriving professional network.

2. "Yeah, that's a bad scene. How about them $SPORTSTEAM, eh?

3. Yes
posted by tel3path at 2:26 AM on June 22, 2013

Seconding what randomkeystrike said about the crux of the problem. Old Job keeps bringing up old feelings of failure and shame.

Your description makes Old Job sound legitimately toxic. But here's the thing: even if it was not toxic, there is absolutely no reason to see your experience there as any failing on your part. Some things are just not a good fit. Nothing to be ashamed of. And, given that it does seem like a toxic environment, the fact that you did not fit in there actually speaks well of you.

But, kind of like a bad relationship, you stuck it out for years trying to make it work, but it did not; and now when you look back, you're still feeling like you did something wrong. Normal feelings. And getting over these feelings will take a while. And, like a bad break-up, it will be good to limit your contact with Old Job where possible. But if you're happy with the new job, don't let the unavoidable brushes with Old Job drive you away completely.

In the meantime, try to see your experiences at Old Job differently; as long as you keep seeing it as a source of shame, you will not be at peace with it. And that will stay with you on some level even if you get completely away from that line of work and those people.
posted by fikri at 7:13 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

As to your last question -

I left an incredibly toxic position nearly two years ago and I still have an awful time thinking about it or being around a lot of my old coworkers (we're talking constant sexual harassment of myself and others, lots of other completely inappropriate things like homophobic and transphobic comments, etc.. at a very, very "liberal" bay area non profit) I'm pretty convinced it gave me some type of mild ptsd, for lack of a better term. When I moved back to the bay area, I would regularly have full-blown nightmares that I had to go work there again, and nightmares are a thing that I never have otherwise. I still keep in touch with a lot of people I worked with there, because there were multiple agencies working in the same place and many of the other agencies were full of awesome people and great environments, and there were a couple of people in my company that I became good friends with as well. Occasionally there will be "going away" parties or birthday parties for people who still work there that I will get invited to. Now, even two years later, I have figured out that I just can't do it. I end up getting anxious, depressed, angry, drinking too much, etc when I'm around all of these people at once and have to hear about that job non-stop for several hours. So no, I don't think six months is too long at all.

I've found I can hang out with the people I'm closer with from that job and we are all able to enjoy each other's company without it becoming a massive job-bitching session, however. That's mostly because we have an actual friendship that has nothing to do with work.

I also still work in basically the same field as that job, and the bay area is pretty small as well, so I do run into people from there (for instance, my boss at my job last year was the site supervisor at the awful job previously, though worked for a different agency) and I'm able to be professional and kind and cool with them outside of that environment. When she and I would talk about that job, or when people would ask about it (it's the kind of job many people ask about) I can easily just think of the people I did like there and the aspects of it I was able to make pleasant for myself and talk about that. When the conversation turns negative though, I really do just have to excuse myself or attempt to change the subject. Some of my closer friends from that job do know about the severity of my reaction to that stuff, and they help me out with that as well, so maybe confiding in someone you trust with even just the fact that you really want to move on and that negativity is holding you back could help.
posted by primalux at 9:08 AM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it's normal. It might help to read through this post about 'sick systems' and work on accepting that in that kind of system you're set up to constantly fail. It's not a reflection on you.
posted by corvine at 11:43 AM on June 22, 2013

Thank you so much, everyone. So grateful for your kindness and insight.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf at 10:18 AM on June 24, 2013

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