Recovering from a toxic job
January 2, 2020 7:55 PM   Subscribe

I've been in a toxic job for 9 years, 7 months, and 7 days. Yesterday, the eve of the 2020 new year, I got a new job offer. What an amazing omen for this decade! Help me thrive in my new job! Help me not carry the trauma of a dysfunctional workplace to a new one. TW: Mentions of abuse (non-workplace related) below the fold.

Background: I've been in a cycle of abuse for my whole life - molestation as a child, a controlling boyfriend in high school, an abusive husband after high school, and then, sadly, for the last 10 years, I've been in a job where my boss exhibits all the same traits as my ex-husband and I use the same coping mechanisms to manage our relationship and it's just horrible for my mental health. I AM IN THERAPY and obviously discussing all of this at great length with my therapist.

He is a manipulative and emotional micromanager, his directions change with his mood, no SOPs carry over because he demands to consider every single thing on a "case-by-case basis," he has zero professional boundaries and expects 24/7 access to me for any reason he can think of (anything ranging from work-related "crises" to demanding I go to the theater to see a particular movie RIGHT NOW so we can discuss it). We used to work in the same office, where he would fly into physical rages and destroy things. After a year or so of working together, he began working from home, and still does, so I'm not subjected to that aspect of his personality anymore - but it's no surprise I would go from being abused in my marriage to "thriving" in this type of work environment, eh? He has an extremely contrary personality - nothing can ever be right, no matter what you suggest, no matter what action you take, he WILL tell you it should have been done a different way. Many years ago I had to remove my ego from work whatsoever and create basically a shell version of myself to take the constant criticism.

He can be intensely cruel and also intensely loving - not in a sexual way, but more of a "fatherly" way. This is one of those notorious workplaces where we are all "family." He can be extremely complimentary, gives me unexpected raises and bonuses and awards and promotions, wants to know every detail of my life and "help" in whatever way he can think of. I find myself disgusted even more by the interactions when he is "nice" than the ones where he is cruel. I am his "favorite" out of the entire staff. I hate being part of this situation. I found ways to cope and justify the "good parts" of the job to myself for a long time but those days are gone and I am MOVING ON.

The now/pertinent question: I was candid with the interviewer for the new job about my desire for work-life balance and wanting a job I can leave at home at the end of the workday. That interviewer will be my new supervisor and I feel confident the new company's values align with mine in that regard. I am a high performer but I have definitely developed a measure of learned helplessness working under my boss, where nothing I do can ever be right. I've been working under him for so long that I am completely out of sync with what a normal workplace is like. I do not ever want to be in this situation again, and thanks to being in therapy, I think I feel confident about setting boundaries and not being run roughshod over. But... that's now, the new job hasn't started yet, and as I've learned from so many life experiences, a thing is different once you're in it.

Have you been in a situation like this? Were you able to succeed in your new job? How can I prevent bringing over bad habits I probably don't even realize I have? How can I keep my confidence intact, how can I not constantly second-guess myself? Are there books I can read that will help me make this transition?

Side note: There is nothing that can be done about my former (technically current ugh) boss in terms of making things better for the people who still work for him, reporting him, etc. He is one of the highest ranking members of the company and the only person who outranks him is a family member.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not a psychologist or anything but the first thing I noticed is that for someone who hates the job you are leaving and is optimistic for the one you are starting, much of the post is still written in the present. Anything you can do to accelerate leaving the old job, even if not starting the new one?

Last job transition took me about 6 months, and I'm not 100 percent confident my old boss wasn't tanking references. That left me with a ton of time to detox from certain aspects of work, do personal projects on my own time to my own standard, and prepare for the job transition. 6 months is probably too long, but perhaps a mini do-cation between jobs would help?
posted by pwnguin at 9:42 PM on January 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

While I'm afraid I don't have anything especially helpful or pertinent to suggest, for what it's worth this random stranger wishes you the best of luck in moving on and holding others to a much higher standard where things like boundaries and being treated with the respect and consideration you deserve are concerned. Here's hoping 2020 proves to be a major turning point, and a banner year you'll look back on fondly.
posted by DavidfromBA at 10:31 PM on January 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

One of the things I wanted to do when I got the new job was to stop spending so much time either pulling my punches, or manoeuvring at great length to get something done in a way that wouldn't piss off my boss. So I talked to my new boss about it and I said, look, I take feedback well, can I trust that if I'm ever doing something you don't like, you'll tell me so we can talk it through?
Then I deliberately over indexed (to what felt like a frightening level) on deciding what I was going to do and why, telling my boss and just doing it.
This strategy has worked pretty well for me and I'm still in the same job over 3 years later.
posted by quacks like a duck at 11:53 PM on January 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

First off, congratulations for creating a better future for yourself. Seconding others: don't put so much effort on the current job. That part of your life is in the rear view mirror. What happened to you, happened to me. My time with the bad manager was about a year. I'd never been so demoralised nor so badly treated. I started my new role in late September.

It's great that you are letting it all out now, but reliving every interaction with your manager is not helping you. pwnguin suggested a gap of me-time between jobs. I did this; I took a fortnight off to decompress. I wanted the same as you, to shed the old bad habits and reflexes, to learn to trust yourself. I'm betting you are pretty tired right now.

In two months, I have received more courtesy, praise, recognition, and trust than during the full year previous. This is what I did during the fortnight break: I made a list of proposed new behaviours I wanted to embody.

* Boundaries: went back into therapy. I'd need an outlet and my new management staff would not be appropriate. It's great that you are there already!
* Stopped seeking praise and confirmation. Example: I used to work with folks who would email some trivial statement to a big thread to show that they worked late at night or on the weekend. I did that near the end because (it's painful writing this) I was so in need of not getting abused.
* Trust your experience and make decisions that are in your wheelhouse without polling for explicit approval. It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
* It is okay not to know something. This is the perfect window to ask questions, loudly and firmly. Do not be afraid say you don't know something. You will not get punished.
* It is okay to ask questions. You will not get punished. Do not be afraid to start forging new work relationships.
* Don't discuss with new team the difficulties in current role.
* Don't share your personal life. That is no longer in your job description.

And finally -- try and remember that you are no longer under surveillance. Once you leave the office, your day is finished. You will no longer be interrogated or required to share your life. This is the opportunity to curate the new you. Best of luck.
posted by lemon_icing at 12:10 AM on January 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

There will be an emptiness that feels scary. It might even make you anxious to do something about it. That emptiness is freedom from abuse. Use that freedom to do your work and, having put in the hours and the effort, feel no guilt about leaving on time and cherishing your precious downtime.
posted by ipsative at 12:33 AM on January 3, 2020 [25 favorites]

The best advice I can give is to make a clean emotional break from your current job. Do not fall into the trap of evaluating your new situation in terms of your current one -- evaluate it in terms of something sane instead.

There will definitely be moments of "God, this is so much better!" when someone fails to yell at you for something, but don't accept that as a baseline. You deserve better.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:34 AM on January 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Can you go on a vacation in a foreign country for a few days to “reset” between jobs?
posted by oceanjesse at 4:57 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

The time when you're a new worker is a good time to ask for explicit feedback from your new boss. While you don't want to tell them everything about the dynamic, it might be helpful to point out that your old boss had to approve everything and made a lot of unexpected last minute changes, and that you'll need to get out of the habit of checking in about everything. That's a mild and healthy way of pointing out a specific kind of feedback you might need and requesting it.

Depending on the environment, letting people know what kind of feedback I like makes it more likely to get it if I need it. People who would wonder "why is she doing this?" are able to say, "oh, that thing you mentioned, here's an example." It might be a good way to enlist your new boss in helping you without dumping the entire weight of your previous job's mess on them.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:47 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you can figure out an effective micro ritual to earth feelings about soon-to-be-former job as they arise, it'll serve you well. You don't want to be walking around with a reenactment in your head, and it's almost certain that you'll have associations with elements of the new exciting job. Some things I have used in the past are a rubbing stone in my pocket or the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. The goal is not to banish the feelings, but just to put them away until you can sort through them in private.
posted by PMdixon at 6:50 AM on January 3, 2020

I had a less intense version of a similar experience at my last job: a boss who was generally recognized as abusive, and who was both horrible to me and very personally fond of and warm toward me, in a way that I handled a lot, um, more successfully? than most of the people who had to work for her, because the coping mechanisms I developed through my difficult relationship with my mother kind of worked for dealing with the bad boss. But it was an awful experience and I was wrecked about it -- I was in a supervisory position subordinate to her, and I felt like a prison-camp guard participating in her management of other employees.

I switched jobs three years ago, and it's been fine. My new supervisors are imperfect, like everyone, but they're not like she was, and they don't set off the same responses in me. I was a little twitchy and jumpy at first about weird things, enough to be a bit noticeable, but that faded and it didn't turn into a problem. If the new job doesn't have the same kind of abusive people, I bet you'll be just fine without having to do much active about it.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:04 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

As always, I'm here to recommend some posts from Alison Green at AskAManager, as her blog is where I first learned about the concept of a toxic workplace.

How can I stop being afraid every time my manager wants to talk to me?
Are you haunted by your last bad job?
How bad jobs can totally warp your sense of what’s acceptable.

Some of these are more focused on realizing that it's an issue at all to carry over behaviors from a toxic workplace, but there's also good advice from Alison (and in the comments on her blog) about how to recover/avoid too much of it.

Congratulations on the new job!
posted by jouir at 12:26 PM on January 3, 2020

Sometimes when we leave emotional prisons, the silence ipsative mentioned can be so unfamiliar and scary that we look for new jailers in the form of a person or situation. Not saying this is going to happen but be aware that it's a common pattern and if you find yourself doing it, don't be critical of yourself.

Congratulations on landing the new gig and may the silence be an opening to more good things.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:27 PM on January 4, 2020

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