A woman walking across the street with her jacket on one shoulder

Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life have come from my ideas around work and career.

Serendipitously in my mid-20s, I fell sideways into a line of work that brought me a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment. Throughout the last decade, the work I do has transformed in organic ways. I’ve been able to curate a career trajectory that aligns with my personal values and vision.

Yet, I’ve also found myself in toxic workplaces on several occasions. During those seasons of my life, the sense of rupture was deeply felt.

Your Job vs. Your Career

Your career and your job are two very distinct things. It is possible to find a sense of purpose within a career. Yet, finding what that looks like in an exact job title, at the right company and with the right people is the tricky bit. You can adore your career but still have no love for your current job, especially if it’s in a toxic workplace.

Identify What “Toxic” Looks Like

There were two scenarios where I found myself in a work environment that was, quite simply, toxic. In both cases, the issue had nothing to do with the actual job and everything to do with the people and the general culture of the company I worked in.

Identifying what a toxic workplace looks like can be nuanced. I’ve worked in organizations where a large number of the individuals would complain about the “toxic” culture. Yet, they were reluctant to do anything about it. Some of these people worked in the company for years, but after only a few months, I made the decision that it wasn’t the right place for me.

Here are some signs of a toxic work environment:

  • A manager who is verbally and emotionally abusive
  • Expectations to work excessive hours without pay and no acknowledgement of your health and well-being
  • A lack of support, leadership or appropriate resources
  • Colleagues who belittle and sabotage your role
  • A culture of idea theft, competitiveness and lack of teamwork

Becoming Stuck

One of the greatest challenges I’ve encountered was not losing myself in the face of these situations. Finding yourself in any kind of toxic scenario, including work, can lead to ruminating on a narrative many of us get stuck on, “I’m not good enough.”

It certainly did for me, especially when a year after my first toxic work experience, I found myself in a similar environment. It became increasingly difficult to hold onto the idea that this is the work I not only wanted to do but also that I am supposed to be doing. I started to feel the toxicity I encountered was due to my own failings.

Choosing Myself

Escaping both of those environments involved a lot of sleepless nights, quite a few tears and a lot of deliberating. Ultimately, there was only one solution. I had to walk away. Anything that begins to make you question your joy or sense of self has no place in your life.

Anything that begins to make you question your joy or sense of self has no place in your life.

I was fortunate to have been in a financially stable situation, with a productive side career as a freelance writer and a wonderfully supportive partner. Removing the toxicity from my life freed up my time and my emotional capacity to focus on finding something that worked for me.

Every time I have made the decision to close a door on something that didn’t serve me, I have been rewarded with something that serves me in ways I would never have considered or sought out otherwise.

Walking away taught me this: There is always another opportunity calling. You just have to be brave.

Have you ever been in a toxic work environment? What did you learn from it?

Image via Prakash Shroff, Darling Issue No. 17

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4 comments

  1. I moved to Berlin desperate for work, and when I finally landed a job that didn’t require German fluency, I was elated. Unfortunately, my manager was taking credit for my work and bullying me – and I realized I landed myself in a toxic work environment. Though I was ecstatic about my actual role (and after many attempts to resolve conflicts and create positivity), I realized that I needed to get out because my career was in the wrong hands. Fortunately, I could afford to leave without lining up a full time job. I was so relieved the second I resigned and I continue to feel proud of myself. I find this article refreshing and truly empathetic to the idea of ‘choosing yourself’. It’s just a job, and I’m hoping that I made space for a better opportunity. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for sharing Brit! Leaving a toxic job is hard and can be a process. But it can also be the best gift you give yourself. We’re so glad this resonated with you.

  2. Wow. This was exactly what I needed to hear, in fact. I’m only in my early-20s so perhaps much younger but I’ve found myself in a job that I’m feeling pressured to shape into a career – when I know it’s just *not* what I want. The toxicity here mostly comes from not feeling like I am valued, not seeing a future, but also, like you said, a lot of idea theft.
    Your closing sentence hit home. <3 I'm nearly two years in now, and this is the first job I've ever had… so I'm trying to find that courage to let go. But thank you for inching me closer towards that step.

    1. Hi Joanne! We are so encouraged that this left you feeling encouraged. Leaving a job is hard and a very nuanced situation. We hope that you find courage to move forward in a way that honors you and your peace of mind. Thanks for reading!

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