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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

You’ve Left a Toxic Job, Congrats. Now Comes the Healing.

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Watching less-qualified coworkers land promotions as she was passed over again and again made Raydiance Dangerfield, who was working in learning and development in Maryland at the time, question her skills and talents. Facing a barrage of constant microaggressions from her peers on top of that changed how she built—and felt about—her professional relationships. She ultimately left her job, but entered a new one feeling paranoid and distrustful.

Working in a toxic environment—which may manifest as ostracism, incivility, harassment, bullying, and other behaviors by leaders, managers, and colleagues—harms productivity and performance, erodes bonds among colleagues, and is associated with stress and burnout. Toxic environments can also impair employees’ lives beyond their workplaces, leaving them feeling emotionally drained and experiencing lower well-being and increased conflict at home.

So leaving a toxic workplace as soon as you can is a healthy choice. But taking that step doesn’t necessarily mean you’re over it. “I know from personal experience that even if you get another job, even if you move across her country, you can’t keep avoiding your past,” writes Minda Harts in her book Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace, which centers the experiences of women of color dealing with toxic workplaces. “If you don’t face trauma head-on, it’s just another bag you have to carry that was never supposed to be yours in the first place.”

After enduring a toxic workplace, you might, like Dangerfield, secure a new job. This one is different—new people, a new environment, maybe even new job duties—but that doesn’t magically erase your previous experience. Perhaps you’re anxious when it’s time to connect with a new manager because your last boss was a bully. Or maybe you don’t feel confident enough to speak up in meetings because you were silenced at your old gig, and that made you feel unsafe to share.

Simply put, you may still be carrying the effects of the old toxic work environment with you. But if you want to start fresh and keep your career moving forward, there are steps you can take to put the toxicity behind.

Remember your “why.”

“To keep things in perspective, remember both why you left your previous employer and why you chose your new one,” says Farah Harris, LCPC, psychotherapist and well-being expert.

Identifying why you left helps you become aware of your boundaries, Harris says. “Was it because of a micromanager or racial aggressions, or was it a lack of effective communication?” If you’ve pinpointed the toxic behaviors that drove you from your last job, you can examine whether these same patterns are actually playing out in your new one—or if your past experience is coloring how you read and react to the present.

“Once you’re aware of and acknowledge your feelings, it equips you to make better, conscious decisions versus subconsciously informing your perspective and actions,” says Dangerfield, who is now a career coach and the owner of My Curated Career.

And when you’re clear not only on why you left, but also on what you saw in your new employer that made you take this job, your focus is sharpened on whether it’s truly a good fit. Then you can start to realize what it is you need from your boss and coworkers to set you up for professional success and well-being going forward.

Go deeper.

“Sometimes you will leave a toxic work environment and don’t know exactly how it impacts you until [you] become triggered at the new place,” Harris says. Identifying your triggers—being intentionally interrupted during team meetings, for instance, or being thrown under the bus by a team member—is only the first step.

“You have to be self-aware, so you can’t just say, ‘This [manager or coworker’s behavior] makes me anxious.’ Why does it make you anxious?” Harris says. If a boss micromanaging you makes you anxious, for example, you might dig deeper to realize that autonomy is something you value and when that boundary is crossed it triggers a negative reaction—and it’s particularly upsetting because you have experience with a manager violating that boundary in the past.

Exploring those feelings by journaling or freewriting can help, Harris says. Use these prompts to get started:

  • What is the hardest, most uncomfortable emotion for you to feel at work? Explain.
  • Think of an earlier time in your work life when you felt similar negative feelings and write about it.
  • Review the situation that triggered you and write out the facts without personalizing it.
  • Is there an emotion that you want to feel (or feel more of) at work?

Talk to your manager.

If you’re fearful that you may be transferring feelings about your old job to your new one, consider having an honest conversation with your boss about what you’re feeling to reset expectations for a positive work experience.

Note that this does not mean you should go in and bash your previous employer or vent about your former boss, Harris says. A verbal dump with no clear objectives could tarnish your reputation early on.

Instead, focus on what will help you succeed. “If you can be clear about how they can get the best and most out of you, then both of you can be on the same page in terms of expectations,” Harris says. The more self-aware you are—remember when you identified your triggers and why you react to them as you do?—the easier it becomes to advocate for yourself. And using very specific language can keep you on track and communicate what works best for you in your new gig. Try direct statements like, “I am in my zone of genius when...” or, “I tend to do my best work when…” to convey to your manager how they can support you.

“That’s the vulnerability piece, and it can be a bit scary,” Harris says. But “a good leader will actively listen to see how they can put their employee at ease, take heed of what is being said, and follow up with consistent check-ins to see how the employee is doing and provide constructive feedback.”

Build your support network.

If you’re feeling like you’re looking over your shoulder at your new job, Dangerfield says this is a good time to reach out to your network or begin to cultivate a new one. A professional network or personal board of directors can offer guidance and encouragement, she says. “They can be used as a mental check to see if your trauma is responding, or if, in fact, you are experiencing toxic behaviors at your new workplace.”

And since you’ve been through what can be a pretty lonely and isolating experience that can have a negative impact on your life at and outside of work, it’s all the more important to tend to your professional as well as personal relationships as you recover.

Be mindful, however, that even the best-intentioned mentor or friend can’t necessarily provide all the support you may need right now. “Get a career coach. They can help you get really clear on the vision (for your career) and come up with a plan,” says Dangerfield, who sought help from both a career coach and a therapist when she was looking for a healthier work environment.

A career coach can also help you evaluate new opportunities, for example, or navigate setting boundaries at a new job. A mental health professional can do the same—and support you in other ways as you recover from your past experiences and develop new habits and relationships. (You can find a career coach on The Muse and you can access therapy and other mental health resources through your employer-sponsored Employee Assistance Program or online using platforms such as GoodTherapy, Therapy for Black Girls, Therapy for Latinx, and Talkspace.)

Letting go of the after-effects of a toxic work environment can be challenging. But using a combination of strategies can help you recover—so you can take full advantage of this opportunity and kickstart your new professional life.

Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.