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Reclaiming Joy: How to Recover After a Toxic Relationship

People sometimes let other people down. We get caught up in events and experiences in our lives and do not even realize other people are lost along the road.

People get distracted. We can see all the reasons, hear all the justification, and respond with compassion for the why’s and how’s – but it still hurts. We all want to be seen, and when there is a major problem that goes unheard, it makes you feel diminished. It becomes a waiting game – you pray and hope for the miracle to happen and someone to see you or hear you never realizing that when you are carrying a burden that heavy, even a pebble can be the final stone that causes the entire stack to tumble down to the bottom of the mountain.

Gary Chapman, Author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment, writes; “We all need support, in the workplace and beyond it. When we both give and receive, we stand a much better chance of survival.” I spent my teen years working in a Dairy Queen in a small town. On hot summer nights, the line would be blocks long and the entire crew needed to work double time. It was hard work, but it was also a joyful place to be. Healthy workplaces can be ones that expect us to work hard, but they cannot be places that expect people to continue working above capacity every day and every week – year after year.

We are all taught to work on building boundaries – both with people and in our time management. What’s harder and not taught is how to manage and adapt when the boundaries you place are ignored. No matter how strong they are, or we are, sometimes boundaries break and fall because there is no one left supporting us. When a workload is heading toward burnout and you ask for help in finding a way to reduce it, it feels a lot like failure. So, what then? Where do we go after we walk away from chronic overworking, and what is important to know?

First, do not expect justice. A work environment that is toxic cannot become a place of justice until the situation causing the toxicity is corrected. If you leave because there is an unwillingness to resolve harmful practices, it is even more unlikely you will achieve a healthy closure from the relationship. When you walk away, you are stepping out of the cycle that has led to toxicity, and that must be the place where you reclaim your joy – not through hope of justice or that the wrongs be righted. Recognize that walking away will allow the organization to label you the problem which then allows them to hire someone new who they treat the same way. One person who recently left a toxic situation reported that they were the third person in a row who brought up the same issues which should have been a warning flag, but instead the company just continued to blame the people who walked away.

Second, take time to heal. Rediscover who you were before the toxic environment. Separate yourself from the job and reclaim your worth as a capable and valued employee. Work to reach a point where you no longer feel like the job defines your value. Let your heart break if it needs to, because sometimes broken is what helps us find the path back to healthy and well. A toxic job is not any different than other toxic relationships, and we need to care for the broken hearts left in all toxic environments.

“Do not hold your breath for anyone,

do not wish your lungs to be still,

It may belay the cracks from spreading,

But eventually they will.

Sometimes to keep yourself together

You must allow yourself to leave,

Even if breaking your own heart

Is what it takes to let you breathe again.”

Says Erin Hanson in a poem.

Bryant McGill frames it in stronger terms – but with the same encouragement to walk away from that which is harming you – body and heart (soul). “Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection. Your arguments and hateful talk can land you in the emergency room or in the morgue. You were not meant to live in a fever of anxiety; screaming yourself hoarse in a frenzy of dreadful, panicked fight-or-flight that leaves you exhausted and numb with grief. You were not meant to live like animals tearing one another to shreds. Don't turn your hair gray. Don't carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don't lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late."

Finally, take time to inventory your accomplishments. There are likely many projects and hopes you left unfulfilled when you walked away. Don’t focus on those and instead look at the things you did accomplish. Move away from the negativity – including the negative self-talk – and toward a place of positivity and hope by reflecting on how you succeeded despite the toxicity.

Move away from the death that looms in a toxic relationship toward a life where you are thriving, not just surviving.

Walking away can be hard but know that this hard path leads to one that is filled with a joy that cannot exist in toxicity.

Be kind to yourself and know that walking away from toxic work situations may not have been your first choice, but it is the one that makes you a survivor of toxicity – no longer a victim to it.

originally written in 2016, edited in 2021

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