How to put that experience behind you once and for all

Chris Sowers
Oct 4 · 11 min read
Businessman in suit wearing protective flu mask.
Businessman in suit wearing protective flu mask.
Photo credit: ajr_images. Used with permission.

You did it. You made it out — hopefully with some shred of sanity and sense of personal self-worth. But even if those things feel unrecoverable, they aren’t. You can get them back.

Maybe you’ve moved on to greener pastures. If that’s the case, well done. You’ve taken an important step towards preserving (or gaining back) your emotional and physical health.

Maybe, although less likely, your boss either moved on or was fired. Most of the time, these situations don’t fix themselves, as for some reason senior leadership would rather keep a single toxic boss employed than the multiple high-quality employees who leave because of them.

In either case, there’s a residual emotional and physical toll that lasts well beyond the end of the boss-employee relationship. I know; I’ve been there.

In the span of just two years of reporting to a toxic boss, I went from being a high-performing, high-potential engineering leader to nearly leaving the company I’d spent 15 years at because of one single person. My boss. That’s how badly I needed to get away from her.

By the time I finally managed an internal transfer to another department, I was scared of the future. My confidence was shot to hell. I felt isolated and alone. My personal relationships had suffered. I felt like it was the first day of junior high school and the cool kids were going to bully and laugh me out of the building.

And yet, I made it. It’s taken almost three years, but I’m finally back in a job where I’m fully engaged and contributing at a high level—back in an organization where I’m valued. Back with a boss who wants me to succeed.

I made it, and I’ve learned some things along the way about how to get back to this point. It didn’t have to take three years, and I’m hoping the tips below can help you get back a lot sooner.


Starting Your Next Job: From Fear to Acceptance

“How do I know my next boss won’t be worse?” Dozens of people have reached out to me after reading my first article on this subject, and this is their most common question when I tell them they absolutely must start looking for a new job. Immediately.

My answer? You don’t. You don’t know that your next boss won’t be as bad (or worse), and you can’t ever know that for sure. The trick is to re-frame your thinking from fear that it could happen to an acceptance that you’ll deal with it if it does.

Of course, you can assess the new situation during the interview process. You can ask questions about the work culture and management style, but toxic bosses are brilliant at saying the right things in order to manipulate these kinds of situations. You can talk to current team members to get their perspective, but if the boss is truly toxic, they’ll be too afraid to tell you the truth.

In short, you can do everything right and still end up in another toxic situation. Maybe even more toxic than the one you left.

But wait, there’s good news here: you’ll know very soon after joining if you’ve walked into another toxic situation. You’re tuned into the behavior now, and you’ll recognize another toxic environment almost immediately. And if you have joined one? Leave. You know you can land another job — because you just did it. It certainly won’t be easy, but you’ve done it before and you can do it again.

In the worst-case scenario, you only work in the new job for a handful of weeks or months before leaving and finding something else. And if that happens, you don’t even need to put it on your resume. Interviewers don’t even need to know about this experience. You can explain the longer gap in employment by saying you’ve been very selective and are waiting for the right opportunity.

Don’t fear the next job, the next boss. Accept that it could indeed be another toxic situation, and accept that you know how to handle it if it is.


How to Restore Your Confidence

The transition from self-doubt to confidence can be more difficult. Your toxic boss has likely sapped your confidence and feelings of self-worth, and unless you can rebuild it, it could be debilitating in your next job.

Think about the best work you’ve done in your career. How confident were you when you were doing that work? It’s likely that you knew you were doing something special. You need to be able to get that feeling back. Here are three ways to do it.

1. Discover your strengths

One of my personal favorite methods for rebuilding my own confidence is to read my Gallup Strengthsfinder report. This report helped me get through some of my darkest days of reporting to the toxic boss from hell and has continued to help in my recovery. Here’s a sample from my report.

You normally devote your energies to pinpointing what makes people special and unique. This knowledge probably permits you to inspire many individuals to do their finest work. Driven by your talents, you tend to be a very good adviser to many individuals.

YES! I do that. Reading that is inspiring, and I hope it’s true. It fits with how I see myself. And that’s something that no boss can take away. That’s me, and it always will be.

Get a report for yourself. Read it. Don’t argue with it. Let it make you feel good.

Just buy the Top 5 report — that’s all you need. It’s $19.99 (at the time of this writing). Don’t worry about getting the full 34-strength report—you don’t need it, and you’ll save a bunch of money. The longer report can make you too tempted to focus on developing strengths that show up #30–34 for you — the ones you might call weaknesses. Working on your perceived weaknesses is no way to rebuild your confidence. Remove that temptation by only purchasing your Top 5.

2. Examine your strengths

Here’s an assignment that will help boost your self-confidence even further. Pick a strength — it can be one of your top 5 from the above report or any other characteristic that is a strength of yours (if you’re struggling, here’s a list to get you thinking).

Now, write down responses to the following:

  1. Identify a specific instance from your personal life where you used this strength and achieved a positive outcome.
  2. Identify a specific instance from your professional life where you used this strength and achieved a positive outcome.
  3. If you have a new job lined up — from what you know about the work, how will you be able to use this strength to achieve positive outcomes? Why will your new organization value and appreciate this strength of yours?

Pick another strength, rinse and repeat. Save your responses, and re-read them every few days. Your self-confidence will tick upwards with every reading.

3. Exercise your strengths

Find opportunities to do what you’re good at in situations where you can help or serve other people. Reread that list of strengths from above and think about things that you enjoy that could help others. Then, tune into situations where you can put those traits to use.

This can be at work, particularly if you’re in your new job away from the toxic boss, but perhaps more powerfully, it can also be outside of work.

You need to purposely give other people in your life chances to tell you that you did something well, or that you’re good at something, or simply to thank you. Each of these instances will be a deposit in your self-confidence bank account.

A few examples:

  • If you’re a good cook, invite some friends over and prepare dinner for them. Want to get sneaky? Invite friends who can’t cook themselves. They’ll be especially verbose with their thanks and praise.
  • If you’re talented at writing, offer to help a friend or family member with a term paper. Offer to edit your church bulletin or office newsletter. Many communities and small towns have a local website or publish a monthly gazette. Reach out to the publisher and offer to write an article for them about something happening in the community. Once it’s published, send it to all of your friends and family, post it on social media, etc., and soak up the praise that heads your way.
  • If you’re a decent gardener, the person who makes impeccably straight lines when they mow their lawn — find an elderly neighbor that could use the help and offer to do it for free. Make sure to ring the doorbell when you’re finished to make small talk and give them a chance to thank you and tell you how good the yard looks. They’ll appreciate the social connection, and so will you. You’ll feel good about yourself again.

Self-aggrandizing? You bet. Feeding your ego? Yep. But that’s OK. After what you’ve been through, anything within the confines of the law that can help eliminate self-doubt and restore your confidence just might be acceptable.


Exercise Your Independence

Toxic bosses are primarily driven by their need for power. In their twisted world, in order to gain and maintain power, they have to take it away from you. They need as much power as possible, and they steal it from us by holding us captive. (My toxic boss from hell kept track of how many times her admin assistant left her desk to use the restroom.)

If you’ve left a toxic boss, you likely feel a bit lost at sea. You may even somehow miss that obligation to your captor. You don’t have a captor anymore, and you may have forgotten how to operate as an independent adult at work.

You need to go from being a captive subservient to an independent contributor. To get there, you need to relearn how to function as an independent adult in the workplace. You can relearn this by finding ways to exercise your independence. Some ideas:

  • Take an entire day (or more) off to do things that only you want to do. If you’re in your next job already and have vacation time to use, take a day off of work to do this. It will reinforce your sense of independence to be doing what YOU want to do when you should be at work. Doing whatever you want to do on a weekend or regular day off isn’t as powerful, as it won’t make what you’re doing feel as different or reinforce your independence as much.
  • Take a solo-cation to somewhere you’ve never been before, even if it’s just a day trip. Tour a museum you’ve never been to. Stroll the streets of a neighborhood you haven’t walked through before. Eat wherever and whatever you want to eat, perhaps even indulging a guilty pleasure or two. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. By yourself. (Note — if your guilty pleasure happens to be fried chicken, and you happen to be within solo-cation distance of Nashville, Tennessee, that’s not a bad option. Just saying. I may have tested it shortly after leaving the toxic boss from hell a couple of years ago. Try it with the waffles. Sounded crazy to me, too, but you won’t regret it.)
  • Have a celebratory bonfire to symbolize your new independence. Print out emails from your toxic boss, performance reviews, maybe even a picture or two. Anything that reminds you of your former boss’s toxicity. Throw them on the fire, and feel the chains that used to bind you fall away as it all turns to embers.

You’re not captive anymore. You’re no longer a prisoner. Find ways to exercise your independence, and you’ll start to feel like an adult again.


From Isolated to Connected

Toxic bosses actively isolate us in an attempt to make us solely reliant on them for information, direction, and connection to the rest of the company. In their eyes, everything must flow through them, and they isolate us in order to make sure that happens.

You need to get your sense of connection to the world back. Previously, that connection was solely through your boss, your single source of truth. You were likely strongly dissuaded from developing relationships with others at work — you may have even been punished for doing so. If my toxic boss from hell knew I had a lunch date with a colleague, she’d come up with an urgent need just before lunch so that I’d have to skip my plans.

You need to get your connections back. You need to be able to function in your network again.

Start small. Invite colleagues out to lunch once or twice per week. Talk to them about their work, their families, and their perspective on the company you work for. Learn about them, and share things about yourself. We have a fundamental human need for connection with others. It’s OK to let yourself fulfill that need again.

Instead of dropping your kids off at sports practice and going home, stay and watch. Find other parents who’ve also stayed and talk to them. Get to know them. Offer to carpool to the game this weekend, or to go out to dinner afterward. Learn about the other people you sit next to on the sidelines.

When you’re ready, reach out to others who are in a toxic boss situation. Maybe they’re your former teammates; maybe they’re people in a different department at your new company. Now that you know the signs, you’ll recognize other toxic bosses without even working for them. Reach out to their employees, offer a sympathetic ear, provide your support. You know what you needed when you were in their shoes, so give it to them. You’re in a very unique position to help because you’ve been through it and came out the other side. You can be a very powerful force in their lives. Share your story with them, and they might open up to you. They need that connection as much as you do.


Becoming a Leader Again

Toxic bosses don’t want leaders working for them. They want servants. Any leadership potential or tendencies were squashed by your former boss because those characteristics were threats to his or her power. So whenever you showed some initiative or tried to take charge of something, you were told you were stupid, or completely wrong, or that you lacked the perspective that people in real positions of power had. All in an attempt to make you subservient, to make you question yourself, to make you stay in your lane and just do what your boss was telling you to do.

Great bosses, on the other hand, want other leaders working for them. They want to help develop our leadership skills, help coach us into bigger responsibilities, help us spread our wings.

Hopefully, you work for a great boss now. But even if you do you might be hesitant to step up and take charge when you see the need. After all, that tendency has been beaten out of you.

The best way to overcome this—to become a leader at work again—is to act like a leader at work again. However, there are plenty of opportunities outside of work also to exercise your dormant leadership muscles.

Community organizations are starved for volunteer leaders. Try volunteering to coach a local youth sports team, or serving at a Boys & Girls Club. Get involved in your local public school’s robotics program. Stop by the YMCA and see what volunteer opportunities are available. Serve on a committee at your church or religious organization. Opportunities in the community are endless if you’re willing to step up. And when you do, you’ll start to realize that you’re not a servant anymore. You’ll start to remember what it’s like to have an impact.


Go On With Your Career

You can breathe a sigh of relief when you find your way out from under a toxic boss. Even so, those experiences can stay with you, and you’ll remember them for the rest of your career. How that boss made you feel. How that boss made you doubt yourself and question your worth. How that boss made you suspect your competence. Made you live down to their expectations.

There’s a recovery period. While it’ll never be overnight, the tips above can help you accelerate the healing process.

The world needs you back contributing at your highest level, as soon as possible. While your toxic boss experience has had a huge impact on you, it doesn’t need to define the rest of your career.

You got this.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Chris Sowers

Written by

I love writing and coaching other writers. Find me at https://www.coach.me/Chris11873?ref=QOvEv or https://www.writing-coaching.com/.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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