Beyond Fear and Familiarity

Finding Safe Harbours After Leaving a Toxic Workplace

  "On the other side of fear, you find freedom." Helen Keller   (Photo by Marni Allison, 2017. All rights reserved.) 

I lost my parents. Then my voice. Finally, my job. I walked away from everything familiar to me. It saved my life.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple or dramatic as that. Dad disappeared over a twelve-year slide into Alzheimer’s. Mom beat the doctors’ predictions for forty years before her sudden death. Losing them was devastating, but also predictable.

The loss of my voice and identity was gradual and insidious. I stopped sharing my dreams, then my ideas until I guarded even my daily experiences. People criticized me for grieving “too hard”. A relative offered advice, but his comments were attacks and his behaviour belittling. I didn’t understand his anger, only that it devastated my confidence.

Friends and family told me to quit my job. It’s difficult to leave steady pay and benefits when you’re single. Anytime for that matter. Further, while the “job” was difficult, I was passionate about the “work”. I was, however, exhausted. After years of being an outlier and dealing with bullies, I struggled to be heard, to stay ME. I fought the critical issues but picked my battles. I let others who weren't targets do the talking for me. Status quo continued but I disappeared in many ways.

Ironically, salvation came when a re-organization made my job redundant. I was given a choice: accept a limited position in the organization or accept a severance package. I accept the package and walked out the door, even though I had no follow-up arranged.

I thought my heart would break. My identity and ego were invested in that job. I also felt relief and freedom. I was walking away from an abusive relationship. Even better, the world was now my oyster. I didn’t know what was out there, but I wanted the opportunity to find out. With a severance package, I had time and security to look for a better job.

I decided to relax and recoup over the summer and begin job hunting in the fall. I soon realized I had the time and freedom to travel around the world. I had the luxury to simply enjoy myself, learn about new cultures and grieve for everything I had lost. I could work, healthier and happier, when I returned home.

I didn’t know what was in store for me. I didn’t care. I put my trust in myself and in the universe and booked an epic journey through Africa and Asia. This gave me time to reflect upon the lessons I had learned from my experiences.

Lesson 1: Fear and familiarity kept me from leaving a bad situation. Most of my colleagues weren’t "unsafe", but they couldn’t support me either. They were caught in their own lives, some with fears and challenges far greater than my own. Some people were trying to push their own agenda. Their waves swamped me, nonetheless. Others were out for themselves, reckless about hurting me. The familiar had become toxic, not safe. I finally realized I didn’t have to accept bad behavior. I controlled people's access to me and I gave them power over me. If moving away was required, so be it. Even if I didn’t have a severance package, leaving was my best option at this time. I couldn’t let fear of the unknown keep me in a debilitating situation forever.

Lesson 2: I survived because I had support from friends, family and professional counsellors. Safe harbors are not final destinations but respites to gather strength and resources. Resources provided by family and friends are the most powerful for me. Not just the big moments but the small ones, too – a hug, celebrating my accomplishments, sharing my grief, or recalling a memory. Strength also comes from a baby’s giggle, a smile or a courtesy from a stranger, a spiritual event or personal meditation. When I express my gratitude, I am in a safe harbor.

Reaching out for support is itself a strength. This is easier if you have love and compassion for yourself. I'm learning to stop trying to be perfect. I’ve also learned to cut hurtful people out of my life. My relationships are stronger. I’ve met amazing people. My life is fuller than it was when I tried to hang on to the familiar.

Lesson 3: I cannot stop negative things from happening, but I can be a safe harbor for others. Listening to others. Accepting them. Letting them grapple with their own issues. Praising them. Teaching them new skills. Being a harbor for others means letting go of my own concerns. It fills my soul and broadens my perspective. I cannot support others if I’m hanging onto my own fears and am unwilling to try new things.

Beyond fear and familiarity is the realization that what appears to be a negative can be the most positive thing to happen to you. I was given a choice about my job: stay with the organization I knew or strike out into unchartered territory. Turned out it was really a choice about my life - continue to hide from it or live it. I chose to live it.

Well-Being, Mental Health, Self-Care, Life Lessons

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!