As I have entered my thirties, I’ve become aware of a pattern in my life: finding myself in toxic situations, strategizing to break free from them, and following my heart to move forward like the resilient goddess I am. As a working-class high schooler, I escaped a dead-end rural town I hated, moving thousands of miles away to attend a top-tier college (with, admittedly, sky-high student loan debt to match). Later I extricated myself from an emotionally abusive marriage with someone I met at that college. And then last year I left a toxic career in academia, the career I had identified as my calling and had worked throughout my twenties to attain.
I’ve had years to ruminate over each of these three different situations. What I eventually realized is that just as a relationship with a significant other can be abusive, so, too, can our relationships to our jobs and careers. By applying how we think about relationship abuse to the dynamics that many of us suffer at work under capitalism and other interlocking systems of oppression, we can better identify and validate our own experiences with career-based abuse.
Here are some of the following ways that your career may be abusive.
When you’re made to feel like it’s the only thing that matters and everything else outside its orbit is silly or irrelevant.
In my old career, I and everyone around me were encouraged to adopt our careers as our sole identities. We were scholars. We were professors. We were knowledge makers. Those identities gave us our sense of self. They were a way to ground us and remind us what all our sacrifices were for as we moved around the country every year or two, chasing the promise of permanent employment, sacrificing staying in one community long-term to build a solid friend base, deferring romantic relationships and having children in favor of unwieldy long-distance relationships, and having barely enough money to live on. It was all in the name of academia, our presumed number-one love and priority.
Sounds kind of like a cult, doesn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong—it’s great to be passionate about what you do. It’s great to find your work meaningful, important, and impactful. But in return, you should be treated well, paid a living wage, and still have time to have a life outside it. Pursuing a career that sucks you in so deeply that you’re expected to sacrifice everything else can easily be a sign that you’re in abuse territory. Because at the end of the day, we are more than our careers.
When you’re shamed into devoting everything to it at the expense of your mental, physical, financial, and/or spiritual health.
Is your job seriously messing with your mental health, making you physically ill, keeping you in debt and/or poverty, or making you feel like your spirit is slowly dying? Do you feel like there is a constant weight on your chest as you struggle to breathe whenever you even think about work? Do you feel like you’re trapped in a situation in which you’ve given your all, to your detriment, and now there’s nothing left to give? Do you feel shame around having been sucked dry, like you should be able to keep going despite it all?
These are not fair expectations of any worker. And yet so often they are the norm under a capitalist society, which exploits its workers’ bodies and minds for maximum profit, then discards those workers who inevitably fall to the wayside. This system is by design, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you’re holding shame about your capabilities as a worker, it isn’t you who should feel ashamed. On the contrary, your employer should be ashamed for failing to provide a healthy work environment.
When you’re microaggressed or face other various forms of discrimination, harassment, or othering in the course of your work.
Working in a hostile work environment is supposed to be illegal; yet as the #MeToo movement reminds us, so often those who create hostile work environments are not held accountable. Meanwhile, for LGBTQ Americans, it is legal to fire someone for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual in 28 states, and in 30 states it’s legal to fire someone for being transgender.
Sometimes when you’re targeted by microaggressions at work, the damage done—and knowing the right way to address it—are particularly tricky to deal with.
For example, when I was in graduate school, a senior professor with a lot of authority was known for microaggressing grad students on every basis imaginable. I witnessed her corner someone from a poor background and inappropriately bring up welfare, make a racist remark about tequila to a Latina student, and disclose confidential information about a trans woman that amounted to deadnaming. And, at a dinner party at her house, as she showed me and my female partner where to put our coats in her bedroom, she randomly told us that she had watched lesbian porn in her past and “experimented” with women.
She, like so many others who get away with bizarrely abusive behavior, are able to continue perpetuating hostile work environments because of their power and because their behavior is often normalized as “eccentric” or “playful.” But it has to be called out for what it is: abusive and often illegal. If you’re dealing with these types of incidents, you should not be forced to smile and dismiss them in the name of not rocking the boat.
When those around you more often than not are exhausted, run-down, and/or stressed to the point of breaking, yet this work culture is normalized or even glorified.
American society in particular is one that glorifies capitalism, overwork, and working through your illness. This is a convenient way to normalize the fact that U.S. society lags far behind multiple other countries when it comes to paid sick leave, vacation time, and the power of workers’ unions. Instead of incensing workers to protest and strike, this system aims to pacify its workers by making overwork a virtue, worshipping money, and demonizing poor people as “lazy.”
If you, like me, happen to be a US American, just because it’s the social norm doesn’t mean it’s not an abusive work tactic. It’s not healthy or enviable to be depressed, anxious, and/or irritable about going to your workplace every day. It’s not okay to be surrounded by people who, like you, are also depressed, anxious, and irritable about their work, or who, as a coping mechanism, wear the overwork like a badge of honor. This is very common in academia, where everyone is doing at least three jobs at once—and for quite little pay, for the majority of us who don’t have stable employment—and, in the process of rationalizing the fact that they’re barely sleeping, feel pride about what a “productive” scholar or professor they are.
Productivity at the expense of having a work/life balance and time to breathe and enjoy life is the hallmark of exploitative capitalism.
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When your career constantly feels like a rollercoaster of exhilarating highs and devastating lows that tear at your self-worth.
It’s normal for our jobs to have peaks and valleys of stress and reward. What is not acceptable, however, is for our work life to feel like a gut-wrenching emotional whiplash session in which we are dehumanized and made to feel worthless, our self-esteem contingent and ever more fragile as we walk on eggshells around a livid boss or deal with the passive-aggression of colleagues with ego trips.
Shari Stines, a psychologist writing about the idea of trauma bonding, explains, “[I]n very toxic relationships … [trauma bonds occur when] there is a great deal of pain interspersed with times of calm (or maybe just less pain).” The idea is that, according to Stines, “inconsistent positive reinforcement” in our abusive relationships generates powerful feelings of attachment for the person being abused, in which “the hope of something better to come” draws the person back in, time and again, into the cycle of abuse.
If you feel like this pattern could well explain your connection to your job, you may be traumatically bonded to it. I know I used to be, as I would hope, year after year, that academia’s punishing impact on my health would be worth it if I could materialize a job offer.
When you stay at your job because you’ve internalized the message that you’re not worthy of another position or career and that no one else will want you.
This is a huge thing that happens to those of us with Ph.Ds in most fields outside the sciences. My Ph.D is in gender studies, and as I navigated the world of temporary work contracts in academia, faced scarce employment opportunities, and at times lived off public assistance while working as an adjunct professor at top universities, I knew that unlike a vocational degree, my doctorate had more narrow immediate utility. My knowledge of this, coupled with the subtle and not-so-subtle messages about my self-worth that had been thrown at me—thrown at all Ph.D students and recent Ph.Ds struggling to find work—over several years made me fear trying to leave. I was overwhelmed by the unknown, by the completely new and daunting and urgent and labyrinthine process of how to find a job in the outside world, and constantly fighting against the idea that choosing a different path meant I was simply a failure at what I had been doing.
But being afraid to leave because you’ve been made to think you don’t deserve better is a classic symptom of abuse. Each and every one of us deserves a job where we feel respected, valued, and welcomed—both in terms of interpersonal interactions and financial compensation—and we shouldn’t have to stay out of duress, despair, or fear. If you’re not being treated well, wanting something better for yourself and those who financially rely on you makes complete sense. Strategizing around how to walk away and what you want your future to look like isn’t failure; it’s self-love.
When you’re gaslit about your toxic experiences.
Gaslighting is a tactic of emotional abusers used to shut down resistance to abuse by questioning the abused person’s sense of reality and making them feel like they’re insane. It’s a tactic that is unfortunately wielded all over the place all the time—the political realm is one obvious and hair-raising example of a sphere in which gaslighting is rampant.
If someone in your work sphere downplays, makes excuses for, or outright denies your experiences of abuse and mistreatment, they are engaging in gaslighting. It’s important to understand gaslighting is happening because without that insight, you’ll start to doubt your own instincts and intuition until you feel like your own mind and heart can’t be trusted. To identify and resist gaslighting are themselves forms of self-love.
For every person who directly enacts career abuse, there may be ten people who enable it, and/or who go along with it because they’ve internalized it for their own survival. In my past career, there were all sorts of lovely people who weren’t emotional abusers; indeed, they may have been victims of the abuse themselves. They kept their heads down and marched on with a tired smile on their worn faces, because either they had secured some advantages within the system for doing so, or because they didn’t know what else to do.
But here’s the key: recognizing these dynamics as abuse, instead of as just business as usual, is your first step toward reclaiming your self-worth, healing your self-doubt, and mobilizing for a future more worthy of your brilliance.
[Featured Image: A group of people standing around a table. They are looking at their laptops on the wooden table. Source: pexels.com]