Toxic Job Survival Guide

The Three Things I Learnt From My First Job: A Toxic Job Survival Guide

I always romanticised having a job. It would give me the independence that I always wanted; structure that would elevate my existence; a space that would finally help me become an adult. 

My very first job might not have started off on the bang I was hoping for but I’d taken the plunge by committing to something I felt I was passionate about. I was thrilled to finally get into something that made me feel like an adult. In retrospect, it was a terrible offer, there was too much chaos within their terms, and a ton of red flags throughout the organisation. 

But I persevered. 

And I was proud of it. 

If you are interested, here are a few things I learnt despite of my perseverance: 

It was just a job: I know this sounds basic but when you’re looking for a breakthrough, it can really warp your sense of judgement. I was willing to take anything as long as I am passionate about what I did and it helped create a balance in my life. However, there was more ‘I’m’ in the imbalance than I was ready to accept. The idea of a job is that it serves the purpose of a job.

For me, this was an oversight. It didn't meet my needs nor served the purpose of a sustainable  job. It didn't feed into my passion, nor did it allow any space for a personal family life. By the third year, I found myself thinking that it was okay for my boss to have asked me to work on the day of a family member's funeral (or literally, anytime he felt like). I made it okay because being an adult meant doing a job and meeting all requirements, just not my requirements or needs. They were definitely not paying me to sustain myself. I found myself skipping meals because I couldn't afford it or I had no time for it. I even got a part-time job so I could sustain keeping the first one, which is so wild to me now when I think back. In hindsight, I wish I’d cut myself a break and maintained boundaries of what I'm actually capable of and what I needed at that time, because sadly, I had 24 hours in a day like everyone else and needed to survive.

It is not a reflection of self: When I first started working, I was so grateful to get a job and finally felt seen that it blurred my reality. In just one year, the cracks started to show. But I needed to persevere through it by staying put. It would prove that I am an adult making it in a competitive world and balancing life and relationships (but it would also mean that I’m not a quitter). The thing about needing this job to define me more than it could have, meant allowing everyone to define my purpose and validate my experience more than I did. That meant showing up when I wasn't able to and compromising on basic needs because otherwise, I would not be a good employee or a (functioning) adult.

The problem with being so grateful for being part of a work family is that it made me feel indispensable. In reality, I was very much dispensable, and they would (if not, could) run with or without me. The more I overextended myself, the more important I was to this (work) family. The problem with this is, it was a family that repeatedly broke my heart. After a conversation with a friend who was confused as to why I'm still living like a squatter in my own home, I realised that it wasn't just a job anymore. I was in denial because I needed this to work. 

The reasoning was simple: I am an adult and I can't fail at something so basic.

Fast forward 5 months, and I was having multiple panic attacks in the train on the way to work everyday, where random people seemed more concerned about me than what I showed myself. I ended up expressing to my boss that I couldn't do this anymore; and this wasn’t the first time I was doing so (he had promised to make changes to give me security the first time). The zombie survival life wasn't for me because it was also affecting my work and more importantly, how I saw myself.

I hadn’t been paid for the last 5 months which put more pressure on me financially. What had first given me excitement and joy was now giving me nervous breakdowns. My realisation herein was that toxic into toxic just gives rise to more toxicity, but it unfortunately does not nullify. Both my boss and I were pretty toxic - him not respecting me as a human being and me not clarifying and silently resenting him over unsaid things. 

I needed to be the best, most non-difficult employee. I didn't think twice about how I allowed it to chip away at me. But it made me realise that I no longer wanted to be part of this never-ending cycle of doom. Staying in the cycle meant stepping on landmines that I had buried in the past (but couldn't remember where). Learning that a job is just one aspect of life, not your entire life, and the experiences could define certain aspects of who I am but it doesn't have to run my entire existence. 

You can choose better: I could not come to terms with the fact that things weren't working for me. I needed them to work. But I’d come to terms with the fact  that I had enough of this rollercoaster and it was making me sick. In times where everything is on fire, it is so hard to know that there are options. At that moment, I hit pause to actually see that I was choosing to be on the roller coaster, and even though it had worked for me in the beginning, things had clearly changed from then to where I was right now.

My point in all of this is that entering into the workforce can be so exciting but it can also be full of pressure to make sure you ‘make it’. But making it isn't linear for anyone. 

Sometimes, seeing when things aren't working out and moving on from a space that no longer works for you is some form of making it, at least it was for me. I remember hearing people always telling me how your first job is pivotal to your life and how you have to persevere through the struggle. But the reality is, struggle doesn't always mean trying to make things work in a situation that is not working, it is more about finding what works for you and judging if it's your version of success. You deserve to try anything and everything until you feel safe enough to settle and/or make it; and it doesn’t have to include accepting when people treat you less than. In a nutshell,  your job doesn't define you, it is a part of you and only you get to choose how much and what part. 
Toxic Job Survival Guide Toxic Job Survival Guide

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Malvika Lobo


Malvika, a seasoned therapist with over 7 years of experience, specializes in Animal Assisted Therapy and Arts Based Therapy. She is the smother of animals, a chai enthusiasts and has a hot take on all things.

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