We all have limited energy and our family deserves the best “us” we can offer in the midst of work and life in general. Part of protecting your marriage and your peace of mind so that you can devote yourself to loving your family involves learning how to protect yourself from the toxic people who drain you, deplete your emotional resources, and who leave you so distracted that you barely have anything left to give to your family when you arrive home.
In my book I tell the story of Greg, whose coworker Aaron was as toxic as they come. Aaron gleefully attacked others and took a special pleasure in creating offensive nicknames for coworkers. He was controlling and political, policing the entire office (even people who didn’t report to him), to make sure they submitted to a policy he had lobbied to get passed. He was also a master sleuth at uncovering personal secrets and launching them into a juicy gossip chain (“Do you want to know why Janice really had to take some time off?”). He blatantly lied about coworkers to pit one person against another so that he could play both sides as a “comforting defender.”
The toxic work environment impacted Greg’s mental state, his family life, and his sleep. He needed the job, but Aaron was making his workplace torturous. It was so bad Greg admitted to me that he couldn’t leave Aaron at the office. Mentally, Aaron followed him home and haunted him at night. Greg’s wife or one of his children would start talking to him in the evening and Greg missed their entreaties, still mentally back in the office, second-guessing what he had said or done, trying to figure out a way to make sense of what felt like a crazy situation.
This all happened decades ago when I was as naïve as they come, so I wasn’t able to help Greg at all. “Toxic” wasn’t even in my vocabulary. I thought our faith could be especially proven true when we were the heroes who God used to breakthrough to “reach” and “heal” the toxic people no one else could help.
Many years later, this is the advice I wish I had given Greg (and this part isn’t in the book):
- Don’t bother trying to understand or “fix” toxic people; that’s wasted energy. Even trained psychologists have been known to fire particularly troublesome clients. This is a Christian posture of humility. Most of us can’t perform a root canal, nor can we perform the relational therapy most toxic people need. Focus on being the best employee you can be and devote your other thoughts to loving your family well.
- Don’t let misplaced guilt (that you should be able to “rescue” or “save” them) keep you in a toxic situation. In the Gospels, Jesus walked away many times from those who challenged him or hardened their hearts against him. If a transfer isn’t possible or your boss won’t step in, “mentally” quarantine the co-worker as much as you can by keeping your relationship strictly professional and by refusing to think about him or her when you don’t have to. A good friend of mine used a pond midway between his office and home as a symbol to dump work related concerns on his way home and to begin praying that God would free his mind to be fully present as a husband and father when he pulled into his driveway.
- One of the best antidotes for toxic relationships is healthy relationships. Build positive relationships at the office and find refuge there. Use the toxic situation at work to make you even more determined to be a fantastic spouse and encouraging parent at home, and a good friend to others on the weekend. Pray for a co-worker who doesn’t yet know the Lord and ask God to engineer an opportunity to share your faith in a compelling and compassionate way. Be ever more determined to have positive relationships that distract you from the toxic attack.
- King David was assaulted and attacked by numerous toxic people (including many who wanted to murder him) throughout his life but notice how the psalms he wrote are filled with exuberant celebrations of God, extolling God’s character, acts, and magnificence. I’ve found that when I must be around toxic people, meditating on the character and excellence of God in the morning is like brushing my teeth after a bad-tasting meal. Learn to renew your mind by reveling in God’s glory rather than a co-worker’s toxicity.
- Remember that your first priority is your family. If a work relationship is making you so weak that you can’t be “present” when you’re at home, you need to approach the appropriate authorities at your company so that they can address it, or seriously look for another job. Life is too short to let toxic people tear you apart and mentally invade your family life when you get home. I’ve talked to many people who have made such transitions, and you can literally see a difference in their countenance once the deed is done. They invariably say, “Why didn’t I do this a year ago?”
Family relationships are tough enough even when we’re at our best. Learn to leave toxic assaults at work. Nobody pays you enough to bring those toxic assaults home. Follow the example of Jesus and learn when to walk away.