How to Survive a Narcissistic or Toxic Boss

We often hear about ineffective employees. What about the lethal, abusive, toxic or harassing boss, manager or co-worker? No matter how much money you are making, how prestigious the position or how high-paying the salary, being treated this way takes a huge toll on your energy, your psyche and your soul.

There are few things worse for the human spirit than working all day at a job that is boring, spending hours in a negative environment. Even worse for the human psyche and soul is working with toxic or abusive people.

Over the years I’ve coached some amazing, highly competent, high-level clients through difficult work relationships, into exit strategies if needed, and on to “recovery from business or corporate PTSD” (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.) It happens more frequently than you might imagine. So, if you’re working in a corporation or business environment where you are under appreciated, undervalued or out-and-out abused by a narcissistic, harassing or bullying boss (you may also substitute the terms manager or co-worker here) please read my guidelines below for how you can take care of yourself, because when you’re in an already unsafe situation you do not want to make yourself more unsafe.

Who Is The Toxic Boss?

If you frequently feel demeaned, undermined, over-looked or over-worked, harassed, bullied or put down at work you most likely are working for a narcissistic, bullying or toxic boss, supervisor or manager. Or even a co-worker. These people come in all shapes and sizes. They can be young or more mature, male or female. What makes them dangerous or lethal is they have little or empathy, compassion or concern for others. They appear to “enjoy” intimidating others. They often reward those who “suck up” to them, those who buy into their view of reality and those who work to meet their ends to look good.

Here are some signs of the toxic, narcissistic boss, a list of symptoms you are probably experiencing and guidelines to take care of yourself…

  • Narcissistic or toxic leaders can “operate” overtly or covertly 
  • They may intimidate or act abusively toward everyone under them
  • Or he/she will often zero in on one person or one person at a time: serial targets
  • Their direct level peers or those above them either seem oblivious to the behavior or they focus their attention only on what that leader brings in to the company (e.g. revenue, contacts, contracts)
  •  The narcissist or abuser may attack through out and out abusive or foul language, yelling, swearing, threats and put-downs or through covert undermining and put downs (e.g. giving inappropriate assignments, taking assignments away, and further along the continuum working to move an employee out of a job through HR investigations of complaints, putting the person on a plan, etc.
  • Attacks may come in a group meeting or some target only in private
  • Sometimes their targets are treated this way only when no one else is around to witness the behavior
  • While the narcissistic boss can be male or female it seems 
  • Men more likely to intimidate in front of others 
  • Women more likely to undermine privately 
  • Often manipulative, always demeaning, sometimes verbally abusive. Sometimes the abuse is couched in seemingly nice or professional language or context.
  • If you are targeted they often call for unnecessary meetings with you
  • They undermine your person and/or your work product making you feel unnecessary or stupid

Symptoms You Are Experiencing If You Have a Toxic Boss

If you work in a toxic environment or have a narcissistic boss, here are some of the symptoms you may be experiencing. These symptoms often creep up so gradually that you may question your sanity, especially if you have a good work history and no past experience of harassment or self doubts about your worth and value.

It can be especially confusing if you are the only employee who appears to be experiencing or suffering the consequences, or if upper leadership ignore the bad boss. While having co-workers confirm the toxic or abusive behavior does not ultimately make the work situation better, at least there is some validation for what you are experiencing.

Such a work environment is also very confusing because you want to learn and improve your skills which can make you vulnerable if you open up to criticism or critique of your work and receive the backlash and skewed perspective of a toxic boss.

Also, people in such a toxic environment often intuitively know it is wrong or abusive, however when you are in the middle of the situation and it deteriorates gradually and insidiously, it is easy to lose perspective on what is normal behavior. And especially, if you have an earlier history of any kind of abuse, please know you are even more vulnerable. Please seek an outside “reality check” as soon as you realize you are experiencing the symptoms below for any period of time:

  • You constantly question yourself and your decisions 
  • Your work future feels threatened
  • You second-guess your every move
  • You don’t feel like anyone “has your back” at work
  • You feel “thrown under the bus” by co-workers who are trying to stay out of the limelight of the toxic or narcissistic boss
  • You feel “little” or young whenever you have to deal with this person even when you are perfectly grown-up and professional
  • You question your work capabilities, even if you’ve had years of good feedback and evaluation of your work in the past 
  • This toxic person says things that are totally the opposite of feedback you have received in the past (e.g. “You are a bad communicator.” “You don’t know what you are doing.” “You didn’t handle that right…or professionally……” Etc.)
  • Your work environment feels “crazy making” (e.g. you literally question your sanity, your view of reality)
  • It is damaging your self-esteem; you feel worthless
  • You feel trapped, helpless or hopeless
  • Your boss uses disrespectful language; may even call you names; is demeaning of your person and your capabilities and/or your work product
  • Your boss yells at you frequently and acts like it’s okay
  • You feel “in a bubble” 
  • Even without a history of anxiety or depression you feel continuously anxious, jittery, on-guard
  • You experience panic attacks (like an elephant is sitting on your chest and you can’t breathe.) You’ve never had this before.
  • You try to make yourself invisible so the boss won’t single you out
  • You find yourself putting on an act or telling your boss whatever you think he or she wants you to say
  • You worry constantly; You can’t stop thinking about work
  • You feel like whatever you do, it’s never enough
  • You’re not eating properly
  • You’re losing weight
  • You don’t sleep well
  • Your friendships are suffering
  • Your marriage is suffering
  • You have no energy; you’ve lost all joy
  • You hate to go to work
  • You used to enjoy, even love, your work

What to Do:
Guidelines to Take Care of Yourself If You Work For a Narcissist

This is tricky territory because you do not want to make yourself more vulnerable to attack or undermining behavior on the part of the abusive boss. You also need to be savvy about the cultural of the corporation or business environment you are in before you act to get help within the organization. They may or may not support you depending on their relationship with your particular boss, or depending on the culture of the entire company.

So, below is a list of generic suggestions and guidelines not focused on your unique situation. Rather, the cautions apply to everyone, but get some coaching from an expert or wise counsel before you proceed to remedy your particular circumstance, especially if you wish to protect either your current job and/or your professional future.

  • Educate yourself about toxic, narcissistic, abusive bosses, Google the topic. Talk to others. You are not alone.
  • Go buy the book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family by Eleanor Payson. My professional coaching clients have found this and other books very helpful. Learn about the personality type you are confronting and get ideas for how to proceed.
  • Repeat after me…”I am not crazy. I am not crazy….I’m in a crazy-making situation. I’m in a crazy-making situation…”
  • Repeat the above frequently throughout your day.
  • Do not badmouth or participate in gossip
  • Contain the damage with good behavior
  • Do a good job. Remain professional and productive on the job. Focus on what you can do to be professional and stay adult – breathe, walk off exercise off the feelings that come up
  • Have a mantra like the one I give all my clients: “How would a healthy normal adult behave in this situation, if they were behaving with grace and dignity?” Then practice those behaviors.
  • Accept the fact that there are people like this on the planet, so instead of “OMG can you believe what he or she did or does….!” You accept that this is not healthy, normal behavior but pathological or a personality disorder or addiction of some kind. But these types live on the planet with us too, and it’s a lesson in getting educated and learning to take care of yourself, then stay away from such circumstances in the future (at least that would be my advice!)
  • As long as you stay create a cushion around you and know it will have an emotional and psychological effect on you anyway.
  • Create an exit strategy even if you do not know if you will choose to go. You’ll feel better knowing you could go.
  • Keep a list of your boss’s transgressions with dates and a little bit of information to tweak your memory if needed later. Do not keep this at the office.
  • Get a bunch of reality checks from friends, mate and professionals.
  • For your inner reality check, make a list of what you know about your past performance feedback etc to clarify your “truth,” to sort fact from fiction, and to keep your head on straight,
  • Hopefully you can talk with a few safe fellow employees (or past employees are even better) but be careful. Do it outside of work and do not gossip. Stay professional and do not reveal anymore than necessary unless these folks are truly your friends and you know their level of integrity.
  • Stay “Adult.” Leave your “little wounded child” your “inner child” at home. Kids should not be at work anyway. Your adult self can deal with this situation, unpleasant though it may be.
  • Do not confront your boss directly.
  • Be neutral, try not to cry, be angry or show much emotion. This can sometimes neutralize the boss, but know it can also cause weird retaliations because some of the personalities like to cause pain or see intimidation.
  • Please know that you probably have to leave the company. Know that your days are numbered and be the one to choose to go. Choose to work toward finding a better place to work – unless this boss retiring soon or leadership is aware and doing something about the bad boss. These actions must be sincere and strategic on the part of leadership, however. Don’t let yourself be strung along too long, but know that leadership is also working with legalities of dealing with a person such as your boss.
  • Whatever you do proceed with a plan and get some coaching, especially if you do not know or are unsafe in your company culture. They either support the toxic boss, do not know about the behavior because it is so well-hidden or leadership chooses to remain blind. e.g. the company overlooks or excuses the behavior – typically because that person is a high monetary performer.
  • Or they are unaware of the individual’s behavior because they are so sociopathic, narcissistic and clever.
  • Again, and I hate to say it but until you know the position of the HR department in the company, I’d not run to them expecting them to necessarily protect you. Become educated by asking around, if possible to understand how HR operates in the particular the culture of your company. (e.g. Does HR have a history of being effective, ineffective, helpful to employees or punitive?)
  • You are going to need to have coaching from an expert. Hire someone with experience working with business folks, who knows about narcissism, addictions, pathology and resulting PTSD.
  • You need outside alliances to keep your head on straight. You need someone not aligned with the organization who can help you handle what is currently going on while you stay on the job and who can help you find and sort through your options. You want someone who can help you make smart career choices while also taking care of yourself.)
  • You must take care of yourself and protect yourself. By that I mean you must do something. The long term consequences for you to remain in the situation are too deadly to your psyche, self-esteem and future.
  • Get help to manage your feelings, anxiety and potential depression. Your coach may be enough, but you may also need a therapist who is there for the emotional stuff sometimes.
  • Make friends with a good employment lawyer who can advise many do not charge until an action is taken. Follow exactly what they say to do, behave, speak document
  • Get that employment lawyer and follow their advice to a tee.
  • If asked to document, do so in a private safe place.
  • If HR is involved and safe, you may need to do what is called f HR “papering your file” to protect you in the future and to create a stream of documentation in case anything goes to court

Aftermath & Healing

Know that for many months once you are out of that company or out from under that boss, you’ll question your responses and your reality. This is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. You can heal. Get help. Don’t do it on your own.

PTSD symptoms will arise under stress from some time. But remember, you are not crazy. You’ve been in an unhealthy, crazy-making position.

Be determined to heal and move on in your life.

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