How to Reclaim Your Confidence (After a Toxic Workplace)

woman happy at work

How do you reclaim your confidence after dealing with a toxic workplace? It’s a question that’s top-of-mind for many of today’s professionals, who are now seeking jobs that protect their mental and emotional health.

While toxic workplaces seem to be on the rise, workers are now less tolerant of poor management and office drama. In fact, a recent study conducted by MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that a toxic workplace culture is the number one reason people leave their jobs.

Breaking free from the overwhelm and stress that comes with a dysfunctional workplace can be a huge relief. But being able to fully recover from the aftereffects of a toxic workplace can be difficult. As an executive coach, I’ve witnessed countless intelligent, capable professionals struggle to regain their confidence after such an experience. They carry hyper-vigilance and reactivity into their next role, which affects their performance and happiness.

Take Joy, for example. She was three months into her new role as a project coordinator at an IT company. Overall, her first 90 days had been a success. She initiated new, much-needed procedures and had built positive relationships with key stakeholders. Despite these results, Joy couldn’t shake a feeling of uneasiness with her new manager. She told me, “I feel like I’m carrying baggage from my last role. If I wasn’t careful, my old boss would always twist my words. I could never bring up hard topics without him going off on me.”

Joy’s past toxic workplace experience had clearly scarred her. And she’s not alone. Workplace trauma is a very real and under-discussed issue. Any number of damaging behaviors can cause it, from verbal harassment or social isolation to racism and job insecurity. One client manager described living with workplace trauma well by saying

“Has anyone ever had toxic workplace PTSD? Like, the chime sound of an incoming email evokes your ‘fight, flight, or freeze response?’ Or is that just me?”

You’ve already made the brave decision to say goodbye to a toxic workplace, and now you deserve to reclaim your confidence and leave its effects behind you. Here’s how to heal and thrive in your new role.


Turn your sensitivity into a strength and regain your confidence at work

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4 Ways to Reclaim Your Confidence After a Toxic Workplace

1 – Create closure

You may hold onto resentment toward those who mistreated you. Or perhaps you ruminate, replaying the conversations endlessly. This type of overthinking is common and understandable. After all, the human brain is a meaning-making machine. Our minds dislike ambiguity and will attempt to seek answers, even when it’s not helpful.

It’s possible to channel your need for cognitive closure into a new beginning instead of allowing your thoughts to frustrate you. For instance, Joy was still hurt by her former manager’s lack of empathy and appreciation. She realized that although she would never get an apology, she didn’t actually need one. Instead, she needed to forgive and express appreciation for herself. I asked Joy to write a letter to her past self, acknowledging that she did her best with the resources, insight, and skills she had at the time. This proved to be a powerful way to create the closure she wanted.

Moving on from a job — toxic or not — is a grieving process, so give yourself time to process the loss. Consider writing a “goodbye” note (that you don’t send), archiving or deleting your work files, or shredding old documents as a ritual to release the experience and move on.

2 – Look for what you can control

Despite the fact that abusive or bullying behavior is never the victim’s fault, self-blame is an all too common trauma response. Out of feelings of shame, you may find that you are constantly questioning yourself: 

What if I had stood my ground? Was I just being too sensitive?

This is where self-compassion and constructive action need to be implemented. Destructive thought patterns will always keep you from rebuilding your sense of self.

For example, at your previous company, your manager might have insisted that employees be responsive 24/7. You, in turn, may have found yourself burnt out from constantly responding to emails and messages when you should have been unplugged. Would it be right to beat yourself up for being a “pushover”?  Of course not. The expectation of being “always on” was created by your manager, not you.

Unfortunately, you can’t turn back time to change your manager’s mindset or expectations. But you can choose to focus your energy on improving for the future. For example, maybe you commit to strengthening your assertive communication skills so that the next time you are given an unreasonable demand at work, you will be able to speak up and set appropriate boundaries for yourself. This will help you put the lessons you learned in your last role to good use.

3 – Anticipate triggers

Familiar situations can often induce old stress reactions, so give careful attention to situations in your new role that feel familiar. Clearly identifying emotional triggers can give you the strength to address them proactively, weakening their impact. Being excluded, feeling helpless, or perceived rejection are just a few common triggers.

Joy noticed that she was particularly on edge before one-on-ones with her new manager. As a solution, she chose to practice some simple breathing exercises in advance to calm her nervous system. She also became more mindful of the stories she was telling herself. For example, if her boss didn’t immediately offer positive feedback, she’d think, “Not again! Another manager that doesn’t appreciate me.” Joy’s unhelpful inner dialogue was only projecting the past forward. Recognizing this helped her view her new manager through a neutral lens.

4 -Savor the high notes

Do you often feel on high alert, like you are constantly scanning for threats? Do you find yourself frequently worrying about other people’s perceptions of you? To a degree, this is normal. Your brain is wired to look out for potential danger, but its efforts can become heightened following traumatic experiences. This is why you may still feel lingering anxiety even in a newer, safer environment. The good news is that you can rewire your focus. Try savoring, a psychological technique that involves turning positive, fleeting moments into positive beliefs. Savoring has been shown to increase feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and self-efficacy.

Here are a few exercises you can try:

      • Positive reminisce. Spend 10 minutes per day reflecting on thoughts and emotions related to an enjoyable moment.

      • Three good things. Write down three positive events each day and reflect on why they happened.

      • Share with others. Create a daily practice of relating “daily highs” to a loved one or colleague.

      • Self-congratulations. Relish in moments of strength and times throughout the day when you exercise them.

      • Positive imagination. Think about the next day and imagine in detail all the good things that could happen.

    Sharing your experiences can also aid healing. Everyone will have varying levels of comfort around disclosure, but opening up to others once you’ve established trust with your new team can be an important step for some.

    Above all else, remember that adjusting to a new role can be stressful under even the best of circumstances. By caring for yourself and practicing self-compassion, you can rise up more resilient than ever before.


    Turn your sensitivity into a strength and regain your confidence at work

    Get exclusive access to Chapter One of my book, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.

    By submitting this form you consent to receive newsletters and promotions via email. Unsubscribe or opt-out any time. See our Privacy Policy.

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    Hi, I'm Melody

    I help smart, sensitive high-achievers break free from imposter syndrome and overthinking so they can find the confidence to lead effectively.


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