How to Survive a Toxic Boss

Each week, another person in my psychotherapy practice in Kelowna presents with major depression.  When I ask them why they are so depressed, they respond “It is my boss.”   This happens week after week, month after month.  

What triggers such depression in so many people?  The first factor is fear.  If people work for a manager that they do not trust, then they start to fear what will happen next.  They do not know when they will be lied to, they do not know when they will be put down, they do not know when a major upheaval will happen in the workplace.  This ongoing fear creates anxiety and hopelessness, because there is no guarantee that things will improve.  Once trust is broken, it does not come back, until there is sustained effort by the manager to rebuild it.  

Another factor is shame. We spend more time at work than with our families. And if the authority figure at work puts us down, and is sarcastic and belittling, we feel down as a result. Even if our manager does not attack us personally, but sends messages that our work is poor, or worthless, then it is easy to put that concept on our self. We gain a lot of our sense of identity from our work. Since the feedback is that our work is substandard, we come to believe that we are substandard as humans.

The first step you can take is to recognize that a toxic boss causes real harm. All too often, people tell me that they should be able to take it. This is false. I have never met anyone who was routinely insulted and bullied, without it leaving emotional wounds on them. Humans are very social creatures, and what happens in our social environment has a major impact on our well-being. So, if you report to a toxic boss, recognize that you do not have to absorb it. Your negative emotions are valid, and are a signal that you need to make a major change in your situation. We will look at those steps soon.

Click Here for the One Question
That Reveals a Toxic Boss


Helping someone who is grieving.

I recently received a phone call from the manager in a company here in Kelowna, where one of the employees had lost a sister very suddenly. The leader was concerned for the employee, and asked what more could be done to help this person, as their performance was really affected. They said that although the cost of therapy was covered, the other employees were unsure what to say to the grieving person. As I lost a parent when I was in my teens, I knew first-hand what grief was like, and what was helpful.

Listen more than you speak

Let the grieving person talk about their experiences, and their loss. Listening closely, paying attention, and being patient with that person is very helpful. When you choose to listen, you are communicating to the other person that they are top priority to you, that their feelings and thoughts are highly important. Not only do they feel valued as a result, but they are able to sort out the jumble of feelings and experiences that they are going through. Often, clients comment that what is really helpful about psychotherapy is being able to tell their whole story.

Acknowledge that they are hurting

It is very painful to lose a family member. And every loss is unique. Although I know what it is like to lose a parent, I do not know what it is like to lose a sibling in a car crash. Just acknowledge that they are hurting. Do not tell them that you know how they feel. You cannot know exactly how they feel. They had their own particular relationship with the dead person, and their experience is different from yours. However, you can clearly acknowledge that they are hurting, and that you feel sadness that they are going through such a painful event.

See tears as a marker of their love for the dead person

In our culture, people are expected to be stoic at a funeral, and not cry. They are praised for ‘being strong’ and not weeping. This seems odd. Tears show how deeply they care for the person, and how painful it is to lose them. Each person will cry or not cry according to their personality, but they should not feel ashamed of it. There is one group of people who do not cry at funerals, and they are psychopaths. They have no emotional attachment to others, and essentially do not care if someone is alive or dead. At my funeral, I hope my family members cry. I certainly would at their funerals, because they are extremely important to me. In fact, I have told my wife I expect her to fling herself on my coffin, sobbing hysterically, as her fingernails scratch the finish off the wood. I even said that if she did not, I would sit up in my coffin and expect more of a display of emotion. For some reason, she did not find this particularly funny.

Jesting aside, we need to see tears in a different way. They come forth in times of pain, and when you lose someone you love, it hurts very deeply. Look at tears as a sign of how much they care for the other person, not as something that they have to be ashamed of.

Ask what would be helpful

At times, people who are grieving want to talk about the person they lost, and their pain. At other times, they just want to play pool. Ask them what they want. Ask if they want to hang out, or to talk. When you do so, you are showing you care for that person. You are making them the priority. You cannot fix their pain, but by demonstrating that you are with them, that will give some comfort to them.

Ignore the calendar

Do not expect people to be ‘over it by now’. That is one of the most hurtful things to say to somebody. Often, it takes a year or two for people to walk through the majority of their grief. But again, each person is unique. Losing a child is extremely painful, and parents will feel the pain for many, many years. If the person committed suicide, then emotions can be far more mixed (anger, guilt, shame) than if the person died from an aneurysm. Do not hold them to a calendar. I have seen clients in psychotherapy who were still strongly mourning the loss of their father, 25 years earlier. This made more sense if you take into account that they were in an unhappy marriage, a lousy job, and that each day, they imagined what their father, who was loving and wise when he was alive, would say. As a result of working together, they were able to resolve much of their grief, and move into a new phase in their life.

In summary, you can be with the person. You can be a companion. You cannot fix them, but by listening deeply, acknowledging their hurt, honoring their tears, and asking them what would be helpful, you can ease some of their pain.

How the media got it wrong about depression

Today I was listening to the radio, when there was a story about how depression might be an allergic reaction to stress. I was surprised to hear how wrong the conclusions were about what causes depression, and how to treat it.

The story was about a neuroscientist who put a small mouse into a cage with a larger, more aggressive mouse.  This allowed the large mouse to bite and claw at the smaller one. The next day, a different large, aggressive mouse was put in, who proceeded to beat up the smaller mouse. This went on for 10 days.  After this, the scientists watched the small mouse interact with yet another mouse. They found that some of the abused mice avoided the new mouse. They also found that these mice had higher levels of chemicals called cytokines, which are present after injury or inflammation.

From this, the scientist concluded that depression was like an allergic reaction. Even my 14 year old son could see the flaws in this reasoning. Maybe the abused mice were avoiding the new mice because they were smart. After all, they had lost a cage fight each day for the last 10 days, so why would they want to interact with a new mouse. Maybe the abused mice had more cytokines because they just had their fur ripped out.

Finally, the clearest explanation is that the mice had just been terrorized. And seriously terrorized at that. It was the psychological injury that caused the avoidance and possible depression.

I see this over and over in my psychotherapy work with clients. They are depressed because they had an alcoholic father. Or they are depressed because their mother was very critical and negative. Or they are depressed because their manager sneers at and mocks them. These psychological injuries of abuse, or unending criticism, or parental neglect are what causes depression.

And the treatment is psychotherapy. When clients experience understanding and empathy, then the psychological injuries start to heal. They are able to shift their beliefs about themselves, and become more positive. They do not need a pill that suppresses interleukin 6. They need the mix of deep understanding, and practical tools, that therapy offers to help them recover from the emotional damage of the past.

What is the best treatment for depression?

More people are taking antidepressant pills than any other category of medication.  But is this the best treatment for depression?  Is psychotherapy better?  To answer these crucial questions, I played into the scientific literature.  The results were not what I expected.  I explain what they are in this talk.  This will help you decide what the best treatment is for you.