Toxic Survival Guide: The Psychology – Part 2

Toxic Boss Survival GuideThey just are not normalThey wreak havoc and drain the life out of organizations and their subordinates.

So, what are you going to do when you work for a toxic boss? “The Toxic Boss Survival Guide” provides a map for surviving in the wilderness of the workplace.

In this second part of a series on this helpful little book, we look at how to psychologically handle working for these nasty folks?

The Psychology

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” [Benjamin Franklin]

You cannot truly “change or control a toxic boss.” They do not respond like normal folks do. They do not have the humility to hear ways that can help them grow. If you have tried to break through or watched others try with no success, then do not beat your head against the wall any longer.

They just are not normal.

Rather, the authors suggest controlling your own mind, attitude, and energy.

Positive Mental Attitude” [PMA] is that which the authors describe as the means of surviving in the world of the toxic. They assure us this in not Pollyanna. The Guide suggests it is a “resilience defined by strength, purpose, and perspective.”

For the Christian, the PMA is a self-differentiation built upon the model of Christ. He was not driven by the anxiety of others, nor were his actions determined by the abusiveness of the religious or governmental leaders [see article].

Several of my interviewees clearly had this exceptional personal quality. It stood them well when those face-offs happened. Rather than going over and over the confrontations asking, “What just happened?” they were able to press forward knowing they were not the problem. The boss was.

The Guide discusses the need to be self-aware. The authors note seven ways subordinates cope with toxic leaders. These “survival pressures” are taken from wilderness survival writings and adapted by authors:

  • Fear / Anxiety: There are a number of fears toxic bosses “inject” into our lives. Fear of being singled out and attacked. Of being left in the dark regarding meetings or decisions. Or a loss of career (to some can be  like dying).
  • Pain: Scientists have found that social isolation activates the same area of the brain that physical pain does. We are wired to feel physically hurt when those words, we say will not hurt us, come flying.
  • Cold / Heat: Cold shoulders, turning the heat up, cooling you off for getting butchered. The temperature is rarely right in the caldron of the toxic workplace.
  • Thirst / Hunger / Fatigue: People respond physically in different ways to the pressure created by toxic bosses. They may lose their appetite, or drink heavily, or feel completely wiped out.
  • Sleep: The anxiety created often causes a disruption in our sleeping patterns.
  • Boredom: When your gifts are not used, you will find a lack of excitement in your work. Maybe you have been given responsibility, but you have been attacked so often for your creativity and self-directedness, you just have no interest anymore in serving the organization with fresh ideas or overtime work.
  • Isolation: It often happens that a subordinate’s relationships with even those suffering alongside them are damaged. Maybe they are not seeing the toxins for what they are and your once brotherly interactions have become fragmented creating an isolation from those with whom you would normally share the hurts.

Closing out this chapter on psychology, the Guide explains that stress is our internal response to pressure. Other people are not stressful. It is how we respond to the pressures they place on us that determine stress.

This is a helpful idea. The primary bit of advice given is not allowing the pressures created by the toxic boss to overcome the subordinate’s thoughts. All of us have spent time in the shower creating imaginary conversations.

As one of my interviewees suggested, the amount of time and emotional energy he put into thinking and discussing his toxic boss was really an “idol” to him. Naming it an idol gave him the resolve to put the thoughts on a train out of there, an image suggested by a counselor.

The Survival Plan

The seven survival pressures presented in the preceding section have seven survival tactics. These are quite helpful in pushing through the pain.

  • Positive Mental Attitude: The authors suggest a sense of humor and gratitude are the two most important mental attitudes necessary to stave off the pressure of working with a beast. Note: “cat videos can boost a person’s mood and energy.” Have you ever paid attention to the craziness of firemen, policemen, and EMTs? They might seem lacking in empathy as they deal with the blood and guts of their job, but those jokes are an important means to dealing with the pressure. And, there are always things to be thankful for even if it just the view from your office window – mine is extraordinary.
  • First Aid: Self-care is valuable to your own well-being that you might do your work well and care for others injured by the toxic boss. Put on your air mask first, then take care of the one sitting beside you.
  • Shelter: Do you have safe places to go to recoup? To rethink your situation? To share your burdens and rest from them? Superman even has a “fortress of solitude” in which to find solace.
  • Fire Craft: “Against the backdrop of a toxic leader who quite likely extinguishes flames, your survival entails keeping yourself and others alive and aware of the mission and meaning that continues to flicker at work.” Meaningful work has the greatest impact on our…well, work! If you think the organization is so deeply affected by the leader’s toxicity so that it is itself toxic, consider this article.
  • Signaling: “Like a lost hiker, send up a signal.” We must let people know when we are suffering. We need other people. Consider people in and out of the organization who can help bring safety and send up that smoke signal.
  • Water / Food: Health and nutrition are important to your ability to think. And you need to think while facing toxic leaders. “Comfort foods” are not much comfort to the brain. They do not provide the nutritional value needed to work through the emergency needs you have.


Self-care is absolutely essential to serving under a toxic leader. Though you may cringe at the mention of “self,” even Jesus sought out solitude as he faced the hoards of people following him.

Self-care is intended to provide the strength to serve – other employees and the organization. If you do not have that strength, you are not where you need to be.

But, remember that our strength comes from the Lord Almighty who owns and operates the heavens and earth. He has brought you to this place and given you the abilities you have. It is time to work through the next steps.

Next: Toxic Survival Guide: Action Plan – Part 3

One thought on “Toxic Survival Guide: The Psychology – Part 2

  1. Some really helpful thoughts and strategies for dealing with toxic bosses. I think the ideas expressed in this article would be helpful in any conflicted relationship. Thanks for helping me grasp a little better the idea of self-differentiation from a Christian perspective.

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