Dear Captain Awkward,
I was just fired after less than a year at a toxic job. I was vomiting from anxiety on a semi-regular basis… it was awful.
My team and peers were amazing, but my relationship with my manager was terrible. After months trying to fix it, I began seeing a new psychiatrist and taking new meds just to manage the anxiety that it caused.
The circumstances surrounding my firing are also extremely shady. I feel so traumatized by the experience that the thought of working again fills me with panic. It will be a while before I can rejoin the workforce.
Needless to say, I’m extremely distrustful of Former Manager and have no desire to ever see or interact with him again. I’d still feel that way even if I had quit.
I’ve blocked both him and his SO on LinkedIn/Facebook. However, I’d really like to see my former coworkers again when some of this blows over. They’re awesome and were devastated by my departure. I’ve mentioned the possibility of a get-together and they seem interested, which is exciting!
Hosting an event is perfect: I have control over the attendees, and Former Manager is NOT on the list. But I don’t have any control over events hosted by others, and this fills me with dread. Coworkers are already planning at least one summer event.
I don’t want to flake out on them, but I rampantly avoid confrontational situations and I’m terrified of seeing Former Manager. It’s not a big group, so I can’t fade into the crowd. They also like board games, so “just don’t interact with him!” isn’t an option.
I could try to determine if he’ll be there in advance, but it’s hard to ask without making things weird or divulging inappropriate information. He’s still their manager; if I say I can’t be around him it could sound unprofessional or even impact their work relationship.
So, let’s say I go to an event and he’s there – I can’t give him the cold shoulder. I’m also terrible at doing the “neutral, yet disinterested” treatment. I always think I can, but then my stupid politeness kicks in and I treat the person like an old friend or even smooth over their awkwardness. This happened even when I worked for him.
How can I navigate this situation, particularly since my anxiety here is so fresh and I’m feeling very avoidant? I don’t want to dodge the group completely – I’d like to maintain these relationships – but I’m so afraid that my manager will be there!
Post-Traumatic Job Disorder is a Thing
I know you would have preferred leaving on your own schedule, but can I start by saying “vomiting daily from anxiety is not normal and I very am glad you are away from that toxic job!” Like, congratulations for not fitting in to an abusive & terrible workplace.
I strongly suggest that you avoid “All my former coworkers are getting together!” events for the time being unless you are the host. Maybe for the rest of the year. There is no way to avoid your ex-boss at them or avoid making things socially & professionally weird right now. Your feelings are too raw, and you need to detox from this workplace and its hold on your life. You’re not “flaking out” on your ex-coworkers if you RSVP “No” to those big events, especially since just thinking about them is causing you major anxiety. Time and distance will heal a lot of it, and it is possible to be friends with these people eventually, just, maybe not all as a big group at this particular time. People sometimes say stuff like “I can’t believe you won’t be there!” or “It just won’t be the same without you!” and when you’re emotionally vulnerable you read it as pressure, like you are SERIOUSLY letting them down by not attending an event. The truth is, they may in fact miss you, but when the event happens there will be plenty of other people there and they will have a good time and not think about you all that much. Try to see those statements as “enthusiasm for my company” rather than “pressure to attend even though the wounds are still fresh” and do what takes care of you. You may run into some Geek Social Fallacies about togetherness, but I believe that someone who is your friend is gonna respond reasonably to a private “I’d love to come but I’m still feeling kind of raw, especially around (Manager). Have a great time, and can we have lunch the following week and catch up one-on-one?”
Plus, deciding to just say no to hanging out as one big (dysfunctional) group is something you can control right now. You don’t have to make a big announcement of such, just, handle each invitation on a case-by-case basis. Host events when you want to. Invite people out one-on-one or in very small groups. Over time, mix a few friends from your former workplace with your other friends and try to keep the conversation from being all about work.
Here, if you are interested, are some overall steps that might make you feel better and regain a sense of control socially and professionally:
Ask your team to recommend you. Ask trusted people specifically to write you positive recommendations on LinkedIn and to be your references when you look for new work. Get documentation of what you do well from people you respect. It will help the wound heal a bit to know that your firing was based on just one person’s opinion and to have your value documented publicly.
Tell the story, selectively. Getting a new job and maintaining a “professional” persona probably requires you tell a story along the lines of “The job was a bad fit for me, and while it was embarrassing to be fired, it was actually a relief because now I can focus on (whatever it is YOU are interviewing me for, Good Sir or Madam!). I learned some very important lessons about (time management, customer service, how to prioritize work, how to handle conflict) that will help me in (this shiny new position).” Fairly or not, future bosses & coworkers won’t want to hear the gory details of your old job and might actually judge you on your discretion and ability to gloss over the bad circumstances, since people who come into job interviews full of tales about the suckyness of their old jobs and the extreme personal failings of their former managers give off a number of red flags even if the suckiness verily didst sucketh most suckily (Thanks, Capitalism!).
I believe you that that feels fucking impossible right now, and one way to make it more possible eventually is to find safe outlets to tell the story in full. If you haven’t already, write out a complete narrative of the “shady” circumstances and everything that happened at your former employer. You might not do anything with this besides ritually burn it, but if you can access counseling services and tell the story to a trained person who can help you sort it out, do it. If you can tell a trusted friend, that’s also good. Bottom line: Don’t bottle it up. Lance the wound now and drain the badness fully, so that you can tell a sanitized version when your economic survival or future career goals depend on it.
Look outside your former workplace for social connections. If this workplace became the center of your social life for a while that’s understandable; branching out might mean calling old friends you haven’t talked to in a while or mowing your grandma’s lawn & babysitting your little cousins and having to tell the story “Yeah, I got fired” 1,000 times when people you haven’t talked to in a while ask you how things are going. DAUNTING, I KNOW. Telling people the news has a weird way of getting easier the more you do it and the more time that goes by. Plus, you need some love from other people right now, and you have some love to give other people, and I think you need to do this as much as possible without keeping running tabs on the day-t0-day complexities in your old workplace. Pick up the phone or open that Skype window. Join a choir or a knitting circle or an adult kickball team. If you’re close to your family, let them love on you.
If you are able, volunteer. Volunteer because it fills the gap in your resume with something interesting that you can talk about. Volunteer because it brings you in contact with new people and new circumstances. Volunteer because there are organizations in your community who need what you can do and it will remind you that you are valuable and kind and smart. Volunteer because it will get you out of the house at a set time for a few hours each week and help you keep the routine of the gainfully employed. It will help the story you tell new employers eventually, like, “I got fired from my old job, which was very embarrassing, but I was lucky enough to be able to take a little time to regroup and learn some new skills in event planning & publicity when I volunteered for the local nonprofit’s annual benefit.” See also, when you do go to things with former work people, you will have stuff to talk about: “I’m looking for a new job, so if you hear of anything let me know. In the meantime, I am Furminating all the cats at the animal shelter and it is the most soothing thing ever.” “I am volunteer-ushering at the local theater company so I get to see all the shows I want.” “I taught someone how to read today.”
Learn something new. Maybe take a free online class. It could be something that polishes up a professional skill and gives you something to fill that resume gap (“I used the time to take some classes and brush up my (THIS SHINY NEW JOB YOU’RE HIRING FOR) skills…”) or something you do just for the sheer fun & interest of it (for example, I loved the Seeing Through Photographs class). What was your favorite/best subject in school? Is there a way for you to dig into it for fun now? A class can give you routine, mental stimulation, some interaction with other human beings, something to talk about that you did with your day.
Be very kind to yourself. To the extent that you are able, get enough sleep. Eat good food that gives you pleasure and makes you feel good. Unfuck your habitat. Go to the library and read good books and listen to good music. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good. If your local museums have free-to-the-public days, or free summer concerts,(or art shows, or movies in the park, etc.) go to them when you can. Get regular haircuts (the local beauty school can usually give them very cheaply when you’re unemployed) or whatever you do for self-maintenance. Do random acts of kindness for people, like sending thank-you letters to old teachers and mentors. Ignore the advice above about “being productive” and enjoy some fucking down time for a change. Above all, spend time with people who are kind to you and limit the time and energy you spend on people who drain your energy.
I hope that you’ll get to hold onto important friendships and professional connections in a way that adds positively to your life and doesn’t bring you unusual amounts of anxiety or force you into contact with your enemy. I also hope that you’ll be able to heal and bounce back stronger than before. We’re rooting for you!