Why Your Toxic Workplace Makes It Impossible To Figure Out What You Want To Do [TFLP160]

On the latest episode of the Former Lawyer Podcast, Sarah took a break from interviewing former lawyers to share something important for anyone in a toxic workplace. She talked about how being in a toxic workplace makes it harder to figure out what you want to do when you eventually move on. 

Toxic workplaces trigger all sorts of responses from the nervous systems that make it almost impossible to do the inner work needed to gain clarity, whether it’s on a post-legal career or just another sector of law. 

Keep reading to learn how your toxic work environment makes it harder for you to figure out what you want to do after leaving the law.

The Nervous System In A Toxic Workplace

It’s evident that toxic workplaces are bad, just in general. But specifically, the damage it does to the nervous system should cause the most concern. These environments make you feel super rundown or on edge. Your nerves are always shot, and your anxiety is triggered, along with other nervous system responses like fight/flight/freeze/fawn.

If you’re thinking about leaving your job– or being a lawyer entirely– being in a toxic workplace makes it almost impossible to do the inner work needed to figure out what you want to do. Why? Because in a toxic workplace, your nervous system is constantly in a state of activation. 

What Is An Activated Nervous System?

Your prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, like dreaming, exploring, and understanding yourself. But that part is essentially taken offline if you’re in an activated state. So, when you’re nervous system is activated, and you sit down and try to think about things like your values and these other things, you will find it extremely difficult. 

It’s not because you’re unmotivated. It’s because your brain’s in a state that can’t effectively process deep questions. You can learn more about nervous system regulation and the polyvagal theory about the nervous system function by reading Anchored by Deb Dana and Try Softer by Aundi Kolber.

Toxic Workplaces & The Primitive Brain 

When you’re in a toxic workplace, it activates your nervous system because it’s not a safe environment. You may not feel that you’re in apparent danger or that it’s unsafe. But a psychologically unsafe environment is just as dangerous to your primitive brain. 

The primitive brain doesn’t distinguish the difference between emotional and physical threats. It just knows safe and unsafe. So, it doesn’t matter whether the threat is a partner screaming at you or throwing a stapler at you. When your nervous system is activated, all the brain sees is a threat. 

Why You Can’t Figure Out What You Want To Do In A Toxic Workplace

If you’re in a toxic work environment, and you’ve been struggling to leave, know that it’s not because you don’t care, you’re not trying, or there isn’t anything else for you. It’s because the toxic workplace you’re in is holding you back. That kind of environment puts you in a state of mind where thinking about what you want to do is impossible. 

When you’re stuck in a toxic workplace and dealing with an activated nervous system every day, you’re not able to come back to a state of mind where you can clearly figure out how to leave that workplace and figure out what you want to do. 

You’re in survival mode, which makes the inner work like reconnecting with yourself and learning to trust yourself is impossible. If you’re in survival mode, you can’t learn about yourself or answer deep questions. 

How To Get Out Of A Toxic Workplace That’s Holding You Back

The only way you’re going to be able to do the work you need to figure out what you want to do is by getting out of your toxic workplace. That may seem easier said than done, but it’s what you need to do. Here’s what you can do to deal with your toxic work situation. 

Acknowledge That You’re In A Toxic Situation

Acknowledge that you’re in a toxic workplace and that you can make a move. You may not move right to your dream career, but you need to move to something that gets you out of that environment, so you can have the space to do the inner work to find that career. 

People will tell you to set boundaries or how you should create a better work-life balance, but if you’re in an activated/traumatized state, it will be hard to do those things. And you won’t be able to get any clarity until you’re out of that kind of situation. 

Find A Non-Toxic Work Environment

You don’t need to find your next career, but you need to get another job in an environment that isn’t toxic. A bridge job gives you the space and clarity you need for all the inner work you need to do, but you’re still able to pay your bills and support your family. 

Remember that leaving your toxic workplace won’t fix all of your problems. You’ll still need to dig deep into what your values, likes, and interest are, among other things, to find what you want to do after leaving the law. 

How The Collaborative Can Help You Leave Your Toxic Workplace

The goal here is for any lawyer in a toxic workplace who wants to leave to identify that your work environment causes you to struggle so much with figuring out what you want to do after leaving your job. 

Also, know that you’re not alone in your experience. There are tons of lawyers just like you inside the Former Lawyer Collaborative. And they’re doing what you read about today, figuring out what they want to do as a career. 

If you’re stuck in a toxic workplace and need some support finding what to do next, consider joining the Collab. If you want to make a change, the curriculum and the group are there to help and support you. Join today to get started finding your perfect post-legal career.

Work With Sarah One On One

Another way you can get some help in leaving your toxic workplace and finding out what you want to do is by hiring a coach. Right now, Sarah is working one-on-one with a limited number of lawyers who want a fulfilling post-legal career. 

Inside the coaching package, you get a twelve-week curriculum, which you’ll work through with Sarah. She personalizes plans and choices so you can find what you want to do with the rest of your life. Book a call to see if it’s the right fit for you. 

Connect With Sarah





Mentioned In This Article

Anchored By Deb Dana

Try Softer by Aundi Kolber

Former Lawyer Collaborative

1:1 Coaching With Sarah

Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Today I'm going to talk about something I think is really important for those of you are in toxic workplace, places where you're feeling super rundown, where you're getting super activated, you have tons of anxiety, your fight, flight, fawn, freeze reactions are just constantly popping up all over the place where you're feeling impacts on your nervous system, essentially, daily.

Here's what I think is really important for you to know if you are in a situation like that and you're thinking about doing something else. You want to explore either leaving that job or leaving the law entirely, but you're finding it really difficult. It is really hard to do the inner work that is needed to really determine what is truly going to work for you when you are in a state of nervous-system activation.

What do I mean by that? If your anxiety is being triggered by your workplace because it's an unsafe workplace, like physically, emotionally, in whatever way or you're incredibly exhausted or for whatever reason, your nervous system has been activated, when you're in a state of activation, that means that essentially what is driving the bus for you is your primitive brain. It's the part of you that reacts with fight, flight, freeze, fawn.

By the way, if you're interested in learning more about the nervous system regulation and how we end up in these different states, there are a couple of really good books that I highly recommend. One is called Anchored by Deb Dana. It's a really great overview of polyvagal theory, and then another one is a book called Try Softer by Aundi Kolber. I'll put the links to those two books in the show notes.

Really, I think many, many lawyers would benefit from having more of an understanding of polyvagal theory and how the polyvagal nerve works, its function in your nervous system, and how you move through these different states from regulation to dysregulation. The terms are like ventral vagal, dorsal vagal, etc. That's just a little bit of a feel free to check it out on your own time plug, because I think that that can be really helpful.

But coming back to what I was saying, if you are in a state of activation, your primitive brain is the part of your brain that is driving your decision making, your ability to think. Your prefrontal cortex is what is going to be doing the higher-level thinking, dreaming, exploring and understanding yourself. But that part is essentially taken offline if you're in an activated state.

If you sit down and are trying to think about things like your values and these other things, you might find it extremely difficult. The reason for that is not because you're unmotivated, the reason for that is because your brain is in a state that is not conducive to thinking through those kinds of important questions.

That's why I wanted to talk about this today because I think there are a lot of you in this situation where you are working at a firm or some other workplace that's super toxic, and you have people, partners, saying all kinds of crap to you, they're treating you poorly, and being offended that you are taking an hour for therapy, that you have to go pick up your kid, or that you have to take a day off because you're sick, like normal human things basically. In that circumstance, your nervous system is almost surely activated because that's not a safe environment. It's not an emotionally safe environment.

You might be saying to yourself, “Well, Sarah, yeah, I work for a bunch of a-holes or whatever, but they're not throwing things at me, I'm physically safe.” Here's the thing. That's all fine. Your prefrontal cortex knows that. But your primitive brain does not really distinguish between emotionally unsafe and physically unsafe. Going to make me feel terrible because they say something super sh*tty to me versus throwing a stapler, I mean, your primitive brain feels all of those things as threats.

Again, you can tell me, “Oh, but I know that I'm safe in this way or that way.” But the reality is that your brain, your body, your nervous system may not know that because the reality is that being in an emotionally unsafe, a psychologically unsafe environment, is actually being unsafe. As lawyers we want to be like, “Well, that's not actually unsafe,” or “Let me have a rational five-point conversation with my primitive brain to explain why I shouldn't feel the way I feel.” That's not how it works, because you are a human being.

All of that to say, there is a very good chance that if you are in an environment that is not psychologically or emotionally safe, that is toxic, that is forcing you or creating expectations for you that you are basically not being human being, in that environment, you're going to really struggle to do a lot of the work that we talk about needing to do on this podcast when you're wanting to do something else. Whether it's figuring out your values, whether it's figuring out things that you like and things that you enjoy, just reconnecting with yourself and learning to trust yourself, because if you're in survival mode, survival mode is not the place that you are feeling the psychological, emotional, etc, safety and freedom to better understand yourself.

Hey, it's Sarah. I want to remind you that I am now working with a very limited number of lawyers one-on-one who are trying to figure out what it is that they want to do that isn't practicing law. What we'll do when we work together one-on-one is we will meet for 12 weeks and you and I will walk through the framework that I've created to help lawyers do exactly that. On top of personalizing that and making individualized choices about which pieces of that you need to focus on, spend more time on, spend less time on, I also have the capacity to lend my brain to your situation.

When we're working together one-on-one, I'm able to look at cover letters, resumes, and other things that you may be putting together, cold outreach emails, figuring out who you might want to reach out to, figuring out, “Okay, I have all this information about who I am, values, personality, strengths, etc., from these various assessments, but how do I put that together into a picture of what it is that I actually want to be doing? How do I figure out what I actually want my life and career to look like?” all of those things.

If that sounds like something that would be helpful to you, I would love to talk with you about whether or not working with me one-on-one is the right fit for you. Go to the website, the Work With Me drop-down, there's a link to information about working with me one-on-one. You can see more details and the price as well as the button to book a free consult with me so that we can talk through whether working with me in this capacity would be the right fit for you. I onboard one new one-on-one client per month so if this is something that you're interested in, definitely schedule that call as soon as you can because I fill the spots on a first-come-first-served basis. I look forward to talking with you about whether working together one-on-one could be a good fit.

If you're in one of these environments, it is highly likely that you are struggling to figure out what it is that you really want to do. I'm here to tell you that that's not because you don't care, you're not trying or there isn't anything else for you, you're just the one person who's destined to be a lawyer forever, it's because the environment itself is creating a container for you that makes it difficult for you to do the things that you want to do.

So then you're like, “Okay, Sarah, great. You're telling me that basically, I want to get out of my toxic job and the thing that's keeping me from getting out of my toxic job is my toxic job.” To a certain extent, yes. I don't like being the bearer of bad news. Here is how I've seen people deal with these situations. There are a couple of things that you can do.

One is that you can acknowledge this environment is not good for me and you can make a move, not to the thing that you think you're going to do forever, not to the thing that you've identified because you've had the ability to work through all these questions, but just to something that gets you into an environment that is not the environment you're in that is not quite so toxic that allows you the space to be able to do the work.

Because here's the thing, people will tell you, “Oh, but you should put up boundaries and you should feel this way, you should do these things, and this is how you can be proactive in order to create a better work-life situation for yourself,” and all of those things are great, but if you're in an activated/traumatized state, it is going to be really hard to do those things.

What I don't want is for someone who's in an environment like that, and we've talked about this in the podcast before, to feel like, “Well, I can't leave here because there are all these things that I should be doing and I'm not doing them yet, like setting boundaries in particular ways, so I need to figure out how to do them,” when newsflash, the reason that you're not able to do that is because you are being traumatized and re-traumatized by your job, by your workplace, which is making it impossible for you to bring online the part of your brain that will actually allow you to make some of these choices and decisions to put up boundaries in ways that will make things better for you.

One of the ways to fix that is to find a place that is not as toxic. The term that we often use when we're talking about these types of jobs is a bridge job. Something that gets you out of where you are but isn't necessarily the ultimate thing you want to go to. I have seen that it can be hard for lawyers to take a bridge job when what they really want to do is get out of the law. Because especially that bridge job is another legal job, it feels like, “What's the point? I'm planning to leave anyway, so getting that job feels just like a lot of effort for no good reason.”

Well, if you're in a toxic situation and you're needing to do some of this deeper work, then actually making that move to something that is less toxic is in fact very helpful because it creates a space for you to do the work that you want to do that you need to do. Do I think that you leaving your toxic workplace is going to fix all of your problems? No, obviously not. Anyone who tells you that that is going to be the case is not doing you any favors.

However, do I think that you should keep beating your head against the wall at a toxic workplace at a toxic job, trying to figure out some of these broader questions that you're simply not able to do because of your context? Also no. My goal is for those of you who are in those kinds of situations to be able to identify, “Hey, this is the type of situation I'm in. Maybe I should think about doing something else going somewhere else, not the place that I'm going to go forever or not the ultimate thing but just the thing that gets me out of this particular environment that is creating such a barrier to my actually being able to discern what it is that I want, what it is that I need, what it is that I like, and what it is that I want to do.”

That is why your toxic workplace makes it harder for you to figure out what you want to do if you're a lawyer who's thinking about leaving the law, and listen, if you're in an environment like that, I want you to know there are tons of lawyers like you inside the Former Lawyer Collab who are doing exactly what I talked about today, figuring out, one, for some of them, “What is a bridge job that I can move to? How can I find an environment that is more conducive to me doing this work?” or two, in an environment like that, or in a workplace, an initial workplace that just isn't so toxic but they're not able to do this work, doing this work, figuring these things out, and they understand what it is like to be in the position that you're in.

I understand what it's like because I've been there. I hope that if you've been thinking about doing something else, and you're feeling stuck, that you consider joining us in the Former Lawyer Collaborative, because truly, I truly believe that if you are wanting to make a change, that this community, this program, the curriculum that I've created, The Former Lawyer Framework, can help you go from where you are right now to a work situation that is such a better fit, that isn't toxic, that doesn't ask you to not be at human being.

If you want to join us or just see the information, you can go to formerlawyer.com/collab. That is all I have for you this week. I will talk to you next week.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.