Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Avoid Becoming Bitter in a Toxic Workplace

Years ago I used to work in a toxic, dysfunctional and fearful workplace.  It had the usual characteristics:  little to no trust, self-promotion and preservation over cooperation and collaboration, and incivility that was tolerated or ignored. I was determined to navigate myself out of there without becoming bitter or losing my self confidence.

When I look back at that awful period I remember 3 important lessons that carried me through:

  • I had a choice about how I could communicate and respond
  • I created time for reflection & meditation
  • I set goals and created an action plan 

It's not easy to take the high road.  Whining, complaining, commiserating and, let's face it, feeling sorry for ourselves are the traps we fall into when we are powerless and overwhelmed.  The challenge is to remain professional, communicate effectively, and preserve relationship.  Assessing your own conflict & communication style, and that of others, can help determine strategies for coping as well as for resolving issues in the moment.  Knowing my style under stress helped me stay out of "reaction mode" and to work toward solutions rather than to stay fixed on my opinion or point of view.

Making time for reflection, meditation and relaxation is critical.  Under stress we can fail to see options because our brain is literally under siege.  Duress in the workplace can lead to defensiveness, anxiety, and depression.  Alert for threat or attacks, the limbic part of our brain triggers the sympathetic nervous system to fight or flee.  Carving out time to give the brain a rest is time well spent.  Most activities that require controlled or calm breathing, lower the heart rate and calm our nervous system.  Under Broomhilda's management, I took up knitting and listening to calming music on my commute to and from work.  Before the train left the station I centered myself with the Buddhist prayer, Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.  This helpful phrase carried me through the difficulty of that job, its ending and the beginning of a new one.  It reminds me that in life, it's all temporary---which keeps me grounded and humble in good times, and serves as my anchor when the storms roll in.

Too often we measure our success or happiness with yardsticks of others' making, and in doing so, may stay too long in a job or environment that steals time from those things that matter most, and the good work we could be doing somewhere else.  Finding ways to cope and find hope are essential strategies to riding out the maelstrom, conserving energy to create a viable exit plan, and getting to the next place with our souls in tact.

Mary McGuinness, M.Ed., PCC is a career transition and shift-it coach based in Chicago, IL USA.
Mary uses visual coaching and design-thinking techniques and practices to accompany her clients on a journey of self-discovery that results in creative solutions, faster results, and happier, more fulfilling careers.  

Mary McGuinness