Updated: May 17
Two of the unhappiest years of my life were when I was teaching. During my first and third year of teaching, I had an extremely difficult teaching schedule (including 6 classes in 6 different classrooms one of those years), an uncaring and sometimes hostile administration, and unpleasant personality clashes with some coworkers.
But despite how unhappy I was on a day-to-day basis, I did try to focus, when I could, on the things that I did really enjoy about where I was: I loved (most of) my students, I was making good money and using it pay down debt, and I was spending my days thinking, reading, writing, and talking about literature. All of those were good things that would normally help me feel satisfied about my life.
But those really tough years taught me that trying to live, work, and spend mindfully when you don’t like your current job can feel impossible. There were days when I simply disconnected to be able to get through my day, which certainly wasn’t a healthy or mindful method of dealing with an untenable situation.
It’s common to turn to mindless and disordered behavior to soothe the dissatisfaction of hating your job. If you are actively looking to improve things, either by trying to find a new job or making changes to your current one, you might think there is no harm in spending, eating, or watching TV mindlessly for the time being, since you will be in a better position soon.
But leaning into mindfulness practice can help you to feel more satisfied even in a toxic environment. In addition, it will help you to avoid falling back into mindless habits that you would otherwise carry with you into a better situation.
There are some exercises that will help you to remain mindful when things are tough:
1. List Ten Things You Like About Your Current Situation
A funny thing happens when you force yourself to look for the good in a bad situation. It changes your perspective on the situation and allows you to forgive miscommunication, misalignment, and other errors while not excusing toxic behavior.
Each day, take the time to jot down ten things you liked about your workplace that day, no matter how little or silly. Perhaps you like your work nemesis’s new hairstyle because it reminds you of a favorite teacher. Maybe you like how the office windows allow sunlight to dapple the lobby. Or you may appreciate how the coffee pot is always full at work, so you can caffeinate your way through all the meetings.
Looking for things you like will help you to remember that your workplace is made up of people who also want to feel fulfilled and happy.
2. Remember Your Past and Look to Your Future
Paying attention to the present usually means letting go of the past and recognizing the future is out of your hands. But sometimes paying attention in the present moment is about inviting in your past self and your future self to help you make sense of what is happening now. That means letting your past self remind you of how excited you were to land the job originally and how much you and your work nemesis originally liked each other in those first months.
For instance, the day I was offered my teaching job, I danced around the house singing at the top of my lungs. Knowing that I would get to teach in the very district where I most wanted a job was incredibly gratifying. My mind was bursting with ideas for lesson plans, and I was grateful to the school and administration for taking me on. Thinking back to that feeling of joy, anticipation, and gratitude helped me to recall that I felt lucky to be hired, even if I was dissatisfied later on.
At the same time, you can ask your future self to feel some pre-emptive nostalgia for the aspects of the job that you will miss after you have moved on. Thinking about how much I would miss interacting with students every day helped me remember why I became a teacher in the first place. And in the 10 years since I left teaching, I still often think back to how much I enjoyed teaching high school students and how much I miss that part of education.
Connecting with your past and future selves allows you to contextualize the present as just a part of your experience that was once and will again be something you think of with fondness.
3. Honor Your Biggest Priorities
One of the reasons why toxic work environments are so exhausting is because it forces you to give up your priorities. Overwhelming working conditions can have a way of swallowing up anything that doesn’t meet their requirements. And asking (or demanding) that your needs be met is often treated like a major problem.
If this is the kind of environment you are working in, honoring your priorities can be extremely difficult. However, if you identify your biggest priority, you can generally find a way to make sure you honor it, even if your workplace makes that difficult.
For instance, if one of your biggest priorities is having time to spend with your family, then you might honor that priority by holding firm at a forty-hour work week and not allowing yourself to be sucked into staying late at work.
If your priority is to minimize your overwhelming commute, you could ask if you could work remotely or flex your hours so you could avoid the worst of rush hour traffic.
If your priority is taking care of your health, you could carve out time to exercise during your lunch hour or before you arrive in the morning.
The important thing is to make sure you identify and rank your priorities, so you can focus on the issues that matter the most to you and can do the most to help you feel satisfied with your life. Honoring your biggest priority can help make your untenable work situation feel much more doable.
There’s More to Life Than TPS Reports
Bad jobs are an unfortunate fact of life. When you are stuck in a really toxic environment, it can be so hard to keep your equilibrium and prevent the nastiness of work from oozing into the rest of your life.
But mindfulness practice is not just for when life is going well. Using mindfulness to help you find your balance when things are tough may be harder to do, but you will feel the benefits in all areas of your life. And that can give you the equanimity you need to improve the negative.
Just make sure you always put the new cover sheet on your TPS reports.
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