How a Toxic Boss Called Me to Coach: My Story of Resilience
How a Toxic Boss Called Me to Coach: My Story of Resilience
As the year comes to a close and I spend time with family in Berlin, my home for 11 years of my life, I am reminded of just how much I have grown on my journey, and how much more I belong to myself now than when I was here before. (I invite you to do your own reflections with support from the Year End Reflection Guide).
The year was 2017 and I was working in leadership development, a role that would ultimately teach me invaluable lessons. I kept feeling like I was in over my head, a feeling that was continually reinforced by a boss who expected me to match her 20 years of experience in a few months. I was hired for a role I was capable of, but set up to fail with unrealistic parameters of what “success” looked like.
I wasn’t alone. My teammates suffered from the same sense of impending doom – a feeling of imposter syndrome so deep that no one spoke of how much their confidence had taken a hit since joining the company, or how often they felt like they were falling short of our mutual “leader’s” expectations.
The learning curve kept getting steeper the more we grew. The pressure, stress, and expectations were relentless. Nothing was ever good enough or fast enough. We were never smart enough – and certainly couldn’t match our boss' intelligence. At least, that is what we were meant to believe in this toxic environment. Nearly every day I would end up in tears, feeling exhausted, and feeling bad about myself. Those feelings had actually encouraged me to stay longer than I wanted because I so badly wanted to prove I could do or be better.
It was one of the hardest years of my life.
That says a lot considering I did my MBA alongside a full-time job and regular travel to project sites in South America. Not only was the work grueling and my confidence waning, but stress, sadness, overwhelm, and insecurity are contagious. The worse I felt, the worse those around me felt – and the more I became the toxic one, unable to cope with the demands put on me and spewing venom about how hard and unfair the whole system was. Though when I stood up for myself or spoke up on behalf of others on the team I was well and truly punished – iced out of meetings or projects, confronted by the board about whether or not I had lied on my CV about my experience, and beaten down for taking too long to learn what I needed to know to do my job well.
After only 11 months, I finally called it quits. I left my position and felt for my colleagues who remained steeped in such toxicity. Sometimes you can’t see quite how bad things are when you are so deeply immersed – it’s only when you take a step back that you gain perspective and start to see the reality of your own experience. As soon as I left the company I felt immense and immediate relief. My entire body relaxed and I felt like I was free. I realized immediately how unhealthy the environment had been, though it still took me some more months to move through the impact it had on my mind, body, and spirit.
I left the company in March and felt my personal power begin to grow. I was not the same person I had been when I began. I was hardened, but also resolved to create something different in the world. I felt responsible to help others create company cultures and work environments that would help people truly thrive and love showing up to work each and every day. I hadn’t yet experienced that in my career and still couldn’t fully understand why.
And with everything I’ve learned since then, I also realize just how much we are all trying to solve our own internal struggles out in the world with other people. Whatever we wish were different in our own lives or from our past experiences we bring to the table to be fixed. That’s how a leadership development company that was created to support leaders and teams to thrive and perform could get it so wrong in their own house – creating toxicity and suffering for every employee when trying to help other businesses to do the exact opposite.
Two years ago I moved to London, after time abroad healing old wounds. Now back in Berlin for the holidays, I've taken up space in the same WeWork offices where toxicity once dimmed my light. I haven't returned since that punishing time, anxious to reopen old scars. But joining my husband at work today, I braved my fears, knowing facing the past held power to rewrite its grip on me. This place no longer defines my story. I'm not the same woman who once walked these halls needing to prove my worth. I came back to show myself how far I've come.
Last week I came back to the scene of the crime, so to speak – to the office where I met with so much suffering and struggle. Admittedly, I was nervous. How would I feel returning to the place where I had experienced so much frustration and anger? Where I felt so powerless and incompetent. But I decided to come anyway, to walk through the front doors and hit the #8 on the elevator to be greeted by breathtaking and sweeping views over Berlin. With blue skies and sunshine overhead the Reichstag looks particularly breathtaking today, and the clear view above Tiergarten makes my heart sing. While the physical location remains the same, the woman I have become since that time has completely changed.
When I left this company in 2018, I moved temporarily to Asia. While in Singapore I completed my Co-Active Coach Training. The process of becoming a coach is a process of deep work leading to greater self-awareness. You can only take your clients as far as you've gone yourself, and so you must do the work yourself first so that you can take others on that journey. That's why a coaches work is never complete and requires continuous personal development, reflection, and learning. I began that challenging process of truly learning who I was, what I loved, and what mattered most to me - something I hadn't really put time or thought into before. Through that work I began to grow and shift, to become more of who I am today and less of who I thought I should be.
I found it easy to walk inside, to feel confident in who I am and in my gifts, and can change my relationship to that part of myself – the wounded leader who was trying so hard to prove herself to someone who could never truly see her for who she was. I wanted so badly to be right, to be better, to prove my worth – and hadn’t realized just how much I needed to learn that I was already enough exactly as I was. I had nothing to prove. I had only to show up and be – to bring my light, my intelligence, my wit, my empathy and compassion, and my creativity to the table – whether it was accepted and honored or not.
I never had to prove a thing – only I didn’t know that then.
And so I am grateful to that younger version of Amanda, the one who persisted, the one who suffered, the one who desperately tried to do the right thing while not knowing what exactly that was – because she taught me so much about what matters in this world and what is important in life. She suffered so that I could learn. And so that I could then help others to not only trust themselves, but to realize that they, too, are enough.
I truly believe every single one of us is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole – just as we are. Whatever you might be experiencing in your life today, wherever you are in the world, know that you are enough. You don’t need to be fixed. You might just need to get better at seeing your own magic.
Sending you lots of love, today and always,