Tough vs Toxic

Tough vs Toxic

by Dr Galia Barhava

Handling the Tough

Personally, I am not one to shy away from hard work and dealing with tough situations. I thrive on it usually. Tough is gooood. Throughout my life I have taken tough decisions, like leaving my friends and family behind and moving to a country far, far away to marry the man I fell for. Like taking on the tough role of being Fonterra’s Ethics manager just after the merger that created the new company. Co-founding a social enterprise dedicated to supporting women through their careers in 2007 when D&I wasn’t in the lexicon was tough, but I remember feeling energised most of the time. I would think about all the things that needed to get done with a sense of excitement, and sometimes with a little nervousness too, but in that good way that makes you do your very best work.

That horrible feeling in your stomach…

It wasn’t always  like that.  There have been many times in my working life that I had a lot on, but with that work came a sense of dread.  I still remember feeling a pit open in my stomach when I was about to listen to voicemails from clients and other colleagues on a Sunday night.  Or when I couldn’t sleep because I was literally dreading what the next day will bring.

At the time I did think that maybe I wasn’t cut out to do so much and such intensive work, but in hindsight I realise that I am fully capable of taking a huge load on and delivering on it successfully – so it wasn’t the workload, it was something else.

This is something I have also observed, and often, with my clients over the years. In some environments they have to work hard and they deliver amazingly, and yet in other environments they find themselves underachieving and feeling completely incompetent despite their clear track record of achievements.

Thriving on Tough

The difference, in my view, is that having tough things in life – in the right proportions – is healthy for us. Just like going to the gym and lifting weights that make us sweat, but carefully and without injuring ourselves. 

It’s through meeting stretch goals at work, or working through problems in our romantic relationships, or resolving challenging situations with our friends and colleagues that we grow.  If everything were easy we’d never develop professionally, emotionally and psychologically.  We also wouldn’t have that sense of achievement and personal and professional growth, nor the wonderful benefits that growth brings for our emotional wellbeing.

Overcoming the tough makes us stronger.

Toxic Toll

But this is not true of toxic situations.  Some situations, whether at work, with romantic partners or with friends are not just tough, they are toxic.  My definition of toxic situations is that no matter what you do, you fundamentally can’t resolve them.  You might be able to alleviate some of the toxicity for some of the time, but it is bound to come back again and the toxicity will continue to take its toll on you.

Like acid, toxic situations eat away at you, taking away your strengths, and ultimately making us weaker. 

As humans we adjust to just about anything.  I am sure that, like me, you know amazing women who married guys who were a little bit controlling when they got together and over the years became ever more controlling and even abusive.  But the women stay, often because they are so used to it they can’t even tell it is

I have found myself in toxic work environments and toxic friendships in my life, and so have many of my coaching clients. These experiences propelled me to think through how to distinguish between tough and toxic, and how to tell when tough becomes toxic.

Lack of control is the key.

Toxic situations are ones where your sense of self is continuously eroded, because your actions don’t seem to influence what is happening. When you are in a situation where you have no control over what is happening, this is the first and most significant sign. If you are able to take control over the situation, chances are it is resolvable, but if despite ongoing attempts you can’t establish some level of control, then this probably means you are in a toxic situation.

It may sound very simple but it is very hard to identify when you are in it.  Loss of control is gradual and happens to us without us even noticing it.  Do you feel something isn’t right, or even more strongly, is your gut is telling you that something is fundamentally wrong? Do you have a constant feeling of dread in your stomach? If so, then rather than fighting it and keeping ‘at it’, stop and reflect on what’s going on.

Once you have thought about the situation, the first step is taking mindful and purposeful actions to regain control. Often, you will be able to turn the situation around.  You might then decide you still want to leave – to leave the workplace, the relationship, the friendship – but your actions will be purposeful and you will feel IN CONTROL.

Development versus damage.

Another difference between tough and toxic situations is the state they leave us in. Overcoming tough situations builds our psychological, emotional and professional muscles. But toxic relationships and environments injure those muscles and the recovery can be long and hard.  Mindfully working to overcome tough is how we develop ourselves.  And we owe it to ourselves to recognise when things are toxic and to walk away with dignity and our head held high.

Living it.

In 2010 I was  diagnosed with an incredibly rare and very dangerous autoimmune disease.  The treatment was tough and consisted of chemo and steroid therapy for six months.  It was tough, but by no means toxic. Why? Because although I had no control over contracting the disease (it’s not due to life style, not heritable, not genetic, just really, really bad luck) I did take control over how I dealt with it.  I have grown so much from this experience, and even used it as the impetus to do my Doctorate. 

If, reading this, you feel you might be in a toxic situation, take the time over the break to think about it and ask for perspective from someone you respect and trust.  Use the days away from your usual schedule to think through how you can take control of the situation and work out some strategies.  If you still think this might not change anything, maybe you should plan to take control by making a deliberate exit – in a way and at a time of your choosing.

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