Why You Can’t Stay in a Toxic Environment if You Want to Thrive

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The title of this article specifically refers to thriving, which is very different than surviving. What we know about humans is that we can survive incredibly difficult environments. We can survive trauma. We can survive malnutrition. We can even survive situations specifically designed to break our spirits and bodies—think concentration camps or solitary confinement in prisons. However, we cannot thrive in those environments. The reason is fairly straight forward. Our wellbeing is not just about attitude. Environmental inputs matter. A lot.

We can learn skills to mitigate stress. Our bodies can adapt, at least for a while, to inadequate nutrition. We can even learn to survive torture. However, to thrive, some foundational inputs have to be in place. For example, if we have access to healthy foods; if we have secure housing; if we have relationships with people who care for us and have our best interests at heart; if we have work and other activities that provide purpose and opportunities to learn and grow, then we can maximize our potential—and thrive.

Understanding the power of inputs is really critical because we often attempt to deal with circumstances, relationships, etc., that cause us pain and suffering by trying to apply tools to deal with the pain and suffering rather than by trying to change the inputs that are hurting us. Sometimes, such as with complex trauma, we develop pathologies that compromise our ability to advocate for ourselves. Sometimes it’s more simple. My father, who was a clinical psychologist, used to say that, “Some people prefer the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.” We just prefer the devil we know or we fear change more than we fear a debilitating status quo. On the other hand, because inputs are so important, if we do truly want to thrive, in many cases, we will have to make environmental changes to things that affect our wellbeing.

As a former CEO, and current organizational consultant, and a psychotherapist who works with both individuals and groups comprised of people who are being genuinely hurt by the organizations they work for or by relationships in their lives, it is clear to me that, although we can use interventions to improve our ability to regulate emotion or tolerance for distress or mindfulness or interpersonal skills, that is often not enough to progress from surviving to thriving. We can decrease both the frequency and severity of psychological symptoms such as depression or anxiety or obsessive thoughts, but ultimately, true liberation often requires that we remove or separate ourselves from the inputs that cause our symptoms. We can often survive a toxic workplace, narcissistic partner, dangerous neighborhood, etc., but we cannot thrive in those contexts. Enduring just takes too much emotional and physical bandwidth and our mind-bodies absorb the toxicity like a like a body of water absorbs toxic chemicals. Moreover, in the same way we can’t clean up a toxic lake unless we stop the noxious chemicals pouring into the water, we can’t heal a damaged soul until we remove the poisons in our workplace, relationships, domestic lives, etc.

Obviously, there are situations in which people cannot alter their environment appreciably because they are dependent on someone else for basic needs, or they do not have full mobility or freedom of movement. Those are tragic situations and some are, at least temporarily, intractable. Relatedly, in many cases, the negative effects we experience from toxic environmental factors weaken us to the point that we do not believe that we have options that we actually have. One of the insidious products of noxious psychological environments is often the detrimental impact on our own sense of agency. In fact, the most toxic people in our lives actually want to steal our agency! It’s a means of control.

So, what do we do? First of all, not everyone is in a position to make substantial life changes in a given moment, but most of us do have options if we are willing to risk what we have for what we might have. And, sometimes, altering inputs in our environment such as leaving a job or ending a relationship, may initially make things worse in some ways before they get better, but that is often necessary in order to get to a place where inputs are additive rather than subtractive to our wellbeing.

Relatedly, we may have to redefine what “success” or “normal” means or what role money or status plays in our lives, etc., but once we redefine those things, then many options become available that weren’t visible or available before. This process is often directly connected to identity. In other words, we stay in toxic places or debilitating jobs or with toxic people because we have tied who we are to the role we play. For example, I counseled an executive who had achieved the heights of “success” based on Western values of wealth and power and status. However, he had basically sold his soul to his work and the growing dissonance was beginning to cripple him emotionally, not to mention cause substantial physical health issues and compromise his personal relationships. It wasn’t until he was able to accept that success might be about something other than money or status or power that he was able to let go of things that he had been led to believe were almost sacred. Importantly, he also had to let go of his very identity and validity being tied to his job. Of course, if he had to make a mid-six figure income or have a C-Suite job or live in a million-dollar home, then yes, his options would be limited. But once he realized that success might be related to living his values, being there for his family, and making a positive difference to others in the world—even if that meant living a less materialistic life—then many choices became possible.

Moving on from subtractive, if not toxic, inputs, can also be achieved over time. Start with incremental change. Address individual parts of your life one at a time. End a toxic relationship, then leave a demeaning boss, then move to where you really want to live, etc.

It also helps to approach change from a more productive context. Instead of asking yourself, “What do I want my next job to be?” or “Who do I want to have a relationship with?,” ask yourself, “What do I want to be true in my life—that will help me thrive—and what roles do my work or relationships or where I live play in achieving those life truths? And maybe even more importantly, these questions have to be asked in the context of who do I want to be rather than who/what do other people say I should be.

In short, we are often told how critical our own attitudes are for shaping how we feel about our lives—and there is truth in that. I’ve found that three pillars of wellbeing, and of thriving, are attitude, behavior, and environment. However, I’ve also found that attitude and behavior by themselves cannot overcome constant environmental inputs that make us sick or crush our souls. At some point, if we’re being poisoned on a regular basis, we have to remove the poison, or we can’t heal, let alone thrive.

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