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How to Survive and Thrive in a Stressful Toxic Work Environment

The first step to success is learning how to embrace a positive self-image.

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My first job out of college was as a financial advisor at a large international brokerage. On my first day, my new boss walked up to me with his hand outstretched, and I reached mine out to meet it. But his hand continued past mine and reached for my tie. He flipped it over, inspected the brand and looked me in the eye.

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"Not good enough."

He'd do this from time to time, slyly looking over my choice of clothing to make sure it was expensive and trendy enough to meet his company standard and impress our clients. Over time, this had a horribly negative effect on my self-image, creating anxiety that I still work on to this day. I felt that if my car wasn't clean enough or if my clothes weren't new enough, my clients would think less of me and my results would suffer.

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This is an example of something I call a weak "me." Your "me" is your inner security that dictates every single one of your behaviors. We create these centers of inner security around everything in our lives: our job, our boss, our family, our peers, our culture. If my inner "me" was stronger than my boss when he flipped my tie, I would've let that interaction roll right off my back. Instead, because it was weaker, I let him install a leash on my way of thinking about myself that took time and effort to remove.

Healthy self-image vs. inflated ego

When I ask people how strong their "me" is in a certain area in their lives, they always tend to get a little uncomfortable. As a society, we tend to attach the concept of having a strong sense of self to having an inflated ego. But ego and sense of self are two entirely different things.

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Your ego is just your outer confidence. It's not who you are, it's merely what you project. Your sense of self -- your "me" -- is your inner security. Your "me" is your inner confidence that's filled with the stories you tell yourself about your own worthiness and capability. Stories that either build you up or tear you down. When you're passed over that promotion at work, it's the weak inner voice telling you, "You're not good enough to have that job." When you see something out of line with a peer's behavior, it's the strong inner voice screaming, "You need to have a tough conversation and sort this out."

Turn your weakness into strength.

Knowing what's stopping your growth is the first step to creating a "me" that becomes stronger than whatever you're up against. To replace weakness with strength, try this method:

  1. Write out a specific workplace scenario when you felt weak, and in what specific area you felt personally weak. This might have been an interaction with a peer or your boss or something that happened while working on a project or in a meeting.
  2. Close your eyes and insert a replacement picture of a stronger version of you. Draw from a time in your life when you felt strong. What did you do at that moment that made you feel strong? What is different about that picture now, as opposed to what happened in reality?
  3. Commit to making this your new picture of that moment. The next time you experience that weak feeling in that particular area, use that stronger picture of yourself to accomplish what you want to achieve. Repeat this process for any area of weakness you experience.

Let your inner voice win the argument.

The bottom line is that your inner stories need to be louder than the stories coming from the outside. That doesn't mean you never listen to other people, but it does mean you have such a strong sense of inner security that your identity is planted in concrete, not sand.

Weakness can also be a major problem for bosses and managers. I've seen it many times in my coaching career. I once saw a manager who had such a complex about his employees out-performing him that he would purposely take credit for their work. If he took the time to strengthen his inner "me" around his team, he'd quickly realize that he had a weakened sense of his own worth as a coach. In reality, it was his contributions as a coach that led his employees' positive results. By denying them the joy of success, he was denying himself his own progress. Again, that's a weak "me" problem, and it can be extremely damaging to your progress.

The key is not to let others' model for the world become more powerful than the model you want to create for your own life. That, above everything else, is why your "me" must be stronger than anything else.

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