How I Walked Away from a Toxic Work Relationship to Redefine Success and Reset My Life

I was in a toxic relationship. You know the kind, full of drama, where you drink too much, sell your soul, keep lying to yourself that it will get better. Where you put in all your time and energy to get no real appreciation. The kind that eats away at your self-worth.

My relationship was my job, and in place of love I was seeking success, in the flawed way I had come to define it. Years of my life were spent slaving away at dysfunctional marketing agencies, one in particular was quite the chaotic cut – throat shit show. There were days at 5 p.m. I would realize I hadn’t eaten lunch, was severely dehydrated with coffee and wine having been my only beverages consumed, that I had held my pee for over two hours running from one meeting or fire drill to the next. I would wake up in a panic to check my emails from our client, Hurricane Molly as she was fondly known at the agency, who sent us absurd demands or notes of disapproval in the middle of the night. Our culture still wreaked of the mad men era – Jameson before meetings to cope with crazy clients, hook-ups with clients or co-workers, people throwing each other under the bus and slamming conference room doors as they stormed out. I had full blown screaming matches with my copywriter where I was ruthless, either you cut it or get out.

I embraced the insanity of it all, burning the candle at both ends, first one in last one out, many nights working past midnight along with all-nighters and weekends spent on power point presentations. I rose fast through the ranks for my age, it was a small company but I was named employee of the year and given a lot of responsibility that I knew was helping build my resume. My job title, salary and constant busyness was part of the surface level picture I had painted of what success should be. You can’t be successful unless your stressed out, burnt out and overworked right? Deep down I knew how insane that was yet that is what I had witnessed my whole life growing up.

I distinctly remember one morning when my siblings and I went downstairs as kids and saw my mother making pancakes, our jaws dropped. This NEVER happened. She was a notorious night owl, never up at that hour unless she was already gone for early morning meetings. My mom was a bad ass. The first woman Senior Vice President of her department at one of the top global ad agencies. She was a real trailblazer but she paid the price for her success. She was only up that morning because she had worked through the night and had not gone to bed yet, this became a regular occurrence at her job and only got worse over the years.   

As a kid I would stay up late with my mom in her office as she created presentations and poured over data. I was in awe as she practiced her presentations with me and we talked about brands. What made Gap cool (do you remember the mellow yellow ads?!) or how her research showed Secret deodorant was about to be pummeled by Dove.  I admired her intelligence, work ethic and creativity, to me she was the epitome of success. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood how much of her life she sacrificed for her career. She wasn’t able to have much of a social life or any other interests, her time was dedicated to work or to us kids and there were many things with us she had to miss out on. When she later became the sole provider for us three kids she didn’t feel she had a choice to leave what had become a prison of sorts.

Looking back on it, the most pitiful part was that I wore the title of a workaholic like a badge of honor. I fed into the glorification of busy, the “I can do it all” mentality. I had a sense of pride that I was the lead on the most demanding client and always hustling to the point my co-workers said they knew when I was coming from the sound of my heels half running through the agency always on a mission. I was respected and had a reputation for being one of the best at what I did, strategic, able to cope with the stress, dedicated to a fault. The demands of the job gave me a false sense of purpose in my life along with an ego boost. My friends, family and previous mentors outside of work also commended me, many saying they always thought I was destined for VP stature in a company some day, just like my mom was.

It took years and hitting some real lows to realize just how toxic my relationship was and deranged I had become. Even though I was getting promoted with small pay bumps and overall making a good salary for my age, I wasn’t earning the dollars for the extra blood sweat and tears that I was putting in. The “reward” for doing well was getting more work, more clients, bigger projects. I was working like a dog for someone else’s dream.

It started to take its toll on me and my health was deteriorating. I tried to quite smoking on more than one occasion but would cave once the stress at work became high, finding myself on cigarette breaks with my co-workers to take the edge off. The lack of sleep, drinking culture and occasional pop of Adderall to boost my productivity was only perpetuating the serious anxiety issues that were starting to surface.

I finally woke up and got clarity, I could hear myself screaming get out of this abusive relationship now! In hindsight that voice had started manifesting long ago, I just didn’t want to listen. There was a part of me that had crystalized this as success in my mind because I had been so proud of my mom, but another part of me that had always defied this as success because I saw what it did to her and our family. I could see how much my mother sacrificed for her career that in the end didn’t leave her fulfilled. She loved what she did, true loved it and was spectacular at it but the obscene workload and company politics ruined the joy she once had and eventually crushed her spirit.

I was always the one who had the dream of being an entrepreneur, of helping people, of using my creativity. Where had it gone? There was some real cognitive dissonance going on. I glorified and detested the same definition I had of success. I can see now how it was a constant battle within myself, a war I didn’t even realize was going on.

I asked myself was this really the life I wanted? Working to no end for someone else’s financial gain? Climbing up the corporate ladder in a career I didn’t even like all that much?

The problem was I had intertwined my self-worth and identity with my job for so long it was hard to untangle it all.

I slowly started to uncover the unconscious beliefs I was holding in my mind.

I believed to be worthy of success you had to sell your soul and work harder than everyone else.

I believed it had to be hard.  

 I believed the stressed-out hustler overachiever was who I was.

 I believed that “success” was what would fuel a big part of my happiness and fulfillment.

 I believed my career was the only real thing I had going for me in my life.

 I believed this was what I wanted.

I took a hard look at my beliefs and decided this is what I knew for sure:

1. Being burnt out, unhealthy and miserable was NOT going to be an option anymore. What was the point of being successful if I felt like this? It seems obvious to me now, but feeling like this actually meant that I WASN’T successful! I had bought into the idea that unless things were terribly hard, miserable and stressful then you didn’t deserve success, you weren’t worthy and it wouldn’t stick around.

2. I would not define myself or my self-worth by my job or any one area of my life. There are two things women use most to define themselves, their relationship and/or their job. Both are complete crap. What matters most is who I am as a person, the good I do in the world, my character and the love I give to others. My job was only one part of me.

3. I didn’t have anything to prove to anybody. I didn’t have to meet other people’s expectations of me, or my younger self’s expectations of me or define success in the way others did. I could climb my way up the ladder, chase titles and money, I could hack it, but goddamnit I didn’t want to hack it anymore!

4. I had to be brave enough to dream again, to admit to myself what I truly wanted in life. I believed this was what I wanted because that’s what younger me wanted. I believed this was what I wanted because it was easy to believe. I was too afraid to let myself dream anymore, to let myself believe my life could be different on so many levels. I had conditioned myself to simmer down my dreams, to feel it was a luxury I didn’t have.

5. I had to redefine what success meant for me. As I took a step back I realized a successful career did not mean a successful life. Achieving success doesn’t mean anything unless you like your definition of success. What did success look like for my life? I had spent so much time laser focused on my resume virtues I had lost complete touch with my eulogy virtues, the ones that mattered most.

At the time walking away from that whole life seemed impossible. But that whole life no longer fit with who I was, it never really did. I was viewing my future from the lens of my past, I needed to create my future from my future, from my possibility. So I walked away, not just out the door but across the country from Chicago to San Francisco to reset my life. And reset I did.