by Shannon Cohen
Prolific artist, activist and musician Nina Simone, known for her poignant and justice-laced lyrics, once said, “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.” When we experience unrelenting toxicity in relationships, why do we stay? Why do we hunker down and root ourselves in places that continually hurt and injure us?
I can’t judge. There have been times where I stayed in toxic work environments and perpetually wounding relationships much too long. We all know what it’s like to remain in a place where love is not only gone, but even thinking love used to reside there seems comical. As I look over my life, my 20s are a blur because I stayed in leadership roles and spaces too long out of fear of disappointing other people, fear of failure, fear of speaking truth to power, or fear of brand and reputation.
When you stay in a place where love used to be and now is gone, it is like a baby staying in prenatal incubation beyond the appointed time. What used to be the womb can quickly become a tomb. The same place that used to be the womb – an incubator of nurturing, support, and life – can easily become your burial site. Are you inflicting pain upon yourself because you keep trying to resurrect love from a now defunct and dry place?
One weekend, a friend sent me a series of emails. She was battling injustice in the workplace and the battle was wrought with years and layers of dispute resolution, legal investigations, allegations, power dynamics and distrust. She was writing to ask my advice and support as she prepared to launch another assault against a system that seemed stacked against her. She had hunkered down in this toxic space, becoming so encumbered in her pain and anger that she couldn’t even see the true root cause of her anguish. The pain from her job was consuming her life, her conversations and her relationships. The toxicity was spreading to every aspect of her identity. As I crafted a message in support of her, I didn’t address the job. I asked her two questions: “With the fight you have left in the midst of such pain and anguish, is the best focal point retaliation? Could you better use your energy on your own restoration?”
Our words about our work life can be such critical indicators of the toxicity of the environment. No work environment is perfect. As long as human beings exist and gather, fallibility will always be present. But there are work environments that become completely toxic to you and your well-being. It is hard to thrive, focus, and be well in a place where hurt routinely occurs. Sometimes the best way to ignite the restorative process is with the sound of your feet leaving tables where love is no longer being served.
Tough Skin, Soft Heart Truth
Tough Skin: I will take inventory of the toxicity in my life. Are there areas of my own character, personality, and attitude that I need to change? Could these internal changes help yield the external changes I desire to see? Are there relationships and settings in my life that have become toxic? Am I on an overextended stay in a toxic environment?
Soft Heart: I will connect with sound, wise counsel within my inner circle to help me assess the toxicity in my life. I will be open to the honest feedback of those who love me and know me best. I will not languish in dead spaces by trying to resurrect love where it is no longer being served.
Excerpt from Shannon Cohen’s book, “Tough Skin, Soft Heart: A Leadership Book About Growing Stronger, Better, and Wiser” [2018, Splattered Ink Press] Available at shannoncohen.com
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