7 Valuable Lessons I Learned Dealing With A Toxic Manager As A Highly Sensitive Person

Listen to your body; it knows more than you think.

  • Andrea Arrizza

Written on May 02, 2024

Dealing with a toxic manager as a highly sensitive person Alexander Suhorucov | Pexels
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“I’m here to help” — a reassuring phrase every employee wants to hear from their new manager, but for some reason, left me feeling uneasy. I shrugged the feeling off, convincing myself I was reading too much into it, a common tendency for highly sensitive people. Little did I realize at the time, that my highly tuned radar (aka BS detector) was lighting up for a reason.

With an air of authority, my new manager appeared competent and friendly on the surface, having everyone fooled. Yet behind closed doors, his true nature shone through. What began as a series of misunderstandings escalated into condescending remarks, blame-shifting, and sabotaging deadlines. As a master in his craft, his behavior skirted the gray area, leaving room for interpretation to exist. 

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As a highly sensitive person, the biggest mistake I made was toughing it out for far too long. Suffering in silence took a mental and physical toll on me, where heart palpitations and anxiety became my new reality. After getting the help I needed to heal, I learned some valuable lessons about dealing with a toxic manager.

Here are 7 valuable lessons I learned dealing with a toxic manager as a highly sensitive person:

1. Find out if they’re truly toxic by addressing their behavior

When you’re highly sensitive, it’s easy to take things personally and question whether you’re the problem. After all, HSPs are deeply affected by the moods and behaviors of others. Being more “sensitive” to negative traits can affect your perception. But let’s not forget: feelings aren’t always facts.

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At a young age, my mom taught me that a person’s true nature shines through when they’re put in challenging situations. A good litmus test to discover the type of manager you’re dealing with is by addressing their behavior. Despite coming as intense or demanding, a good manager will listen to your concerns to improve the situation because they want to bring out the best in you to achieve results. A truly toxic one, however, will either deny your reality (like mine did) or make you think you’re the problem all along.

RELATED: 15 Immediate Warning Signs You're Dealing With A Toxic Person

2. Listen to your body

Like clockwork, I’d experience tension headaches and heart palpitations before a weekly one-on-one meeting with my manager. Little did I realize that my body was speaking to me before my mind could connect the dots.

As a highly sensitive person, your nervous system is wired differently. Its built-in internal alarm system goes off faster than most. Causing your body to easily go into fight or flight mode. At first, I ignored the symptoms, until they grew stronger and manifested into unbearable headaches and back pain. The physical sensations may vary, but the message your body is sending you remains the same: tune in because something isn’t right.

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@isaduffyy Thank you @key.guidance for talking about this! Important for people to know they are not alone if they are experiencing this. Im usuallt hesitant to talking about this super personal stuff but i hope this helps whoever needs it! 💕 #greenscreen #greenscreenvideo ♬ Storytelling - Adriel

“An HSP or someone with sensory processing sensitivity is more emotionally and physically responsive to the self, to their environment, and their relationships with others.” — Elaine Aaron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person

Paying close attention to the physical cues it sends, will help you get to the source and discern whether it’s a cause for concern. Remember: It’s one thing to dread Mondays, it’s another to experience crippling anxiety at the thought of having a one-on-one meeting with your manager. When your body is talking, don’t ignore it, tune in to figure out what it’s trying to tell you.

RELATED: 3 Ways Your Body Is Telling You It's Time To Quit Your Job

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3. Having empathy can work against you — keep it in check by looking at the big picture

Being highly sensitive means you have empathy: the ability to share the feelings of others and understand where they’re coming from. Unfortunately, your compassionate nature can become a blind spot. In the beginning, I rationalized my manager’s behavior to all the high pressure he was under. It was only after I started turning feelings into facts by documenting his behavior that I noticed a toxic pattern emerge.

As HSPs, it’s normal to take on the emotions of others and be swayed by their frustrations or pain. To the point of making “excuses” for acting the way they do. Yet there’s a fine line between empathizing and letting a toxic behavior live on.

“It’s not your job or responsibility to fix anyone or teach them basic human decency.”  — Shahida Arabi, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People

Empathy connects others, but in the wrong hands, can be exploited and used against you. Your best defense is awareness, which when harnessed correctly turns into valuable knowledge you can use to make better predictions in the future. In other words: Seek to understand but don’t let your empathy blindside you from seeing the truth. Patterns speak volumes.

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4. Leverage your perceptive nature to document their behavior

On the surface, he was professional, spoke in corporate buzzwords, and never raised his voice. Behind closed doors, he belittled me using a neutral tone and abused his authority to nitpick my work and create a narrative that I was incompetent. It got to a point, that I couldn’t ask him a question without him spinning it to make me look bad. His behavior was cleverly disguised but as a highly sensitive person, reading between the lines and picking up on subtleties comes second nature.

“The trick is learning that your ability to pick up on nuances is an asset, not a drawback when meeting new people. Your brain’s capacity to collect and process massive amounts of information can serve you well in your decision-making process, especially when it comes to weeding out potentially toxic individuals from your life.” — Shahida Arabi, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People

In the workplace, proving subtle behaviors based on gut feelings alone isn’t enough. Facts triumph over feelings. Luckily, patterns of behavior speak volumes. It’s important to see whether your company has a harassment policy. If so, let your attention to detail shine through by documenting your manager’s behavior. Whenever they talk down to you or do something that’s “off” (like exclude you from a company-wide meeting), take note of it and proof via text or audio. Be sure to include the date as well. Over time, you’ll get the confirmation you need to raise a flag on their behavior and build your case to higher-ups if need be.

RELATED: 14 Stealth Ways To Develop Sherlock Holmes-Level Perceptiveness

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5. Avoid trying to please them, it’s a losing battle

Being highly sensitive means you care a lot about people’s well-being. To the point of putting others' needs ahead of your own, leaving you susceptible to people-pleasing.

“Many highly sensitive people struggle with people-pleasing tendencies and a penchant for codependency. We really, really want to make sure that everyone in our environment is happy — especially with us. But this is a fight we’ll never win. We simply cannot be in charge of everyone else’s emotions.” — Lauren Sapala, writer and author

For fear of disappointing my manager (and dealing with the aftermath), I took any curveball tasks he threw my way. Despite pulling my weight, it didn’t take long to realize that he was intentionally piling on the work to overwhelm me. The only way to break the people-pleasing cycle was to stop overlooking my needs to meet his own. Which meant working hard without going overboard and saying “no” to tasks that weren’t a priority. A challenging task at first, but knowing that saying yes to everything didn’t change his behavior, served as a reminder to stand my ground by setting boundaries. 

No matter how hard you try, you can’t please someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It’s a losing battle, to begin with.

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6. Don’t blame yourself for their behavior — it’s a reflection of how they feel about themselves

I spent a lot of time reflecting on why I was targeted. At first, I blamed myself and my “high sensitivity” for letting his behavior get to me. It was only after speaking to others who’ve undergone similar workplace experiences, that I realized no one is immune to toxic managers (not even those who work in HR!) because hurt people hurt people. A person’s poor behavior reflects how they feel about themselves.

An unhappy person will unleash their misery onto others, just like an insecure one will project their insecurities by putting others down, which in hindsight, made total sense seeing how I was frequently belittled in areas my manager struggled with himself. At the end of the day, you teach people how to treat you by what you are willing to endure.

RELATED: There Are Two Root Causes Of Any Toxic Work Environment And Both Have To Do With The Person In Charge

7. Get the outside help you need to protect your peace

One of the downsides of being highly sensitive is that everything affects you more deeply. In other words: the more negative the environment, the more you’ll suffer.

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When I was in the eye of the storm, my emotions were high and my energy was low. Tension headaches, back pain, and anxiety became my new reality. I couldn’t think clearly, let alone find the exit sign. Yet, sensing the injustice I was facing, toughed it out for as long as I could until I reached my breaking point.

“HSPS may be first to be bothered by an unhealthy situation in the workplace, which could make them seem like a source of trouble. But others will be affected in time, so their sensitivity can help you avoid problems later on.” — Elaine Aaron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person

Talking to a social worker helped me navigate out of the toxic situation I was in and made me realize that quitting wasn’t the only option I had. Transferring departments, taking some personal days, or seeking medical help, are all viable ways to protect your mental health. When all else fails, know when to walk away for good, because no job is worth putting your health on the line.

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The biggest lesson I learned in dealing with a toxic manager is to trust yourself. When your body is sending you warning signs through physical sensations, don’t ignore them, get curious instead. As a highly sensitive person, it’s easy to get inside your head, thinking you’re the problem. Yet, learning how to trust the “hunch” when something feels off and digging a little deeper to confirm the truth goes a long way.

As much as you can’t change your manager, you can change the environment you’re in by getting the outside help you need to get out of the toxic situation you’re in to protect your peace. Because at the end of the day, no matter how sensitive you are, no one should have to suffer in silence.

RELATED: 12 Sneaky Ways Toxic People Manipulate You — And How To Avoid It

Andrea Arrizza is a writer who explores the “human side of things” by sharing aha moments and uncomfortable truths learned along the way. 

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