It’s cliché but true: the people make the culture. Love your job or hate it, the people are to blame. Unfortunately, like your family, you can’t really choose your coworkers. Unless you’re running the show, as soon as you sign that contract, you’re agreeing to spend half your waking life with these people. That’s why it’s so important to get a good read of the company culture during the interview process. Because when it comes to making your life miserable, no one does it better than a toxic boss.
Unfortunately, a toxic boss doesn’t always reveal herself during the interview process. Kind of like those first few dates, everyone plays nice and pretends to be sane and stable. It might be weeks, or even months, before you realize what kind of toxic quicksand you’ve been sucked into. By then, you’re stuck.
But wait! You’re never stuck. In life, we always have choices, even if we think we don’t. Even doing nothing is a choice. This realization can be painful, as the existentialists definitely knew, but it can also be incredibly liberating. No matter how dire your situation seems, there’s always something you can do about it. Even if right now, it’s just visualizing yourself tossing your work phone in the fountain and strutting away into the Parisian sunset, like Andy in that Devil Wears Prada scene.
To give you a little inspiration for how to deal with a toxic boss, we pulled 10 cruel and violent paintings from art history. Hopefully it goes without saying that we absolutely do not advocate for violence of any sort. These are to be used for cathartic or educational purposes only. With that, enjoy!
1) Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 1598-99)
No matter how many impossible, last minute projects she throws on your desk, do not cut off your boss’s head. Still, this painting works as a pretty good allegory for your situation. The night before the general Holofernes was about to invade her city, Judith, a beautiful widow, snuck into his tent. As he lay passed out from drinking too much, Judith cut off his head.
By flaunting her charms, Judith was able to defeat the powerful man, not just to save herself but on behalf of her whole city. Use her as your inspiration. Next time your toxic boss starts terrorizing your department, reflect on how you alert the higher-ups. Of course, it’s a delicate situation. You’re not trying to get fired, so embrace your inner Judith and get crafty. Then go forth and slay that bully.
2) Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents (1565-66)
A scene from the Dutch revolution against Spanish rule, this painting shows cruel invaders slaughtering the Dutch people on their own turf. If you’ve ever worked under toxic management, you can probably relate to the feeling. One moment you’re working as hard for you can, doing everything right. The next, management swoops in and destroys you, if not physically, then morally. As defeated as you might feel, let this painting remind you to hang in there. At the end of the war, many of the Dutch won their independence, and so will you. Eventually, one of you will have to leave, right?
3) Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808 (Execution of the Defenders of Madrid)
Here’s another toxic workplace allegory for you. You are the figure in yellow and white, surrounded by dark enemies. You’ve been standing strong on the side of virtue, defending your homeland, but it wasn’t enough. Today, you have to take one for the team and make a sacrifice for the greater good. Of course, no one’s asking you to lay down your life (if so, quit immediately!), but life may force you to make sacrifices in the present to achieve a greater aim in the future.
If your work environment is intolerable, ask yourself why you’re still there. What makes the situation worth enduring?Is it a high salary, job security, a great position on your resume, certain skills or contacts for your network? If you can come up with a good answer, let that inspire you to put up with your toxic boss stoically and proudly, like Goya’s defender of Madrid. And if not, it’s time to hand in your resignation. Remember: you don’t have to be a martyr!
4) Rembrandt, The beheading of John the Baptist (1640)
Rembrandt’s version of this famous Biblical story shows the scene in all its drama, betrayal and suffering. After John the Baptist spoke out against King Herod for divorcing his wife and illegally taking his brother’s, the king threw him in jail. Soon after, Herod executed John at the request of his new wife and her daughter. In a historical version, Herod killed John because he was gaining too much influence in the kingdom. Either way, John lost his life for speaking his truth. Let the story inspire you to stay strong against bullies, including a toxic boss, without sacrificing your integrity and your values.
5) Henri Rousseau, Jaguar Attacking a Horse (1910)
Let’s take a little break from the bloodshed with this Rousseau. According to the title, a jaguar is attacking a horse, but it could be the other way around. IMO, it actually looks like the horse is chomping down on the tiger. Even though the tiger is the predator and the horse its prey, the roles appear ambiguous, if not reversed. The moral? Don’t get stuck in the thought that your toxic boss has power over you. Even though they’re higher up on the corporate food chain, find small ways to resist, or at least protect yourself from their attacks. You’re not as helpless as you think.
Meanwhile, don’t let your toxic boss troubles give you tunnel vision. It’s easy to get sucked into a toxic thought loop that slowly takes over your whole life. But just like the jungle extends in all directions from the horse and jaguar’s fight, the universe outside of your struggle with your toxic boss is endless and enchanting. Although Rousseau made the fight the focal point of his painting, a much larger portion is devoted to lush scenery. It’s almost like he’s telling you to chill out and take a wider perspective. It might be a little hard to appreciate while a tiger is biting into your shoulder, but if you just lift your head from the fray and turn and look in the other direction, it’s amazing how much your perspective can shift.
6) Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant (XIX century)
This woodblock print by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi shows the legendary sword-saint of Japan locked in battle with a giant monster. A samurai master, Miyamoto Musashi was undefeated in 61 duels. But his record would be a lot less impressive without worthy foes, like the giant he’s slaying in this picture.
The lesson? Your enemies make you stronger. Think of yourself as Musashi, a great warrior who can smite all adversaries. But without challenges in your life, you wouldn’t get the chance to hone those fancy sword skills, right? So, next time you feel like putting a spear through your toxic boss, thank her for giving you the opportunity to get stronger.
7) Gustave Dore, Saul Attempts to Kill David (XIX century)
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s what went down. King Saul grew jealous of David, who did nothing against the King but fought bravely for Israel. Like in John the Baptist’s case, Saul probably just resented and feared the influence John had in his kingdom. One day, Saul tried to kill David as he was playing the harp. David ducked away and was saved, as you can see here in Dore’s print. But that same night, David’s wife warned him to run away, as Saul would come try to kill him again in the morning. David took her advice, and it saved his life.
Moral of the story: if someone’s really out to get you, all the good intentions in the world won’t save you. If you feel like one more day on the job might just be the end of you, it’s time to get out of there.
8) Gustave Moreau, Prince Hamlet kill King Claudius (XIX century)
We all know Hamlet, the book we pretended to read for high school English. TLDR: King Claudius killed his brother and Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet. Hamlet spends the play trying to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius. He succeeds, but not without a lot of collateral damage. Basically, Hamlet gets so obsessed with revenge that he ends up accidentally hurting a lot of innocent people along the way, including his beloved Ophelia.
The lesson? Revenge is not the answer. No matter how much your toxic boss is making your life miserable, don’t try to retaliate. For one thing, it might cost you your job, and being fired is not a good look. If you’re going to leave, leave on your own terms. But more importantly, it’s just going to make life harder for everyone. Spoiler: Hamlet isn’t super stoked by the end of the play. They call it a tragedy for a reason.
9) Albrecht Durer, Betrayal of Christ (1508)
As far as betrayal pics go, this is a pretty gnarly one. Whatever your toxic boss is doing to you, it’s probably not this bad. Unless she is literally stabbing you in the back and crucifying you, it’s definitely not this bad. Hopefully that can comfort you a little on the worst days.
10) Edvard Munch, Girl and Death (1894)
This one is even less cheerful, but I promise there’s a good lesson in here. You might feel like your toxic boss is literally sucking the life from you. But at the same time, it can’t hurt to tune into some of the little ways you might be making life harder for yourself, too. In this picture, death clutches the girl only as tightly as she grips onto death.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that you’re causing your own problems. But when you get too wrapped up in the narrative of suffering, you start to cling to it. In a weird way, you might even start to enjoy it a little—at least it gives you something to bitch about to your friends at happy hour, right? It can easily turn into a contest of who’s more stressed, whose boss is meaner, whose hours are longer… you get it. You end up kind of like this girl, holding on to the things that make you miserable.
If that sounds a bit out there, here’s a little experiment you can try.
For one day, decide to pretend like you have the best boss in the world. From the moment you wake up, repeat the affirmation: “I have the best boss in the world,” or, “I love my boss,” or, “my boss is wonderful and compassionate.” You get the idea. Watch carefully how it affects your behavior. If you can really get into a positive mindset towards your boss, it might catch her off-guard and even help her shift out of her toxic state.
For example, if you usually duck into the bathroom when your boss walks through the door, try greeting her with a big smile and ask her how she’s doing. The trick is, this has to be genuine or it won’t work. That’s what the affirmation is for. She might just glare at you suspiciously and ask where her coffee is, but on the inside, she might soften a little. You won’t know until you try.
Toxic people are usually toxic because they’re suffering. Or they’re suffering because they’re toxic. Chicken and egg. Either way, by showing your boss a little kindness, you can lead by example and break the death grip of toxicity that you’re both trapped in.
Text by Katya Lopatko.
Images via @gayvapeshark, WikiArt.