One moment you’re elated and the next you’re in a deep depression. You constantly swing between certainty and uncertainty. Your behavior is erratic, and you can’t break out of unhealthy patterns.
These are all qualities of love-hate relationships. Whether a friendship, a romantic bond, a family dynamic, or a job, love-hate relationships can ruin our lives, even if temporarily. Because at their core is a contradiction—you love something that you should hate, or you hate something you think you should love.
This is a perfect storm that leads to unhealthy dependence and unhappiness.
Why are we drawn to love-hate relationships?
As with any unhealthy habit, the reasons we are drawn to these up-and-down relationships are complex. San Francisco–based psychologist Sara Yap says, “Many times these issues stem from what we value as well as what we perceive we should value. And should is a keyword here because this means that these values may have been implicitly or explicitly reinforced, whether by society, culture, family, or other important influences (for example, your partner should be attractive; you should go to an “elite” school; you should work for a Fortune 500).
There might be a conflict between what intrinsically is of importance to you versus what is of extrinsic importance. And this gets muddled because these areas may often overlap.”
That overlap is hard to navigate. In fact, studies have shown that the same area of the brain is activated when we love someone or hate someone, muddling things even further.
But particularly related to love-hate relationships with a job, Yap says, “What often keeps people in these situations (granted, if it isn't socioeconomic, which is a very real issue—some people simply cannot leave their job because of the socioeconomic ramifications) is the fear of making a choice and the fear of making the wrong decision.”
Uncertainty, dependence, and fear are clearly linked to maintaining an unhealthy relationship.
Existential phenomenological psychotherapist Victoria Venturella, whose work focuses on how our past experiences guide our behaviors, says, “People are drawn to people that may be bad for them due to feelings of familiarity and their sense of self-worth. Experience is held in the body, and we have unconscious responses to everything in our everyday life. Unconsciously, one may feel more attracted to someone who makes them feel like they always have, even if it is a toxic comfort.”
Venturella also says that people may stay at an unhealthy job because they feel they have to stick it out no matter what. “They may fear the unknown. They may not even know what else they would do. They may feel needed at their job, even if they are undervalued and treated poorly, because this is how they may have been treated their entire life.”
These are not easy issues to sift through. But if you think you may be in a job that’s toxic, here are five warning signs. Then, we’ll cover what you can do to move forward.
5 signs you’re in a love-hate relationship with your job
1. You can’t break out of a pattern
One of the first signs of a love-hate relationship—career, emotional, or otherwise—is the recognition of a pattern you can’t seem to get out of, despite dedicated effort. You’re experiencing intense highs and lows at your job, one moment thrilled with an accomplishment and the next depressed and drained. The roller coaster cycle can be exhausting and a clear signal that something needs to change.
2. Work is all you think about
Sometimes, you may just simply hate your job. This is less complex because you already know you need out and that you’re unhappy. But a love-hate relationship of any kind brings in that other component, often in the form of unhealthy obsession. When work is all you think about, whether or not you’re physically there, those thoughts can quickly lead you to believe you love your job and that you couldn’t function without it.
These are extremely confusing feelings. But they are precisely what drives a love-hate relationship. When you are no longer concerned about your work-life balance and you’ve made work your entire life, you’re going to experience negative impacts on your other relationships, your hobbies, your values, and potentially your career in the long run.
3. You are constantly justifying your job
Pay attention to how much you’re talking about work and how you’re talking about it. Trying to convince others (and in the process, yourself) that the job has value, even though you work terrible hours or have a terrible boss or feel bad about yourself every day, means that you’re trying to justify your choice to stay. In a healthy job relationship, you won’t have to justify the time you put into it, or at least not very often.
4. Your job is impacting your relationships
When you’re in an unhealthy romantic partnership, your friends and family are often the first ones to point out that something is wrong. Maybe they’ve seen an unhealthy change in your behavior, or your only priority is your lover and you’re neglecting other important responsibilities.
The same can be true for an unhealthy work relationship. Are you avoiding your friends and family? Have they commented on your work hours or stress level? Are they worried about you? If so, chances are it’s time to reevaluate.
5. You don’t see light at the end of the tunnel
If you’re questioning your job or experiencing the aforementioned roller coaster on the regular, one reason could be that there’s no clear way out. You don’t see any room for advancement in the near future, and your position doesn’t really help you reach your long-term career goals. One thing you may be justifying to yourself is that the job is fine for now, and you can worry about your plans later. But these circumstances aren’t going to leave you fulfilled.
Read more: How to Grow When You Have Nowhere to Go
How to get out of a toxic job
If you find yourself in a love-hate relationship with your job, there are steps you can take right now to break the cycle, starting with self-evaluation and focused goal-setting.
Yap suggests taking time to reflect on what exactly feels toxic. “Is it the relationship you have with your manager? Is it problems with your coworkers? Are you not being recognized for your work? Are you feeling unfulfilled? Whatever it is, do some deep diving to really reflect upon why it is you are feeling this situation is toxic.”
“Sometimes the move is literally leaving the job. Sometimes leaving a toxic job isn't the most viable option for many people, especially in times of COVID, so taking a deep dive at your values and what your intrinsic needs are can be a helpful start.”
Once you can assess what feels toxic, create goals for yourself that will help you feel better aligned with the daily work you’re doing. This could mean changing career paths, talking to your manager, or building up experience on the side so you still have a paycheck while you shift your focus.
Venturella recommends breaking the cycle by looking inward and focusing on what you really want, while also recognizing that you are separate from your job.
“Something needs to shift in the way you identify with yourself in the world. You are not your job, you are human.”
About our sources
Sara Yap (she/her) is a licensed clinical psychologist and a clinical manager at Lyra Health, a mental health startup focusing on improving access to high quality, evidence based, mental health care. Prior to her time at Lyra Health, she was a staff psychologist at UC Berkeley's integrative behavioral health program and provided mental health care to student populations who traditionally have had limited access to mental health care. She is social justice oriented and specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship concerns and working with the LGBTQIA+ community.
Victoria Venturella is a licensed mental health counselor who provides psychotherapy from an Existential Phenomenological approach in Seattle, Washington. She helps people learn to live with the unknowns of life to reduce anxiety, grapple with one’s finite nature, exercise their freewill, live authentically, cultivate presence, and reach their fullest potential. Victoria has built an online presence via Instagram @centralpurposetherapy where she creates daily word magnet formations and videos that provoke agency in others to live authentically.