Laura* is a driven woman in her late 30s. She has climbed up the career ladder, is successful in her job, has great friends and enjoys amazing holidays abroad. On paper, everything looks perfect in her life, but she carries a secret that she has only shared with few people. Laura describes herself as a “worrier”. At times she has almost paralysing anxiety and there are days when she struggles to make it to work. No one knows about the level of anxiety and infrequent panic attacks in her life. She worries about many things in her life, such as whether she will be able to perform in her job, and how she is perceived by others and whether she will be able to find a partner as ultimately she would like to have what many of her friends have a meaningful relationship.
Ben* is in his early 40s and a father of two. He’s worked for the past 20+ years and had a fairly successful career, but whatever he achieves at work he doesn’t feel satisfied with it and always worries that people will find out that he is not competent to do his job. This stress as he calls it is also impacting his family life with his wife, and he seems to be constantly on edge.
Did something that you read about Laura or Ben’s stories resonate with you? Perhaps you feel like many other professional people: as if they are living a double life. Are you driving for perfection at work and struggle with worry and anxiety that is holding you back both professionally and in your private life? Many professional people, who have achieved positions that other’s would consider as a highly respected, struggle to recognise their own merits and the effort they have put into reaching positions where they are respected and trusted, and for some this lack of belief in themselves is also holding them back in life. Although externally it seems that they have everything going for them, deep down many professional people are struggling with excessive worry and anxiety behind closed doors.
This post focuses on looking at anxiety, particularly in relation to working life, what might contribute to it, how to recognise the signs of a burnout and how to find joy in life again if worry and anxiety are ruining your life.
“The big secret”
Does the lipstick you put on in the morning or the suit you wear offer you a shield from the outside world and hide the anxiety and perhaps even panic attacks? Many professional people fear that someone might find out one day that they are not as confident and competent as it seems on the outside. This is called the imposter syndrome. Deep down you may fear that soon enough someone will come and tell you that you are not good enough and your employer will discover that you are not delivering.
Having some anxiety can enhance your performance, it is very common and a part of everyday life, but it can be exhausting having to worry about everything all the time. It may feel shameful to experience this level of worry and not being on the inside the confident person on the outside. You would be surprised to know how many there are in your position.
Internally your inner child may feel like a lost little girl or a boy looking for reassurance and you feel that your worth as a person is tied up to the success of your career. Remember: you are valuable as a person even without the career and the success, they don’t define you as a person.
Impact of a family background and past experiences on excessive worry and anxiety
Many successful, high achieving people grew up in families where succeeding at work or school was considered as desirable and parents encouraged obtaining good grades. There might have been pressure to either openly or in subtle terms to earn love and acceptance by succeeding. Perhaps you had a critical parent and you felt that the only way to earn the parent’s acceptance was through being successful initially at school and later on at work.
As disappointing and upsetting it is, often with a critical parent, no matter what you do earns their approval. What you can do is to accept that you cannot change them and protect yourself from their negativity. You can, for example, use visualisation to imagine having a protective shield, which is only permissible for love and care. Imagine what the shield would look life: its texture, thickness, colour and so on. Sometimes you may have to distance yourself from a shaming parent if their behaviour is continuously contributing to your anxiety levels.
Tip. If you notice at work that you are particularly worried about, for example, working with a particular person, notice your bodily experience, your felt sense, as you are in their presence. Reflect on if you have ever experienced a similar feeling in your past. It could be that this person is reminding of someone in your past who was critical of you or even abusive. Understanding this link may relieve some of the anxiety.
Detachment from feelings and emotional experiences:
Growing up perhaps you learned that you have to hide away your feelings because they were not acknowledged or accepted in your family (Childhood emotional neglect). In business being focused on the task and being emotionally disengaged may help you to make even difficult decisions, but at the same time finding it difficult to recognise your emotional states may increase your anxiety levels. You may also end up making decisions which do not consider your emotional needs, which in the long-term might contribute to your anxiety levels. On the other hand, emotional awareness and having compassion helps to build great relationships at work and feel supported.
Perfectionism – Danger of burn out
Often at work aiming for perfection pays off. However, in the long run, driving for perfection contributes to your anxiety levels and being self-critical when we do not meet our targets can eventually lead to burn out. You may have certain rules for your living such as “I have to be perfect to deserve love, I should be….”. These put a lot of pressure on you and will contribute to your worry and anxiety levels. If you feel like you are running yourself into the ground, it is time to do something about it and seek support. Watch out for these signs of burnout:
- Sleeping difficulties (struggling to sleep or sleeping too much)Difficulties with eating (lack or appetite or comfort eating, binging & purging)
- Difficulties with eating (lack or appetite or comfort eating, binging & purging)Anxiety and/or depression
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Physical symptoms (e.g. stomach pains, headaches)
- Physical symptoms (e.g. stomach pains, headaches)
- Confusion and memory problems
- Becoming emotionally detached and cynical
- Sudden bursts of anger and/or bursting into tears
- Failing to enjoy activities that previously brought joy
- Isolating and avoiding socialising
If you recognised having several of the signs of burnout, it is important to seek support for yourself.
How can you help yourself to find joy in life:
- Deep breathing – One of the quickest ways of calming yourself is practising deep breathing. Focus on the exhale and aim to exhale as long as possible and then you have to compensate to inhale deep too.
- Switch off the work mode and be present in your free time – In the era of a constant access, being always available to everyone else can increase a sense of being out of control and not being able to choose when to be available, and lead to worry. Switch off and leave the guilty feeling behind.
- Learn to have balance in your life and make room for engaging in interests and activities outside of work – Is there something new that you would like to try?
- Relax without technology – Watching Netflix may not be as relaxing as you had hoped for, take a mindful walk instead in nature and focus on all your sensory experiences.
- Let go of being a perfectionist and learn about what is “good enough” for you
- Challenge your rules for living, “should – statements”
- Learn to be self-compassionate (Kirsten Neff, 2017)– an antidote for your “inner critic”
- Be your own best friend – How would a good friend support you during difficult times?
- Acknowledge that imperfection and failures are part of being human
- Become mindful & value your feelings – they are ALL important
- Learn to embrace vulnerability – allow supportive, non-shaming people to get close to you and know who you really are
- Identify reasons for being grateful in your life
- Seek support – There is no shame is seeking support, whether it is from family and friends or from professionals. All of us need support from others from time to time.
The aim of this blog post was to highlight some of the difficulties relating to struggles of many people who externally may seem to have it all going for them and offer some ways of finding joy in life again.
If you would like to find joy in your life again, take a look at my specialty pages. I would love to help you experience joy and live a wholehearted life.
Neff, K. (2017). www.self-compassion.org