Well-Being//

How to Navigate Unexpected Work Anxiety

We're calling it "The Pit" — but you don't have to be stuck inside it.

Tetra Images/Getty Images
Tetra Images/Getty Images

You’ve just proposed what you think is a crazy idea to your boss. The next day, you get an email that says, “sounds interesting. I have a few questions–talk later this week?” If you’re rational, you’d take this as a good sign and look forward to your conversation. After all, she said the idea was interesting.

But how often has your immediate reaction been something more like the below?

  • Uh-oh…  my boss actually hates the idea. She’s just trying to be polite.
  • This response is so short and matter-of-fact that it’s clear my boss didn’t actually sit down and read the proposal.
  • The first letter in the email isn’t capitalized. This clearly isn’t important enough for her to take seriously.
  • …I did something wrong, didn’t I?

Sound familiar? Feel familiar? That stomach-dropping second-guessing of yourself and your abilities? It’s easy to spiral down to what I call “The Pit” in a moment like this. An innocuous email from your boss when she was rushing through emails waiting in line for coffee has you convinced that your ideas are worthless. You start analyzing every little detail of the e-mail, poring through it for clues that maybe you don’t deserve this job after all.

I think of The Pit as that feeling when you feel like you have thousands of thousands of miles to go, but you’re stuck in a hole. Your inner critic is on fire — you’re a horrible employee, you forgot something really big and you don’t know what it is, your performance at work isn’t up to par — and it burns. Doubt is your soundtrack and fear is your sustenance. It’s the sensation that you’re teetering along the edge of a sheer cliff with flailing arms, the whole world watching and waiting to see when you fall. Stressful, no?

We all have moments like this — whether it’s in our professional lives or our personal lives. The most important thing to do to reset your thinking is to first recognize that you’re in The Pit. Label this feeling — “I’m in The Pit” and acknowledge that you’re not going to do your most rational thinking until you get out of it.

Next, look for ways to reach steady ground again. Don’t underestimate the power of just taking some time away. Tear yourself away from trying to decipher if that stray word meant what you think it meant, and change the scene around you. Take a short walk, a snack break or put your mind to another task.

One of the best ways to get out of The Pit is to seek out the company of those you know will support you no matter what. Sending a text message to a friend or a family member can go a long way when it comes to stabilizing your thinking. Don’t be afraid to ask a mentor or friend to sit down with you and work through the giant balloon of stress you’re feeling. Their more distant perspective on the matter can often provide steady grounding and help you realize that no matter what, you are respected and cared for, and that maybe is another way to look at the situation that is far less doomsday-esque.

Another useful tactic is to remind yourself of your strengths. What have people praised you about in the past? Are you reliable? Consistent? Curious? Trying hard? Collect all of the positive evidence that you can to calm your mind’s belief that you’ve somehow lost all of that credibility. (I keep a journal called “nice things people have said” that I keep up to date for those moments when I need a little reminder that I’m actually good at some things.)

Finally, remind yourself that this feeling of self-doubt is only temporary. Sometimes we forget that the point of having a career is to grow. So let’s say you did make a mistake — or there is some kind of issue you’ll have to deal with — ask yourself, “Is there anyone in the world who has never made a mistake before?” (Hint: No.) In fact, there’s no one in the world who hasn’t been in the Pit before either. Even all the people you idolize. Actively work to give The Pit and your inner critic less power, and you will feel it quieting down.

Managing the ups and down of an emotional rollercoaster from its highest point where you’re on top of the world down to The Pit is something everyone struggles with. What’s most important is being able to recognize that moment, label it, and work to move past it. And remember, actively working to shift your mindset in that moment takes practice. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised. So the next time you’re in The Pit, think to yourself, “This is great exercise.”

Julie Zhuo is one of Silicon Valley’s top product design executives. She leads the teams behind some of the world’s most popular mobile and web services used by billions of people every day. She is the author of “The Making of a Manager,” a field guide to management.

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