Mia is in a panic. She’s been offered a new job. It's a great role, a step up in exposure and responsibility, but after a series of major life changes she’s unsure if it’s the right move, and can’t get her head clear to think.
Anxiety has always been a problem. Mia’s smart, capable, well liked, respected. She’s performed strongly in every role, better than she ever anticipated, transferring academic expertise into technical practice and management. As a result she's been given steadily increasing responsibility. But at the prospect of each progression Mia experiences crippling doubts about her capabilities, unable to shake the sense that she’ll be found out as a fraud. Now, with the new offer, the anxiety is back.
Imagery can be incredibly helpful in understanding emotions. “Describe it to me,” I say. “Where do you feel it, what’s it like?” There’s a block in her chest, Mia says. A weight, a rock, tightness. As she focuses on it, it morphs. It feels like it’s expanding, she says, buzzing, getting louder until it drowns everything out. It’s like a swarm of bees around her head, trapping her so she can’t move, can’t see out. All she wants is for it to stop. To have quiet, calm, peace.
She looks at me, worried. “When I get like this I feel like I need to stop everything, cancel everything, have nothing in the diary at all, so that I can cope. I can’t take that job, I can’t do anything.” I tell her she's doing brilliantly. Exploring it like this is tough, but hugely valuable. We stay with the image. “It’s like they’re all around me,” she says. “Saying ‘what about this, what about that, worry worry worry’. They won’t stop long enough for me to deal with.”
“So let’s listen to them,” I say. “Tell them to get in line; form a queue, and we’ll listen.” The levity helps. Mia smiles at the idea – not just a swarm of worry bees, but a queue of them. Laughter trumps anxiety every time. Then we let them come.
There are many. Worries about the team, the procedures, the culture, the space, security, hours, contracts, childcare - myriad things to think about. Most are perfectly sound questions or concerns. A few are brilliantly absurd, sneaking in with the swarm to make us laugh out loud.
But taking them individually allows Mia the space to see them for what they are, to absorb, process, respond. She has to think, certainly – they are taxing questions – but her responses come readily and they are clear, informed, considered. For most she finds she has answers: options, strategies, things to put in place. For others she has important queries to raise, things her prospective employers need to think about and probably haven't, which is exactly why they've sought her. As we progress her proficiency is clear; she grows calmer, her voice firmer, her posture more relaxed.
“You’re brilliant at this,” I say. “All of these are great things to be thinking about. You just needed the bees to calm down and line up.” She laughs wryly. “I’m almost starting to look forward to it now,” she says. “Maybe… maybe I’m quite good at it after all.”
Anxiety can be crippling in its intensity, but although the feelings are real that doesn’t mean that the fears at their base are necessarily accurate or reliable. Still, we can’t think clearly or make decisions in the midst of overwhelm.
If the big picture is too much it can usually be broken down into smaller pieces and examined one by one. The important thing here is no judgement, no feeling of what 'should' be ok; make them as small as need be until they’re manageable. Finding a funny side can help too – when we laugh we’re not scared, and when we’re not scared we can think clearly again.
Tell your bees to get in line so you can deal with them, and get back to your brilliant best.
Produced with full client permission, names changed.
Most professionals work too much and live too little. I help people to reset, reenergise and take action, so they reach the goals and fulfilment they really want, personally and professionally.
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Photo credit: Kat Jayne @kat.loves.steve