“Massoma, it’s unacceptable that you’ve been coming in to work late and leaving early,” my boss said and lowered her horn-rimmed glasses to slightly above her nostrils, her eyes peering over. In her perfect pencil skirts and no-nonsense attitude, she reminded me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
I gulped. This was my annual performance evaluation for a non-profit startup where I had wanted to work and make a difference in the world, but instead, I felt deflated. I was afraid to speak, fearful that a tremble in my voice would uncover my trepidation, “I-I do all my – ”
“Optics are key. Your coworkers are complaining you’re not here when they are.” She crossed her arms and looked at me expectantly.
It’s true I would come to work late and leave early – not because I was lazy, but because I wanted to escape the workplace environment (I would make up or do more work at home). A few times, I broke down at work and started crying. I was lucky to have some supportive coworkers who were there to console me. I felt so embarrassed and annoyed that I had let myself cry at work, but I really couldn’t help it.
There was no way I could possibly discuss this with my boss. I admired her authority and presence so much, and she seemed like everything I wasn’t. People listened to her when she spoke. In contrast, I was timid and soft-spoken. I wanted to be more like her and not be pushed around by my emotions. I would get peeved by my feelings. I was almost afraid of her, and I felt it was impossible to show her my vulnerability.
She also told me some of my work wasn’t up to the standards she had. I felt like crying after the meeting, but I held it in until I got home, where I collapsed to the floor in tears. My performance evaluation gave me even more anxiety than I already felt. As a straight-A student, my poor work performance did not align with my self-image. I wanted to be the best, but I was falling short.
My anxiety followed me everywhere, including the workplace, and affected my productivity, attention span, and work quality. I felt anxious on my twenty-five-minute commute on the highway to work, and then getting on the elevator and going up to a higher floor awakened my fear of heights. My heart would race as I would try to meet deadlines, and the amount of work I had to complete was overwhelming. I would eat lunch at my desk while working – almost everybody did; it was the job culture there. I hardly took any breaks or left my desk. My workstation was messy, strewn with papers and files. You could see from my desk I was disorganized, and my mind was frantic.
Before I spoke in meetings, my hands would get cold and clammy, and my legs would shake. I would get hot and sweaty, and my mouth would become dry. I never thought it was possible to feel cold and hot simultaneously, but here I was. I would always worry about whether my work was good enough, if I was good enough if I said the right words if I sounded smart or stupid. My worries greatly impacted my performance. My anxiety hindered my growth, and my stress over my productivity made me perform poorly.
I knew I needed to make changes. I worked incredibly hard on my anxiety. This wasn’t how I wanted to live my life or how I wanted to spend my time at work. Desperately searching for some kind of “cure” for my anxiety, I started reading countless self-help books. I went to a therapist weekly. I tried cognitive behavioural therapy as well as other therapies while taking anti-anxiety medications.
All of these resources helped my anxiety, and I did start to feel better, but my anxiety was still there, lingering over me like a black cloud. I would obsessively think about how difficult my life was, and my anxiety was becoming a core part of my identity. My mind was always racing. I believed I would always have this crippling anxiety. Despite all my efforts to try to find some solution, nothing helped.
After nine years of being in therapy, being on medications, and reading many books, something finally clicked.
I finally overcame my anxiety.
Massoma Alam Chohan is a business psychologist, TEDx speaker, and the award-winning author of the #1 bestselling book on Amazon, “Take Your Lunch Break: Helpful Tips for Relieving Work-Related Stress”.
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