What’s it like to be generally anxious and second-guess yourself all the time? For two co-workers with high-functioning anxiety, their inner monologues are riddled with past and present self-doubt. Here is the story of how they found their worry twin in each other.
I wrote an email the other day. Actually, it was a reply to someone else’s email. Upon reflection, the simple task presented a flurry of goals I suddenly felt the need to accomplish: be succinct, sound smart, be clear, include appropriate background and context, provide a summary should the recipient not have enough time to read and watch every attachment, just to name a few. The cycle of writing went, as it usually does, something like: write, re-read, delete, fret, write, delete, proofread, proofread again, fret.
As if writing the email was not a feat in itself, getting it ready and perfected for the send button was an equally daunting effort. I read, iterated, spell checked, and agonized over word choice because after the fear of inadvertently sending an email to the entire company, sending an email that doesn’t make sense or contains spelling errors would certainly be next.
When I felt ready, I held my breath, and pressed “send”. It ends there, right? Wrong. I sat hunched in my chair, my face inches from my computer screen, continuing to re-read my email. How would they perceive my email? What would they think of my words? Would they notice the care I had put into it? Was I clear enough? Wait, did the attachments go through? Let me check. Okay, good, the attachments are there. OMG what if I had accidentally left them out? The horror. Should I have written it differently? Did I leave out any critical information? Will they reply? This went on for some time, until I realized that two hours had passed.
Yesterday, I spent what felt like my entire afternoon composing a thorough yet concise, humble yet confident email to an executive, providing him with a status update and a request. After getting it edited and reviewed by my manager and my manager’s manager, then re-reading it about 20 times myself, I was ready to send it this morning. But just to make sure, I checked the recipients list, weighed the pros and cons of ending my second sentence with an exclamation point instead of a period, decided on using a period, stepped away to make tea, flipped back to an exclamation point, and checked the recipients list again to make sure it hadn’t changed since I last touched it (it hadn’t). I don’t know how long this whole process took or why it made my hands so sweaty, but I do know that two minutes ago, I finally — finally! — sent that email.
Now, with an awkward block of meeting-free time ahead of me, I turn to my inbox to start whittling down unread emails. My heart rate has just nearly returned to normal when all of a sudden my unread count jumps up by one and my heart rate jumps exponentially with it. The executive has already replied.
I take a short breath (deep breathing is not in my wheelhouse) and open the thread. “Sounds good. Will do,” he says. Oh, to reply that effortlessly! With a sigh of relief, I return to my inbox to read the rest of my unread emails and inevitably agonize over how to respond to each one.
I plug in my headphones, turn my microphone off, and join the video call for a design review meeting. There are quite a few people here and I double-check to make sure I’m still muted before I take a big slurp of tea. Yep, still muted.
Emma, a designer on my team, begins a polished, insightful presentation of her work. (Gosh, I wish I could make slide decks as dynamic as hers.) As she shares early research and design explorations, she answers our colleagues’ questions with ease. I kind of want to ask a follow-up question, but I’m nervous; I so rarely speak up in these meetings. Should I? I try to formulate something articulate in my head while we’re still on topic. My hand is shaking as I hover my cursor over the Unmute button. Does this question make any sense? Have I missed the moment to ask it? I finally gain the courage to unmute myself and spit out a frenzied jumble of words, right as Emma’s transitioning into a whole new section of slides.
I definitely missed the moment.
That question made no sense. And why did I start it with “Have you considered…”? I was going for engaged and inquisitive, but I think that came off as condescending, like she hadn’t thought of something super obvious! Fortunately, Emma answers just as thoughtfully as she did the previous questions, and I mute myself, type “Thanks!” meekly in the chat, and fade into the shadows for the rest of the call.
As the work day winds down, I see Emma’s festive emoji response to a colleague’s Slack message and feel a fresh pang of self-loathing about the design review earlier. I feel like I could have been less scattered, could have led with a compliment, could have framed that question any other way. I forget about it for a little bit and focus on the dinner my partner carefully crafted for us and a new (for me) episode of Veep. But later, as I climb into bed and toggle on seven different alarms, it comes back to me. Why did I say it that way? How did it come across to Emma? If another colleague had asked the same question, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, right? So why am I worrying so much about one thing I said in one meeting? Probably because I worry about every thing I say in every meeting. I’m spiraling and I want to talk this through with my partner, but he’s fast asleep and this really isn’t worth waking him up for. Or is it? I fret about this for a while and decide what I need is a distraction.
I open the crossword app on my phone, my go-to app for when my mind is racing late at night. Instead of puzzling through my own thoughts, I focus my mental energy on puzzling through someone else’s wordplay. By the time I arrive at 53-Down, my mind is sufficiently distracted and exhausted, and I can finally get some sleep.
Five hours and 36 minutes later, I’m back where I started: wide awake, puzzling over why I had to be such a bumbling fool in that meeting yesterday.
Nothing motivates and stresses me out at the same time more than presentations. Most of the time, I can’t tell if I’m driven by the fear of failing or the motivation to do well. I’m talking about the presentations where I’m the focal point, speaking about a topic I’m seen as an expert on (despite not seeing myself as an expert in anything, but that’s a blog post for another time), to other experts who, at any moment, can realize I’m a phony and not nearly as qualified as they see me to be. I have found no solution to mitigate this risk except to live life excessively prepared so that I can plan a course of action for every possible question, situation, thing tossed my way. Yes, it is as exhausting (and unrealistic) as it sounds. (Someone once complimented my ability to “see around corners”. It took me years before I realized that I know no other way.)
So, when Cordelia asked a question I did not previously anticipate during my presentation today, I was thrown off. First, mad and upset at myself for not considering the possibility of the question, then mortified by the clumsiness of my answer. It was a good question. I should have seen it coming. Why didn’t I prepare more? Why did I answer it like that? I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, maybe I don’t. Am I even good at my job? What does Cordelia think of me now? What do the other 32 people who were dialed in think? Part of me knows that there’s a decent chance no one even noticed and if they did, they aren’t still thinking about it, hours later. But they could be and I can’t shake the fear of that possibility. Regardless, I am convinced that it was the moment everyone in the room realized that I’m incompetent and underqualified for my position.
This, along with ruminating on all the other better answers I could have said, is what consumes the rest of what was supposed to be a restful evening. I desperately turn to my usual therapies of sharing the story and accompanying feelings with my husband (who, incidentally, is the least anxious person I know), yoga in my living room, and meditation. Despite my best efforts, I only feel marginally better.
Eventually, I’m in bed, ignoring the “You’ve reached your time limit…” message on my phone, scrolling Instagram. My Explore feed has become home to puppies I want in my life, perfectly styled food photos, and funny memes I wish I thought of. Tonight, an anxiety themed comic catches my eye. It chronicles someone painfully worried about something and assuming a worst-case outcome. I mean, that’s the story of my life? In the corner I see that the comic creator’s name is Cordelia. Wait, that’s my coworker Cordelia. Is she anxious like me…?
I finally drift to sleep, and several hours and 6 alarm clock snoozes later, I’m up again. My mind gives me approximately 18 glorious, worry-free seconds before bringing me right back to yesterday’s dreadful design review.
Emma: Hi! I was meaning to clarify my response to your question during the design review. I don’t know if my answer made any sense. Sorry if it was really confusing 😫 Let me know if you need clarification!
Cordelia: 🤣 OMG, I was going to message you about that moment too — I don’t think my question made any sense. Your answer was super clear, and I love the direction you’re going in for this project! Sorry for putting you on the spot with a jumbled question — I just got really nervous talking in front of that big group 😬
Emma: Thanks for saying that but your question actually inspired a new design exploration! 🙏🏼 To be honest, I was worried about how I handled it, so it’s kind of funny that you were also worried 😂
Cordelia: Worry twins! 👯♀️ Glad to know I’m not the only one.