Five steps to recover from extreme anxiety when faced with a new leadership or life challenge.
We've lived in the UK for just over a year now and by far, the most DIFFICULT challenge in this whole life-changing experience has been taking and passing the UK driving test. More difficult than uprooting the children and my business. More difficult than missing my friends and family. More difficult than giving birth to our fourth child just weeks after arriving here.
And by difficult, I mean that the anxiety I felt around passing this test was full-on heart-racing, palms sweating, sleepless nightmare-filled nights, negative-self-talk - - just horrendous. After driving here for almost a year on my US license (you only get on year to drive on a foreign license), I took a test without having taken any UK driving lessons. ("Jen," I encouraged myself, "You've been driving since you were sixteen. You KNOW how to drive!")
I booked a test. I showed up. My anxiety -- all of it -- from the entire past year, showed up during the test. It wasn't a panic attack, but it wasn't far off. I failed.
And then the depression hit. After a year of only minor setbacks, feeling largely confident in our transition and successful in most areas of life, I suddenly questioned everything. Was I making real friends? Was our family OK here? Would my business be viable? Would this move harm all of my relationships back home and cut us off for good? The weight of it all descended upon me and I was crushed.
I had one more month to pass the driving test and, if I didn't, POOF. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, all the progress we had made to settle in would unravel.
As a life and leadership coach, I have practiced all sorts of ways of releasing this anxiety and being present, bold and living into my new chapter of life and career. So, I gave myself a few days to feel crushed before getting back into action. I'm sharing the steps I took here because every leader, every human being, has moments in which the weight we put on ourselves can potentially crush us. The people you know to be the strongest leaders and the most calm and collected have all had these intense moment of fear. What follows are the steps I followed that brought me back from the darkness in an effort to reach those of you who might be in the thick of it.
Step 1: Be Compassionate With Self
When my kids or clients or friends are struggling, I hold a space for them to be with their feelings, feel their sadness, shame, worry, and to first and foremost figure out what will restore them. For me, I knew I needed to take the pressure valve off. I accepted that I would have a few unproductive work days and lazy-mothering days. There would be frozen pizza and videos. There were a few hours of stillness - literally - staring out the window or at a wall - I don't really know what I was doing but I wasn't trying to push through and maintain the hyper-active pace that had been required of me to move our family from the US to the UK, have a baby, settle kids in, settle into a new community, keep serving my US clients whilst figuring out the UK business - I needed to pause. My capacity to handle stress and the weight of it all was beyond overloaded. I allowed myself to do as little as possible and unload the weight. I threw up temporary boundaries. I made some space. And when I was out from under the rock a few days later, I connected with new and old friends because conversation and authentic friendship never fail to re-energize me.
Step 2: Uncover What The Hell Was Going On
What did passing the UK driving test mean to me? Why was I allowing it to crush me so fiercely? What fears were lurking?
Step 3: Accept the Fears That Were Surfaced.
I could write a lot more about this step, but for now, what matters is that once I meditated, wrote and processed all the meaning and pressure I had been putting on the driving test, I was able to have conversations with my husband and friends about these fears and deal with them separately from the driving test. This released the pressure that I was placing on the test itself. And, I gained a new awareness that I had subconsciously ignored all my fears by neatly packaging them up in the concrete form of a driving test. I accepted that with all the transition, packaging them up this way had served me well up to a point. I handled A LOT this year. But, these feelings were telling me that it was time to untie the tidy package and accept that it was time to deal with what was in it. I sought out help to deal with these fears and put a few other conversations and actions in place to begin this process. Accepting these fears, and acknowledging that they were separate from the driving test itself provided a road-map for action.
Step 4: Acknowledge Vulnerability and Get Help Rebuilding Confidence.
I had hoped to avoid shelling out for driving lessons, but after the first failed test, decided that driving while someone was watching and scrutinizing me, and correcting bad habits, was important.
Opening myself up to critique was a reckoning that although driving was an area of competence in the US, it was an area of vulnerability in the UK. I realized that by moving I had given up a sense of adult competence and was defensive and annoyed about people wanting to "teach" me how to drive. Especially if my husband wanted to teach me as HE was the one who wanted to move. (Note: ah, so I'm NOT really super-supportive and positive. I WAS feeling resentment after all! Another blog for another day.)
I signed up for some driving lessons.
There were nuances to driving in the UK that I simply couldn't have learned without an instructor. The way I held the steering wheel had to be changed, the ways they wanted me to perform driving maneuvers was mysterious and surprisingly specific; knowing how to know what the speed limit was in the absence of signs was not in the driving manual. I could go on. In short, I didn't know what I didn't know. These things were corrected.
I booked another driving test, with only a few day to spare before my 1-year clock hit the stroke of midnight.
Step 5. I applied what I've Learned About Stress and Confidence
The night before the test I put things in place to ensure I would have a good night's sleep. I arranged for help with the kids so I could be free of the life-sapping morning routine of getting kids out the door and to school, and the stress of having to then rush to the driving test center.
I cut myself from any more cramming in driving videos and reading the manual. I had the confidence from my lessons that I was indeed a good, safe, experienced driver and I had been armed with the information that I hadn't known that I hadn't known.
I fell asleep to a lovely relaxation visualization. I arrived very early to the test center. I did some power poses and listened to a five minute mindfulness meditation before entering the center. I did not allow myself to look down at my iPhone while waiting (this raises cortisone levels) and instead maintained a friendly open posture and took in the people and the room. I was nervous, but putting energy into maintaining my connection with my surroundings and a global awareness would translate into being able to just be with the tester in the car and set me up to demonstrate that I could drive with good awareness, safety, judgement and confidence.
I'm a 41 year old woman with four children. I run a global coaching practice to build the capacity of women leaders to transform their lives, careers and society. As an adult I have lived in Maryland, New York, London, Alexandria, VA and now Leeds. I've become practiced at significant transitions. Along the way I have built deep relationships, done meaningful work and mostly thrived. I've had setbacks, and mostly, I'm not very phased. Most of the time I am calm and confident. But life caught up with me, and I was terrified and in a panic. I applied what I have learned on my journey so far. I got some help.
And I passed.
Moving into a new, higher-level position with significant authority for the first time can be intimidating. In our Women Leaders Emerging coaching circles, many of our conversations circle around the feelings we have when stretching into these roles. Some recent coaching conversations we've had include:
1. How are you hoping that this role will advance your career? What is your vision for this role?
2. What are the top priority objectives for your role from the leadership point of view? From your direct supervisor's point of view?
3. What is the one area for which you'd most like to develop credibility and influence?
4. Why did the organization hire you? What were they hoping you would be able to accomplish? What strengths and skills do you have that no one else has?
5. What matters most to the stakeholders involved in your work? What do they need to advance their agendas? What are the key barriers they face? When are their busy times? What's the best way to communicate with them?
6. What do you anticipate your greatest challenges will be?
The common thread in all of these questions is breaking down the hugeness of your developing career identity into manageable areas of focus. You'll be able to start thinking about what's next to focus on rather than being overwhelmed by not having everything in place right now.
What did you discover as a result of answering these questions? We'd love to have you join in on free peer-coaching conversations on our Facebook group, conspiring women. See you over there!
In our Women Leaders Emerging coaching communities for mission-driven women, our members share their experiences and approaches that have worked for them in many areas of their lives and careers. Here are a few tips that members have shared about testing out possible career paths.
1. Find out if your interest in the field is “sticky.” Often people wonder if they’ll sustain an interest in a specific field for a sustained period of time. This can hold you back from pursuing advanced degrees or deepening subject matter expertise professionally and getting pigeon-holed. If you love learning, curating and creating, test out a possible career path by being a catalyst for conversation in the field that you are exploring. You might start a blog, a book group, or start a Facebook or LinkedIn group that you create.
2. If you’re in a large agency or government, pursue a Details are temporary positions that fill a short term-need. Details allow you to gain exposure, build your skillset and test out one of your career theories before giving up your job and making a significant career leap that you’re not sure about. If these kinds of opportunities aren’t available in your work-environment, think about how you might be able to engineer a short-term work arrangement.
3. Shift your career communities. Take a look at the professional associations associated with one of your possible career paths. Are there ways to plug in and get to know the culture of the profession and some of the key issues before you make a big leap in your career? Use meetup.org and LinkedIn groups and connect both on-line and in-person. Check out one day workshops, webinars and minimal-commitment certifications to be in conversation with people in the field you are considering moving into. To take it a step further, position yourself in your target field by hosting a webinar series or in person event in which curate promote relevant thought-leaders!
4. Be your new career for 10 minutes per day. You may have a career aspiration that you can’t fully cultivate right now. Maybe you’re in a good position for your stage of life for some practical reasons and it’s not the right time to transition, for example. This doesn’t need to stop you from gradually taking on a new career identity! If you write your novel for 10 minutes per day, you can start to say to yourself (and others), “I’m a writer.” If you research nutritional science issues for 10 minutes per day, you can start to say to yourself, “I’m a nutritional science researcher.” Small chunks of committed work help you shift how you identify career-wise and, when timing, resources, and mindset are ripe, will create a natural opening for your career transition.
5. Pretend you’re a career anthropologist. Pretend you’re not interested in making a career shift and take on a mindset of being curious about the possible field you’re moving into. What are the norms? Who are the leaders? What is the culture? What are the top concerns and pressing issues? What works well and what dysfunctions do you notice? What are the values that rise to the top? Talk to people without worrying about whether you’d fit in or add value so that you can really By being curious, you’ll have more natural conversations that will create opportunities for meaningful exchange and depth.
Dear my wonderful, soulful clients,
Yes you: I'm still thinking about you. Every day. You are my teachers. Your collective vulnerability sits with me and stirs me.
I'm still remembering that session five years ago when you were struggling get pregnant while also considering advancing your career.
I am still pondering the weight of your family responsibilities as you also make a difference in the world, at work and with your multitude of friends.
I'm still seething from the indignity of that comment during the meeting when that guy underminded your authority.
I still am blown away by how you led the transformation of your organization's culture so that every aspect of the work would take into the account the effects of racial injustice. I know it was unfair that you were called upon to do that as the only woman of color and I admire you for doing it anyway, and doing it so well.
I'm still smiling from that moment when you were able to laugh at how hard you are on yourself when you're so compassionate and forgiving of everyone else.
I'm still inspired by your ideas even though they are not mine to share in this space, and even though you haven't had a chance to breathe life into them - yet.
I'm still really mad that you had to endure those patronizing, flirty comments. And I am so impressed that you took the risk to find the support you needed. And you got it. Nice.
I am still mourning the loss of your career and freedom since you've decided to take care of your mother in your home.
I am still devastated by the election outcome and especially about how hard it hit you when you worked so long and so hard for a different outcome.
I still stand in admiration that you are balancing taking care of your child's special needs AND being so thoughtful about your leadership at work AND making space to ensure that you are calm and peaceful in yourself.
I'm still reflecting on how you were so bold in calling attention to inequality in promotions and how you made such a strong case for your own advancement. And how now they could not imagine the department without you at the helm. Yes. You did that.
I still feel my own stomach churn with the shared guilt of not doing enough to fight for social justice, but when you told me how much is on your plate, I felt angry at the injustice that there is such a deeply entrenched burden on you, the woman, to handle EVERYTHING.
I still notice how much you put into developing authentic work relationships while also becoming fearless in your true talent of being strategic and decisive. If others feel threatened by your power, I know a coach that they can hire. Ha! And, let it be know - I LIKE YOU A LOT.
I still want to remind you that a whole bunch of people don't have the patience to do the research and they need people like you. And you need the people who will help you synthesize and take action. And all these people are just perfectly fine with the strengths that they have. I haven't checked in with you for a while, but I hope you continue to let go of that critical voice and have found the right partners.
I am still sitting with the feelings of going through your parents things and clearing out their house while you ponder your next career move.
I still hold sacred that you deeply desire a life partner and there's no perfect way to r hold a space for that possibility while also pursuing your your other life and career ambitions.
I still see how you are the glue to so many communities, at work, in your family and how though you thrive in this role, right now you are utterly depleted.
I still see your inner-child receiving your love and compassion - the kind she always deserved to have. I see how kind you are to her now and how that has softened and strengthened you. And I see how this is freeing you to embrace the power of adulthood.
I am still enlivened by how you have begun to work from your strengths and own them instead of trying to fit into some mythical perfect leader role. And to see the power of those strengths unfold!
I am still breathing easier because you found your boundaries and your routines that keep you centered. And because even when you abandon your boundaries and fall out of your routines, you and your body remember how to find your way back to them. Well done!
I am still moved that you have shed beliefs about yourself that have kept you from leading from who you are and living into your AMAZING vision.
I am still humbled that you were able to recognize that it was too much; that there was an unhealthy imbalance that could not be fixed. That you gave it everything you had, and more than most human beings could. And it was not salvageable. And you moved on.
I am still feeling feisty and bold because of that stand you took on YOUR expertise and YOUR contributions in the fight for reproductive rights. Own it, sister!
I'm still celebrating that you are doing that thing you said for so many years that you wanted to do. You! You are doing it! Yay!
I am still celebrating what you needed to mourn and let go of to get to this new place in this new chapter. What a beautiful butterfly you are.
I think about you all the time. I am thinking about you right now which is why I needed to write this letter to you. I could write these little snippets all day. I see you there making powerful requests. Getting focused. Holding firm boundaries. Falling down. Recovering. Retreating. Coming back. Creating new models of women's leadership. Insisting on being a change-maker and leader while insisting on being present to your life outside of work and social change. I think I should write a book or a blog or something to give to the world from all the insight and nuance I've gained from the great privilege of hearing your challenges and triumphs. And I will, someday. Some season. Like you, I am sitting with a lot on my plate. I am giving so much in so many places, taking so much in, forever learning. For now, just know, I am still thinking about you.
To your success and thriving,
Less than a year ago, our family transplanted ourselves from the Washington, DC metro area to Leeds, UK. Being new to a place (a country, a job, anywhere) heightens our senses and gives a gift of being able to notice what others might take for granted. We love the proximity to countryside as well as a cool city, the laid-back, down-to-earth vibe, the mix of people from backgrounds different to those in Metro DC. Though life long citizens of Leeds may value all of these things, for us it is exciting and we are able to hold up a mirror in a way that helps others appreciate more what they love about living here. This creates new energy and positivity to the lives of our new friends and, in return, connects us more deeply to the values of this place.
My daughter, who is five, can't walk two steps without stopping to notice an insect, a crack, a dandelion, a sign. Though frustrating at times, I consider her my mindfulness teacher and imagine that someday, when she is leading a team, she will notice every little thing. She will notice how someone took extra time to format a presentation and the small touches that make it great. She will see someone's unique approach to designing a new system. She will notice, and by being a noticer, she will hold a mirror to her team, creating new energy and positivity. She will surface the values held by team members and, simply by noticing, create a team culture that is grounded in and appreciates a set of shared values.
If you're a leader (at work, at home, or in your community) I invite you to try out being a noticer today. Name what you see. Look for the values that are underneath the choices and actions that people take. See what is happening around you. Without adding any new meetings or big strategies, you will find you will breathe new energy and positivity into your team.
Some people fear being overly-gushy or appreciative of small things. (More on this in another article.) But being a noticer is accessible even for the most praise-resistant among us. Remember these two components 1) what did you observe? and 2) what value are you noticing?
Try these phrases:
Please comment below, or join in on free leadership coaching conversations in our Facebook Group: Conspiring Women
For information on the Women's Mindfulness Leadership Institute, attend one of our upcoming free introductory phone calls.
We conspire with mission-driven women to lead, succeed and thrive in their careers, lives and organizations.
Individuals: We envision women who are enlivened, empowered and emerged. Our members have clarity of purpose and lead from strengths.
Community: We bring communities of women into the practice of seeing each other's strengths and potential. We envision multiplying communities of women-fueling-women's success and impact.
World: We conspire to unlock the potential energy & contributions of 51% of the human population. When this potential energy, thought power, and talent is unleashed, we will solve even the most difficult problems and transform the world.