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.
A year ago, in March, just before lockdown, I had fallen into deep despair about the state of the climate. I had allowed myself to absorb the gravity of the situation and the impact on my children and people all over the world, as well as other species with whom we share the planet. I sat at my kitchen table with my husband, and I wept. That was my moment when I fully took it all in. I grieved for the loss of the planet as we know it and all its implications.
When COVID-19 and lockdown hit us here in the UK (I’m American living in Leeds, Yorkshire, England), I remember thinking, “Ah, this was predicted. Here we go, climate breakdown and social collapse.” In that moment I recognized that I was no longer despairing. I had accepted the worst dystopia. And in that moment, I began to experience life differently. I began to experience a merging of my sense of self with my sense of the world and decided that rather than shut myself off from the pain and suffering, I would live into the fundamental interconnectedness among all living things. I allow myself to experience the deepest pain of the rainforest burning, as if my own limbs were burning. And through this experience of being present to the pain, I am also connected to the living and the joy and the potential expansiveness of being present to a range of emotions.
This won’t surprise some of you who have known me for a long time. My mission for my life and my business has always centered on cultivating that sense of interconnectedness. It has taken quite a lot of reading, podcast /audio-book listening, verbal processing, etc. to understand the transformation I have experienced and give language to it. (Reading list forthcoming).
Today I am grateful in particular to Eric Holthaus, Author of The Future Earth, whose book I heard about on Dan Jones’ podcast, “Climate Scientist”.
In that interview, he put words to this idea that I couldn’t find the words for:
“Listening is the most transformative change that anyone can make. I’m not the point anymore. The point is not what I am going to be doing. It’s going to be trusting relationships to provide for you in this reciprocal way. We are in the middle of a transition from a society that is in transition from individualism to a society that is transitioning to reciprocity and care and mutual aid. It’s important to inhabit that world and show others what that’s like.”
“We need to act with the transcendent love of visionaries…Listening is an extremely important skill right now. The way to have hope is to think that the future is going to be pretty different from where we have come from… Doing nothing is being harmful when you’re being called to change and you do not change….The IPCC report [states that staying within the 1.5 degree threshold] will require transformative change in all aspects of society. Apply that to your own life.”
Let’s live into this world together. Let’s hold each other up as we experience the pain of the world. We will need each other in the years ahead. Let’s practice, let’s get comfortable with the full range of emotions. Let’s be resilient, transformational and world-changing together.
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!
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.