How to not be scared of Old White Men!
February 13, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with my unconscious anxiety response to older, male supervisors?

I work as a freelancer in a field where the standard contract is short term, collaborative group projects under a highly involved manager. I've noticed recently that, when that manager is female, I am generally creative, comfortable, happy to speak up, and generally successful. When that manager is male, however, especially white and of a certain age, I've noticed in myself a tendency to be very worried about their opinion of me, anxious to please, nervous, and deferential, which in turn stunts my creativity, my ability to take creative risks, and my confidence. This has what I perceive to be a BIG impact on my work performance.

I do not, I should add, believe that these men are pressuring me (at least, not unreasonably) or behaving badly towards me in any way, and other members of our teams have often responded to these male managers very well.

Before you tell me to seek out a therapist, I AM seeing one and we are working to get to the root of this tendency, but in the mean time, I'm curious to know if anyone has any techniques to recommend that deal with this specific kind of anxiety?

Relevant details: I'm female, late 20s, living in a large city. I am generally considered to be quite successful in my field.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I know someone who worked out an identical issue by talking it through with their business consultant. The consultant led them through a few exercises, but the main thing that helped was just sitting down, putting down a plan, and roleplaying through a few common (stressful) scenarios. The additional experience that the consultant brought to bear (a retired executive) seems to have been extremely helpful as well. Since you're a freelancer, hiring somebody like that would likely only help anyway; you might give it a try. Or try listing out trouble scenarios, and attempt roleplaying with a friend or loved one and see if that gets you anywhere.
posted by circular at 8:52 AM on February 13, 2012

Wow, are you me? :) I've found the exercise they use to reduce Stereotype threat helpful-- taking a little time before a project to write down what I value. It feels cheesy as heck and I have no idea why it works-- I guess it's a way of fighting self-consciousness by focusing on higher values? Whatever, it's noticeably relaxed me.

Another left-field suggestion: work on physical strength. 100 Pushups has had the very ridiculous effect of giving me a bit of swagger around the boys.

On preview-- seconding role-playing-- do you have any male colleagues who might sympathise, or friends of your parents maybe? If might help to find a way to socialise non-professionally with the danger demographic, through some sort of older-guy-heavy extracurricular activity- beer tasting? steam engines?
posted by Erasmouse at 9:01 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

If the problem is caused by your assumptions about what they are thinking of you, try to remind yourself frequently that your assumptions about what men are thinking are not necessarily true. Try to focus on the evidence you have for what they are thinking rather than trusting your assumptions.
posted by callmejay at 10:17 AM on February 13, 2012

Seconding Erasmouse on the physical strength thing. Your mind responds to what it knows your body can do. Get strong, and get comfortable knowing you're stronger than them.
posted by ead at 10:54 PM on February 13, 2012

Try to remember that we're all just human beings.
posted by mleigh at 8:00 PM on February 15, 2012

I second the comment on stereotype threat. Making a complex self-concept map has also been shown to help insulate against gender-related anxieties. Worth taking a look. Good luck - it's a tricky problem and I think it's great that you're deliberately working on it.
posted by iamleda at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2012

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