Anxiety Builds up at work - I quit, find another job - Rinse, repeat
June 21, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I seem to be in a pattern of working someplace for 4-5 years, slowly getting more and more dissatisfied with where I am and what I'm doing. Finally I quit the job and find another only to repeat the same process. Help me break the pattern. [snowstorm inside]

I have so far been unable to find any work where I don't ultimately end up hating it. Usually this is due to management. I'm an introvert and not a very good verbal communicator (much better at writing) so 2 things happen:

1) When I have to communicate with others for work I have trouble because often when people perceive something "wrong" with my work (I'm a programmer) they just don't understand how to use the UI or whatever. I get anxious, which cripples my communication skills and leaves me unable to defend my ideas and decisions, so I end up just caving to whatever the person wants.

2) I think the fact that I am such a pushover in this way causes people to lose respect for me, and eventually even when I DO manage a pretty good verbal communication I'm ignored. I think people form pre-conceptions of me so it stops mattering what I say. They just ignore me or pretend to listen.

It's about at this point (the part where people aren't listening to me anymore) that I start getting really stressed out. I've actually been hospitalized twice with acute symptoms that developed in times of high stress. Once my stomach hurt so bad my wife and I were worried my appendix was going to burst. Spent the night in the ER and got imaging done on my torso and they found nothing wrong with me... after a shot of morphine and some sleep I was okay) and once I just broke out in hives that were so itchy I couldn't sleep for a couple of days.

I have been an anxious person all my life. I deal with my anxiety through controlled breathing and self-soothing (meditation) but I need time to do this. I can't do it on the fly. When I get stressed in a conversation I just can't communicate effectively for crap, and there's usually no way for me to leave and go calm down before resuming. That's why I prefer to communicate by e-mail/chat/whatever because I can get my thoughts in order and express myself well. Even THAT seems to be no good because I send e-mails and I get replies that are like the person just did not read what I wrote.

It doesn't help that in my current workplace the dominant employee culture is sort of macho and sporty and I'm a nerdy programmer guy who watches My Little Pony -- I have very little in common with my workmates.

So after repeating this pattern for a few years, I'm thinking of working for myself. I have done a number of on-the-side contract jobs over the years and never had any trouble. Usually because I'm pretty good socially at the start (getting the job) and if communication is electronic thereafter things go smoothly. If it's by e-mail I can explain myself effectively and the problems that occur over an extended period of time, where I get anxious in conversation and respect for me is slowly eroded, don't happen.

So basically, my plan is to quit my job as soon as I've finished my current big project and to go freelance and build up the business while living off my savings (I've got enough for about a year) I think this will solve my problem because most of my clients will have extended interaction with me only for awhile (say a month maybe 2 on the outside) and most of that communication will be electronic. Also having different clients and work regularly will prevent the boredom from seeping in and the anxiety from building up.

Any/all opinions and ideas are welcome, and I am especially interested in hearing from other programmers who went freelance and other anxious/introverted people.
posted by signsofrain to Work & Money (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Try to see the pattern more positively. Some say you should never work anywhere more than five years – the days of the 30-year employee and the gold watch are long over.
posted by zadcat at 9:58 AM on June 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think contempt for management is pretty much everyone, everywhere. I used to get so worked up over how dumb management was that I'd get sick and tense up and have all kinds of stress. I suffered from anxiety too (although I'm NO introvert and I'm an excellent communicator) but am now on medication and I can say that this has changed my life for the better.

So, go to your doctor and see what your options are for managing your anxiety, because what you're describing does not sound workable to me.

Don't quit your job and feelance. You won't like it any better and you'll just shift your frustration to your customers, they'll feel it and then you'll be broke AND out of work. Also, are you SURE you'll have enough customers to make being a freelancer worth it? There are a lot of people out there who are really scraping by.

I propose that you work on changing your attitude and your communication skills in your current job. Push back on any changes, unless they're legitimate. Learn some 'go-to' phrases that take you out of instantaneous responses and give you time to formulate a response. "That's interesting feedback. Let me digest it and get back with you." That will keep you from caving in right away and allow you to formulate an elegant response.

So what your co-workers don't understand you? As you get older, that's just how it is. We all have families, friends and hobbies and we don't mix or mingle with our co-workers all that much. It's normal. Don't take it to heart.

Really, really think about this, and really, really see a doctor because anxiety will KILL you and lead you to make some really dumb decisions that will haunt you for a long time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:59 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no idea if this is feasible for you or not, but have you considered getting academic staff employment while building up more of your own client base? While higher ed institutions don't usually pay market rate, the work culture is typically less masculine and the workload is a little better. More or less everyone in my department uses the excellent benefit package they get as a solid base for whatever side project they have going on (more programming, professional photography, master's degree, etc.)
posted by ayerarcturus at 10:10 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get therapy for the anxiety, it's obviously a serious issue for you.

That said: 4-5 years? Hah! That's well within the normal range of needing a change of scenery/challenge/work.
posted by wrok at 10:11 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a very similar pattern in my career (I am a software designer who does front-end eng). I would get very anxious and stressed at a job to the point I was almost paranoid, quit, and start over at a new place. I felt like my coworkers were all cooler than me, and I would lie about spending my weekends playing video games or watching a Buffy marathon. It's an awful way to live, and clearly it can be so stressful as to affect your health.

A few things came together to help me break this cycle. I learned to evaluate jobs by the people involved instead of the work or money. This way I found a team that was a good fit for me, and I was able to feel more comfortable at the office. Trust me, if you work in tech, it is very possible to find a team that is understanding of nerdy introverts.

I also got a lot of help from therapy. Specifically, I learned how to process my own feelings and better express myself honestly. I learned how to respect the person I am, and that goes a long way towards having the respect of others. It's also excellent practice for communicating effectively about things that may feel very vulnerable or sensitive.

I actually found freelancing to be very challenging when I was struggling with these issues. If you are anxious or tense with coworkers, you still get a paycheck. But freelancing is SO much about having a great relationship with your client. They do not care about your issues and if they sense friction they can and will fire your butt. It's up to you, but I'd consider staying in a traditional office job while you work on this so that your livelihood isn't directly tied to your ability to get along with others.

Finally, I would encourage you to try an experiment at the next job you have. Try to be completely, 100% yourself. Share your love of My Little Pony. Let others see that you are introverted (which is different from antisocial). If someone questions work that you believe in, tell them that you believe in it. And if you are feeling anxious, confide in your manager. Explain your feelings and ask for help working through them so you can be your best.

Good luck, and feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk more.
posted by annekate at 10:20 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Answering this because I'm on the extreme end of introversion. I made the freelance jump 4.5 years ago and this is the longest time that I have every continuously been employed somewhere/I got bored in the past and job hopped, but that is another story.

Even though I am introverted, I think it would be hard to apply my situation to your situation or even another freelancer, but I will give this a go just the same and put some things that I think that you should think about.

I previously typed out an extremely detailed response, which I deleted because - I have no idea if it would or would not apply to your situation. Feel free to memail me if you have more questions, but here are the top few positives and cautions. I took away many of the positives, because I just don't know if it would apply to your type of business or to you.

For me, as an extreme introvert, working in an office was draining; by the end of the week I would need alone time - a lot. Now as a freelancer and working on my own (as you said, mainly by the internet, with occasional phone calls), I am far more balanced. I actually like to see people each day and seek out other people for a weekly activity/ies. I even accept some freelance projects that require visiting clients on site for a day or two and find it interesting and fun. I had no idea that some of the stress was due to just having to see and talk to tons of people every single day...

But I really feel that I need to give you some warnings because the stress is still there and it sounds like you have a high level of anxiety:

• The anxiety does not disappear; it will just be a different type of anxiety. Okay, even if you select the client, project, etc., someone will consistently call you on Friday afternoon and request something for Monday, or call you the night before and request that you do something for the following morning. You can never slack off = every project has to be your best or you may never hear from the client again (even if you don't have any problems, you will hear this in your head).

• You may find yourself with 10 bosses. Even if you select clients, they may like you and give you more and more projects. Then you will have deadline A,B,C,D,E - and while you can easily negotiate this at a workplace, a client will not want to hear or know about another department or another company. Although you can negotiate deadlines up front, you are likely to need to do weekend work or work late at night, etc.

• There are times that you may have to get onto the phone and deal with something stressful. In the beginning, I had to chase people to get paid on time, which meant calling at some point. The stress was 10X higher because now it = my pay check.

• Also, as a warning, although you won't have to do as many meetings/phone calls, lots of clients want phone conferences. They may even expect you to lead a phone call. I can't imagine having a business without phone calls, although in my ideal universe it would all be by the internet.

Even though I said all this, I work half the number of hours that I did at a workplace and get paid the same or more ....but it requires doing crazy hours sometimes or stress, etc.
posted by Wolfster at 10:34 AM on June 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

This might just a tiny band aid...but have you tried working based on well defined specs? It would cut down having to defend your work ( to a big extent). That way, your communications will be more during the earlier stages where it would be less defensive and more collaborative. This could also help build a rapport with the rest of the team in a positive way...
posted by asra at 11:06 AM on June 21, 2013

The communication problems you have will affect clients as well. Try taking a Dale Carnegie course, and any other course that would help you improve your communication skills. Your current company might even pay for it.
posted by theora55 at 11:51 AM on June 21, 2013

I have some of the same issues, and am also an introvert tech type with anxiety issues.

For a while, I did contracting. I built a relationship with a contracting agency I really liked, and I'd do short and long term contracts through them, with the longest being 2 years long. Even thought I didn't make as much as when I was full time, I could still easily make my expenses, and was also quite happier as a result.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:38 PM on June 21, 2013

I'm old now and I've worked many places over the years, with basically two entirely different careers but many employers. The majority of women I know who are my age were either housewives (nothing wrong with that) or they worked for only a few employers and then retired. I was criticized - plenty - for my "inability to settle down," for moving all over the place, flitting from place to place and job to job. In reality, I'd usually work for an employer until I'd learned all I could from that place and those people, then I'd get bored and start looking for something new. My references were excellent from every position I had; I did do the best job I was capable of and I was cheerful, probably because I was truly interested in what I was doing. I've lived in six states, returning to my original home-city and leaving again several times. And here's the thing: I've had a blast. I've also earned my way - I've never taken a dime from any form of welfare or state aid, raised my child on $50 to $100 child support a month, etc. It hasn't always been pretty, but it's always been fun.

I think it's all in how you look at it. Some folks are cut out for staying in one place, putting down roots, buying a home, raising their children in that type of "stable" environment, etc., and those folks usually stay with the same employer for a long time; those folks are more "into" stability than they are into novelty. Others, like me, have the gypsy gene that makes us thrill to new experiences, new places, new things to learn. I don't think either way is more right or wrong than the other - both types of personality are necessary to keep our old world running. My advice to you would be to, first, ignore anyone who scorns your interest in experiencing life in a way that works for you; second, always do the kind of job on your job that earns you praise for your competence and attitude; third, do stay on a job long enough to justify the work that the employer put in to train you - you owe him at least a couple of years, if at all possible; and fourth, let go of the anxiety and the self-flagellation and just set forth to make a good life for yourself.

I wish you the best.
posted by aryma at 12:08 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I should note that I am now receiving HUD-subsidized housing and a few other assists from the government, Medicare with minimal copays, etc. I had to retire after 31 years due to Parkinson's Disease, which has been no fun at all, and I'm grateful for Social Security and Medicare.
posted by aryma at 12:09 AM on June 23, 2013

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