Need to get my professional act together
December 8, 2017 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I’m a computer engineer with severe social anxiety (shocker). I want to feel like I’m in control of my career!

I’m your typical shy, introverted nerdlinger, though maybe even more painfully shy than you’re imagining. I’ve had bad social anxiety for years, with therapy on and off (currently off until Jan 1st when my insurance kicks in). I take low dose Zoloft for the anxiety. It helps a bit but nothing cures completely.

At work, this is a disaster for me. I work in a big tech company and like my job, except for the parts where I’m dealing with severe anxiety and impostor syndrome at once. This generally happens when I have to speak in front of a group, when I have to talk to someone much more senior than me, or when I need to have any conversation about my career trajectory. I realize these are pressure points for most people but I go out of my way to avoid them, which hurts me professionally. I also have awful impostor syndrome and tend to clam up a lot out of fear of sounding like an idiot. The thing is... tech people don’t exactly discourage the impression that everyone else is an idiot. So my typical thought patterns— they don’t seem to care as much as I think— don’t seem to apply.

Most recently I turned down an opportunity for an “early” promotion by default; basically I would have had to perform under pressure to meet the criteria (think give a technical presentation about something I’m not 100% on to a group of mixed seniority), and I declined to do that, thus declining the opportunity. I’m quite mad at myself over this; it was a particularly bad week for me but I still feel like a coward.

I can sometimes successfully coach myself to take the long view and do what needs to be done, but I find it super hard to balance 1) mental illness, 2) self-care, and 3) doing what I need to do for my family by performing well at work. I’m still a bit new and on trial at my current job and I’m tired of repeating his cycle of going in bright eyed and slowly getting more and more withdrawn.

Metafilter, do you have any good advice or coping strategies for me? I’m almost 30 and this stuff is really wearing me down.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you discussed xanax with your doctor? It's good for occasional use for social anxiety (like speaking in front of crowd, etc).

posted by slipthought at 7:14 AM on December 8, 2017

Speaking confidently, public speaking, presentations, working the room at a networking event, etc. are not magical attributes that some of us are gifted with, and some of us aren't. They are skills, and like any skill the more you practice the better you get at it. You need to find low-risk opportunities to practice speaking up in a group, giving presentations etc. Toastmasters is the usual recommendation here, although I have no personal experience with the organization. Tech meetups are another place as they are usually thrilled for somebody else to take the reigns for a meeting and present on whatever.

Also, you mention family, so if you have a spouse and/or kids you are already succeeding in something way, way more emotionally taxing and "risky" than speaking up at work. Which tells me you can do this stuff.
posted by COD at 8:14 AM on December 8, 2017

COD is correct that you need to practice these skills in a low stakes environment. However, I suspect that Toastmasters or any sort of meetup or network event will be too anxiety-provoking for you. Here's my suggestion: go to a grocery store in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day. Not a fancy place, just a run of the mill market. There will probably (hopefully) be a lot of older people there. My experience is that older people love to chat with basically anyone about almost anything. Your goal is to strike up a conversation with a couple of these people. This really does not need to be anything big. If you're looking at salsa, you can ask someone "have you ever tried this brand before?" If your experience is anything like mine, that one sentence will probably lead to a ten minute conversation about their life and their kids and their grandkids and their neighbor Betty...

This is a truly no stakes environment in which you can safely practice your social conversational skills. Once you're comfortable with this level of interaction, you can work your way up: a person at a coffee shop, reaching out to acquaintances to set up a get together, chatting with co-workers. Take it slow, but push yourself to engage in interactions that are just a little bit uncomfortable for you as time goes on.

Then, when you feel like you are comfortable with these kinds of interactions, and this will probably take you months, you can think about things like Toastmasters and networking and planning for how you'll apply your new skills at a low level in your job.
posted by scantee at 10:53 AM on December 8, 2017

Instead getting lol xamexed put at work I would suggest trying out toastemasters! It is a fun unlocked speaking club where you can fail safely while making huge improvements. You may have to try out a few clubs before you find me you like.
posted by cakebatter at 4:22 PM on December 8, 2017

Technical presentations are a different skill from small talk with strangers. To my mind, they're an easier skill, because you can prepare beforehand. Ideally, you'd have a mentor who would give you low-stakes opportunities to practice. Is there a formal way to find one, through your workplace or a professional organization?

Other strategies to consider:
  • Get involved with a diversity-in-tech organization. Being in a room with technical people who are actively trying to be welcoming can be hugely powerful, whether you're a member of a specific underrepresented group or an ally.
  • Get good at making slides. If you can put together a clean, organized outline for your presentation, you will be above average as a technical presenter even if you don't say a word.

posted by yarntheory at 4:23 PM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

As an engineer, you are familiar with sometimes using the wrong or incomplete tools for the problem you are trying to solve. Rather than treat yourself like you are broken (drugs and medication), perhaps you might think of it as a hack to be solved.
The situations you are describing and the feelings you experience are not unique to you. Being an introvert worried about social situations is a commonplace scenario. You might check out Vanessa Edwards and her courses/podcasts as a way of upgrading your toolset. Your biology has predictable responses to unknown situations. Being in a room full of unknown people is one of those problems. I think it's a case where if you think of it as a solvable problem you can make this work a lot better for your well being. It's rewarding to be more socially fluid as well as healthier for your internal state.
posted by diode at 12:13 PM on December 9, 2017

With the caveat that I am a firm believer in better living through chemistry, have you thought about:

1) Doubling your dose of Zoloft? As long as it doesn't make you an-orgasmic, it's worth a try to see if it can improve your general quality of life. It's a very straight-forward rollback to a lower dose if it doesn't work out.

2) For anxiety around public speaking and meetings and stuff, beta blockers are a miracle. Non-addictive, no side effects, effective against anxiety.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:08 PM on December 9, 2017

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