Job interviews with social anxiety
February 1, 2019 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I've been looking for a new job for a few months, and I've had a ton of interviews for really exciting jobs, but I keep screwing them up because of social anxiety.

My mind just goes completely blank in high pressure situations and I can't answer basic questions about myself, even if I've prepared answers in advance. I can just about keep it together if I just have to talk about my portfolio (I'm a book designer), but as soon as the interviewer asks me a question I'm not expecting, or even something like "tell me about yourself," I completely lose it.

I've only ever had two successful interviews, and they were both for jobs I was unenthusiastic about, and which turned out to be bad fits. I feel like I'll never get a job I really want, even though I have an impressive enough CV and portfolio, because I just can't get past the interview. I'm in a very competitive industry, and I feel like even if I can keep it together, there's always going to be someone with my qualifications and experience who interviews well. I've always struggled with social anxiety, and in most aspects of my life it's got a lot better, but I've never been able to talk about myself if I'm under any kind of pressure, so job interviews are like a nightmare scenario. I'm taking medication and I've made an appointment with a CBT therapist -- is there anything else I can do?
posted by Chenko to Work & Money (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have social anxiety but I have serious brain freeze and one trick that has helped me is developing a neutral memorized bit for all occasions. "Mostly I want to know I have the freedom and support to grow and progress (bla bla bla)"
So, take five questions that might come your way and answer them with some version of that (or whatever) statement. It is incredible how easy it is to do this. One of the results for me was I did not need to use this as much once I mastered it. Does this make the best interview, heck no but it is better than staring off into space and getting all wound up.
posted by InkaLomax at 10:33 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

as soon as the interviewer asks me a question I'm not expecting, or even something like "tell me about yourself," I completely lose it.

Could you clarify what this means? Going silent, leaving the room, starting the same sentence five different ways before trailing off? It might make a difference in strategies people can suggest.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:42 AM on February 1, 2019

A job interview is a performance and what you've got is stage fright. There's a vast world of tools and tricks for overcoming stage fright!
posted by MattD at 10:47 AM on February 1, 2019

I'm answering this because early on in career 1 and then career 2, I had overwhelming anxiety and my response to a question during an interview was a deer-in-the-headlights expression pasted on my face. I did get over it (for interviews, at least) and got to the point I got very good at interviewing for particular types of jobs.

Anyway, I am going to stress -extremely anxious, so what I did was over the top in terms of preparation/might be construed as overkill - but it worked for me, so ... This was also a gradual process (as in interview 1, 2, 3), not all at once.

-Preparation, as in, extreme preparation. I googled and looked up every "interview questions for field X" and copied and pasted those questions onto a word document. Then I thought about the questions and typed up my responses. Then I read those answers several times, stated those answers out loud, etc. - so that if someone asks you that question or a related question, I could access the answer or bare bone answers to those questions.

-Practice, lots of practice. One way of practice (if you are extreme, I was) - is get a colleague, a friend, a small group of people who like you in a room and you practice doing whatever it is you do during interviews. Make eye contact, etc. (doing that in a friendly setting = I could do okay in an interview setting).

-More preparation. A big part of preparation, for me, wasn't just the questions that I knew I might need to answer. What questions would I ask them? Why did I want to work for that company? So I did research on their company. Read their webpages and in particular, I looked for ways that I might connect. If I was very excited about field X or grant Y, ask related questions (in a way, it helped overcome anxiety and some enthusiasm would bubble up - not just from me but from them when they give you more details about it).

-View it all as learning and practice and you will get better instead of "I need this job or it is the end of the world." I will admit, especially when I had the first interview to field X, I bombed. But it is okay. If there were questions that stumped you, write those down, and prepare for the next interview. This might not be as related, but because I overly prepared and really did want to know about grant X or research Y, I enjoyed learning about it and it was something you can research later or speak to in other interviews. Make sense? So you might not get job 1, but you can get job 2.

-More practice. You mention that you got interviews for jobs you didn't care about? Go on those interviews if you think you are anxious (with the caveat not to take them - make your list before as to why it is not a good fit). But you can practice answering questions, getting more confident, etc.

-Small tips for during the interview. I always carry a notepad. If I am asked a questions and I need more time to reflect, pause and write down a point or two and walk through the points. On the last two pages of the notepad, I have questions for the interviewers. I refer to those to make sure that I don't forget.

-If this still doesn't work ... Early on in a career transition, I info interviewed people (you can find pple on forums, or acquaintance through colleague, etc. ) - I interviewd people who had the job I wanted. Buy them coffee (or talk to them on the phone, or email, ideally whatever is easier for them) and tell them what you would like to do and are open to suggestions. My goal was not to get a job at their company, but to get recommendations from people who already had the job. Sometimes it was as simple as "emphasize X on your CV/resume" or "consider taking class X" or "search for job title Y" - whatever. I also think talking to these people helped me with ... knowing what to expect. That probably was the key to my anxiety, I wanted to know what to expect and how to prepare myself.

I hope this helps - if you think it might help to have someone talk to these ideas a bit more, feel free to memail me. Trust me, I understand this anxiety.

I *do* think the fact that you get a lot of interviews is a great sign - you are close.

Good luck!
posted by Wolfster at 11:21 AM on February 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

The trick for me has been to shift toward the mindset where I feel like I could take or leave the job. Easier said than done, I know, and with a job I really want, it's impossible to get all the way into that mindset, but baby steps in that direction help. Based on how you've been able to get jobs you didn't really want, the "unenthusiastic" attitude might be coming across as "cool and collected," so you know, maybe baby steps in that direction.

I would suggest lots and lots of roleplay. When I was working on this, I asked nearly everyone in my life if they would take a minute to ask me a fake job interview question. It helped me shift from seeing interview questions as scary life altering moments to more of a silly ritual we do.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 11:27 AM on February 1, 2019

I feel really, really similar to you in interviews. I need to be “on” and it’s just hard. Being extremely prepared with your answers (as described above) helps a lot, but I have one additional trick. There’s a person in my life who is really good at these types of interactions, so I basically channel her. I can’t pretend to be her in the long term, nor would I want to stop being my authentic self, but it gets me through shorter term situations.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:39 AM on February 1, 2019

I'm usually the last person to suggest taking drugs, but I've found that a single 10mg dose of propranolol, taken about an hour before an event, does wonders. This drug is mainly prescribed for high blood pressure, but it's also used a lot by musicians and actors to alleviate stage fight. It prevents the "fight or flight" response from occurring (whereby your heart starts to race, your palms get clammy, your hands tremble, and you get waves of anxiety). Note that the drug is not any kind of sedative or tranquilizer, or anything like that. It works by blocking the effect of adrenaline. I take it before I have to do big presentations and before other sorts of stressful events. In practice, I'd say I use it maybe six times per year. My doctor has no problem prescribing it.

Edit: Some people might recommend a benzodiazepine, like Valium or Xanax, but I would recommend against it. Those drugs have worse side-effects, they don't work as well for this purpose, and they can be addictive.
posted by alex1965 at 12:08 PM on February 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm copy/pasting/tweaking one of my answers to a previous question here because I think it can be of some value to you. I hope that's not against AskMe policy, please nuke me from orbit with my apologies if so.

It sounds to me like you're already in a fair position to land the job, and the problem is more with your confidence, which is understandable. Most people hate interviews.

I don't. I love them, and I love them because I know I am good at them. I've probably had 25-30 of them in my life, and I've only ever not been offered the position twice (one of which was on a BS technicality). I am abnormal in my zest for and success in interviews, but I am not exceptionally smart, witty, etc., or different from your average joe in many other ways (most people hate speaking in public, I hate speaking in public, etc.).

I have a number of tricks / tips I've picked up along the way that I employ, but if I could only share one, it would be this:

The interview is only half about you. The other half is about you interviewing them.

You shouldn't approach any job as though its the perfect job for you and you just hope hope HOPE you can possibly get it. No job is the perfect job for you. Some are better than others, sure, but you should be approaching every job with the attitude (legitimate, not conjured) that you need to find out whether or not you actually want this job. This does 2 very important things:

1. Shows them that you are interested in the company. If you are ready to rock when they ask you if you have any questions for them, it will show them that you are interested in what they do and how they do it. You need to ask about the work environment, typical challenges someone in your position would face, your reporting structure, the key skills necessary to succeed, upward mobility of the position, etc.. Companies look for people who are excited about the opportunity, not people who are afraid they might not succeed at it. Which leads to...

2. Displays confidence. Which is really the opposite of where you are right now. You didn't lie on your resume, you're a student of the trade, you know the fundamentals, and you know how to learn what more you might need to know in the future. Yes, there might be someone with your qualifications that doesn't struggle in interviews, but this interview isn't about that person, it's about you and your fit with their company. Focus on that, and try to remember that the job you'll be doing day to day isn't being in interviews. Interviews is just a stage you need to get through in order to do the work that you are good at. The thing with confidence, however, just like interest in the company, is that it can't be feigned, they will see right through you.

I believe it is possible to garner real interest in any company and a confidence that you would be a good fit for the position, I've done so with every interview I've ever had (even the ones I wanted really bad and was therefore a little nervous about at first). Go into the interview humble, not cocky, but honest, interested, and confident. Walk out of it believing that it will be their loss if they do not offer you the position. Everything else is minor details.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:44 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Could you clarify what this means? Going silent, leaving the room, starting the same sentence five different ways before trailing off? It might make a difference in strategies people can suggest.

I go into a panic and my mind goes blank. I usually end up umming and ahing for an uncomfortably long time and then giving a really short answer.
posted by Chenko at 1:08 PM on February 1, 2019

Can you take CBD or a Xanax or something before you go in?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:14 PM on February 1, 2019

I work in a different industry, but this made me think about the fact that the last few jobs I've gotten haven't actually had any sort of formal interview, even though I'm currently working at a relatively large company. People recruited me based on my work and we talked on the phone. Is it possible that you could network your way into a job? Or, if you interviewed for a remote job with a phone or Skype interview, would you feel any less anxious?
posted by pinochiette at 2:31 PM on February 1, 2019

Is it possible that you could network your way into a job?

Networking is something else I struggle with as a socially anxious person.
posted by Chenko at 2:47 PM on February 1, 2019

I'm a fellow anxiety sufferer who has had a lot of issues with job interviews and even speaking up in important meetings. A few thoughts:

- You mentioned taking medication; not sure if you meant an SSRI or something else. I'm *extremely* conservative about taking benzos (let me know if you ever want to hear a funny story about the most preposterously cautious tapering regime of all time), but this is the kind of situation they're good for -- getting you through a one-time thing that makes you really anxious and unable to function normally. You'd obviously want to test it out beforehand to make sure you don't feel too drugged or tired, but something like 0.5 mg of Ativan should take the edge off without making you overly relaxed.

- Hiding my anxiety makes me exponentially more anxious than being up front about it. Would it make you feel better to tell your interviewers that you're feeling especially nervous? You don't even have to use the word "anxiety" if that feels like too much information to share. If you clam up, it's okay to say something like, "I'm sorry for the long pause -- I get nervous in job interviews, especially when I'm really excited about the opportunity." Or even give a disclaimer up front that you're feeling nervous. From my experience, people have a lot of empathy for interview nerves and will be kind to you about it.

- Similarly: could you bring some talking points with you and refer to them during the interview? I've never tried this, but I can't imagine it would be frowned upon? Again, you could say something like, "I hope it's okay that I brought some notes to refer to -- I get a little nervous in interviews and there are some things I want to make sure I share with you about my experience."

- I echo anyone who recommended practicing! When I'm on the job hunt, I pretend to be answering interview questions whenever I'm alone -- washing dishes, in the shower, driving, etc. Seriously, I'm talking like 60-90 minutes a day of chattering to myself about myself. It gets to the point where I can go on autopilot, especially on frequently asked questions like "tell us about yourself."

Wishing you the best of luck!
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 7:47 PM on February 1, 2019

I go into a panic and my mind goes blank. I usually end up umming and ahing for an uncomfortably long time and then giving a really short answer.

There's lots of good advice here already, so I just want to add: This can happen and not be the end of the world. I have social anxiety and prep hard for job interviews. Notes, memorizing talking points, even mapping certain talking points onto a copy of my resume that I could take into the interview for a ready visual link between talking points and likely questions about certain experience bullet points.


I went into an interview for a job I really wanted. And the interviewer asked me what a typical day at my last job was like. And I FROZE. Deer in headlights, completely blank, could not remember a single task from a job that had eaten nearly every waking moment of my life for almost three years. Eventually I managed to babble out something awkward and incoherent and then I stopped mid-babble and blurted out: "I'm sorry. I'm a bit nervous. Do you mind if we start over?" And after a moment the prep kicked in and I was able to give a coherent answer. The first answer cracked the freeze. I got the job. So remember:

Freezing is not the end of the world. It's mortifying and alarming and scary, especially if you super want the job, but even if it happens in spite of the prep, you can recover.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 8:29 PM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

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