It's that same old anxiety again.
August 10, 2019 10:45 AM   Subscribe

About once or twice a year, I have a major anxiety freakout/OCD flare up that is almost always triggered when I either make a mistake at work or am "in trouble" at work. I'm having one now and I need it to stop.

I've had some trouble communicating with a grandboss. I went to my immediate boss for some guidance on how I could talk to grandboss who's communication style is chilly at best and instead of validation from my boss, she felt that I was being snarky in my communication to grandboss. What seemed like snark to her was really my frustration at not being able to get solid answers out of grandboss on instructions from grandboss.

Being mindful that grandboss may have also been offended by my tone/perceived snark/etc in my communication, I sent her an email apologizing for whatever slight I may have caused taking exquisite care not to be snarky. All I got in response was "thank you". This was last week.

Yesterday, my boss told me that she wants to have a "chat" with me next week about my communication problems with grandboss and in the interim, I should not ask questions of grandboss. I have no idea if this injunction is coming solely from supervisor or from grandboss (or both). FWIW - I pride myself on my communication abilities with all of my co-workers, boss, and grand-bosses. I am mortified that one thinks I was being snarky and that my boss feels like I need to be extra managed in this area because of it. (I'm also not a little annoyed at this part too). Boss has praised me in the past for this very skill.

The bad news is that this conversation is not occurring until next Wednesday, giving me plenty of time to stew about the whole thing. This has triggered the anxiety freakout/OCD flare and I feel like I did when I was in the third grade and was terrified of what my teachers would tell my parents about my behavior and performance at school (in retrospect, my behavior and performance were perfectly fine. I was just terrified of "disappointing them" and getting the speech that accompanied it complete with the severe look of disapproval). Episode includes general tension overall, GI upset, and that general anxiety feeling like something is wrong but I can't quite put my finger on it. I cannot relax. I feel like my world is turning upside down, nothing is right, and I'm a terrible person.

I know that my episodes in adulthood are directly tied to these episodes when I was a kid and usually involve someone who is older than me and in a position of power over me. The problem is that I am wallowing in anxiety about this meeting on Wednesday and stewing about whether I am in trouble. I am having difficulty focusing on anything else. The whole thing has also made me just want to quit my job and not deal with other people because the Game of Fragile Egos is so draining.

I am on anti-anxiety meds and I have Xanax but only take that for MAJOR episodes - this one is big, but not MAJOR. I do not feel like I need to take a Xanax (yet).

I'm looking for coping methods to not let the worry take over me for the next five days, advice from those who have dealt with disapproval of others and not let it warp their sense of who they are and their worth, and guidance on how to navigate forward.
posted by tafetta, darling! to Work & Money (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a therapist you see can you set up an extra session maybe by telephone between now and then?
posted by Jahaza at 10:56 AM on August 10, 2019

So there are a couple of different cognitive approaches here (which unfortunately take completely different tacks). The one that helps me most is to ask myself what's the worst that could realistically happen. Because, right now, your brain is spinning off reactions based on being a helpless child dependent for everything, including your sense of having a right to exist as a human being and of being a good person, on adults who were angry at you (and didn't manage it well). That is an emergency scenario. Your emotions in that scenario were proportionate. They're not now, and one way of showing yourself that is to walk yourself through what's actually going to happen. If they were going to fire you, they would already have done so. So they're going to talk to you about communication styles. Well, maybe yours wasn't ideal. Yeah, so, that's something they may want you to work on. It's got zero to do with your worth as a human being, and, however they want you to change your ways, you can do it. There's No One True Correct Communication Style With A Boss. It's all arbitrary convention. You'll need to adopt a slightly different arbitrary convention. That's it. These people are not the arbiters of your worth as a human being in any way. They're just your bosses.
posted by praemunire at 10:57 AM on August 10, 2019 [22 favorites]

I am on anti-anxiety meds and I have Xanax but only take that for MAJOR episodes - this one is big, but not MAJOR. I do not feel like I need to take a Xanax (yet).

I don't really get this. What is the drawback to taking a Xanax now?

The problem is that I am wallowing in anxiety about this meeting on Wednesday and stewing about whether I am in trouble. I am having difficulty focusing on anything else.

Sounds like a Xanax would help crack this cycle. Taking one might allow you to focus on non-pharma coping mechanisms like yoga, breathing meditations or even just watching a movie attentively.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:25 AM on August 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

I have this exact same issue. I'm not a doctor but I agree that if you've already been prescribed medication this seems like the situation it was given to you for.

When I get into one of these spirals I have lately tried taking a long term view. This has happened to me (and others!) before and it probably will happen again. There have never been any real consequences for me. It's not really because of anything I did. It's just other humans being bad communicators and me getting the short end of the stick again. That's all! I know exactly what's going on here and I have a good idea of what will happen next. In my mind I picture myself in a hot air balloon looking down at all of this playing out the same way over and over. When I write it out like this it sounds pretty grim but it helps me to feel like I'm above something instead of at the bottom of a whirlpool like I would otherwise. But seriously I guarantee you didn't do anything wrong and this will blow over.

After that I think oh well! It's Saturday. I'm off. They aren't paying me to think about them right now. I refuse to work for free. I have one life and it doesn't belong to them. What else do you have to do today? Go to a movie, do your laundry, take a nice walk, live your real life. Don't think about them anymore today.
posted by bleep at 11:47 AM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

All I got in response was "thank you".

but that's exactly what was called for. This is a simple and polite response that acknowledges she read your message without escalating a conflict or prolonging the conversation. It was not a rebuke or a criticism. It was, if anything, a model for how your bosses like these meta-communications to go: simply and briefly.

I know this is hard to concentrate on when you're anxious; anything is hard to concentrate on when you're anxious. But you explained that your senior boss mistook your tone. This happens. And so your interpretation of her style as "chilly at best" can be as wrong as her interpretation of yours as "snarky."

and above all, above all, it doesn't matter. Her tone is her tone. chilliness is just that: cold. At its worst, it's off-putting. You can be put off, you can dislike your over-boss, you have the right. but you don't have to do anything about it, except follow whatever guidelines your boss gives you. The pain and pressure of anxiety is going to push you towards thinking of this suffering as something they're putting you through - some 'game of fragile egos,' as you say. but it isn't. they aren't part of this.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:50 AM on August 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'll agree with DarlingBri. It's an anxiety spiral. The Xanax is there to help break it. You don't need to take it for the next 5 days, only until you get to the point where other coping mechanisms can help.

One thing that helps my anxiety is coloring. I had a color by number app on my phone and tablet (Tap Color, fwiw) but I also have a pack of Crayola crayons and a little kids coloring book. I use the app when I want to focus less on what I'm doing and the paper and crayons when I need to control my thoughts a bit more.

I'll also agree the "thanks" response was perfectly reasonable.

If you need someone to talk to, MeMail me. I get the same anxiety when I get the go see the boss and talk thing at work.
posted by kathrynm at 12:49 PM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Political analysis can help here. Like, bosses don't have the power that your parents do, but capitalist modes of production mean you have to hew to arbitrary and often indecipherable standards of behaviour. Which is not identical but has some similarities to the power caregivers have in childhood. Of course it's triggering. It is liberating to know that it's not your fault - these economic relations are profoundly new in human development, and they aren't as good a fit for some of us. Including me.
posted by Mistress at 12:54 PM on August 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

I am on anti-anxiety meds and I have Xanax but only take that for MAJOR episodes - this one is big, but not MAJOR. I do not feel like I need to take a Xanax (yet).

I agree with, like, it's probably fine to slightly relax your standards for taking it, but I have a beta blocker that basically is the pill I take before it gets quite bad enough for me to want to bring out the big guns, and it often helps just enough. They're not controlled substances so you might be able to get something like that just by going to a walk-in clinic.
posted by Sequence at 12:56 PM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I had the Xanax, I would take it, however...

When I have anxiety, any kind of physical activity helps. A cooking project, a craft project, cleaning, going outside and doing yard work, walking (especially with a camera, focusing on taking pics of nature, birds, trees, etc.), or watching YouTube videos on things I am interested in doing someday, like wood working or whatever, those all help keep my mind occupied.

I also write a draft email, no one in the address box, and do this first thing in the morning, writing until I get too tired to vent anymore. Then I close it and don't look at it again. It's out of my head, see?

Other things I do is talk out loud, at home, by myself, as if I were talking to the person or persons involved. The cats seem interested, and often take it as a sign I want to feed them, or pet them, ha-ha.

I was once in a similar situation, the big boss was very mercurial and acerbic, and I never knew where I stood with him. I knew his son, who was a co-worker, and he even admitted that his dad was a bit of a pill.

The best thing for me was staying as far away from big boss as possible, and limiting my interaction with him. If I had a meeting with him, say he needed to approve a design I was working on (part of my job involved designing brochures), I would bring someone else with me, my boss or one of my boss's direct reports (which was appropriate in this case). I didn't hate the guy, but his management style rubbed me the wrong way entirely (had once had him leaning on my cubicle counter, talking to another manager, and griping about the "peons" of which I was one, yay).

Off work, he was a different person, and somewhat likable. At work, he was a tyrant, and we all sort of shrank in our seats whenever he walked past, because if he saw something he didn't like, we'd hear about it later. For instance, I was moved to a regular cubicle with walls, so I could concentrate on my design work, and he didn't like that, as I also had administrative assistant duties, and secretaries needed to be sitting in a cubicle with a counter, so people could come up and give them work, I guess??? He was very old school. I left that job eventually, as the atmosphere was not a good fit for me, a former theater major in college, that's for sure!

My advice is to do anything and everything possible to wear yourself out physically and mentally, when you are off work at least, and use a worry stone or spinner ring to help when you are at work. A co-worker of mine gave me a worry stone, and I loved it. Good luck!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:50 PM on August 10, 2019

Here's one thing on that might help on the cognitive level.
1. What's the worst thing that could realistically happen? You get fired? Probably not. Boss says grandboss was annoyed by communication style? Plausible. Something worse?
2. Make a plan for the meeting. So the plan might include things like Bring paper to take notes. A list of questions to ask if boss says certain things. Don't argue. Don't cry. etc. Include in your plan what to do after the meeting to take care of yourself.
3. WRITE DOWN THE PLAN. This is very important. If it says in your head it will just add the anxiety. Write it down.
4. Once you write it down, every time you think about it, tell yourself, you already have a plan you don't need to think about it any more. If you really do need to think about it, then get out the written plan and focus on what needs to be added.
5 Give your brain something else to worry about. Have you done your Christmas/holiday shopping yet? Do you have gifts for all of the upcoming birthdays? Do you need to reorganize your pantry? Every time you start to worry about the meeting, remind yourself that you already have a plan and shift focus to worrying about what to get your brother for the holidays or whatever else is in need of productive worry.
ps Seconding the recommendations for exercise!!!
posted by metahawk at 6:45 PM on August 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is a dumb answer, but I have a lot of issues around rule breaking/following and being "in trouble"/not "in trouble", largely stemming from a childhood with intensely authoritarian, controlling parents (plus a huge dose of internalised stuff around the importance of rule-following) and whenever I get too hung up on this, I find solace in the wisdom of Ray Smuckles from the comic Achewood. Specifically the middle panel of this strip where he says "being in trouble is a fake idea".

I know it's not really logic, but I find a ton of comfort in "being in trouble is a fake idea" as a mantra. I'm an adult! What's the worst that could actually happen to me from being in trouble that I can't weather? Losing my job or being "in trouble" with the law would be very, very bad, but I strongly suspect I'd be able to survive it.

If any of your stuff around being "in trouble" comes from the feeling that you can't survive the (even temporary, mild) disapproval of others, like you have to be perfect and liked all the time or else extremely bad things will happen, or you get super emotionally reactive when you suspect someone is treating you as though you're "in trouble", these are important and useful things to take to therapy if that's an option for you. I promise you that this is survivable, however. I went from feeling like I could not survive my parents' disapproval to now not really caring what my surviving parent thinks of me or how I live my life.

I still have way too many layers of personality that are concerned with rule-following, but deep down in the small core of chaos at the centre of my being, I really strongly believe that being in trouble is a fake idea.
posted by terretu at 3:49 AM on August 11, 2019 [20 favorites]

> being in trouble is a fake idea

Just wanted to reinforce this. Fuck those adults who perpetuate their own shit by belittling & humiliating children because they can't stand to see people breaking their bullshit rules that aren't important anyway. We spend a lot of time as adults trying to recover from that treatment.

When I was eleven, I started at a school that was considerably fancier than the one that I'd attended up to that point. The deputy headmaster was the Discipline Guy. One morning at assembly he singled me out because he though I wasn't paying enough attention, and boomed out in his booming voice that I should come to see him in his office after assembly, for Punishment. Naturally, as a new kid in a big school with everyone looking at me, I was crapping myself. I went to his office, and he sat behind his desk & told me that he was too important doing Important Things so I should come back at break time for him to deal with me. At 11:00 I came back, but again he was too busy for me, so I should come back at lunchtime.

I was still scared of him at 11:00, but between 11:00 and lunchtime my body found that it had spent more than enough time being in fear, so when I went to his office for the third time, I'd gone all the way past fear into I-actually-don't-give-a-fuck. He was trying to instil more intimidation in me by dragging the whole thing out, but it worked exactly the other way.

Of course, when I showed up at lunchtime, all he had for me was a Stern Telling Off, which bounced right off the impervious hard shell that I'd just grown. He helped me out, without meaning to, by teaching me that they can do their worst with their intimidation bullshit, and it still isn't very bad.

Eventually I had to learn when & how to shed that hard shell & feel stuff again, but that's a different story.

OP, I predict that when your appointment with your boss eventually comes around, they won't have very much for you to be scared of. I predict that your boss is working out their own issues with your grandboss, and is using you as scapegoat.
posted by rd45 at 8:28 AM on August 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

"What if things work out?" Also, lots of good coping strategies in the replies.
posted by msittig at 4:37 PM on August 11, 2019

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