How can I attend a work meeting without having an existential crisis?
December 10, 2020 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I have a job where part of my role is to attend meetings with my peers within my group and also other colleagues. I have gotten better over my 8 year career but I have always had a lot of anxiety based around meetings specifically. Working from home due to COVID has actually helped the situation quite a bit because I am less distracted and nervous when I don't have to see others' facial expressions or worry about how I look or if I'm sitting weirdly or what to do with my hands. I'm fine when I'm doing other parts of my job, it's just any meeting. More details inside...

It's mostly the ones within my peer group. My mind goes haywire. I get distracted by peoples' tone of voice, what they're thinking about me, how good everyone else sounds, how they're the new favorite and I'm just seeming worse and worse... it goes on and on. I basically think about everything negative except paying attention to what anyone is actually saying. It's hard for me to actually listen and contribute when I'm like this. Then, I think way too much about "shoot I have been really quiet, I have to say something" and then I force myself to say something. And basically it makes me look even worse than if I just kept quiet, because I practically have a panic attack while I'm talking, and it comes out sounding really awkward and my tone is harsh, because I'm nervous.

I feel like I come across as super smart when I'm writing emails, but that's basically the only time. Otherwise, most of the time I can't string more than 1 word together intelligently enough to make any sort of sense.

I have gotten good/great performance reviews in every job I've had, but I can't help but think this is really holding me back. I get the comment "be more confident" but nothing about "don't be such a nervous wreck". Not that I really want to move up that badly, but I just want to feel okay with myself for being bad at communicating verbally articulately, or just be at peace with myself for being a nervous wreck. Yeah, I think that's what I want. To not let every meeting make me hate myself and beat myself up for hours afterward.

I'm looking for tips to get to a place of "peace" with the situation and to be able to attend a meeting and speak in the meeting without having an existential crisis afterwards. Thanks!
posted by koolaidnovel to Work & Money (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you by any chance have ADHD? These sound a bit like possible ADHD symptoms to me -- worth looking into if you haven't already.
posted by mekily at 6:27 PM on December 10, 2020

Best answer: I am someone who has struggled with meetings a lot, due to diagnosed ADD and (probable, undiagnosed) ASD. I think I handle them okay, in that they haven't hurt my career, but they cause me a lot of stress and are the single worst thing about my job. I loathe them. It's all exacerbated by Zoom but meetings have always been really really hard.

Things that have helped me:

1. Cut myself some slack. Recognise that for whatever reason, I find this challenging. Other people find other things challenging! That's okay. It doesn't mean I don't owe it to myself and colleagues to try to do the best that I can at meetings, but it okay to find things hard. Simply giving myself permission to find it hard, and not beating myself over the fact of finding it hard, really helped a lot.

2. As much as possible I now try to approach meetings as just interesting conversations in my mind. I don't think about them as a referendum or a performance on me, but a time to talk to interesting people and solve a mutual problem. That helps me get out of my head and stop observing myself and start listening.

3. Realise that all meetings need people who take on all roles. Not everyone should speak in a meeting, so if you're someone who is quiet 95% of the time but listens and learns and uses the information from the meeting in a useful way afterward, that's great! We need more of you. Similarly, if you're someone who has to talk to stay engaged, that's good too (as long as you're not hogging the floor). Basically, there's room for your style, whatever your style is, as long as your style is not "pay no attention and do nothing" or "stonewall and be a jerk."

4. For me it was also really helpful to find things to distract part of my mind. (This is the ADD part). i.e. I do a craft or play sudoku or colour or something. It makes me pay attention so much better and I just told people that it does so, and it's obvious that it does so, so nobody has had a problem with it (to the extent that they can see it).

5. Finally, also give yourself permission to try to structure your role so you minimise the number of meetings. I'm doing that and it's really helping me a lot, too. Maybe you can't get them down to zero but I bet you can get them to fewer than you have now. It's worth the effort.
posted by forza at 6:53 PM on December 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

To me this sounds like social anxiety. Apart from therapy, something which might help is trying to remember that no one else is as focused on you as you are. Just as you are getting so caught up in thinking about yourself, other people in the meeting are most likely thinking mostly about themselves as well (though maybe not to such an extreme).

Would it be out of place for you to take notes in meetings?

Writing notes would keep your hands busy, would keep you from spending too much time looking at and trying to decipher other people's facial expressions, and would also keep you focused on the discussion. If you did decide to make a contribution, you would have notes to refer to to keep yourself on track.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 9:00 PM on December 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Two things I do when I'm scared shitless before a difficult meeting:

1) You know what's going to happen in those meetings, right? Set yourself one goal. It could be: "Today I will say one particular thing, but only one, in the meeting. If I manage that, I'll count the meeting successful." But make it something genuinely useful to you. Like, determine to say something that reminds people of something they tend to forget, or boosts someone else's signal who you think could use some boosting, shows off your own initiative or whatever else might make sense for you. Go over what you're going to say beforehand and at what point you'll be most likely to say it. Once there, stick to your plan. As long as you do this one thing, you will have been successful. Do not focus on any other measure of "am I doing a good job". Just this one thing.

2) Before the meeting, envision a meeting that goes well, just as you'd want it to. Like, really imagine the details and make it realistic. What you'll say, what they will reply. Your well thought out inputs. The results. Everything, the way you'd like it to pan out. I don't like woo and I'm not suggesting imagining a perfect meeting will make one materialise. But it puts you in the right headspace for making a good interaction happen. A lot more than being scared of terrible but vague consequences does! Part of you will feel like you've already been there, done that, and succeeded, and it'll make you walk into this meeting differently

In general, you should probably talk to a therapist about catastrophising - you get great performance reviews but you still beat yourself up and imagine people thinking the worst of you. That sounds like it would manifest in all sorts of negative ways in your life, not just with regard to meetings.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:40 AM on December 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should investigate whether your anxiety is at a level where it could use treatment -- therapy or drugs -- but in the interim, I encourage you to take the most detailed notes imaginable of every meeting you attend. Try to capture the gist of everything everyone says during the meeting. It's almost impossible to create a transcript without substantial training and special software, but it is generally possible to make a one or two bullet point summary for literally every person who opens their mouth in a meeting.

If you're focused on a task -- taking detailed notes -- you may be able to distract your brain from those thoughts. Looking down at your notes will keep you from staring at other people's faces and trying to interpret their meaning. Taking notes will also mean you know what has already been said, meaning that if you are called upon to comment, you will be doing so based on a solid understanding of what's going on, which is more than a lot of people can say in meetings.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:11 AM on December 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

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