How to manage career anxiety with mindfulness

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By Gillian Coutts

For a long time I thought that confidence was something that would show up when I had it all together – when evidence of my accomplishments and talent would win against the voices in my head. I thought that when I was confident, there will be no voices in my head telling me otherwise.

What I’ve learned though is those voices or thoughts – the good, the bad, the ugly – are just thoughts. They are not reality.

When thoughts arise, we make the mistake of believing them, buying into them, trying to solve them, and in effect, letting them escalate. Like, “I’m really anxious about this meeting.” Which goes to, “…I wish I could get on top of these nerves. No one else looks nervous like I feel. I’m never going to make it to partner if I can’t…”  Suddenly, from the experience of fear and anxiety about a meeting, your whole career is at risk.

Learning to recognise that first spark of feeling – fear – and being able to just acknowledge it without building out the rest of the story is key. If you can notice your experience and just sit with it without trying to solve it, it often changes. This doesn’t mean arguing back, or even “thinking positive”. It means just noticing, without judgement, whatever your experience is. If you can do this, even if the feeling persists, there is much less risk that it will overwhelm you and carry you away.

The problem is, we are often well into the thoughts and drama of the event before we even acknowledge that we are feeling nervous. We spend all of our energy trying to push down the feeling, avoid it, ignore it, in case it really means we are not good enough.

This is when practicing mindfulness can help. Research shows that spending as little as 10 minutes a day can build up the capacity to notice more of these experiences and reactions you are having to things in your work and life. Like toning your muscles at the gym, you can build up your mental strength to notice more and buy-in less to the passing parade of thoughts and experiences in your mind.

It’s not something that happens by just resolving “to be more mindful”. That’s like resolving to have great buttock muscles by just thinking about it. You have to get in and do the work, lift the weight and tone the muscle. Doing daily mindfulness training gives you the mental fitness to be able to notice your experience, and to redirect your attention to what you choose.

The results can look like this.

Sarah, a senior consultant, was part of running a leadership workshop for a group of very senior executives for one of Australia’s critical infrastructure projects. The stakes were high for her, and the client.

The weekend before, she noticed repeatedly that she was feeling really anxious, and that random fears a bit like, “what if they think what I say is all bollocks?” (and other more colourful feelings to that effect) kept popping into her head. In the past, she would have bought in to these thoughts, escalating the fear to dread, paralysing herself and her preparation for the event, questioning her choice of career – you get the picture.

Instead, she recognised her anxiety. She didn’t layer it with judgement of whether she should be feeling like this or not. What she did do was show up and do a great job, by all accounts.

What Sarah realised was thoughts are just thoughts. In the moment, taking time for a few deep breaths can help calm your nervousness. With practice, you can observe your thoughts and choose what you pay attention to.

Confidence is not about arguing back or convincing yourself of your brilliance. What women like Sarah have noticed is just observing anxious thoughts like this and not buying in, they still arise but it happens much less often. Confidence is the natural strength that arises when you don’t fuel these anxious thoughts and have a go anyway.

Gillian Coutts is a partner with The Potential Project Australia and the co-author of One Second Ahead – Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness. This article was first published by Women’s Agenda

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