Managing anxiety on your own

I’ve been lucky throughout my career to work with managers who have been focused on my professional development. But whenever we sat down for a semi-regular performance chat, one question would always stump me – “What are you doing well?” I could point to hundreds of flaws, but ask me to say a nice thing about myself and hmmm…

Several of these managers have given me effective techniques for managing how hard I am on myself. But ultimately, it wasn’t me changing my self-talk, it was them. And even then, I wasn’t 100% convinced.

But now I work on my own, without a team to bring my negative thoughts about myself back onto the path of reality.

Before Christmas, I was working on a project I was really excited about with a client I love working with. I made a mistake. It was the kind of mistake I probably would have made in a team environment too – a silly calculation error in some data analysis that was quickly picked up by the client.

I apologised and tried to fix it. But then something else kicked in – the nagging voice of anxiety that convinced me this was the end of my fledgling new business. The panic I felt made it harder to correct the mistake. And then I was even more disappointed in myself and the quality of my work. The downwards spiral had begun.

What I wouldn’t give for an emotionally proportionate response to a challenge!

The work-related anxiety spiral was not new for me. Every time I make a mistake, the spiral begins. And I make mistakes, because I’m human. Never anything major, never anything project- or career-ruining. But enough to prompt head-filling anxiety.

But up until now, there have been others there to snap me out and reassure me my world isn’t ending. Managers and peers helping me put things into perspective. Now I work for myself, I have to get better at talking myself out of the spiral.

And that’s hard. Really hard.

It’s something I’ve worked on with my psychologist, but here’s what’s working so far:

  • Understand the problem – when I understand what the mistake or problem is, I can help to understand the scale of the issue. And usually the scale is more trivial than I am making it out to be.
  • Save the good stuff – I literally keep a folder of ‘good stuff’ on my desktop – work I’m proud of, feedback from clients. Sometimes I dip into this for a virtual pep talk to remind myself of the concrete examples of the things I’ve done well. Yes, I may have made a mistake this time, but look at all the other times I didn’t! On balance, I might not be totally awful.
  • Grow my network – I might not have a work team on hand, but I have a team that’s got my back: peers working in similar situations to me and mentors with the experience to help put things in perspective. Forcing myself to catch up with these people when I’ve entered a spiral is vital for helping me talk things through.
  • Remember why I’m here – it’s important that I remember I do this work because I love it. I find new projects to work on that make me happy and that I enjoy. This helps me to remember why I do what I do when my brain starts to get down on me, to provide the motivation to work through it.

If anxiety is an ongoing issue for you, please talk to someone. As a first step, you can check out the resources at

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