After almost three years of working multiple near-minimum wage jobs, a seemingly great job opportunity finally fell into my lap.
Happy ending? Not entirely.
The emotional scars from working 14-hour days, still stressing over rent, and having a male employer who didn’t respect me began to take their toll.
Some say everything happens for a reason. Now that I’m doing better, I can perhaps agree more with that sentiment. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only woman to have experienced workplace anxiety, which made me passionate about sharing what I learned with others. Here are four lessons I took away.
1. Women still aren’t equal in the workplace
Legally, employers can no longer discriminate on the basis of sex, but in reality, behaving exactly the way men do at work can cost women their jobs. I’ll never forget my former boss hearing a male coworker literally screaming very inappropriately at a customer on the phone and just walking by. But should my own frustration lead to so much as asking for some assistance, I’d receive responses like, “It’s not rocket science, honey.”
Anyone who watched the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh witnessed the way that men who display emotion are frequently rewarded, while women who do the same are derided and dismissed. Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford maintained perfect composure during incredibly harsh questioning and was disbelieved. Kavanaugh sat on the stand alternately hollering and crying and earned a Supreme Court appointment.
2. Anxiety takes many forms for women
Everyone worries now and then. Those with anxiety disorders differ in that the feeling doesn’t fade even when no external stimuli warrant the worry. Those suffering from general anxiety disorder often see the worst possible outcomes when making workplace decisions. Others may experience panic attacks, and those with PTSD react disproportionately to certain triggers.
In a world where women are frequently labeled as “too emotional”, “hysterical” or “crazy”, I’ve learned to manage my anxiety disorder in ways men may not have to worry about. I’m certain this varies widely depending on the situation, but my own experiences still hold true.
3. High-achieving women often suffer internally
My performance at work matters greatly to me and I’ve always gone above and beyond. Hearing about my achievements can make some people skeptical that I’d suffer insecurity and anxiety.
The truth is, high achievers suffer from anxiety disorders at alarming rates, as they thrive on external stimuli like earning the top bonus tier or a big promotion.
The therapist I could finally afford spent several sessions teaching me how to honor myself without comparing myself to others. I’ve come a long way, but it’s important to note that I’ve always worked in creative fields, which are known for being friendlier toward women. I can only imagine what high-achieving women in grievously gender-imbalanced fields feel when they have to constantly compete with and compare themselves to their overwhelmingly male peers.
It’s also interesting to note that in a US-study, 88% of women reported in 2018 that they frequently compare themselves to others. Half of those then said that the comparison generally comes out unfavorable in their eyes. Meanwhile, only 65% of men reported regularly comparing themselves to others, with 37% deeming the comparisons frequently unfavorable.
Additionally, another 2018 study found that men tend to have higher opinions of themselves than women do. Is comparison a uniquely female trait? Not altogether, but our society puts significant pressure on women to look and act in certain ways, and the resulting anxieties in women speak volumes.
4. Anxious women also suffer depression
Many women experiencing workplace anxiety have a comorbid diagnosis of depression. It makes sense. After all, no matter how good you are, someone is always better, a fact that drives anxious people to despair.
Interestingly, the same neurotransmitters influence both anxious and depressed mental states. As such, antidepressant medications often do double duty by helping to balance these brain chemicals. It’s unfortunate, though, that our culture can drive so many to develop depression and anxiety disorders they may not have otherwise had, but now have to learn how to treat.
It took a lot of work, but today, I can sleep through the night instead of lying awake replaying every professional interaction in my head. While I still strive to excel, I’ve learned to forgive myself when I have an off day.
Anxious working women would do well to examine the many factors that could be at play in their workplace to ensure that they are being valued as they deserve to be.