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Seniority, anxiety and dealing with confidence issues

A short follow up to my blog post about seniority in design.

These days, people assume that I’ve always been confident and comfortable speaking in front of a room full of strangers or having to speak up and lead conversations.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve learned how to act confidently, even when I feel anxious in a new or challenging situation.

Most of the time I can now switch this ‘confidence’ on and off, but this doesn’t mean I am a naturally confident person. I try to live by the rule that being confident isn’t something that you are, it’s something that you act upon. I find this helps.

The point I wanted to make is this. Talking from experience, plenty of people working in senior positions still struggle with anxiety and self doubt. But they’re the people that have learned how to deal with and work through their anxiety. As they’ve progressed in their careers this will mean they’ve worked through multiple levels of anxiety in increasingly challenging situations. Sometimes this will have happened with the support of others. But it’s just as likely to have come from a combination of their own determination, self-reflection, and then how they’ve adapted the way they work and communicate along the way.

A survivors guide

This might not work for everyone, but here are some areas to focus on from my own experience, and based on what I’ve seen working for others.

Lean on other people

I don’t do this enough.

A way of managing anxiety is knowing when and how to trust others to take the strain for you at the right times. Also, being able to recognise how and when you feel emotionally stretched, and then putting appropriate support networks in place that help you to manage this.

Have a drawbridge

Sometimes it’s important to withdraw from situations that don’t help you manage negative feelings or worry. This is what I think of as ‘pulling up your drawbridge’. It’s okay to retreat back to your own island every so often.

This might mean putting your headphones on for an hour after a series of intense meetings, or simply reading a book on the train instead of jumping straight back into work emails. For me, this sometimes means having a break from the internet and platforms like Twitter for short periods of time.

In my work I’m often ‘switched on’ for long periods of times requiring high levels of energy and intensity. As an introvert, I find I need times of quiet and reflection to offset the times where I’m interacting more with other people. This is okay.

It’s also important not to allow other people to emotionally drain you. This is a difficult thing to deal with if you suffer with anxiety. You have to deal with it and it can make managing other people in teams hard. Again, find ways to switch off, or take yourself out of the firing line when you need to.

Know your own coping mechanisms

Most importantly, if you can’t work through anxiety you need ways around it.

I don’t think that means ignoring how you feel. It’s more learning to not to let how you feel effect how you work and communicate.

Know your basics and your fallbacks, and believe in what you know you can do. As you become more senior it’s important to trust your experience.

Be yourself

I wrote last year about the importance of working in the open and finding your edge. An essential part of working in the open is bringing your whole self to work everyday and being able to be yourself at work. This means that some days it’s okay not to be okay.

There are no easy solutions that work for everybody. Instead, learn to make your own set of adjustments and adapt to the situations you find yourself facing. Start with who you are.

Learn to be confident enough to benefit from the opportunities you work hard for over time.

Something I try to stress to the teams I work with is that they have to be themselves. We don’t have one leadership style that always works or defines ‘good’ leadership.

I always want people to progress and to take on more seniority in their work. But they have to find their own voice and approaches in how they choose to respond to this in taking the opportunity to step up and lead.

I hope what I’ve shared is helpful. Working in the open is one of my own ways of dealing with confidence and anxiety. You can comment on this post if you want to share your own experiences.

This blog post is also published on Medium.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.