I asked for help at work. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do

I had a phone call with my manager and an employee from the Safe to Work team at our organisation. I acknowledge that I am privileged in having access to a Safe to Work team. My original plan was to work two days this week and then work 3-4 days moving forward. We discussed personal questions around my experience with anxiety, what specifically happened at work to trigger it and semantics with the ‘return to work’ process.

One question really set me back. “How do you feel about coming back to work in two days?”

Instantly, I felt very fragile. A wave of emotions hit me, it felt surreal and I felt vulnerable. I realised in my gut that I clearly was not ready to go back to work. I spent much of the past four days off counting down how much time I had left until returning to work. Each time I thought about it, my time off seemed smaller and smaller in my mind. I would feel dread, and woke up in the middle of the night worried or dreamt about something that had to be done at work.

As I came to this realisation, I was overcome with a wave of guilt and disappointment. How could I let the project team down at such a crucial time? How can I make my manager and colleagues’ lives harder to cover my work by taking more time off? How could I not push through this? What will they think of me? They’ll think I’m not strong or smart enough. They’ve gotten someone to cover me already, clearly they can do it and I can’t. I’ll never live this down and everyone will keep reminding me that at this crucial point, I couldn’t take it anymore and quit.

I sat there on this video call and felt like a failure. That I wasn’t up for the job. Does this mean I’m not good or strong or smart enough? Because I couldn’t get through this without breaking down or burning out. I knew this was the right decision for me. It was also the safest decision and I was taking a stance that I am putting myself first. So why does it hurt so much?

I’ve always been relatively open and honest with those I trust at work about my journey with anxiety. But I didn’t realise it would be so hard to ask for help, and all the emotions associated with it.

Maybe the lesson here isn’t all the negative things I’m telling myself, that I burned out because I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe the lesson is that I was actually making strides in protecting my work boundaries and standing up for myself, but I also had a bad day. That bad day was a sign that I need to take better care of myself, have a break and learn how to ask for help if I want to work more sustainably.

Working sustainably does not simply mean working and delivering results consistently. It means giving myself time off so I have the emotional capacity to assert and protect myself more at work, without feeling the associated guilt, which in turn actually makes me more efficient and effective.

Working sustainably also means asking for help. Some of us are used to being independent, and even enjoy achieving things ourselves, or we don’t feel we can trust others will deliver to the same standards. But to get through life and work, we need to work as a team and that means helping each other. It’s not easy for those with anxiety, but try asking for help on small actions, and forego part of the perfectionism to prioritise wellbeing and safety.

Perhaps you’re leading a big project and have a big deadline coming up, had a good crack but simply can’t do it all yourself, start by speaking to someone you trust, “hey, this is pretty urgent and needs to get done, I’ve done XYZ but it’s still too big to do all by myself, can I please have your help?”. Or if you are simply at your limits with work, “to be honest, I’m really struggling with X, I also have to do Y and these are my deadlines, I’m at my limits with capacity, can you please help?”

Whether you’re speaking to a manager, a mentor or a trusted colleague, and depending on their position or role, here are some things you can ask for help on:

  • Advice on prioritising and managing your workload, and better identify what’s really important and what you can push back on
  • Lean into the process or project and manage conversations with difficult stakeholders
  • Escalate to break down any barriers you’re facing
  • Advice on how to push back to others or what to say
  • Simply listening to your struggles / venting to feel more supported
  • Connecting you with the right people who could help
  • Strategies that can help you manage this challenge
  • Navigate a conversation or managing your workload to take time off

It really takes guts to ask for help, and often we will feel these uncomfortable emotions, such as shame, guilt, disappointment or embarrassment. With time, these feelings will pass. I’m learning that the most important thing is to speak up and ask for help, because only I know when I’m at capacity and what’s best for my mental health. While we all have a responsibility to check in and recognise when others are struggling, ultimately, we are in charge of our own destiny. We’ll never know how others can help or support us unless we ask for help first.

What do I need to work safely with anxiety?

I was asked this question by both my manager and my psychologist after I burned out. Truth of the matter is, I have no clue.

On one hand, I think it could be simply a certain number of days or hours worked each week. On the other, no matter how many “days” I work, my perception of my workload will make it hard to stick to these days. When I was working 4 days a week, I worked longer hours to try and get everything done and manage the day off I have.

With anxiety, sometimes it’s not as simply as the black and white, days and hours that I work each day. Some weeks are worse than others, and some weeks ‘seem’ perfectly fine. It really doesn’t come down to the number of hours worked, but the attachment to work and ability to “switch off” that impacts the chronic physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and stomach pain.

What I really need is to create emotional boundaries between work and myself. I am here to do a job, and that capacity to do that job doesn’t reflect on who I am as a person. As a result, if I am pushed to do my job beyond my reasonable limits, then I can clearly state “I don’t have the capacity to do this job properly. Is there anyone else who can do it? Or can we change the parameters of the job? E.g. timelines, the detail of the task itself to be more feasible to accomplish?” Sounds easy right?

Since I burned out this week, I think it’s safe for me to have a significant reduction in working days next week to allow me sufficient time to recover. But moving forward, I’ve made a decision on 3-4 days from 8:30am-5:30pm for the time being, with adjustments to my workload and meeting structures (I spend most of my time in meetings). Obviously, anxiety fluctuates and I acknowledge that this can be reviewed and agreed with my manager, who thankfully is super supportive (if anything, he wants me to work less next week!).

Ultimately, I want the empowerment to make these changes to my work routines and tasks, have the support to push back and assert myself, and to make decisions that put my health first. Realistically, I’m already getting this externally. But I need to give myself the resolution and discipline to stick with my decision, and not wane in my fear of disappointing others.

There is a whole separate kettle of fish around why I have a compulsive attachment to work, and that’s something I need to sit with and unpack. I need to accept I can’t simply go down the path of “here’s my plan on how I will fix it” or to feel like it’s wrong to be this way. It will take time to build a healthy relationship with work, and that wherever I am on this journey, I am good enough.

I burned out without realising it

I felt a pang of disappointment reading my last post – “My Kindness Project… I am on a mission”. Clearly I didn’t live up to my mission. That was my first reaction. But also, that is the reaction that I have conditioned into myself. These are the unhelpful thought patterns that have turned into habits of self sabotage.

If I rethink this, maybe I took a detour, and this detour was necessary for me to recognise the importance of this mission.

Since that last post, I have moved interstate with my boyfriend of one year. A risky move so early in our relationship but I needed to move nonetheless to reconnect with my family, friends and myself, and he was willing to make the leap with me. (I have paused most of my connections with friends due to COVID-19). I have spent the last month adjusting to a new normal living in Melbourne; trying to figure out what it means to share almost everyday of my life with the same person, a person that I am genuinely still getting to know; managing an ever-growing workload at a high-pressure corporate job (where I clock in 1-2 cries a week on average); worry about the growing COVID figures locally; and the emotional exertion of educating myself on BLM and having challenging conversations. (Disclaimer: I acknowledge my privilege that I am educating myself on the matter and not living it or bearing its burden for hundreds of years – but maybe if I took better care of myself as a priority, then I could be a more productive ally to others…)

So… today, at another daunting day at work, I sent off an email thinking it was nice that I was giving a stakeholder the “heads up”. In return, I received an email flagging that they should’ve received this information earlier and a multitude of “today COB” deadlines. Instant panic mode. The negative thoughts started flooding in: “I can’t do anything right”, “She hates me”, “There’s no way I can get all this information in time, I’m a failure”, “This project is going to fall apart”, “My reputation will be ruined.”

Five minutes later, I jump into a crucial meeting that falls into a big mess, and get a work chat message from a colleague “FYI bad news with a customer, we’ll talk about it in our WIP” (my next meeting). I somehow get through the next WIP in one frail piece and as I hang up, I am immediately overwhelmed with the gravitas of the shit pile that I’ve ended up in. I see no way out. My first thought is “There’s no way I can get through this. I want to quit! But I can’t let all these people down, my reputation will be destroyed and I’ll never be able to set foot in a big company again!” The feeling of being in this deep well of disaster overwhelms me and my chest feels heavy, breathing quickens, and the tears fall fast. It happened so quickly I didn’t even comprehend and then suddenly I recognise the awful feeling… I’m going to have a panic attack.

I don’t have these very often, and I’m lucky that I don’t. But I also know, if I’m having a panic attack (or very close), it’s a troubling sign for me. It signals: Emergency! Red flags! SOS! I kept wanting to fight through it, soldier on, but my family around me pushed me to speak up to my manager. This needs action now and is not sustainable anymore. Thankfully, talking to the most incredibly supportive manager, he made me realise that I’m burnt out and I have reached breaking point, I am past my limits and can’t do anymore.

Hearing this, I can see now how this escalated without me noticing. The slow build of casual weekly/daily tears, working till 10pm, waking up dreading work and the tightening shoulders. The continual push from others to squeeze more and more results out of me, and my acceptance to keep piling the weight on myself because I believe I’m a “good worker” and “I will get through it by pushing myself to be better”. The casual mentions to colleagues that I’m struggling but also dismissing it with feigned positivity that I’ll get there eventually. The debilitating fear and dread before every time I call a colleague and ask a request, or deliver bad news, when I know they’re going to react and dump complaints or excuses on me that I struggle to emotionally hold. I used to be excited to work with people and be challenged, but now I want to avoid any phone calls like the plague, any ping of an email feels me with dread, and I’m filled with constant anxiety that something is going to go wrong, like all my hard work is for nothing. These are the moments that build up and hurt me. They hurt my self-confidence, they damage my passion and love for my job, and they continue to squash my own needs for others and the “results I must deliver for the business”. Bottom line is, I’m not putting myself first and I’m feeling the consequences.

I NEED to prioritise myself. It’s crunch time, and it’s not sustainable for me to continue like this. I have always conceptually known this is important, but sometimes the horrific experience of a panic attack or being close to one, is the stark reminder I need to put a spotlight on how important this is.

Plan to prioritise myself as #1 (v1):

  • Build a routine of self-soothing/mindfulness activities: Yoga worked for me in the past to slow down my thoughts, I should bring it back. By being more mindful, it will help me with the next two steps.
  • Catching self sabotaging thoughts and labelling it as so. I’ve always said this was good to do but always struggled to commit. Maybe I could find a way to track.
  • Identify what my needs and boundaries are, so I can better recognise moments that are triggering
  • Practising assertiveness or pushing back when my needs are being ignored/forgotten, not apologising just for the sake of it and using language that is healthy and respectful, not people pleasing.
  • Rewarding myself for exhibiting parts of this plan

I have called this plan v1 because I don’t enjoy working with finality. I know that tends to push me into a corner, feel too rigid, and then I am overwhelmed with the weight of it that I don’t even start at all.

I actually did finish reading “The Kindness Project” book I spoke about in my last post. I personally didn’t find it ground breaking but there are definitely learnings that I can take from it and apply here. I will definitely evolve and refine this plan, adding more detail and make it more actionable. The most important first step is to take action and keep reminding myself that I am unapologetically, my #1 priority.

My Kindness Project

I am on a mission. A mission to show kindness to myself, and consequently others. I have discussed this in a previous blog post, but now I want to put this commitment out to the world and cement it in a declaration.

I devote this solitude and time indoors to creating and practising habits of kindness towards myself. – Amy Hu, March 2020

I’ve recognised before that there are three main themes that make me disappointed in myself and can trigger anxiety:

  1. The thought that I’ve let someone else down by any inconvenience or their (perceived) expectations of me
  2. That I’ve let myself down by procrastinating from what I planned
  3. When I haven’t stood up for my own needs

The first one (and the third) mostly only occur when I’m in the vicinity of other people. Now that we are social distancing, it’s created a unique opportunity to tackle my negative self-talk. Especially that related to how I think others see me or “the projection of my core beliefs onto others” – my psychologist. Since I’m now barely interacting with anyone physically, it creates space from some of my usual triggers.

Disclaimer: I am not trying to disregard the hardship that millions are feeling globally from COVID-19. I acknowledge my privilege. The privilege that I have a safe home and the financial means that allow me the mental capacity to focus on this.

I don’t have an exact plan on how to create these habits yet, but as a starting point, here are some self-soothing activities that make a difference to my mood:

  1. Drink water. Just that pause to rehydrate myself is refreshing.
  2. Morning yoga or stretch. Yoga with Adriene is my go-to. But also forgiving myself if I sleep in and can’t make it work that day.
  3. Going for a walk (if you are permitted) and practising gratitude. Or even opening a window and looking out. Appreciating nature is a restful break to constantly being on screens.
  4. Apply body lotion. This might sound silly, and it’s the only non-free option, but hopefully you have access to a basic under-$5 one. Applying body lotion after a shower is the definition of ‘self-soothing’ in my eyes. I even include a gentle massage with it. It’s the physical action of showing myself a little extra love.
  5. Listen to my favourite music and smile. Really listen. Listen to the harmonies and that secondary guitar riff that sneaks up in the bridge. I close my eyes and feel the melodies flow through my body. And if I’m up for it, I add a little boogie. I usually go for the “pretend you’re a pop star on stage” schtick. And yes, this whole time I’m referring to Taylor Swift – my jam.

I don’t promise all the answers to self kindness. If I had already figured that out, then I wouldn’t be here writing this. My next step is to read a book I’ve had on my shelf for weeks: The Kindness Method by Shahroo Izadi. Maybe this will give me a road map for my mission, maybe it won’t. Stay tuned.

Love note #1

Before I met you, I thought I lived in a parallel universe where love wasn’t for me. I believed in it and saw it in other people but didn’t see it in my reality. Since I’ve met you and hanging out now with other healthy couples, I’m realising that with you, love can be my reality too. 

So you can’t tell

Lyrics preview

When my emotions run high
There’s no clarity, there’s no stopping me.
It’s like whenever there’s a problem
The world’s caving in, there’s no escaping.
It feels like, I’m hovering over eggshells
It’s just bearable, so you can’t tell. So you can’t tell.

In quiet places, my mind races.
Just low enough, so it’s only in my head.
I barely even notice it.

I make smiling faces, in beautiful places.
Where I go, with my friends. But I’m not there.
I don’t feel there.

Cockroach

I saw a cockroach and it felt like the most terrifying thing ever.

It wasn’t particularly large, it wasn’t poisonous and it wouldn’t bite.
But I was wholeheartedly afraid.

Someone uninvited had come into my space.
Someone I so desperately wanted to leave.
But I didn’t have the courage to kick him out.

I couldn’t stop the fear.
I couldn’t stop the tears.
Even once he was gone,
I still felt broken.

The guilt of a rest day

I knew I would be hungover today. Yesterday was one of those rare occasions where I’ve binge drank in a long time (I’ve been limiting my alcohol consumption for medical reasons for the past 6 months). So I kept today free to take it easy and get some Sunday errands done.

Instead, I didn’t leave the house all day. I spent most of the day watching Netflix and puzzling to distract from the anxiety of starting writing an essay for a competition. I ordered Uber Eats instead of doing my groceries and cooking. I didn’t water my plants (1 week late), didn’t even shower or brush my teeth. The only things I did was my laundry, meditated and post photos of shoes I want to sell. I couldn’t even get myself to FaceTime Mum like I said I would, which only amplifies the guilt and disappointment. Let’s just say I was feeling pretty damn sorry for myself.

Why did I avoid the things I wanted to do? And why did I throw myself a pity party afterwards? While continuing the lazy behaviour?

I guess it wasn’t the guilt of taking a rest day that I was really dealing with. It’s that I had made expectations of doing things that I need to, but don’t usually make time for. Then, I wasn’t explicitly clear to myself about it, so I opened the gateway for me to procrastinate the day away with Netflix Christmas movies and Reese Witherspoon’s new show. Or perhaps the anxiety that tells me I don’t deserve to get shit done so I can be anxious about all these things tomorrow. Putting fuel on these emotional habits.

In a way, I didn’t know and couldn’t express to myself what I really wanted or what I really needed out of today. Maybe not everything on my ‘to-do list’ was necessary for today, but I did really need to go outside and get some fresh air. Maybe I really did want to relax and watch one movie this morning, but probably could’ve reset the dial afterwards and watered my plants.

I am becoming more aware of the negative self-talk, but I’m not responding to that by reflecting on what I really need. Checking in on how I can shift the mindset for a hungover today and press pause on the guilt trip. Maybe it was too late today when I realised, or maybe the fact that I realised is enough.

As my psychologist has recommended, I caught the negative feelings and tried to diffuse it. “It’s okay, it’s just one day, you can manage a few things being out of place at home, it doesn’t reflect your own control over your own life.” Even though there were negative emotions throughout today and I didn’t catch them until 9:30pm now, the fact is, I still caught them.

So I’m telling myself now, just before bed: “It is okay if your house is not tidy and perfect. It’s okay if your whole life isn’t in a regimented routine, from your workouts to your meal plans. It does not reflect your own intelligence, or responsibility, or ability to be independent. It does not change you as a person. Do not let your or someone else’s negative talk impact your worth as a person. You are 200% enough and you deserve a place in this world.” Whether you’re dealing with a massive life challenge, or just had a bad day, keep repeating this. It’s the only way you’ll believe it.

The new coal

Fuelling our emotions with thought

Headspace

It powers us and gives us energy
We think it’s in abundance
Cheaper and easier to mine
That we can just keep digging and we’ll never stop

It fuels our perfectionism
We believe it’s our reason for success
The constant overthinking
The drive that comes from “you’re never good enough”

But we are just digging holes in ourselves
Squandering our self worth as fuel
Mind tricks that create a false sense of protection
Our emotions heating up like a hot world

It is not sustainable
We cannot keep fuelling ourselves from pain
The new coal is not the new answer
We must give ourselves the chance to change