Feel Like You’re Dying in Silence? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I just read your column Feeling Overwhelmed in a New Role and I find myself in the exact same position. I recently took a role as manager, and on week one I started getting emails expecting deliverables. I came with enthusiasm wanting to bring positive impact, and of course my seven years of experience. But now on week four I already feel like I am a failure—like I am letting everyone down.

I have a to-do list the size of Africa and can’t seem to complete anything. I try to meditate and be patient with myself, but then an avalanche drops in. I am expected to make budget decisions and hiring decisions, and I am on my first month! And I feel that if I am honest and say “I need time to get it together—I can’t deliver on all these tasks,” that it’s some kind of cop-out.

I should also add that I have always had a sinking suspicion I am in the wrong career. But I don’t have a clue as to what the right career might be for me.

I am only 32 and already have early signs of hypertension. I am afraid this stress will either kill me or leave me with lifetime stress-related illnesses. Then I get so mad at myself and think, “Just quit!” But I have a dream of owning a farm and living in a tiny house. I am flustered and confused, overwhelmed, unhappy, and stressed. I feel like a failure. And I feel like I’m the only one dying in silence. PLEASE HELP.

Dying in Silence

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Dear Dying in Silence,

I am so sorry you are feeling so terrible. It sounds like you have a nasty negative spiral going on, and every little thing just piles on and makes things worse. Hypertension at 32 is worrisome. Your concern that your stress level over your job might kill you is even more worrisome. Your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert, so you are in a constant state of panic 24/7.

Job one is to calm down. You have dug yourself a hole in which your anxiety has gotten the best of you. If there is any way you can work with a therapist very quickly, I suggest you do it. If you can’t, you might watch this really smart video that describes exactly how anxiety works and how to reverse the anxiety cycle you are in.

Essentially, you need to change your thinking. All your stress seems to be caused by your own expectations. My first clue was “dying in silence.” So, for the love of all that is good, speak up. Get a coach, get a therapist, talk to your boss, go to HR. SPEAK UP.

The second clue in your letter was “And I feel like if I am honest and say ‘I need time to get it together, I can’t deliver on all these tasks,’ that’s some kind of cop out.” That is a made-up story that you have to change, right this minute. And I mean right this minute. Honestly, if we were speaking on the phone, I would be raising my voice right now.

Who knows where you got that story—maybe your family of origin or a former boss. Or you came from a role/job where you were actually able to get everything done. It doesn’t even matter. All that matters is that is that story that will kill you.

You need a new story that goes something like this: “I need some time to get it together. I can absolutely do all of this, just not all at the same time, and not this week.”

One of the biggest leaps from being an individual contributor to a manager is that you never, ever get to the end of the list. EVER. The list just grows, reforms, and gets re-prioritized. Some things you will never get to, and it will be because they weren’t important enough or the person you were doing it for forgot. Either way, nobody will die—except, of course, you if you don’t get hold of yourself.

Part of what employers expect when they hire someone in a management position is that the person will have enough experience to structure their time and manage expectations given all of the demands placed upon them. So all of these crazy demands are being made of you. It is up to you to create a plan for what you can accomplish by when, and to communicate this plan to whoever needs to know. You don’t mention a boss. Presumably you have one who is not helping you prioritize—or perhaps you are not communicating your lack of clarity about priorities, timelines and expectations. If you haven’t asked your boss for help, they are going to be awfully surprised when you drop dead of a heart attack because for some reason you thought you had to be superwoman.

 It isn’t copping out to stop, think, plan, prioritize, and communicate on timelines—it is being a responsible human being. You are 32. There is a good chance that up until now you have been a “good girl” your whole life. You lived up to everyone’s expectations of you, got good grades, got a good a job in which you crushed it—which is why you got promoted into a situation where you now have to let go of that good-girl persona and stop trying to be all things to all people and perfect at all times. One of the hardest things to learn at your stage of adult development is that you will absolutely, positively disappoint people. I promise it won’t kill you. But you can also disappoint people less by properly managing their expectations and not making promises you can’t keep.

So. It’s time to take a step back and get a grip. Make a mind map of the avalanche—everything that needs to be done, everything others ask of you, everything you think you need to do. Get it all out of your head and on a piece of flip chart paper. Then organize it: break down each thing into the smallest possible tasks and create a timeline for each one. Decide what you think needs to be done first, and if you aren’t sure, ask the person who is waiting for the deliverable. Once you have your list, send it to your boss with a note that says: “This is everything that needs to be done, in priority order. If you disagree with my plan please let me know; otherwise I will proceed according to this plan.” Any new deliverables asked of you get put into the plan. If someone tells you something is urgent, ask your boss if you can bump something else. Or better yet, just say no. People will happily fob off their late requests or emergencies of their own making on to you if you let them. And, because you are the new kid, there is a good chance that people around you are testing to see to what extent they can push you around to get what they want when they want it. It isn’t their job to know how much you have on your plate and what you can and can’t do. It is yours.

Once you have calmed down and brought your new job into some kind of perspective, you can think about the fact that you may be in the wrong career. You may very well be—but I guarantee you have a better chance of figuring that out while you have a job and can pay your bills. If you up and quit, it will create a whole host of new problems that will cause new kinds of anxiety. And once you can think straight, maybe you will see how you can get to where you want to be from where you are.

It is hard to be creative when you feel like you are dying. One of my dearest coach friends, Laura Berman Fortgang, has a terrific system called Now What? to help people who suspect they are on the wrong road find the one that is right for them. You have plenty of time. I know you don’t feel that way, but truly, you do. And if you don’t face your demons head on in the situation you’re in right now, you will simply take them with you to your next situation.

Your dream of owning a farm and living in a tiny house is beautiful, and there is no reason that you can’t make a long-term plan to achieve it. But. I know some farmers, and the workload is never ending and backbreaking. And then, of course, there are massive forces out of your control to contend with, like weather. You can’t risk having a heart attack because there is too much rain. You will enjoy your dream a lot more if, when you do realize it, you have done the hard work of learning to manage priorities, getting the right kind of help, and devising standards for yourself that you can live with.

Next steps:

  1. Calm down. Understand how your brain works and how to interrupt the downward anxiety spiral you are in.
  2. Speak up. Get some help, any way you can. Now. You will not get fired because people around you realize you are a regular (albeit super competent) human being.
  3. Change your story about what a cop-out is. Please. Please. Please.
  4. Once you have settled down, start doing some career exploration.
  5. Then, and only then, create your long-term plan to be a tiny house dweller with a charming farm.

My heart aches for you, Dying in Silence. I only wish your situation weren’t so common. The suffering is rampant. But the power is in your hands and you must use it to save yourself. You must.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

3 thoughts on “Feel Like You’re Dying in Silence? Ask Madeleine

  1. Important post for anyone who experiences any kind of overwhelm or anxiety, especially at work, but in other situations as well. The linked video contains some behavior therapy exercises to help deal with anxiety. As always, Madeleine is understanding and insightful and genuinely helpful.

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