Dani Feigin - You CAN be vulnerable with colleagues; Here's how:
Imagine this: you’re sixteen, and waking up to go to school just like you’ve done every single weekday since you can remember. It becomes a routine; something you’re comfortable with. So, what if you wake up to go to school one day, and something feels incredibly wrong? It’s like you have this internal alarm system, and it’s going off for no reason. It starts to make you wonder, “what’s going on? Why do I feel this way? Is there something wrong with me?” It’s like you’re falling into a bottomless hole that deepens faster than you can figure out how to claw your way out. The hole gives you nothing to latch onto to slow down, so how do you stop falling?
It was sophomore year of high school, and one morning I woke up in a complete panic for reasons that I could not understand. It felt like this “thing” came out of nowhere. It felt like a hurricane in my stomach and chest, a tangled knot that would not leave. I became so anxious to go to school that I would get physically sick to my stomach. I was constantly in a mode of anxiety and panic for what felt like days to even weeks at a time, and the worst part was that I couldn’t seem to control it.
I looked around me and would see all of my friends seemingly going about their days without a care in the world, and yet, there I was fighting this battle inside my head and my body. It felt like I was completely alone. I didn’t tell any of my friends what I was going through because frankly, I didn’t understand it. As a 16-year-old who couldn’t stop crying, feeling like there was something extremely wrong every morning I woke up, wanting to be in the comfort of my home with my parents where I felt safe… I was truly embarrassed. No one prepared me for what I was experiencing… no school professionals, not my parents, no one! Nobody prepared me to understand that, just like our bodies fight off injuries and sickness sometimes, our minds and brains also need to be nurtured and attended to.
The anxiety and panic became slightly debilitating to the point where I was missing full days of school, individual classes, and sports practices. So, I started speaking with a therapist who helped me cope with my anxiety through CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) practices. As I continued through high school, my panic became slightly more manageable. I learned several things in CBT during high school, and two of the key practices I learned were breath-work and distraction, in addition to a general understanding of what I was experiencing (and how common it actually was)! This general understanding allowed me to notice behavioral patterns that were triggered when I felt the physiological or psychological effects of the anxiety, and actively interrupt the anxiety/panic cycle. With a focus on neutralizing my breath, I was able to bring myself back to a baseline level of calmness. The mind-body connection is extremely strong. The key point here is, if I’m able to calm my body, the brain will receive a message that I’m not longer in a state of panic, thus, relieving the thoughts and worries in my mind (and vice versa). In addition, it was vital that I continued doing the daily tasks that were required of me (school, homework, basketball, spending time with friends). If I did not distract myself from the anxiety by focusing on my daily activities, it would slowly overpower me. Looking back, the panic would come in waves. When a big change was coming or I was in a situation I felt “stuck in,'' I could feel it building in my chest. For example, going to college was an anxiety provoking, panic-inducing situation for me. But, with some support along the way; through parents, siblings, friends, college counselors, and wonderful professors, college turned out to be fantastic. I played four-years as the starting point guard for the Hamilton College Women’s basketball team, made some friends, graduated with a degree in Communication in 2014, and learned a whole lot about life. That’s a brief background on me and my experience with panic & anxiety.
Now let’s fast forward to 2017 when I moved out to Los Angeles, California. I wanted to switch careers, get out of New York, start some new friendships and leave some sour ones behind. After several months, I began working as an intern for IMG College, then I worked for the LA Sparks of the WNBA for one season, and finally landed as a Manager of Corporate Partnerships for the LA Clippers. I actually adjusted fairly quickly and did not experience the kind of panic I expected to feel. Here’s a key takeaway: try not to induce the panic by expecting it. Let it come if it comes, and let it go when it goes.
Now, fast-forward. It’s September 2019, about 2.5 years since I moved to LA. I can truly say with confidence that I hadn’t felt extreme panic or anxiety since moving to LA. Granted, there are your everyday stresses and things you need to get through, but that was different. As we often do in our 20’s, many of us try new things and explore new opportunities that may or may not make us uncomfortable. I won’t get into the details on this blog post, but in September 2019, I experienced something (ultimately a huge positive) that caused me to briefly spiral into a panic that I hadn’t felt for almost 2.5 years. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was sitting at my desk at Clippers HQ, thinking about this experience (I’m totally fine, fyi) and suddenly I felt this intense wave of adrenalin flow through my body. That negative pit in my chest, a wave of heat down my spine, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, feeling slightly sick to my stomach… it was all coming back to me. My first thoughts were “oh no, oh god, here it is again.” The fear launched me into a downward spiral. That day, the entire office was heading to the LA Clippers training center to have a barbecue and get to know our players & coaching staff. It was a super cool experience that I was so excited for, and there I was, in a complete panic. “How could I get on the bus with everybody?” I thought to myself. At that very moment, I got up from my desk and was heading to the bathroom where I could be alone, where no one could see me panicking (because my hands were shaking and I thought people would notice, and that would be really embarrassing, right?). Our front desk receptionist who, at the time, I knew fairly well but wasn’t super close with, walked by me and I blurted out, “hey, can you go for a walk with me?” I think she could tell something was up. So, like the kind, caring, nurturing person she is, she dropped what she was doing, walked outside with me and stayed by my side as I had my first panic attack in about 2.5 years. Most people might have preferred to be alone in that moment, but something inside propelled me to seek human connection. So, I did; and I highly recommend not being alone during times of crisis.
Now, is that the way I would have imagined opening up to a colleague? No, of course not. Allowing her to see my raw and vulnerable side was the only way I could get through that day. Little did I know, she had experienced similar panic and anxiety, caused by different stressors, but it was so comforting knowing that she understood what I was going through. Slowly but surely, after a few days and a few weeks, I pulled a few other colleagues aside and told them about my experiences and struggles with panic. It was so refreshing being able to share my life with these individuals, and in turn, having them understand and share with me some of their struggles. It truly brought us closer together.
I know it’s not easy for many people to open up to their colleagues, friends, or even family members. There’s a fear of being misunderstood or a fear that you’ll be judged. I’ve never really had trouble opening up to people; I’m actually very comfortable being vulnerable and sharing my life living with occasional panic and anxiety. I find that when I open up first, I create a space for the other person to express his or her feelings without judgement. It might be a struggle for other people, and if you’re one of those people, I hope this blog post pushes you to try and open up to your colleagues, or even just one colleague, to start.
If some of you are thinking, “How do I share all of this really intimate stuff about myself with my colleagues? I don’t feel comfortable with them yet.” Well, you’re not alone! I have a few ideas on how to approach this kind of vulnerability. Here’s what I have done, and still do, with colleagues to develop closer relationships:
First of all, I try to reposition the intention of the conversation. Instead of thinking of it as: “I want to disclose personal or intimate information about myself,” reframe that thought into: “I want to build a deeper, more trusting relationship with this person.” I’d suggest asking a colleague you feel somewhat comfortable with, to go for a walk around the block, or a walk in the park, or to a Starbucks to grab a coffee. Start a conversation. Be a human! Ask this person how they’re doing, inquire how work is going, make it real & genuine. Let’s be honest, every single person on this planet has experienced anxiety, panic, depression, compulsions (whatever it is that you plan to open up about) to varying degrees. Just because yours has escalated into a more severe experience on occasion does not mean the person you’re speaking with won’t be able to empathize. They most likely will be able to connect with you!
I’ve started conversations with a question, such as: “do you ever find yourself sitting at your desk and your mind seems like it’s all over the place, like it’s racing?” Posing a question gives some insight into how you may currently be feeling and the kind of conversation you might want to have. You have the choice to decide where to take the conversation. If his or her answer is “no, I’ve never felt that,” I have to imagine one of a few things: he or she isn’t comfortable sharing that information just yet or maybe they don’t fully know how to articulate their feelings. Just because the other person hasn’t opened up to you does not mean you can’t be vulnerable first. If you feel uncomfortable or judged by a particular person, that may not be the right person to be sharing yourself with. You would be surprised at how many people are craving authenticity and real conversations. Most people are open to having those conversations, they just don’t have the courage to start them. The more we talk about our own experiences, the more normalized these conversations will become. Being vulnerable takes courage, and we all have that courage within us… sometimes you just need to dig a little deeper for it.
Now, if you’re comfortable with the colleague (or colleagues), and you’ve built a solid relationship, the conversation will most likely flow naturally. Share what you want, don’t share what you don’t want! Oftentimes, once you have disclosed your story or whatever information you’re willing to share, most people will open up to some degree as well. Being vulnerable brings people closer together. Who knows, it may even enhance your productivity levels (at work) due to feeling a closer connection to that individual! Once you’ve shared what’s on your mind, don’t hesitate to inform your colleague of what you need from them or how they can be most helpful to you (during a time of potential crisis and also during the day-to-day). Also, this is a two-way street! Be there for your colleague just like they have been there for you. Ask them how you can support their mental and emotional well-being. We assume that other people understand what we need. The truth is, communicating your needs is key here. Having someone (or several people) I can rely on to support me in overcoming a challenge, regardless of what that challenge may be, has been my own personal game-changer (both at work and outside of the office).
So, why did I decide to share my story? Well, I made a point to begin accepting my panic & anxiety, because now, I truly believe it has allowed me to become an extremely self-aware individual. Growing up, I had to get used to talking about how I felt and what was bothering me. Learning to do this early on has allowed me to become a person that other individuals feel comfortable disclosing their vulnerabilities to. Vulnerability is the key to connection and relationship building, and I have quickly realized the value in starting that connection.
We are who we are due to the experiences we, as individuals, have endured. Because of my anxiety, and because I have needed to learn how to cope with it, I look back at the moments where I had to lean on people, occasionally starting conversations that I was afraid of, and I honestly feel gratitude. I don’t feel like these moments were negative at all. If I hadn’t gone through those things, I don’t believe I would be nearly as emotionally articulate as I am today. This emotional articulation has opened up a world of intimate conversations with family, friends, colleagues, and others that I don’t think I would have otherwise been capable of. While those moments were gut-wrenching and difficult to get through, I am grateful for the social and emotional tools I’ve gained as a result.
To sum this all up, for quite a long time I was scared of my panic. I thought it had power over me – I thought it had the power to stop me in my tracks. So, on top of the negative physiological sensations and subsequent thoughts that it always brought on, it also brought a fear that was crippling, because I didn’t think I was stronger than it. Well, I’m here to tell you that “it” (whatever that may be for you) does not have power over you. It’s also nothing to be afraid of because it is so common and natural. We all go through mental and emotional struggles. The moment you realize & accept these notions is the moment you start taking your power back. Two key tactics in taking that power back are being able to articulate what you’re experiencing and, in turn, open up to people, whether that be your colleagues (or anyone else for that matter). It can be a very scary thing to do. My best advice for this: reframe your approach! If you focus on the end goal of opening up, you miss the moment by moment genuine connection of purely having a conversation. And at the end of the day, I’m happy to inform you, that’s all this really is! You’re purely starting a conversation. We can become so focused on the day-to-day responsibilities of our careers and our lives that we forget that we are ALL human; that we all have a #SameHere story! Remember this, everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about, so don’t forget to be kind, and please don’t forget to be human.