TGIF – Anxiety and Impostor Syndrome

I’m back. Back at work, and back at the blog. And, what I’m realizing, is just how related those two things really are.

I’ve mentioned in a post or two that I suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The depression and the PTSD are more-or-less well-controlled…until they’re not. But when they’re not, the episodes are relatively contained, probably because I’m relatively accustomed to recognizing them and have learned a variety of coping skills to work through them. It’s no picnic to spend two days unable to get myself out of bed (and not even have the oomph to call the office to tell them that I’m not coming in), and it’s no picnic to have something seemingly innocuous trigger a full-blown sobbing meltdown…but it’s manageable. Those things happen.

The anxiety just IS. I take medication. I learn techniques to try to keep it under control. But nothing really helps that much, and it’s exhausting. And right now, the anxiety manifests itself most clearly with respect to my work.

Here’s the thing. (A thing?) I’ve always been really good at school. I’m convinced that it’s because school comes with very clear rules — do this, don’t do this, read this, study this, take this test, write this paper, and voila! Success!! So, naturally, I’ve gravitated to lots and lots of school. I went to the Air Force Academy, and earned a double major and a minor and a couple of academic honors to go along with it. Then I went directly to a Ph.D program in public policy analysis and earned another degree and some more honors. Then I worked for a few years, gravitated back to academics (teaching, this time) and ultimately left the military so that I could…go back to school. Law school, this time. I was pretty good at law school — not exceptional, at least not by the end (#failingmarriage) — but pretty good. And so eventually I earned a prestigious post-graduate fellowship to provide legal aid to veterans with disabilities.

And now I’m here, entrusted to do exactly what I *think* I want to be doing, and I’m terrified. It turns out that while “the law” is full of rules, the actual work of lawyering is much more of an art than a science…and I am not (NOT) an artist. I have no idea what I am doing. And the thing about this fellowship is that it’s designed to “expand” the reach of the non-profit organizations to which the fellows are sent…so no one at the agency I’m working for really knows what I’m doing, either. So I have clients (14) and emails (41) and voicemails (10) piling up…and I’m just terrified to even start to tackle them.

If you have anxiety, you probably understand the terror. Who knows what sort of terrible information could be awaiting me if I listen to the voicemails? Who knows what sort of bad news or insurmountable obstacle will present itself in the unread emails? And then once I’ve worked up the courage to tackle the inboxes…will I know what to do? (No.) Will I know what to say? (No.) Will I say something awkward? (Yes.) Will I mess up the process and make our administrative assistant scowl? (Yes.) Will my clients be disappointed and frustrated? (Yes.) Can I actually do this? (No.) Have I closed a single case since I started? (Yes, but only one.) [FN1: For the Enneagram nerds among us, I’ve actually found the growth practices within that teaching framework to be helpful for some of these things. But boy oh boy. I am a SIX.]

So I’m putting off all of the things that are scary, and I’m doing something that’s also scary…but marginally less so. As I type, my thoughts pinball around in my head: Is it arrogant to be writing all this stuff? (Yes.) To think that anyone wants to read what I have to say. (Yes.) Is anyone reading what I have to say, anyway? (No.) I haven’t blogged for several weeks. Did anyone notice? (No.) Does anyone notice me at all? (No.) Maybe I’m just exaggerating all of this anxiety and trauma and whatnot. (Probably.) Why can’t I just pull myself together? (I have no idea. Pull yourself together.) And on and on and on and on.

Every day I drive into the office — and it’s a long drive, too! — trying to psych myself up for the small tasks that I’ll be able to accomplish. You can do it! You can send the follow-up emails to the state agency officials after the meeting that you attended with your supervisor (three weeks ago…) — the meeting that your supervisor said was phenomenal. (But was it? Really?) You can draft the congressional inquiry narrative for your client. (Will it do any good? I think it’s hopeless anyway…) You can draft the sternly worded letter to your client’s employer reminding them about your client’s rights under the ADA. (Is that even a thing? Will it matter if I do it?) You can draft the closing letter for the client — that you already gave the bad news over the phone! — telling them that your agency is closing their case. (Seriously. It’s a form letter with like two sentences that you have to come up with on your own.) You CAN. But…probably…you won’t.

Instead, you’ll write a blog post. And you’ll move some piles around on your desk and your bookshelves. And you’ll transfer some of your handwritten notes into the electronic case tracking database. And you’ll do just a little bit more “research” about the relevant areas of law for all of your clients. And you’ll wander through the hallways of your office and check in with colleagues and hope that they can make you feel more competent…and they will — but it won’t sink in. You’ll just stare, bewildered, at the computer screen and wallow in the realest and truest sense of impostor syndrome. Why am I here? Who actually thinks I can do this? Can I just fake it for six more hours in order to get to another weekend so I can regroup and try again next week? Maybe if I can get a few things done over the weekend around the house, I’ll get some momentum going that will carry me through the work week? Maybe if I can just check off some simple tasks, that’ll give me the courage to tackle the more complicated stuff?

Maybe.

My supervisor just popped in to tell me that we were going to do a case review this afternoon (!!) — so perhaps the fear of shame before my supervisor will supersede all of the other fears? Is this how life works for everyone? (Probably not. It’s just you.) How do people do it? (I have no idea.) But…for what it’s worth…I’m going to try. Probably not the voicemails, at least not today. But I’ll try the emails. And I’ll at least call the one client that I haven’t connected with yet. And draft the long-overdue closing letter. And maybe call the two new clients? Maybe? Okay, that might be too much…But I’ll try. And then try again. And again. And again.

#onward.