Dealing with stress and anxiety

Karuna City Lights

Andrea’s story:

Andrea’s career had been on a fast track. She went to a good secondary school in Singapore, won a full scholarship to study overseas at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a First Class Honours degree. She then joined one of the top law firms in Singapore as a trainee associate for several years. After being headhunted by a leading global investment bank in Singapore, she rose quickly through the ranks and 12 months ago she was promoted to the position of Vice President in the firm’s Legal and Compliance Office in Singapore. Andrea leads the Singapore team and also works with a team of 30 professionals across Hong Kong, London and New York. She has a direct reporting line into her regional manager, Andy, a Managing Director and the Asia Head of Legal based in Hong Kong. She also has an additional reporting line into Sabrina, a Managing Director and the Global Head of Legal and Compliance based in London.

Getting stressed and anxious:

Signs of things not working out too well had come to a head in a more apparent manner after her promotion to the Vice President role 12-months ago. To her managers and immediate colleagues, Andrea’s behavior in the office became increasingly worrisome. Her managers, Andy and Sabrina, commented to the management committee in HR performance discussions that Andrea had become very quiet during review meetings, regional and global conference calls. She would rarely contribute in making any decisions and often opted for maintaining the status quo. She has several important commercial, legal and compliance review projects to be delivered every 3 months but has been seen regularly missing important deadlines to review progress with her senior stakeholders. As a result, this has posed reputational risk for the bank in front of internal client divisions and external clients who are dependent on her to provide professional advice on legal and compliance matters. Interestingly, despite missing important deadlines, she is often working long hours until late at night in front of her computer browsing, scrolling, and typing away on emails in the office. Further, in the past 12-months, Andrea’s colleagues and team members had commented that she is becoming more abrasive and short-tempered in her manners. She would take a long time to prepare for meetings and legal papers, and would check and correct every piece of work multiple times personally and then with her team members. This has caused much stress amongst her team as many of them had to stay late to work after hours on weekdays and sometimes on Saturdays or Sunday evenings in order to be able to finish all the workload in perfection. Recently, in a management review meeting with Andy, Andrea had become irritated and upset over some feedback given on a legal paper that she had produced for a client. Andy was proposing to reframe the proposals in an alternative manner for consideration. She spoke rather harshly to Andy, disagreed with his approach and later emailed Sabrina to express her concerns and disappointment on Andy’s feedback.

Andrea recently did an online course on Self-Help and Personal Development on Coursera. She then realized that she does have a number of problems and mentioned that she would like to seek help from an Executive Coach. She is tired of always feeling like a loser and underachiever.

Over a long lunch that I had with her in a quiet café several months ago, we spoke about the challenges that she is facing with her work, her life. She told me that she wanted to work better with people, if she can ever get over her fears of what people thought of her. She has only a couple of good friends in her life and felt uncomfortable with people her own age or older male. She felt terribly scared, nervous and intimidated when she’s with strong and confident men, male colleagues, or male managers in particular. She felt good with children because she felt they are so genuine, pure, and honest.  She is always feeling inadequate as a new woman leader and have trouble seeing herself as adequate. Much of the time she felt guilty that she hasn’t worked up to her potential and that she’s been a failure, that she had wasted much of her time and let people down a lot. She feels that she could have been made Managing Director long ago.

During our lunch, Andrea mentioned she was the middle child in her family and her parents filed for divorce when she was a teenager. The parents fought almost daily throughout the marriage. The father was the dominant figure in the household and was frequently angry with the mother and the children for no apparent reason. The father had always compared Andrea unfavourably with her older brother (James) and the younger sister (Karen). James was the perfect child: first born, independent, smart, and did well in all his exams and sports since young. Karen was the apple in the eyes of the father being the youngest child and “baby” in the family. The middle daughter (Andrea) was always treated by the father as the forgotten one and often subjected to verbal abuse of being unworthy and not performing well in anything. The main significant turning point and positive points in Andrea’s childhood was her high school head teacher who encouraged her to apply to scholarships overseas after her parents got divorced. One of her university professor provided her with a sense of confidence by helping her get the job at the Singapore law firm. His confidence and faith inspired Andrea to believe in herself in her achievements and potentials at the time.

Andrea felt anxiety much of the time particularly at night. She is often affected by insomnia and would sit up in bed to draft emails, legal and compliance project notes from 4am in the morning as she could not go to sleep. She would be sitting up in bed worrying about how her work is being perceived by Andy and Sabrina, worrying about whether her colleagues and team members respected her and treated her as their manager and Vice President. When she did manage to fall asleep, several recurring dreams continue to be experienced vividly. She dreamed of having to re-sit her High School Certificate, and University exams over and over again; of forgetting to wear her socks and shoes in public; of missing her plane and witnessing a major plane accident; of losing her children in large shopping malls; and finally she would dream of trying to run away but not being able to because of immense drag from the ground.

Towards the end of our lunch, she shared with me that she would just like to start feeling better about herself. She would want to like herself much more than she does now. She hoped she can learn to love a few more people and have a few more close friends. She wants to lose her fear that powerful, confident male and female colleagues can destroy her. She would like to feel equal with others and not have to feel inferior and suffer from anxiety and guilt. She wished that she can think of herself as a good person, a good colleague, a good wife and mother, and a good manager, and also to trust other people more.

Working through the issues with an Executive Coach:

Andrea wanted change in her life and took the step to engage an Executive Coach to help her through the issues. Through working with the Coach, they identify an opportunity to develop a Transference relationship to work through the issues and problems. The opportunity to have more understanding of the unconscious mind and bring it to the conscious level. To gain increasing understanding of the dynamics of her behaviour and also to eventually see connections between her present conditions and problems and the early experiences in her childhood. She explored with her Coach the memories of the relationships with her siblings and parents, and father in particular and how she may have generalised her view of men and women from the view of her own family members. She re-experienced old feelings and uncovered unconscious feelings related to previous traumatic events. She also explored how she has been shaped by these past experiences and is learning to be able to exert control over her present functioning, relationships, living, and working.

Andrea had applied the values and standards of her father and making them her own. The aspirations were unrealistic being perfectionist (unachievable) goals. She was told from a young age that she could be loved only if she became perfect. She tried throughout her life and it did not felt adequate for her. She felt ashamed for having failed to live up to her father’s standards of perfection and achievement. She internalised her anger and guilt, which manifested into stress, anxiety and depressed feelings.

Andrea had maintained a good and close relationship with her siblings whilst growing up, despite the constant comparisons made by her father. Instead of directing her anger towards the parents and siblings, she turned it inwards towards herself. Because she received very little love from her father, she felt deprived and desperately searched for approval and acceptance from others at home and at her workplace. Andrea learned the basis of relationships through early experience with her parents which was constant fighting and verbal abuses. She may have generalised her fears of her father to dominant and confident males in her workplace and in her social life, which reflected on the defense mechanisms and hostility displayed towards her manager, Andy.

The Impostor Syndrome (Kets de Vries M.F.R., 2008) can also be applied to the observations on Andrea. In the cases where “True impostors” seem to devalue their own identity, despite having genuine gifts, clinical psychologists have explained the behaviour by suggesting that people have been forced into an adult role prematurely. In the case of Andrea, the phenomenon of “Neurotic impostor” may be appropriate to describe the situation. The research was conducted by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who explained that some individuals don’t appreciate their own success and feel fraudulent in the absence of genuine fraud (Clance, P.R. & Imes, S.A., 1978). The research showed that people exhibiting this syndrome attributed their achievements to external factors, not to their personal efforts and abilities.

Sigmund Freud also explained the fear of success in an essay called “Those Wrecked by Success”. It was stated that some people become sick when a deeply rooted and long cherished desire comes to fulfillment (Freud, 1953). When the long cherished wish came true, the individual suffered depression, feelings of self-deprecation, and work inhibition set it. In Andrea’s case, the impostor self-engaged in self-sabotage of the success through procrastination, perfectionism, workaholic behaviour, and fell into ineffective use of her time. She is trapped in the belief that because she is an impostor, success cannot be continued and failure is inevitable. Performance anxieties continued to set in.