How do you have confidence at work when you’re dealing with depression?

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I’m going back to school to become a leader in the nonprofit sector. I also deal with depression and anxiety. I’m learning more about how to manage my symptoms, but I sometimes have bad days. I know this is the right career path, but it’s difficult for me to picture myself as a competent manager when I’m fully aware of how I can fall apart under stress.

For those of you who deal with mental health situations, how do you find the confidence to realize your leadership potential in the workplace? -Moonpie

We’ve talked about dealing with depression when it comes to relationships and roommates. Let’s talk about dealing with depression when it comes to work and school duties.

How do you have confidence at work or school when you’re dealing with depression?

Comments on How do you have confidence at work when you’re dealing with depression?

  1. I find it helps to realize that you don’t have to feel confidence to act confident. In other words, I try to recognize that dark cloud for what it is. It’s a feeling, and it’s worth honoring. But that cloud isn’t who I am and it doesn’t have a whit to do with my competence. I try to act on my understanding of my abilities, not on that dark cloud that wants me to curl up in a corner and eat potato chips. It’s not easy, though. Depression makes it several times harder than when I’m not depressed. But I do find that in general, the more I gently push myself to act like the competent person I am, the less the dark cloud has sway.

  2. On a day-to-day management basis, I often find that taking moments for myself can really help. For instance, if I’m feeling really overwhelmed or anxious, I try to separate myself from my co-workers or office space for just a few minutes. With this time, I can go for a quick walk around the block, listening to some positive music, or, hell, even just a bathroom break can help because we have private bathrooms in our building. The point is that the separation gives me a few moments to take a deep breath and focus on myself and what it is that I need to feel confident or just manage how I’m feeling better. Having mental exercises that you use to boost your confidence can also be really helping during this time. For me, it’s deep breathing because of anxiety. For others, it’ll be something else. Hope this is helpful!

    • Yessssss! Sometimes I take quick “anxiety breaks” in an adjacent closet. The most important thing for me is designating them as such, so I don’t feel badly about the loss of “productivity”. Whatever keeps you functioning is ultimately productive.

  3. That’s tough!

    I have depression. I’m also an engineer and project manager. I need to take care of myself first; Eat, sleep, take my medication, stay active. I’m 31 and I’ve had depression since I was a teenager. It was only diagnosed a few years ago. I’m a smart person, so you would think I could recognize the symptoms, but I didn’t. This is important to note because I constantly have to be aware of my mood. I have good support at home. I have open communication with my husband. I have limitations! I have a hard time with that last one. 😉

    I think everybody has self doubt, with or without mental illness. I am nervous about situations that I have never been in. I worry about failure. I still have to try new things to learn and grow.

    How do I handle stress? Stay calm, easier said then done, because I know I can fix any problem (totally faking this part). Communicate with my team, delegate, and ask for help. Sounds like hallmark card advice, but that’s the truth.

    Remember to fail up. Be accountable for your mistakes and learn from them.

    Look at this list. Actors, Poets, Presidents, UFC fighters.

    Depression does not own who you are or who you can be!

    • “Remember to fail up.” Oh, I love this phrase. There’s such a fear of personal failure in a professional setting, but in reality, nobody is perfect all the time. Such a great reminder that mistakes can be dealt with in a positive way.

      • It’s like Rafiki says in The Lion King: “Ah, the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or learn from it!” and like the family says in Meet the Robinsons: “You failed — and it was MAGNIFICENT! […] From failure, you learn; from success, eh, not so much.”

  4. I had a really bad work experience that has left me with PTSD. So depression and anxiety directly linked to my self-worth at work has been a struggle. I was having really intense anxiety attacks around my annual review at my current job; it turned out fine, better than fine actually.
    I find what helps me is to just focus at each task, one at a time. I’ve started using a Pomodoro timer because I have a really hard time concentrating as part of my depression. I have a list, I get outside if possible during lunch, and I try to be as patient as possible in working with others.
    I take daily medication plus Xanax in times of crisis. I also see a therapist 2 times a month. With all of these adjustments, I’ve got the work version of me ironed out. Now I’ve just got to work on the home version of me.

    • Jenny, there are no words to say how glad I was to read your post. Wait, that sounds bad. Let me explain.

      See, I got PTSD from a work situation, too. I already had an underlying anxiety disorder, and then a brutal work environment left me with PTSD on top of it all.

      But while I often talk about the other disorders, I rarely talk about PTSD. I feel embarrassed that something as small-time as a mean boss could cause me to have that reaction. I think of PTSD as something you get, like, during COMBAT. It makes me feel like a wimp.

      I am so grateful to you for being so matter-of-fact.

    • I almost laughed when my therapist uttered “PTSD.” That’s not something you get from work. That’s something you get from war or violent crimes. Apparently work PTSD is a thing. It explains how I can be fine but crash into a depression and anxiety spiral when certain things happen. But it also makes me feel ridiculous that I got PTSD symptoms from a freaking job.

    • Yes, the diagnosis of PTSD was a helpful diagnosis as I was then able to take measures to minimize my anxiety. Like block employees from there viewing my profile (which would start off my day in a bad way), avoid the roads near the office, and others.

      I have recently had to accept that I have no legal recourse with this employer as I was able to find alternate employment. What hurt the worst was that the traumatic events kicked into gear after working for them with an amazing record for many years.

      There was a post recently about workplace bullying here on offbeat home, which is a great resource for people who went through or are currently going through that.

      For me, The event that started the abuse was that I had returned to work after maternity leave. I was replaced… and instead of firing me, I was subjected to impossible working conditions and harassment until I resigned. I now know that just because there are laws against doing this, they can get away with it if you manage to land on your feet.

    • My husband jokes that I have work PTSD because I worked as a teacher in different inner-city schools for 5 years and now I panic when left alone in charge of a room of children. I also panic when I hear yelling on the street because any time I hear raised voices I think there is going to be a fight. I have very physical stress reactions in these situations: racing heart, extreme sweating, upset stomach, blurred vision. I wasn’t sure that work PTSD was actually a thing. I think that maybe we are more right than I realized.

      • These types of articles and replies are exactly why it is worth it to be up at 3am to ‘process my emotions’ instead of sleeping before work on first shift. I just realized from these few responses that I really did get PTSD from my Masters. This is why I have mental blanks and panic attacks writing my resume after I have written resumes so easily all through BSc level. So to the fellow humans who just posted on work PTSD. Thank you. Completely.

        From that moment of freedom, I can ‘fail up’ and remind my wise, loving inner child that I am writing a resume to find a safer, interesting and better paid (inner child wants student loans paid off too) career assent and not just a job like the ones before.

        I am not a baffling awkward useless and unwanted high school student anymore. I am a mature, considerate, insightful and skilled, highly educated woman. Its time to write the masterpiece of a resume and fail up until I fly!

        Thank you sisters and brothers of the internet! :^D

  5. I’m so happy that you’re pursuing what you want to do in spite of your fears about your depression. That’s a big deal! I went back to school 2.5 years ago to study law. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made – I’m happier, more challenged, and more fulfilled than I was prior to law school. My depression occasionally gets in the way, but I’ve found some ways to deal with it. I know one of my big depression triggers is boredom/feeling purposeless. Taking difficult classes and working toward my chosen career does A LOT to help with that.

    Confidence wise, my depression exhibited itself a lot at the beginning of law school as social anxiety. I was terrified of networking. So I volunteered to participate in lots of activities instead and was as helpful as possible; this also helped me to relax and get to know other people. That started a cycle of people knowing me and my skills and encouraging me to excel and pursue new goals. I’m now the president of the largest organization at my school; I would never have thought I’d have the confidence to run for such a position. Sometimes just being yourself and doing what you can in spite of your depression on you can get you out there in the best of ways.

    For me, having the responsibility of being a leader actually gives me reasons to get out of bed when my depression is particularly bad. I go into automatic and do what needs to be done, even if I just want to be at home lying in bed all day. Sometimes I actually do stay in all weekend because of my depression (just this last weekend for me actually) but I’m right there at work and at school when I need to be back on the weekdays. Of course, everyone deals with their depression and reacts to outside influences in very different ways, but I know that helped me a lot. For me, it’s important to have space and time to fall apart a little bit so you can hold it together when it counts.

    I’ve also been pretty open with my friends and family about my depression. I know that’s not always an option for people, particularly in the workplace, but I’ve been lucky to find understanding and love (although of course, it’s a lot easier to tell someone about my depression now that I’ve been fairly successful in law school than it would have been at the beginning when I hadn’t proved myself yet). Sometimes just telling someone that you’re having a tough mental health day can help you feel a little better.

    I hope something in there helped. Good luck!

  6. I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety for over 15 years now, and the last year has been tough. While my husband and I were going through fertility treatments, we started seeing a counsellor who was tough on me but really helped me make strides in how I handle my anxiety. I’m still struggling at times (I’m continuing to do counselling and have had some personal things come up recently that are going to need a little extra work) but I’ve come a LONG way in the last four years. And I know I can’t let my anxiety and depression hold me down because I have my husband and daughter to look after.

    One of the things I’ve done over the last couple of months (for myself and professionally) is signed up for a leadership development course, and it’s really helped me focus on my strengths and what I have to offer my job rather than continually focusing on my weaknesses and the frustrations of my job. Part two (strategic planning) is coming up in a few weeks, which I’m very excited about. Is something like this an option for you?

    I’m grateful that my husband is incredibly supportive of me and has learned to enable me less than he had been. Without that, I think I’d be in trouble.

    Hope this helps a little bit. I’m going to be very interested in seeing what others comment as well.

    Love the “failing up,” Joan!

    • Can you talk more about how your husband was enabling you? Just curious what that looked like for you, so I can make sure not to replicate those behaviors!

      • My husband would do whatever he could to help bring me up from my low points — pointing out my strengths, the good things I do, the happy things going on in my life. But this didn’t help me because I didn’t have to find those things in myself. I didn’t have to look at myself to see the strengths because I knew he’d do that for me. He’s a “fixer” and he kept wanting to make things better for me. But our counsellor made it clear that this wasn’t helpful to me. It was important that I become the “fixer” for myself. My parents did the same thing, or they’d try to redirect my depressed or anxious conversations rather than supporting me. So it was pretty unfamiliar territory when my husband stopped “fixing.”

        And as hard as it was the first while (for both of us), it was the best thing he could have done for me.

        • This makes me think of someone I know. She had a best friend who was always there to support her, to help her through her anxiety and panic issues. Life happened and they parted ways, as is sometimes the case. Then she met (and later married) a guy who basically made her help herself instead of being her crutch. As a result she went from not even being able to sit through her classes without an episode to being, well, a badass who can do SO much more than she ever thought possible.

    • Your leadership development course sounds like a great resource, daydreamer. What strategies and exercises do you use there? How did you come across it?

      • I came across this at my workplace – it’s one of our employee development courses that’s run through an outside company that focuses on employee development, strategic planning and improving employee leadership and performance. The first course, we did a number of tests: Kolby personality, StrengthFinder, Myers Briggs. That helped us pinpoint what our strengths are, what our personality is like, and how we work best (oh and how we don’t work best). The next one is looking at how to think more strategically in our roles (something this tactical thinker definitely needs)

        There are probably similar companies where you live, but there would be a cost involved (each of the tests cost to be done properly). Worth it, in my mind!!

  7. I have anxiety, so it’s a bit different. However, it effects me as a leader because I’m constantly worried that people are judging me harshly as a leader, and that they all know I’m faking. I tend to take criticism really hard, and am uncomfortable with people not liking me (even though I know that, as a leader, you can’t please everyone, nor should you try if it’s the right call). Also, any type of performance review sends me into anxiety mode. Usually my boss has nothing but great things to say, or if there are critiques it’s something I’m completely aware of, but I always freak out about it anyway.

    I have a few strategies for dealing with this. The first is that I got a blank copy of our company’s employee review sheet. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, like I suck and I can’t do anything right, I look over the sheet and mentally check off all the things I’m doing well. For that moment, I just push aside anything I could stand to improve, and just focus on things I do well. More often than not, there’s a big list of stuff I’m rocking and it calms me down.

    Second, I have several mentors. I got lucky in this regard, but they really help. They are wonderful leaders and kind people who encourage me without babying me, and I feel like I can go to them with my anxiety and they help smooth me out.

    It’s not easy, but I wouldn’t trade my job for something “easier” any day. I think that would just make everything worse.

    • A question for you, Evee: are any of these mentors your colleagues? Is there someone trustworthy at work who can encourage you this way, or is your support group strictly personal?

      • So my career is sort of odd in the fact that the field is small but scattered all over the country. I am also heavily involved in my field’s professional association, which is made up of people from all over the place that meet online and converse over email/social media. So, two of my mentors are colleagues, but they do not work at my actual company. I find that it’s a good balance because they know my work, but do not actually work with me. I was worried about taking on so much responsibility in the professional organization, but I’m so glad I did. It’s upped my confidence and put me in contact with so many fantastic people that support me that it’s worth the extra anxiety.
        My other mentor is actually at my company. She is a manager, but not my direct supervisor, so I am able to open up to her without doing the whole “crying to the boss” thing. I also trust her not to take things I say to my actual boss, and I am aware of being professional even when I’m having a bit of a freak out.

  8. I work as an artist at home now so it doesn’t matter in the same way anymore, but it did get in the way when I was on the teaching track. One thing that helped me was to externalize my depression more and think of it as a disease rather than a character flaw. I also have migraines and when I’m having a migraine attack I take my medication, take a nap or sleep in a little extra if I can, turn the lights lower, maybe put off the reading for another night, sometimes call in sick for a day when it gets bad, etc. If when I started to get a migraine I told myself that I’m better than that and I should snap out of it and that it made me a weak person, my migraine would just get worse and possibly wipe out my whole week. When I was having a tough mental health day I would think of all the other teachers who were managing their diabetes or dealing with chronic pain, and how when things got stressful these things were harder to manage sometimes, but they did what they needed to do to take care of themselves while getting things done. So, when I was feeling spike of depression I would try to think to myself, “ok, these feelings of failure and inadequacy are symptoms of the disease. What can I do to manage this disease right now?” For me that usually meant getting more sleep, taking a walk, listening to music, working in my sketchbook, and later going to therapy. It’s not that you fall apart under stress, it’s that your depression acts up under stressful situations.

    • “It’s not that you fall apart under stress, it’s that your depression acts up under stressful situations.”
      I need to print this out and tape it to my computer monitor at work as a reminder. SO true.

    • Thank you so much for this. I know, in my head, that depression is a disease, but seeing it written out that you can make an active choice to reframe it that way is so inspiring!

  9. I agree with a lot of what I have read above. I have depressions and anxiety and work full time in finance. It’s hard for me to feel confident, especially since I don’t have a degree in the field I work in. Once I noticed after several jobs that many other people don’t have degrees in the field they worked in, it helped me feel better stressing about “being a fake”. When I start to doubt myself I step back and remind myself that I can do it, and if I’m having trouble it’s ok to reach out and ask for help. I am also lucky that I have a job in which I can work at home a few days a week. I know not everyone can be so lucky, but if you can find that sort of work it really helps! I find a day or two at home working in peace and quiet helps my depression and anxiety.

  10. I’m also moving into the non-profit sector while struggling with depression. It’s hard.. but also exciting.
    What’s kept me going is partly my excitement about my new job. I’ve finally found a place where I’m valued for my knowledge and experience, and I’m trusted to do big jobs that I’m really good at. It’s a huge boost to my confidence and gives such great satisfaction. If you’re moving into the non-profit sector because you know it’s what you’ve always wanted to do, and now you finally have it, then I hope you feel the same!
    Saying that, there are still days where it’s next to impossible to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve found it’s all about self care.. thankfully I have a workplace where no-one bats an eyelid if I come in 30 minutes late, because I needed to zone out and read my book for a while. I let myself switch off and watch videos of cute cats when I’m feeling overwhelmed (luckily, even though I share an office, no-one can see my screen!). I can do breathing exercises at my desk. I eat healthy meals but eat as many biscuits as I want, because now I’m walking to work, which feels great. It’s exhilarating to arrive at a freezing cold office bursting with heat because I’ve had a good walk to work. Essentially – enjoy the little things. Find joy where you can.

  11. There’s a lot of good advice going on here!
    My tip is: listen to your mind and body at work. For me, I flip flop between coping with depression and coping with anxiety. I am an extrovert, but because of social anxiety I get overwhelmed by social situations quickly.
    If I’m having a down day, I am not ashamed to say I drink coffee until I’m feeling a bit perkier. For others, this may be eating some chocolate, or listening to some upbeat music. If I’m feeling anxious, I try to talk it out, crack some jokes, take a walk – doing something active helps take the energy out of my anxiety. But if it’s all just overwhelming, I go find something to do in my office so I can hide out for a while, filing reports, doing research, whatever.
    It’s important to keep practicing self-care even when you’re at work. Pushing yourself too hard mentally can just exacerbate mental wellness problems. Ignoring how you’re feeling at work may lead to an explosion of feels when you get home, that is much tougher to deal with than if you let some of the steam off the top throughout the day.

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