I can recall the first ever interview I did for an article. I was a 20-year-old intern, and I was tasked with calling up a senior career expert to get their opinion on some topic—that part’s a little fuzzy.
But what I do remember, very clearly, is how nervous I was. My heart was beating really fast, and I’m pretty sure I stumbled over my words for several seconds, prompting the person to ask me to repeat the question.
You’re probably waiting for me to say that this no longer happens to me—that when I conduct interviews now I’m a pro and that picking up the phone is as easy a task for me as breathing. But oh, dear reader, you’re very wrong.
The thing is, I’ve been doing this for years. I’ve chatted with so many different people I can’t tell you exactly how many interviews I’ve done over the course of my career.
So what’s the deal? Why does such a mundane part of my role still make me anxious to this day?
We All Get Nervous
I’m certainly not alone. Caitlin Gautrois is an executive recruiter who has been placing senior-level executives into leadership roles for six years. But as a self-described introvert, hopping on the phone with top talent spikes her nerves to this day.
“Talking to people who have literally spent 20+ years building companies, leading multibillion-dollar organizations—it can be a little intimidating, and that can get to my head if I let it,” she explains.
This is especially the case for her when leaving voicemails for potential candidates. She recalled one specific hilarious instance to me: “I grew up going to church my entire life, and you always end every prayer with, ‘And in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ Well I ended a voicemail that way one time, and I’ll never forget it.”
I grew up going to church my entire life, and you always end every prayer with, ‘And in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ Well I ended a voicemail that way one time, and I’ll never forget it.
This fear of messing up or saying the wrong thing usually leads her to doubt herself: “I can’t tell you how many times I have literally said my voicemail, erased it, recorded it again, and sometimes I do it five or six times until I feel natural,” she says.
Alex Osten, an account manager here at The Muse, gets nervous speaking to clients—something she has to do literally every day. For her, “there’s also always this fear that if they don’t like my personality or my professionalism—are they going to request someone [else]? Are they going to complain about me?” she says.
Sometimes the stakes are super clear. Natalie Sportelli, who works at Lerer Hippeau, a New York-based early-stage venture capital firm, can attest that this is why event planning makes her nervous. In her role as content and brand manager she plans events for leaders at Lerer Hippeau’s portfolio companies, and “even though I’ve been doing it for a while, and I think this is true for people who plan events full time, you still get anxious in the lead up and on the day of,” she says. “You want to make sure the catering is set, the location is ready for you, and most importantly, that you’re making the most of your attendees’ time once they’re there.”
But what about jobs that aren’t client-facing? What if the only person at risk is, well, you?
While I get nervous interviewing people for articles, Abby Wolfe, a freelance writer and Muse career coach, has more anxiety about having her work edited.
“You never know what somebody’s going to think about your feelings or thoughts, and I think exposing the most vulnerable part of yourself…is just scary and I think it’s always going to be scary,” she says.
She admits that she suffers from imposter syndrome, and worries that her editors will “see work that they don’t like or they don’t think is good and that will cause them to come to the conclusion that I’m not good at what I do and/or I don’t take my job seriously. I don’t want to ever be perceived as half-assing something.”
The Downside of Getting Nervous on the Job
Getting nervous while performing a routine task can be a sign that you need more training, or guidance, or positive support. But more often it’s simply about the pressure we put on ourselves to perform.
“When you’re nervous it’s really your sympathetic nervous system kicking into gear and letting you know that it’s time to get active,” says Jonathan Fader, a licensed performance and clinical psychologist. In that sense, a certain amount of nervousness and anxiety can actually help us perform.
The problem is, we can get so invested in making sure things turn out OK that we accidentally undermine ourselves, psychologically speaking.
“Oftentimes we’re worried about what other people will think of us or how we’ll perform, and that [worry] can cause us to pay attention to minute details of what we’re doing, especially for things that are well learned, that we do all the time. And we can actually disrupt our own performance,” explains Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist who’s an expert on performance anxiety.
Oftentimes we’re worried about what other people will think of us or how we’ll perform, and that [worry] can cause us to pay attention to minute details of what we’re doing, especially for things that are well learned, that we do all the time. And we can actually disrupt our own performance.
She gives the analogy of taking the stairs. If someone were to ask you what you were doing with your knees as you descend the stairs, there’s a good chance you’ll be so focused on that specific task that you’ll fall on your face on the way down.
“We don’t normally think about the steps, and then when you’re worried and anxious about it you start overthinking what’s happening,” says Beilock. The same thing happens to us when we trip up at work due to nerves.
How to Get Past It
History tells us that we’ve done these tasks before many times over, and we lived to tell the tale. And yet this fact gets lost when we go to tackle them again. That’s why it’s important to have a few tricks in your bag to help disarm the self-doubt.
“Knowing something or preparing is good, but our anxieties and our attitude and our motivation also matter,” Beilock says. As much as we should practice doing a task right, we should also practice understanding our anxiety and getting our emotions in check.
While the tips below are great for mild nerves, if your anxiety is interfering with your ability to get your job done or is a significant problem for you on a regular basis, you’ll want to talk to a therapist who can help you find more specific strategies for coping.
Identify and Stop Negative Thoughts in Their Tracks
Wolfe has had success practicing what she calls “thought stopping.” Thought-stopping, she explains, is as simple as it sounds. When a negative thought pops into your brain—say, you fear you’ll mess up your next team presentation or say something off-putting to a prospective client—you identify that thought and stop it from going any further. Instead, remind yourself that you’re good at what you do and shouldn’t be wasting your time and energy thinking this way.
Put Your Nerves Into Perspective
Gautrois likes to remind herself of something a mentor once told her when she was first starting out and was often starstruck by the executives she was recruiting: “Caitlin, they put their pants on the same way you put your pants on.” This reminder that the people on the other end are just like her—and, may actually be pleased to hear from her—motivates her to keep going.
They put their pants on the same way you put your pants on.
Find Your Relaxation Technique
In those moments of stress, Fader suggests having an activity or coping strategy in place to help calm yourself down or pump yourself up, whichever is needed to get through the task.
“For example, if you’re giving an energetic presentation to a group of 1,000 people, jumping up and down could actually help you to get in the right mind frame,” he says. “However, if you’re giving a relaxed talk to a group of 10-20 people, taking a few slow, deep breaths…could be helpful at relaxing yourself.”
Beilock adds that writing your worries down—much like journaling when you can’t sleep—can help with “downloading your mind,” she calls it. If you get them down on paper, they’re less likely to distract you and hold you back.
Take the Plunge
Finally, it’s important to remember that the lead-up is often the most daunting part of doing a task. As Sportelli notes about planning events, “All of those nerves go away of course once everything is off and running.” The best way to get past the nerves? Just jump in!