Workplace Freak out?

I have had many jobs in my fairly short life. I’ve been a barista, a bookseller, and a bartender. I’ve also been an usher at a cinema, a front of house steward in my Student Union, and a sales assistant in a crystals shop. In amongst all these jobs, I’ve written and edited for a little extra on the side as and when opportunities have come up, and my last bit of work was an internship with a publisher.

Having had so many differing jobs is like living a lot of different lives. Most of the lives admittedly have had to be lived in the presence of snooty customers – oh, joy – but some have been a little more ‘behind the scenes’. Which if I’m honest is the kind of life I prefer 99% of the time. Because, here’s the thing…I am exceptionally awkward in the workplace.

No, ‘awkward’ is the wrong word. It implies that the awkwardness is within me already, that it’s just a matter of unleashing it on my unsuspecting colleagues or customers…no, it’s not. I am actually fairly comfortable within myself, most of the time. It’s a case of environments. A stressful or strange environment can and will change my mental state, in that it will make me very anxious.

A classic example of workplace anxiety would be…you ready? Okay…

The time I gave a colleague a lift home. Wait for it, guys. It was horrendous.

There was a time recently when I would drive to work every day and park in a multi-storey for 8 hours, only £2.50. Life was sweet.

Back then I was always beyond delighted to see the shutters come down on the shop doorway at the end of the day (yet it somehow took me a while to realise I disliked the job?!). I’d practically skip upstairs to the staff room to get my belongings and get going home. And I’d always jingle my car keys in my hand, asking the whole staff room ‘anyone need a lift?’ After a few weeks I realised I was pretty safe in nobody accepting the offer; everyone had a train to get or was just a short walk away, so I accepted that but would still extend the invite, to be nice. And I wanted everyone to know I was nice. I wanted to shove my niceness in their faces and make them want to be besties with me – and for months, it didn’t work. Then one day, as we all packed up and shuffled out of the shop, one colleague piped up. ‘Hey…can I get a lift?’

I was ecstatic. I shrieked and replied ‘of course!’ She gratefully trotted up to the sixth floor of the car park with me, making pleasant chit chat as we walked together. We talked more than we had all day in the shop. I knew roughly where she lived, and how to get there.

But then as soon as we started driving out of the car park, I panicked. I instinctively turned left, the way I always drive home, when she lived just a couple of roads over on the right. I felt myself blushing as I drove on, her still chattering in the passenger seat, albeit nervously now because she knew we were headed the wrong way. I ended up blurting out at some traffic lights – about 10 minutes off course – that I was fully aware I’d gone the wrong way. But then I just…giggled?! I was meant to be playing it cool and befriending my fellow booksellers, but here I was leading one of them far from home and not even saying sorry?! It got worse when I finally did a U-turn and got us back on track, still going the long way round. I forced a laugh and said ‘good job you’re only going back home!’

Then my colleague replied: ‘oh, actually I have a gym class to get to. I worried I wouldn’t make it…walking. So I asked for a lift.’

This horrendous tale ends with a sweaty me pulling over in the main road to drop her off near ‘the shortcut’ to her place, apologising profusely for endangering her admittance to Legs Bums ‘n’ Tums, and then driving home breathing heavily and near tears the whole way.

Care for another anxious situation? Alrighty! There was one time a colleague confided in me about their mean mother-in-law. They really opened up, got right into it, told me everything they’d been feeling and never told their other half because they didn’t want to upset them. I listened thoughtfully, took it all in and then… I told them about my current awkward romantic situation. All the ins and outs. Literally. I know, why?! I think something short-circuited in my mind and I felt that to make this colleague baring their soul to me feel a little better, I should tell them something deep and painful (ooh err). Safe to say that ended the whole sharing thing for the rest of my employment.

Over the years, working at these different jobs and living these different lives, I have developed a few coping mechanisms and calming methods for when these anxious, awkward situations arise.

The first and most important one is: shake it off. Yes, this flawless Taylor lyric has proven very useful for me when I get overwhelmed with anxiety at work. I’ll feel myself getting het up and panicking a little, the terror just bubbling under the surface, and I’ll physically move myself. I’ll step away from the problem, if only a tiny bit, and I’ll take deep breaths to clear my mind and shake it free of the bad feelings creeping in. Another slightly more specific and extreme one was to make myself a coffee. This method came into being when I worked as a barista and found it tough interacting with customers constantly for long shifts over a very small bar under bright lights with constant heat on my face and the most tepid repetitive music playing… *shudder* I always found the process of grinding and tamping and brewing espresso relaxing. If there was ever a gap between customers, I’d make myself a black coffee. I know caffeine isn’t very good for anxiety, of course, and the funny thing is I’d hardly ever drink the coffees I made. I’d just…make them. That was enough. Busying myself, with something just for me! So that’s definitely worth a try.

And as per, it’s always good to talk. It took a while but I finally got to a point where I’d tell my colleagues – the few I really felt comfortable with, anyway – when I was feeling a bit jittery and unhappy in a situation. Whether it was a particularly rude customer, a tough order to process under pressure or a run-in with a fellow staff member in the toilets… I learned to speak up, just a little, eventually. And I must say, if you can find a confidante at work or even someone to come home to and unload on just a little, it’s super helpful and excellent, and makes you feel like less of a ‘workplace weirdo’.

Book blogger extraordinary Grace Latter blogs at Almost Amazing Grace and you can find her on Twitter here.

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