I decided to pursue self-employment after working for ten years with the same organisation. In that ten years, my anxiety and confidence levels fluctuated, but I don’t recall a time when I didn’t feel scared to talk to people at work.
My life has been blighted by social anxiety for over two decades, and it saddens me to look back at all the opportunities I missed because I was too frightened of people – what they would think and how they would react to me.
Despite this, I managed to progress up the ladder in my Higher Education career, somehow finding the strength to fight that little demon clinging to my shoulder telling me that everyone thought I was weird, stupid or pathetic.
That was until I had a breakdown in 2018 and it all came crashing down. Since then, I’ve been attempting to start several businesses (I have a problem with indecisiveness) and become fully self-employed.
How does social anxiety affect work?
I know from bitter experience how much social anxiety can affect your performance in the workplace. In a culture where we’re all expected to network like crazy and always be working on our personal brand, this can leave anxiety sufferers feeling like there’s no place for them in the standard workplace.
Social anxiety can prevent the development of meaningful relationships with colleagues, whilst inhibiting your ability to reach out to people, attend social events related to work, and speak up when your opinion is sought.
I can remember so many meetings where I sat there quietly, listening to my colleagues dole out their views whilst dreading anyone turning to me for mine. If anyone so much as looked in my direction, I’d immediately avert my eyes or pretend I was writing. Of course I usually did have an opinion of my own, but I always thought it was too silly or impractical to verbalise.
I dreaded mine or colleagues’ birthdays when we’d all sit in a circle eating birthday cake and be expected to make polite non-work related chit chat. It was always so awkward and I placed myself at the epicentre of the discomfort I imagined everyone else was also feeling.
It can be especially hard when your career interests don’t align with your personality. I gradually moved into a management position where people skills were of paramount importance. Of course at the interview I never told anyone that I didn’t have any; I faked it, got the job and then, inevitably, couldn’t cope with the pressure and the level of responsibility I felt as a manager.
There are strategies you can put in place if you suffer with social anxiety but are determined to not let it adversely affect your career; you can be honest with people for a start, practise things like presentations, and prepare in advance for interactions with colleagues and supervisors.
I wish I had made more effort to address my social anxiety at work, but unfortunately I let it consume me and with it my career.
The path to self-employment
One of the best preemptive strategies for dealing with social anxiety at work might be to pick a career or job that suits your personality in the first place – or change careers if it’s affecting you to the extent that you dread going to work every single day, as I did.
You might not be the best conversationalist or networker, but surely you have other skills which could be enhanced in the right role or workplace.
I’m not sure whether only picking jobs that involve minimal social interaction is the answer, unless of course that just happens to be the job you really desire. It’s important to stick with your interests, otherwise if the weight of social expectation doesn’t get you, the boredom will.
I first started thinking about self-employment back in 2012 when I was training to become a personal trainer. After completing my training and verging on advertising my services, I decided that, actually, I should think about children. I had my first child in 2013; Of course I don’t regret it, but it put self-employment on the back burner for a while.
I went back to working in Higher Education and continued that after having my second child in 2015. It was only after the deterioration of my mental health, followed by a breakdown in 2018, that I thought about self-employment again and I’ve attempted to pursue this since. I say ‘attempted’ because I’ve had several false starts due to my indecisiveness about what services to offer.
Is self-employment the best option for social anxiety sufferers?
There’s no doubt that self-employment can provide you with an element of freedom and control not afforded by traditional employment. But of course it can be stressful not knowing where your next pay cheque is coming from and having to constantly hustle for clients or customers. This can be draining at times, and feel not unlike the workplace where you’re jostling to advance in your career.
From a personal perspective though, I can only say that I know working for myself suits me a hell of a lot better than working for someone else. I don’t like being told what to do, hate having to make small talk, and despise office politics.
Now I can choose the projects and clients I want to work with (emphasis on with, not for), and I believe I can cope with the financial uncertainty as I have the support of my lovely husband and a renewed faith in myself that I’ll make it work.
One crucial benefit of being your own boss is that you can perhaps better manage your mental health difficulties on your own terms and structure your days according to your priorities, particularly useful if you have children. This in itself alleviates some of the stress of having to ask a boss for time off to attend a school event or health appointment, whilst worrying what your colleagues are thinking of your absence.
Ultimately, whether self-employment is best for you as a social anxiety sufferer will depend on many variables. I don’t miss chatting with colleagues as I’m not a very sociable person anyway, for obvious reasons, but I am ensuring not to bask in my isolation too much as I don’t think that would be good for me either.
If I just ignore people completely then for starters I’ll have problems getting clients as they’ll no doubt want to talk to me at some point, and it won’t help me take up the opportunities I desperately want to, such as being involved in a business community and networking with other businesswomen.
So I guess what I’m saying is, yes it might be a good idea to choose self-employment if you suffer with social anxiety, but at the same time you should work on addressing your social anxiety so as not to limit your world too much; don’t hide away just because you’re self-employed, unless of course you’re totally happy doing that and don’t need to hustle to get work.
I’d love to hear from other social anxiety sufferers who’ve made the leap into self-employment about how this is working for you. Has it improved your mental health or do you find that working for yourself is still difficult with social anxiety?