Whether you speak to one of my colleagues, a friend of mine, or my parents, they’d likely say the same thing: She’s always saying “Sorry.” Heck, even if you bump into me, you’ll probably still get an apology. And no matter how many times I’m told, or how many times I walk past a hardcover copy of Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing in Target, it will be a while before I’m able to stop. Somehow, it’s become one of the few things I’m not sorry for… because I’m working on it.
My fear of confrontation and conflict has masqueraded itself as an extra layer of politeness. The irrational fear of being called out as unknowledgeable, bothersome, or just downright annoying in past roles paralyzed me from effectively communicating my needs. I thought it would magically end after high school, but it simply fed on my anxiety and transported into the workforce with me. I had psyched myself out or hyped myself up to ask the simplest questions, hoping to save myself an hour or two of Googling feverishly for answers. Most of the time, I came out of these situations unscathed, scolding myself for even hesitating in the first place. However, occasionally, I had been met with frustration or condescension that could easily unravel months of progress and send me back to my island of solitude.
I can address a full theatre any day of the week without batting an eye—but put me in a room of four people that I work with, and I’m shaking in my sneakers. Why? I can’t see individual faces in that dark auditorium. There are no individual reactions for me to watch judge my words as they fall out, leaving me scrambling to pick them up off the floor. But in a room of my colleagues? Nah. I can feel the water start to fill my eyes, and the sweat start to curl around my freshly pressed hair.
While the pandemic carried so many negative feelings, I remember feeling one sliver of positivity when we were told we were going remote for the time being: All of my interactions were going to be virtual. While some find the disconnection from being in-person isolating, I find relief and room to breathe. If I have a question, I can use email or chat boxes and then switch tabs back to my work projects, no longer nervously standing beside someone’s desk for an answer. If I present to a group, I can just look at my presentation and no one else! And if I have a rough time and get nervous, no one can see me [literally] sweat. And all the while, I’m unconsciously building a rapport with my colleagues as someone confident, eager, and get this: Knows when to ask questions. I’ve realized I can take pride in being a student of my profession. I can let the secret out that I’m still learning and enjoying every moment of it. I can love my career and be good at it without having it all figured out. And most importantly, I can do all these things without being considered unknowledgeable, bothersome, or downright annoying.
It took me years to realize that the frustration or condescending manner I was afraid to receive wasn’t even about me. It took me years to realize that I am, in fact, not a failure, and just simply a human being who had some learning to do and some confidence to build early on in my career. It took witnessing other women navigate their first design job for me to realize that other people face the same fears.
As I grew my team, these realizations only strengthened who I could be to others as a manager and a colleague. I realize that I can combat every inhibition I’ve ever felt in a work interaction by reaching back and swinging the door behind me open, letting others in on the secret as well. I understand the impact of making a deliberate effort to make others comfortable in their learning experience. Every day I make a serious effort to let others know that no question is too small and that we’ve all been at the beginning of the journey before. And most importantly, I let others know that I’m still learning, too.