To come out, or not to come out? That is the question….

I know what you are thinking… “girlfriend, it’s 2020, love who you love. Get out there and do you!” But I am talking about coming out as a person in the workforce who struggles with anxiety.

In my former role I had the pleasure of working alongside a few of the brilliant minds focusing on Mental Health for our country and destigmatizing mental health, including opening the dialogue in the workplace. Three years ago the department hosted a 2-day conference focused on Resilience. I know, right, very cool job. Hard to believe I left it.

In one of the final panels of the two-day conference, in front of 150 colleagues, I shared that for as long as I can remember I have struggled with anxiety and depression. At about age 14, when I had sufficient vocabulary to express my feelings, I was diagnosed. I have an expansive toolkit that helps me manage. A strong, supportive network. A wonderful therapist. And on occasion when all these things are still not enough, I leverage the wonderful world of pharmaceutical interventions.

In preparation for the conference discussing as a leadership team what a segment with panelists directly from our department should focus on, I expressed I wanted to speak up about my struggle with anxiety in this high paced culture and high pressure role. One of the executives was concerned people would look at it as an excuse not to do their job. Like there would be a million disability claims flying through human resource channels as an excuse for people to “dial it in and get paid”. Sheesh, so much for walking the talk…. only if the stakes aren’t too high. But I persevered, and with the support of other leaders, and a bit of autonomy, I made a space for myself on the panel. I did address the concern in the Q&A that I knew I still had a job to do and was held to the same standards as anyone in my position. (hopefully that scratched the itch.) One leader stood up and asked how they could help me during the times when I am struggling? WOW! Someone not only accepting me, but raising their hand to support me. That’s what I’m talking about! I also touched on the Imposter Syndrome, which many of us with anxiety and/or depression identify with as we take on more responsibility, bigger projects, more, more, more, the voices in our heads have told us we’re not capable of, or focusing on how many million things that can go wrong and it will all come crashing down. I’ll share more about my realization on the Imposter Syndrome another day.

As we exited the stage, I can still remember the feeling. Pride and relief. Once you say something out loud it gives it less power. Plus, having the confidence to get up in front of a crowd was never my strong suit. Public speaking is a fear worse than death for most. You think someone who lives in their head is going to put themselves out there sharing anything, let alone their deepest darkest…. but I did it!

As the two days came to an end, many people came up to me, thanking me for my authenticity, role modeling, how they appreciated my vulnerability. They saw something in themselves, in their friends, in their colleagues, or their family members, who may be struggling too, and it highlighted that there is a place for everyone. One person said “but you always look like you have it all together”. I reminded them, “it is all part of the façade and the dissonance that keeps my struggle alive and well.”

PS. I left the conference early the day prior to drive two hours to see my daughter’s debut holiday play (3rd lobster in the nativity scene, or some other “starring” role…), take her to the obligatory celebration dinner, grab 5 hours of shut eye in my own bed, and leave at 4 am the next morning to drive 2 hours back to set up for the day. Not only was I a panelist, but I was also the wizard behind the curtain for the 2 days. I am not looking for sympathy, just setting context of how important this was for me to do.

The outpouring over the following months was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I would randomly receive emails from people sharing how much they appreciated me using my voice and platform. They struggle as well and didn’t feel like they could talk about it. They felt like their diagnosis had to be hidden because managers wouldn’t understand or think of less of them. The biases that people struggling with mental illness “just can’t get out of their head”, “just aren’t smart enough to overcome”, “don’t have a mental toughness to be a leader”, or whatever else such nonsense people tell themselves to self-protect. Rachael is successful, and yet she struggles too. I am not solely defined by this piece of me. By the way, not one single person asked me, if I ever went on disability or how to file a claim to “take a rest”….

Moral of the story… always be your authentic self. People want to know you and they’re more supportive than you think. We all have our “stuff”, and that “stuff” is what connects us, gives us something to relate to.  What are we here for anyway, if not to connect? As I am in a place of reflection, not running pillar to post between first grade and full time job, I recognize that this milestone of sharing myself was the first step in gaining the confidence to step away from the course I thought was the career path already planned out. People responded to the person I am, not only the work I deliver. Now that is cool! Maybe what I thought about in my early 20’s to motivate me to get a Masters in Organizational Psychology was starting to happen, there is more to corporate than deliverables.

“I’ve learning that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

Published by rachaelsarahgass

Working mom, wife, friend, sister, organizational psychologist, learner, coach. Kindness Counts. People First. Integrity Always.

4 thoughts on “To come out, or not to come out? That is the question….

  1. Rachael, what a great story and watching you (on line) over the years grow into an amazing woman, wife and mother makes me proud to have met you. Continued success my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great words here. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Would never be supported…except to the door. 🙂 miss you


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