• Jennifer McCrackin

7 Female Leaders on How They Overcame Crippling Anxiety



Building a fulfilling, lucrative and long career takes time, perseverance and a lot of self-assurance. And sometimes, your confidence has to be pressured to bloom. Workplace anxiety is a common experience all professionals have, especially as they try to find their footing competitive industries. When you add on the added angst of balancing work and life, many feel stretched too thin and pulled in every which direction.

If you’re currently struggling with business-related self-confidence issues or if you’re fearful you’ll never achieve your goals, you may need a healthy dose of inspiration. These seven female leaders broke through their own worries and came out happier in the end. Let their experiences shine light and clarity for you:

“I was afraid I’d never find something I loved.”

When Tanya Zhang first graduated from college, she jumped from job-to-job, trying out different industries and roles—but nothing felt right. She was a graphic designer but often found the roles too siloed, execution or well, dull. For five years, she felt like she was wasting her time—and worried she’d never find something she loved. Now, she’s the co-founder of Nimble-Made.com and looks forward to her gig daily.

How she overcame it: “Trying out jobs in companies of different sizes introduced a level of uncertainty in a good way. I was more challenged by the constantly changing nature of the startup space and found it the most exciting of the others I’d been at. In fact, I enjoyed it so much more that I left the corporate world in late 2018 to start my own D2C e-commerce brand. My then-side hustle was so much more fulfilling to work on–I couldn’t wait to clock in at night, after my full-time job, to spend more time on it.”

Her best advice to other females: “You don’t have to start your own business to find meaningful work but finding what makes your work or career enjoyable and purposeful is important. Focus on the parts that create moments of joy and fulfillment and minimize the parts that induce anxiety or stress. If it’s not in a career, oftentimes, having a passion or side hustle outside of work can reduce a lot of the anxieties at work as well. Working on my side hustle after-hours made the hours at the office more manageable because I was honestly feeling less anxious and happier overall.”

“I was afraid I’d pick the wrong goal.”

When Maria Pergolino thinks back to the very beginning of her career, she remembers setting small goals for herself. Ones that were bite-sized and digestible, rather than being bold enough to dream big. In fact, she didn’t even consider herself worthy of executive leadership until it was quite literally in front of her. This caused anxiety for her, since she didn’t think she could achieve more or that worse, she’d pick the wrong goal. Now, though, she’s the chief marketing officer at Active Campaign and is just scratching the surface of her success.

How she overcame it: “I became an expert in my field. For me, that was in marketing for B2B sales and marketing technology companies valued over $1B. And because I became confident in my expertise, I was able to become confident in my growth, including how I could help others do similar, attracting me to leadership positions. But I could have moved forward faster, especially early in my career, if I removed the limits I put on my own path.

Her best advice to other females: “For those who have put up these limits for themselves, the best way to overcome them is through mentors and sponsors who can help guide you on when it might be time to take a big step forward. If you try, like I originally did, to become an expert in everything, you’ll take a longer road than is necessary.  Instead, using peers and those who have achieved goals, can help push you at the right times when you’re ready for that next step.”

“I was afraid I wasn’t enough.”

Lais Pontes Greene’s greatest career-related anxiety is something we can all relate to: the fear of not measuring up. Before she started her own business, she worked in the sales sector of the fashion industry. She worked her way up to a director level, but she always felt the constant need to do more, work harder and take on more projects, never feeling like she was doing enough. Looking back, her anxiety was a mix of not being appreciated and always wanting to prove herself to her peers and employer. As the founder and president of her own consulting firm, she’s now her own boss—and has cured this imposter syndrome.

How she overcame it: “It wasn’t until I launched my own company that I was able to combat my career-related anxiety. I had to check in with myself and redefine what success meant to me. Part of the process was understanding how to find balance, learning to say ‘no’, and setting healthy boundaries with my clients. In my previous role, these were all the things that I felt would make me less than, when in fact, it was what made me better. You should not have to overextend yourself until you are bursting at the seams to feel good enough. People will only respect you when you respect yourself.

Her best advice to other females: “Feeling ‘good enough’ should not be how you define success. If you make that your metric, you will always feel less than. Every time you reach one level, you will already have your eye on the next one. And while constant motivation and hard work is an amazing thing, you should take time to appreciate each level of success. Celebrate your wins, and take a breath to congratulate yourself before jumping on to the next goal.”

“I was afraid I couldn’t make money doing what I love.”

As Dani Egna neared the end of her college career, she developed budding anxiety about finding her place in the art world. She majored in fine arts with an emphasis on painting and trying to find a career that allowed her to utilize her skills and passion felt like a hurdle. She wanted to do something creative, and also of course, make money—but couldn’t figure out the right road. The end result of her fretting is her company, INKED by Dani.

How she overcame it: “I overcame this by creating my own niche, and making my fine art into wearable art in temporary tattoo form! I came up with the idea for my brand after a themed party at college when friends asked me to cover them in doodles using eyeliner. The designs were a hit, inspiring me to take an unprecedented, art-driven approach to temporary tattoo design and start INKED by Dani while bringing my fine arts expertise to a unique, new medium.”

Her advice to other females: “Speak to a career coach: I spoke with a career coach who really helped me think outside of the box and offered practical tips for exploring the best career path for me. Connect with contacts in your industry: I also spoke with as many people I could who worked in various creative industries to help spark ideas for careers utilizing my passion for drawing.”

“I was afraid I couldn’t keep up every part of my life.”

When Monica Shuken decided to co-found her company, Qüero Shoes, she quickly found herself working 14-hour days on repeat. This bubbled up her anxiety levels, as she worried she wouldn’t be able to keep the other parts of her life together—from ‘me’ escapes to family time.

How she overcame it: “I wrote myself a daily cheat sheet with all of my deliverables in order of priority to visit often. It acts as a restart button when I’m overwhelmed with unfinished tasks, guilt, anxiety or other negative feelings related to my job.”

Her advice to other females: “Don’t focus on achieving everything at once. Whether the tasks are big or small, or the decisions lofty or minute, don’t think that you have to complete it all right away. Take time to map out your short and long-term goals and the tactics to implement to achieve them, so you can keep your anxiety at bay. I have a rule to never schedule mandatory dinners or social events that over-obligate me. This way my free time is open to spend with the ones I really care to spend time with. Surely I’ll squeeze in a social event here and there but I’m not devoted to going to all of them. By streamlining my social schedule I can better focus on progressing in my career.”

“I was afraid of not being financially secure.”

Most people will battle with financial-related stressors at some point in their life, and Sharon Rowe, the CEO and founder of Eco-Bags is no different. She started her career as an actor in New York City, juggling may low-paying (or even, not paying) gigs. And since she had student loans too, she often worried about paying her rent and making ends meet.

How she overcame it: “I decided after having my first child that working in corporate paid jobs, no matter the paycheck, wasn’t worth it. It was a sort of slow death by many cuts in spirit. I knew those jobs would always be there so I decided to set off on my own. I don’t know that the anxiety really left me until I saw that I could be in charge of my own time and create an income (however small) that was ‘enough.’”

Her advice to other females: “If you’re in a career that really doesn’t ‘feed’ you, the first step is awareness then understanding it’s up to you to create the change you want. You must actively take one step at a time, in the present, to create the future you want. The emphasis is on ‘create.’ We all get lulled into the lifestyles afforded by better-paid careers but the truth is we don’t really need all the stuff. What we need is to be connected, be engaged and work on bigger picture goals that contribute to the world we live in. As my father-in-law has said ‘no one is going to show up at your door with a pizza.’”

“I was anxious about being the youngest person in the room.”

Early into her career, Lisa Barnett experienced anxiety about being the younger person in the room—especially since she has worked in many male-dominated industries. To make matters worse, her first supervisor—a woman, no less!—told her she’d never earn respect from the room because her voice was feminine and high-pitched. She felt diminished and suffered from low self-esteem until she learned how to speak up for herself. Today, she’s the president, co-founder, and the chief marketing officer of Little Spoon.

How she overcame it: “A couple of trials into this new approach my manager tried to impart on me, I realized it wasn’t working: I felt uninspired (and it showed) and unable to play to my strengths. It took some very solid pump-up speeches and great playlists to finally drop the act. And instead of worrying about sounding like or being the ‘young woman’ in the room, I learned to embrace my strengths and the role of being the non-expert & the newbie. I realized that as the least experienced person in a room, I was at an advantage, because instead of being entrenched in the way an industry ‘worked,’ I was able to look at things from a completely different perspective. Ultimately, my curiosity became an asset to my teams because I was comfortable asking the basic questions that are often accepted as truths, but when challenged can actually unlock huge insight and opportunity.”

Her advice to other females: “Listen, but not too hard. Know the inherent biases with the advice someone gives you and filter accordingly. You should always listen to what other people in your industry have to say, but you don’t always have to heed their advice. You know yourself best.”


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