How to present your best, when you’re at your worst
TRUST the Process
Between the forced interactions, uncertainty, and pressure placed upon success (often our health depends upon successfully acquiring a job), job hunting is a veritable hotbed for anxiety and depression.
I think it’s safe to say that many of us enter the job hunt during difficult times, where we’re not presenting our best selves. The circumstances for our current employment/unemployment, like recent termination or forced resignation or feeling stuck in a job we hate, might contribute.
Unfortunately, the cloud of negativity around this process compounds exponentially, and can further exacerbate what is already a difficult, unclear, and arduous process.
The thing we need to “snap out” of the cycle of depression — employment (or what it brings, like independence, money, healthcare, success, etc) — is unattainable because we’re not presenting our best self. We’re unable to present our best self, because we’re depressed. The vicious cycle ensues as resources rapidly deplete.
So what do we do? As someone who has continually suffered from severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies, I’ve learned some ways to cope along the way.
At this juncture, I want to acknowledge that this process is. not. easy. It is perfectly normal to have “productive, good days,” and to have “wasted, bad days.” Or weeks. Or months. You are worth more than the sum of your productivity. As with coping and surviving depression, the process is far from linear.
The secret is that you have to T.R.U.S.T. the process.
[T]ry not to compare yourself to anyone, except your past and future selves 📌
It is very easy to fall into a trap where you’re six pages deep into Dribbble for portfolio inspiration, instead wondering why your UIs aren’t as crisp, illustrations not as dynamic, and animations not as clever as everybody else’s.
First, you are comparing yourself to the entire world. How is that going to work? Let’s try it out. Talented illustrator could have had access to the best tools, tutelage, and time. Chances are you’re going to fixate on all of their positives, without considering that they also come with negatives.
Talented illustrator could also be really trash at brushing their teeth, yields incorrectly at four-way stops, and had a less evolved understanding of information architecture as you.
You’ll never know for sure. What have you gained from this exercise? Exactly nothing. What have you lost? Energy and time. When you’re depressed, energy is one of your premium resources. You need to use it wisely.
Second, comparing yourself to your past or future self. Most designers I know are constantly improving. So, if you’re comparing yourself to your past, it is likely a point of pride. Look at how far you’ve come! (I frequently look at my awkward middle school pictures side-by-side with my current photos and I’m like–dang, where’d that babe come from?!)
Do you feel you’ve digressed? That’s okay and 100 percent normal! Improvement is not always a steady incline. Sometimes when we grow wider and more vast, our niche skills can plateau for a bit.
And, if you’re depressed right now, chances are you aren’t operating at full throttle. You might be less motivated to learn, less able to retain new skills, and be in a temporary state of regression. It is okay. It is normal.
Now as for comparing yourself to your future self, without turning this into a Christopher Nolan plot, all I can say is that you have time to formulate who you want to become.
Start now with your present self. Respect exactly where you are, here, right now. Accept this self in all of its imperfections. Because for every imperfection you’re accepting, you’re also accepting a whole host of accomplishments and battle wounds that are worth celebration.
[R]elinquish control 📌
For those who love control, this is a difficult one. I find that a part of what causes me to feel depressed is that I feel out of control of everything (financial wellbeing, freedom, etc), so I seek to control everything at once (at which I inevitably fail). The dichotomy causes me to feel in control of absolutely nothing.
Getting caught up in cycles is a sure way to perpetuate cycles of depression. A strategy I employ is to disrupt circuitous trains of thought like this.
During the job hunt, there are so many factors outside of your control. You can’t control most of the processes, including the speed at which recruiters respond, the selection criteria, and the implicit biases of the hiring team.
You can’t control even your own success. You can only do your best at that time. Remember that your best when you’re feeling down might be a lot less than when you’re at your best (hence, why it’s so critical to get caught up on comparisons).
Most importantly, you do not have control over the outcome. The outcome is the result of so many other factors and dependencies (that you also don’t have control over).
The lack of control can feel unnerving. When I feel unsettled by it, I remind myself that relinquishing control also means relinquishing blame and guilt. It’s not my fault if I don’t get the job. It’s okay that that interview didn’t go perfectly. (I want to note here that I’m not suggesting that we can relieve of ourselves of all responsibility for our actions. When we’re feeling more stable, we can again reframe this in a more proactive way, but when we’re not as well, I find it helpful to focus on gentler approaches like this.)
[U]nderstand that you cannot singularly change systemic problems 📌
Deep breath. I really struggle with this one. The complexity of job hunting as a woman of colour in tech is worthy of its own post, as it is for disabled, trans, and queer folks.
If you represent an underrepresented, marginalised group, it’s possible you feel the burden of breaking barriers and showing up for your group. It’s a good thing.
But when you’re feeling the unbearable pressure of finding a job—a hefty feat on its own—adding the burden of centuries of systemic oppression to your shoulders is not a good idea.
I say this with the world’s optimism: You cannot protect your group with a single decision you make. You do not need to be a martyr or make a stand for the greater good. Chances are, singularly, your brave act will get lost and ultimately not have the impact you want anyway.
Instead heed the direction of airplane oxygen masks: Help yourself first.
Trust me when I say that we all understand. Your fight for social justice, while very noble, requires first for you to be alive and well to do so. Do what you need to do to survive.
[S]ee yourself from your cheering section 📌
The repeated rejection inherent to job searches can do numbers on even the most stable of egos. Worthlessness, waning confidence, and uncertainty are already part of a packaged deal with depression. The self you see in the mirror, a shell of yourself, is probably not the visage you want to project to prospective employers.
When I’m feeling this low, I do what people tell you not to do: I fish for compliments. Find your biggest fans via email, text, Instagram DM, Twitter, FaceTime. Whatever mechanism you need, use it unabashedly.
It might feel awkward to ask, but you can always start with first telling that person something nice about them as a prompt. Doing so will encourage you to be in a positive mindset and help to focus on someone else for a moment.
"What are some positive qualities that are unique to me?"
"How do I make your life better?"
"What’s your fondest memory of me?"
"Tell me something you like about me."
The answers to these questions may or may not relate directly to characteristics that are pertinent to your employability proper, but at the very least, it will remind you that you are a worthy person who has people who are rooting for you.
The cheering section is also the place from which you want to conduct all areas of the job hunting process. Present your work to your cheering section. Ask for the compensation your cheering section thinks you deserve. Carefully weigh options as your cheering section would suggest. Face your audience of fans and turn your back to the imaginary haters. Do your fans think you deserve more than you feel you do in this place? (Most definitely, yes.)
I think we can forget what we are capable of and what we deserve when we’re sad. We end up dodging failure instead of reaching for radical success. Our peers and loved ones are there to remind us; to cast our best mirrored selves back.
[T]ake one step at a time 📌
When I consult with job hunters who are feeling depressed, I often remind them of this very simple advice. It’s one of my favourite mantras, as it works on a number of different levels.
So many folks stress about whether or not they’ll move for the job when they haven’t even applied yet. Or, they’ll worry about whether or not they’ll take the offer before they’ve even gotten an interview.
The macrosteps of the job hunting process are quite broad and drawn out: deciding to apply, seeking places, applying, interviewing, receiving an offer, accepting the offer, and addressing the ways it’ll impact your life. Each of these steps is major.
While I can respect the need to plan, we’ve been tricked into believing that job hunting is express train to decision town. The expedited process is a falsehood that hasty employers have created and respect only when to their advantage. (Do you ever wonder why they’re in no hurry to get you to the second or third interview? Or how hundreds of applications sit latently before ever viewed? Does it really seem like they’re in a rush to you?) In most cases, unless your job involves directly saving lives, the difference between a couple of weeks of each step is not life or death of the company. If it is, you may want to assess their planning skills.
So, in our analogy, if you get to the point of accepting the offer, you can worry/strategise how to move your entire life to Amsterdam. (And of course noting here by contrast that while it’s not life or death on the company side, that there is tremendous anxiety around a couple of weeks, as that can mean groceries in your belly and roof over your heard; life or death for you.)
But until the steps prior have occurred, that kind of what-if thinking will only cause unnecessary anxiety. Worse yet, thinking this way also gets you obsessing in an alternate world where you’ve magically bypassed the necessary steps of successful application, interview, offer, and acceptance. Effectively, you’re statistically setting yourself up for disappointment.
When you’re depressed, that can be a very detrimental thing to do for your already tender heart. Don’t make your heart deal with more than it needs to right now.
So, let’s say you’ve moved onto the interview process. First, recall what outcome you want for this step, and this step alone (I recommend for this example: Finding out if you even wanna work at this company and might get along with your colleagues!). Then, if you proceed from this step, you are under no obligation to proceed through all the rest. You can evaluate the desired outcome for those steps! Why?
Because one step at a time.
When crafting your portfolio, the doubt can easily sink in. The work you’ve done is irrelevant. The jobs you’ve picked are wrong. The skills you have aren’t sharp enough. So, how do you craft a portfolio out of nothing?
Start and anchor yourself with a singular point of joy.
When I was working on my portfolio last year, at the height of my depression, I fixated on the single illustration that floats above. I borrowed it from a previous project that I loved. I modified it until it brought me joy. I started somewhere with relatively low effort.
I anchored my colour palette around the illustration. I complemented my typography to it. Step by step, line by line, I found myself with a header. Then with a section. One component of work, then another.
Building my portfolio was slow moving. The code I wrote wasn’t perfect. Some of the components were less accessible than I knew how to make. But you know what? It was better than the years of stagnation I’d previously allowed. I relinquished control over the idea of perfection, and removed myself on being the shining example of the accessibility community.
I favoured progress over perfection. I valued each small step, because it meant that no matter how slowly, I was moving forward. When you’re bedridden, barely able to motivate yourself to eat, this feat is no easy task. So it’s equally important to acknowledge these incremental steps, no matter how small.
If and when you’re rejected at various steps, remember to celebrate all the steps you took to get there. A lack of offer doesn’t mean failure to find a job, it means a successful application and completed interview. The lack of offer here means a better offer is out there.
Know, friend, that I know that none of this is easy. It’s all very hard. You will struggle as we all have. You are not alone in this. But as long as you continue to believe in yourself and trust the process, I know you will prevail, one step at a time. We’re rooting for you.
I am always willing to answer questions about how to cope with the arduous job seeker’s journey (DM me on Twitter, email me!) And, if you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a loved one, or would like emotional support, please call 1–800–273–8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.