I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently to groups of job-seeking professionals (one reason I’ve been MIA on the internet for two weeks), and predictably I tend to get questions about dealing with job interview anxiety.
But if I get the chance to explore the issue more deeply with people, I often find that they’re not really interested in reducing their anxiety. Instead, they want to convince the interviewer they aren’t anxious.
I usually discover this when someone asks a question about interview anxiety, and I respond with some ideas from meditation and yoga, like bringing your attention into the body, noticing where you’re restricting your breathing, and so on. They then give me a puzzled look, and say “but don’t you have any practical advice?”
When I ask what they mean by practical advice, they’ll reply “you know, things like how I should spin bad stuff on my resume, how long I should spend answering a question,” and so on. In other words, what they really want to know is how to look like a confident, competent person. Their own feelings aren’t important — only the interviewer’s view of them matters.
Image Obsession Creates Anxiety
I think this attitude is in keeping with the conventional wisdom in our culture. For any situation in life involving “selling yourself” — marketing, interviewing for jobs, dating, or something else — most advice out there is about “making” people have the “right” thoughts and feelings about you.
The trouble is, in my experience, this attitude is actually a big source of anxiety. The more deeply we’re concerned about our image, the more scary and exhausting relating with people becomes.
For example, suppose you went into a job interview having memorized ten questions you’re “supposed” to ask, five “confident body language” tips, seven “interview mistakes” to avoid, and so on. Wouldn’t trying to remember and follow all these rules create stress for you?
But that’s not all — suppose you also went into the interview believing that “how I feel doesn’t matter — only this interviewer’s feelings about me are important.” In other words, your sense of self-worth is riding on the interviewer’s opinion of you. Don’t you think that might cause some freak-out as well?
What Do You Want?
So, if memorizing a lot of interviewing tips and obsessing over your image isn’t the key to overcoming interview anxiety, what is? I think all the techniques I usually talk about regarding breathing, focusing your attention, and so on are wonderful, but here’s an even more basic starting point: try focusing on what you feel and want.
That is, instead of going into the interview worrying about what the interviewer will think, see if you can get curious about questions like: is this job in keeping with my career goals? Does this seem like the kind of working environment I’d enjoy? What would I need to know to feel comfortable taking this job?
If you’re in the job market, one thing I think you’ll immediately notice about this attitude is that it actually allows you to have an informative, and even enjoyable, dialogue with the interviewer. Focusing on what you want out of the job helps you to ask questions you’re actually curious about, rather than parroting canned questions from some interviewing book that don’t really matter to you.
Although I’ve been talking about job interviewing, I think the attitude I’ve discussed is useful for any “selling yourself” situation. I’ve found that focusing on our own wants and feelings, rather than getting caught up in strategies for manipulating others’ experience, can help make these situations easier to endure, and maybe even fun.