I am completely aware that by writing this story, I expose all my vulnerability. But I think this vulnerability is precisely the thing that makes me human. And I should never hide being human. I should never hide for merely being me because I’m me, at work and outside of work. This article is probably way too long and personal for anyone to read, but I need to write this. So here I go.
When it all became too much
I think I’ve always been a bit shy or introverted. I strongly focus on how things work, and I am highly analytical. I remember the construct of things, but I forget their implementation. I’m no fun for a pub quiz, but present me any problem, and I’ll figure it out with passion and tenacity.
Up until four years ago, I’ve thought of myself as being stupid more than once. I forget elementary stuff, like birthdates – even of my children – my age, code I’ve written, projects I’ve worked on. I felt like I had a defect. It can still bring me to tears that I don’t remember the things I deemed so important. This is, by the way, also one of the reasons I take so many pictures. Once I have a ‘memory hook’, I’m often able to recall details.
Something was wrong with me; I just wasn’t able to pinpoint what it was, but it made me quite depressed on several occasions. I was constantly confronted with my shortcomings. I felt my grip on life slip out of my fingers. If I can’t remember those important things, how can I take myself seriously when I talk about complicated stuff?
That’s when I first consulted a psychologist.
After quite some consults, something finally clicked. Once I knew which “labels” applied to me, I understood the rationale behind all of this happening. I understood why I felt ‘broken’. All the things I’ve been struggling with for so long felt addressed. We came to the conclusion of giftedness combined with high sensitivity.
I kind of detest the term giftedness. And the Dutch term even more so (it contains the word ‘highly’). It carries the connotation of being “more than average” or like nature gave you a ‘gift’. Well, the gift I received made me feel stupid, and I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. To me, the term ‘gifted’ is just an explanation for what I experience. I feel that I have to say this, because you might misinterpret this, thinking that I’m special and ‘better’, which is not the case.
But the fact remains that I’m labelled as gifted. I share this because it has explained so many things I’ve been struggling with for so long. Meta-thinking, having a very intense inner dialogue, seeing how the machine works before what it does, having analogies for everything, being extremely hungry for understanding things, thinking about what I don’t know, measuring, struggling with absolute and relative definitions, being super detailed, having extremely diverse interests and a deep love for creating, being quick to come up with silly word jokes, finding it hard to focus on simple things while not being able to look away from really complicated stuff, having a great, great, great sense of justice, and having a tough time to let go when something is unjust. I tick all boxes.
I also very strongly feel someone else’s emotions. I hear all of the sounds around me, think about what caused them, and find it hard to focus on the things that should matter to me. All kinds of music profoundly touch my soul. I switch from techno to classic to guitars to rap from song to song. My senses can quickly become overstimulated. I can become overwhelmed by things that might seem trivial to others.
Not as broken as I thought
I’ve been underperforming my entire childhood, and now I feel like I need to compensate for my loss. I’ve obtained my HAVO diploma, which is a Dutch high school diploma, but not pre-university. I could go for VWO, the Dutch pre-university education, but I never had any focus, which would have been a prerequisite. I’ve never studied at school, not a day in my life. I passed HAVO in standard time, and proceeded to HBO, a practice-oriented, non-university Bachelor degree. I still never studied and effortlessly passed all tests.
On the one hand, it sure feels like I could have done so much more. I could have done more to help myself stay focussed if only I knew more back then. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. Your college degree doesn’t say anything about who you are and what you’ve achieved in life. It nonetheless feels like I drove a dent in the bumper of a brand new Matte Black Tesla Model X P100D. It’s a dream car that can still drive, yet there’s always this dent to remind you of how you messed up your first drive. Even if you fix it, the story lingers on.
You know, everything clicked.
Full anxiety, six months ago
I work as a solution architect at a relatively large company, which might not surprise you. Solution architects are called in whenever something new needs to be built and a team or business would like to have a consult on how to achieve the most value out of their investment. I look at the structure of software in combination with the organisational structure, propose ideas, and coach teams or team members aiming for the highest value.
Six months ago, I came to the point of telling a group of influential people that I thought things should be approached fundamentally differently. I proposed a radically different way of reasoning and aligning business versus tech goals in our landscape. Furthermore, I was suggesting a steering group — a Technology Board — in which we create traction to execute changes and set targets from a technical perspective.
At that moment, I was already helping and steering a lot of projects to a Domain Driven Architecture following Conway’s law. Still, it’s hard to become welcome in all relevant meetings where impact can be made. It’s hard to steer if your opinion only matters when asked. It’s not impossible; don’t get me wrong. But you have to show over and over that you know your stuff. That’s not wrong either, but it is exhausting.
A lot was riding on this.
I felt like I was stuck, and I saw the solution. But what if others didn’t? On top of that, I was telling people at least two levels above my paygrade that they should do things structurally different. I was utterly overthinking. Thinking I was overthinking. Looping thoughts at the speed of sound in my mind. I carried on, way too self-aware, and with way too strong feelings of tying my person to my successes. I’ve prepared this meeting as well as a human being can do, but I felt in over my head. In retrospect, this all sounds silly, but that’s what it was.
Then it happened. My sight blurred. I wasn’t able to walk straight. I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I was hyperventilating. Nauseous. My intestines prepared to flee. I felt confined to my head. I wasn’t able to stop my inner dialogue, which is always super intense. It felt like I was stuck in a one-person lift, stuck between two floors, with a fire underneath me and tape over my mouth. Unable to breathe, unable to move, wanting to run and get away with every fibre in my body.
I understood what was happening. This was a panic attack. Fight, Flight or Freeze. I finished a machine learning course not too long ago, and I realised that the feedback loop is super crucial in these situations. My system was grinding to a halt. My choice for a solution determined if this would result in fighting, flighting, or freezing. If you fight and win, you learn that you can cope. When flighting, the problem goes away as well, but you condition yourself into believing that evading the problem ‘solves’ it, leading you to avoid more and more situations.
That’s when I refused
At that very moment, I knew I had to fight. I was terrified. What if someone sees my panic and I’m not able to keep myself together? I refused my progress to be dominated by fear for something I created in my mind. I got myself into that room.
The first thing I said to this exceptional group of people was:
I’m sorry people. I’m having a real panic attack right now, and I might behave differently than usual. But I think it has to do with the subject we are talking about and I really think we should proceed nonetheless.
One colleague saw how pale I was. Another colleague considered cancelling the meeting, and another colleague didn’t notice any change in my communication. After the meeting, he asked me if I was sincere and not making a joke.
The meeting went perfect. But after the meeting, I was utterly spent. All life had left me. I had no energy left, and my muscles hurt everywhere.
Next day I made an appointment with the doctor. I could visit her within an hour. Completely in tears, I told her what was happening to me and that I needed help because I couldn’t help myself at this stage. The same day I had my intake with the GGZ (the centralised mental health institute in the Netherlands), and since I exactly knew what was wrong with me, I was again referred to a psychologist.
Again? What is wrong with me? Another defect?
I was so sure that this was something different. But in the first conversation with the psychologist, I was told that this happens a lot with people who think as I do and that the odds are in my favour to heal mentally as well.
What a relief! Not something I make, but part of how I’m built.
“This is going to destroy my career…”
…was what I thought. If I can’t be in this room, how can I stand in front of a crowd of 400 people and tell them what to do? My family suffered while I suffered. My anxiety had everything in its grip. I was unable to do things with my kids. Meet with friends. Go out in public. I felt humiliated and kept hostage by my brain. The only thing I managed to keep going is my work. I managed to do things differently, still make an impact. Even though this might sound counterintuitive, I was actually healing since I learnt that I am resilient and people value my opinion despite my insecurities.
I’ve learnt that this was nothing new. I’ve always manoeuvred myself around situations, like not calling people because I wasn’t able to read their faces. Like not doing big presentations – I don’t believe in them, but another part is that I have a hard time reading a big room full of people and tell them something they might not be interested in or someone else knows more about. Like not speaking German because I’m afraid I’ll make mistakes. Silly stuff I know I can manage. I’ve successfully presented to an audience of 150 people multiple times, and I’m perfectly capable of ordering an excellent German beer. Why not this time? What changed?
I learnt what I already knew. But this time I believed in it, so I became able to execute it. I need to feed my feedback loop. I need to train my brain to dissociate meeting rooms and crowds from the physiological response to imminent death. You can only do so by booking small successes day by day. Do something just out of your comfort zone and find out for yourself that you didn’t die and rocked the situation. Deliberately make mistakes and learn that you won’t die from them. Recalibrate yourself. Being faulty is human, and mistakes won’t put everything on the line.
It’s not that you don’t know these words, it’s that you have to experience them to give them meaning.
So why is it my goal to become a CTO?
I’m equipped with some analytical and communicative skills that I enjoy using very much. I think I’m at my best when I can make complicated things really easy to understand and the other way around. I see through structures, whether they are technical or organisational, and often get the feedback that I can come with new and innovative solutions. I just love doing this! And I’m good at it!
The only damn person standing between me and where I want to be is myself. It’s not the hard skills, but my internal struggle, and I’m not willing to accept that. I am, however, ready to take this journey until I am where I want to be. I’m already where I was before my breakdown smacked me down. From here, the only way is up.
I am openly telling my story, well knowing how this can backfire and be the CLM (Career Limiting Move) of the century. But I choose radical openness. This is who I am.
Thank you for reading.
Nice to read your story. It’s not to long, you needed to tell relevant details.
This is a great read. I can relate to it easily, but the difference with my own story is that I’m still struggling with belief in both my hard and soft skills, as a result of working in a personally hostile environment. Great to read how your dealing with all this, I’m sure you’ll make it to CTO!