how can I stop being afraid every time my manager wants to talk to me?

A reader writes:

How do you get over “the fear” when a manager wants to talk to you?

In jobs I’ve had before my current position, managers only contacted you when they wanted to moan about something – which was a lot of the time. As a result, I dreaded every time my manager called or emailed, knowing that I’d be in the wrong about something. Even procedural changes we would have had no other way of knowing about were expressed as “you’re doing procedure X the wrong way, it needs to be done this way now” rather than “there’s been an update to procedure X – you should now be doing Y then Z, rather than A and B as before.”

When I left there I was incredibly relieved, but 4 months into my new job and I still can’t shake the feeling that every time a manager wants to talk to me, it’s to give me a dressing down about something. As a result, I enter into these conversations with an automatic “what I have I done wrong?” fear. Thing is – there’s no reason for me to be so defensive. I’m 4 months into my current job and not once have I been taken to task about anything. I’ve made some mistakes, but these have been gently pointed out to me for me to fix with no malice or anger. But I just can’t seem to get out of the habit/attitude/fear that anytime a manager speaks to me it’s because I’m in trouble. Do you have any practical tips on how to stop feeling like this, or will it just come with time?

Well, first, it’s really common to carry dysfunction from a previous job forward with you into the next one. It’s similar to what people sometimes do in relationships too — carrying toxic patterns from their family or past relationships forward into relationships with new people.

In fact, this is one more reason why it’s important not to let yourself stay too long in dysfunctional workplaces. If you spend too long there, they can reset all your ideas of “normal” in some pretty messed-up ways. And that can hurt you professionally, just like the relationship version can hurt you personally. For instance, if you work somewhere that always shoots the messenger and punishes dissent, you might get used to keeping your head down, never speaking up, and even covering up mistakes when they happen. And that behavior might serve you very well in that job. But if you move to a healthier workplace, that same behavior that worked previously could be hugely damaging. So it’s key to recognize this stuff for what it is, and not let it permanently recalibrate your sense of normal.

(I actually see versions of this in the comments here sometimes, when someone will comment that you should never confide in a manager, or that managers will always seek to pay you less than what you’re worth, or so forth. That kind of thing is true of some managers, not all, and when people think it’s universal, it’s often because they’ve had a string of really horrible work experiences.)

Anyway, back to you and the fear you’re carrying around from your old workplace. I’d do three things:

1. Recognize that fear response for what it is — a specific reaction that developed from a specific situation that you’re no longer in. It sounds like you get this intellectually, but not on an emotional level. So spend some time really thinking about where it came from, and the fact that it’s no longer the case.

2. Think about what evidence you have about your new manager. How have you seen her act? How does she handle mistakes? What kind of feedback does she give you? How does she give it? What kinds of things does she call you into her office to talk about? Spend some time really dwelling on this, because you need the answers to these questions to lodge themselves firmly enough in your mind that the reality of what you’re seeing and experiencing won’t get so easily displaced by the fear response that got wired into you at your old job.

3. Make a conscious effort to refer back to this evidence when you’re having a fear reaction. The next time your manager wants to talk to you and you feel your stomach seize up, remind yourself that the last time she called you into her office it was to give you a new assignment, and the time before that it was to show you a funny email, and when she has had to correct your work, she’s done it with kindness and respect, and last week she told you she was thrilled with your work so far.

Doing the three things above — and continuing to do them, thoughtfully and deliberately — should speed up the time that it will take to recalibrate yourself. It won’t happen overnight, but it should happen in time, and it should prevent you from getting stuck in habits that no longer serve you well.

And hey, congratulations on getting yourself out of a cesspool of ick and into somewhere that sounds a lot better.

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    I’ve struggled with this same thing from the other side – employees being freaked out when I want to talk to them. I’ve IMed them with a simple “can you swing by when you get a chance” and they come by shaking and wanting to know what they did wrong. That was when I started – they know me better now, and I’ve adjusted my style so I make sure I give them good/neutral news with the same lead-up as when I deliver problematic news.

    If your manager strikes you as warm/reasonable/friendly, you might even want to tell her some of this. “It’s taking me some getting used to that you’re not about to yell at me when you say you need to talk to me – my old boss always did that” so she can adjust her style as well. I hate thinking that I’m terrifying people needlessly (sometimes/rarely I do need to strike a bit of fear into them, but I make that perfectly clear).

    1. athek*

      I have, too. OP, is this something you can mention to your manager? They might be able to work something out to let you know right away that you’re not in trouble (when applicable).

    2. Anonymous*

      I would feel extremely uncomfortable letting my boss know something like that – even if they were warm or friendly. It feels like something I would tell a new boyfriend after being in a toxic relationship, but not something I would want to share in a professional environment.

    3. Anonymous*

      From the manager side, regular one-on-ones should solve this problem easily. Even from the employee side, actively seeking feedback, and asking for regular professional update meetings with the manager could be helpful. It all boils down to making the manager-employee interaction an ordinary rather than extraordinary occurrence .

  2. Regular Reader Anon for Comment*

    This is such a timely posting because I feel like this at my job. The environment is very dysfunctional and 1 employee frequently makes very big mistakes but the company owner/our boss covers for him. Things have been pointed out to him in the past in the manner of “this could cause Chocolate Teapots a problem with xyz” but the owner would tell staff he didn’t want to hear it. Some huge matters went uncorrected and caused the clients problems with assessment of penalties and fines/even revocation of a state liquor license and when they left to seek another service provider and “Bob”, the company owner, would say “well I wanted rid of that client anyway”.

    The receptionist speaks very rudely to clients and Bob is aware of this but the behavior continues. Employees that have been employed there for many years have come to see this all as normal.

    It’s true- the longer you stay the more you view the behaviors as normal. OP, congrats on getting out of your toxic job.

  3. Well timed article*

    Thanks for posting this today. I am leaving a highly dysfunctional workplace and trying to figure out how not to carry the dysfunction with me.

  4. Just a Reader*

    I call this kicked puppy syndrome.

    I’ve been out of my dysfunctional workplace an in a super positive one for almost 2 years, and I still get these random bouts of fear. It’s a lot better know with only a little backsliding here and there.

    What helps is that I let my manager in on my fears, their source, and how I try to handle them. She understands and has been more than accommodating about being transparent for the reasons she wants to chat.

    The only time she gave me a cryptic “let’s meet” request, I was totally freaked out and it turned out I got a raise.

    Enjoy your NORMAL workplace, gauge if this is something you can share with your boss and just keep on trucking. It will get better.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      I came here to post the same advice. I found that it was helpful to explain my fears to my manager. I quickly explained that my previous boss only called employees into his office when there was an epic crisis, thereby conditioning us to fear those meetings, and I was happy to return to “normal” workplace practices. My manager was very understanding and shared his own story of post-workplace stress disorder.

    2. Jean Johnson*

      I worked nearly 7 years at a company that was pretty good – but much of that time my manager was a little bipolar. Sometimes criticism was constructive, sometimes it made me want to go cry in my office (which happened!).

      Then my company underwent a merger and my new boss was just awful. Everyone above me on the food chain felt it was okay to act like they were also my boss, and this attitude of “You did this wrong, which means you must be stupid” was throughout the company.

      Having had the bipolar-style manager made me able to recognize the negativity and dysfunction, but it didn’t make it easier to deal with. I left two months ago and have a new job now, where I’m having this same “kicked puppy syndrome” you mention. Nothing negative has happened, but the combination of not knowing my new bosses well yet with my most recent experience is leaving me really anxious every time there’s a one on one conversation.

      What I’m finding useful is to really play the role of observer in all meetings/group interactions and see how healthy discussions and criticism can lead to improvements in the product, process and service.

      I also think it’s key to keep in mind that if criticism is going to be delivered, it should be for a reason that will improve my work or what our company does. Remembering that helps me listen to the benefit of a change rather than hearing blame.

      1. Lauren*

        I know there’s been conversations in previous comments sections about using discriminatory language in the workplace (like the recent one about the r-word) – can we please add “bipolar” to that list? I work with children who have mental health issues (bipolar included). There is TONS of misconceptions and stigmatization around these disorders, and a crappy manager who can’t set clear, consistent expectations doesn’t equal a person who is struggling with a very difficult and damaging disease.

  5. KimmieSue*

    AAM’s advice, spot on. OP, being aware of this blind spot is the first step to rebuilding trust with your managers. Good for you! Best wishes!

  6. Anonymous*

    The reason I tend to assume something is wrong is because I suffer from general anxiety issues. While I’ve learned to handle it (because I have to deal with the world, rather than vice versa), I do wish managers in general were more upfront about even quick meetings. The difference between “Hey, can you stop by office?” and “Hey, can you stop by my office to touch base about those reports? I have a couple of clarifying questions” is vast for me. Not that I won’t still worry that I messed up the reports in the second one, but at least it isn’t vague and my mind won’t be racing with, “Oh god, everything I’ve been doing is crap and awful.” And if it is due to some kind of performance issue (which has only happened once or twice in my whole career), a little heads’ up about that can help too (“Hey, can you stop by my office? There is some feedback I need to go over with you regarding x, y, z.”)

    Again, I know that’s not totally reasonable since it’s my own issue (and there may be reasons why a manager wouldn’t want to put something like that in writing or say it over the phone), but a little more transparency with even smaller things can help when you have an anxious employee.

    1. NylaW*

      Oh this is me to a T, Anon. My boss likes to pull the “stop by my office when you have a chance” and my mind goes through 27 different things wondering what I could have screwed up. Then it turns out he wanted to ask me something completely benign and I feel like he could have just said that upfront!

    2. Anonymous*

      See, I’m really anxious too and the responses you’ve suggested would make me more anxious. Since anxiety has different triggers for different people, it would be hard to come up with a way of phrasing things that would keep even the most anxious person calm.

      1. KLH*

        I have an anxiety disorder, marked by a history of social anxiety and a paranoid and suspicious personality when my mental health is poor. And I’ve had two jobs where I’ve become enmeshed in dysfunctional workplaces and stayed way too long.

        Aside from therapy, what has helped my is a constant Plan B of getting out and just doing something that pays bills. I do not get involved in the crazy when I have a way out and can recognize that I am working for nutters in a dysfunctional environment. The other thing is being honest about who I am in job interviews and interactions. I like to do. I do not like meetings. I like to debate, but I am unconcerned with peeing on things to make my mark. I am a big picture person who cares about details when it’s important, but is fine with gray areas.

        I am a stinky cheese of worker bees, and that is fine. I just need to find environments that like stinky cheese.

        1. Susie*

          Whoa. You are my work twin.

          “I like to do. I do not like meetings. I like to debate, but I am unconcerned with peeing on things to make my mark. I am a big picture person who cares about details when it’s important, but is fine with gray areas.”

      2. Us, Too*

        I really welcome people telling me what works for them. Some folks want more information and some less. Just tell your boss your preference and maybe they can adjust accordingly. :)

    3. Adam*

      I understand how you feel. I’ve had trouble with anxiety issues with some sprinkles of OCD on top which can make just about anything tortuous. Generally it’s your brain playing tricks on you by taking something that you fear, formulating the worst possible scenario you can think of, and then your brain gins it up to where you believe that not only is that scenario possible but the most likely outcome despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a horrible thing to endure.

      I’m not an expert, but what I find can be helpful for a lot of people is to identify what you’re anxious about and confront it via a little role play with a trusted counselor. The thing about anxiety is that one thought usually cascades into a series of “if that, then this” ideas.

      “My boss wants to talk to me.”
      “He’s probably not happy with my work.”
      “He’s going to fire me.”
      “I’ll be out of work and won’t be able to pay bills or feed my kids.”
      “Everyone will think I’m a loser.”

      So when you’ve realized you do this get your counselor to play the role of your boss and have them act out the exact scenario you picture as being so terrible, but rather than trying to defend yourself against his harsh words accept them and even agree with them. Many find this to be amazingly disarming and even funny to the point where the don’t feel quite so anxious anymore.

      I recommend reading some of the books by David Burns on mood which is where I got the above. They helped me a lot.

      1. Anonymous*

        Good advice! Also read up about cognitive distortions. I found just recognizing my thoughts as cognitive distortions actually helped me.

        1. Kevin*

          I like this advice, too. Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit has a great technique called “the worry worksheet”. In that exercise, you follow through with your mind what would happen if the dreaded event occurs (in this case being yelled at), and then plan for how you would take care of yourself in that situation. When we know we are going to be there for ourselves no matter what, anxiety about this event happening or that event happening starts to come down.

    4. Us, Too*

      I actually find that it is almost always a good practice to provide some context for someone when the news is going to be neutral or good. “Swing by when you get a second – I have some good news for you.” or “Stop by later this afternoon – we’re making a change to the TPS Report template and I need to let you know how it will be done going forward”. or “I need to present you with your bonus. Swing by so I can give you extra money, please. :)” It grounds people so that they arrive prepared to talk about the right things.

      1. Andrea*

        So much this. Adding some context for these requests is really the best thing for a manager to do. It doesn’t really take any extra effort to do this, either.

        I know there have been times at past jobs when I’ve been called in to discuss a particular thing, and if I’d known what it was about, I could have come prepared with documentation or whatever, so in addition to being more considerate, giving a little extra information is also more efficient.

      2. Gjest*

        I like this too- It’s similar to how I had to train my mom to stop my mom from leaving messages or texts that just said “call me” or “we need to talk”. I would freak out thinking it was an emergency, who died, etc. Then I’d call back and inevitably she’d just say something like “I am at the store and was wondering if you would rather have a blue sweater or a green one.” Not an emergency. Just tell me in the message that it is not important, and/or about a sweater decision.

        Same with the boss- just give me a hint about what you want to talk about. I can prepare a little mentally, and also maybe I could easily look up some info that would make the conversation more productive, too.

    5. Sam*

      I’m right there with you! I actually developed a general anxiety disorder (GAD) because of my dysfunctional workplace. It’s getting to be very bad for my health, and I know that Alison is right and why it’s all the more reason to leave, but sadly it’s taking me an extremely long time to find a new job. I really wish mental health was as much of a reason to take a leave of absence from work or leave a job entirely, as is true for a physical affliction. I feel like my job is bad for my health but it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things.

  7. Anonie*

    Alison, do you have any insight or advice for someone like me who hasn’t had a horribly dysfunctional, toxic work environment, but still feels fearful and nervous when my boss wants to talk to me?

    I understand the fear reaction when you come from a toxic work environment and that’s your only point of comparison, but I don’t know why I’ve always felt this way. My boss is far from being a jerk, and we have a good relationship. He is not one to berate or shout or be disrespectful, even when delivering bad news, and I always walk out of his office wondering why I was so worked up.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Do you get anxiety in other situations? And any chance that you come from a family where you got yelled at / in trouble a lot? Sometimes we carry this stuff with us into adult life from what got wired into us as kids.

      1. Adam*

        +1 to this. When you’re a kid whatever you personally know about life and how people treat each other as your family demonstrates is “normal” to you. I used to think my family was normal until I reached my 20’s and began to realize that we were about as maladjusted as any group of people can be without requiring the authorities (usually). And if you are naturally sensitive in temperament wrong ideas can’t get wired into you pretty hard.

        Explore yourself and see if you can get an idea where this comes from. Talking to good friends or a good counselor can help tremendously.

      2. louise*

        So true. And sometimes we internalize what we saw happen to a loved one–like a parent was unexpectedly fired and we remember overhearing something like “well, I didn’t see that coming. Bob called me into his office and that was that.”

        I didn’t grow up with that, but my husband did, and in his case, his dad’s employment was connected to their housing, and he remembers packing up all night on more than one occasion. That’ll mess with your head!

        1. Adam*

          Oh man that’s rough. At least when you’re parents move for business or the military you usually get some time to adjust to the idea. Having to pack and go at a moment’s notice like you’re refugees or something must be awful.

      3. Anonie*

        No I did not come from that type of family and I don’t generally get anxious in other situations, social or professional. I feel like it has something to do with feeling like I have no control over the situation because it’s my boss and he can fire me if he wants to for pretty much whatever reason he wants to. Maybe it’s the power imbalance I’m anxious over?

        1. Anonymous*

          Does your job tie in to any other situations that stress you out – like money? Sometimes when I’m stressed about money, I get more stressed and anxious about situations at work, fearing that I’ll get fired and then have no income which would exacerbate my money concerns.

    2. Andrea*

      This is my issue, too. It took me a long time to realize that it came from my very successful yet alcoholic father who yelled at me all the time and was always very critical. I was a good kid who got good grades, but nothing was ever good enough. Every little mistake meant that I couldn’t do anything right, ever. I worked on it in therapy for years and made some progress, but I’ve also internalized much of this, even still. I think to some extent, these scars will never really heal. But it does help me to think of times when I’ve gotten great feedback on my work and to tell myself that I am smart and competent and that this boss likes my work and likes me as a professional. I kind of give myself a little pep talk. I’ve never had a boss who yelled at me or attacked my work or me, and yet I always expect it.

        1. Andrea*

          Haha, well, no, not if you’re really in England. My only sibling lives in DC. Sorry you’ve experienced this, too, though.

    3. A Fundraiser*

      Anonie, I hear you on this and take a different approach than the others commenting hear. I get nervous when my manager shows up in my office unexpectedly or calls me in. He’s an excellent leader, we’ve worked together for many years, he values me greatly and I respect him immensely.

      That said, he can be tough and direct, and I am always trying to be “perfect.” So, I get the same feelings you do.

      I’ve been helped by conferring with very trusted colleagues who have the same emotional response. This confirms that we all simply live in awe of his accomplishments and also all are introspective employees who know we are not perfect. By normalizing my response and then following Allison’s “reality check” tips, I can tamp down the general anxiety and marginalize what’s left over.

    4. CTO*

      I think that figuring out the root cause (by delving into your past and looking for pain) is generally less important. Even if you can’t figure out the past cause, you can work on taming your anxiety in the present. If you have an EAP or good insurance, even a few goal-oriented counseling sessions might help a lot.

  8. Tiff*

    I have experienced this. I’ve been at my current gig for 6 years, and until about 2 years ago I would have what I guess borders on a panic attack before my annual review. In 6 years I haven’t received anything less than a stellar review and even have a recent promotion. But my last job was miserable. They saved up any and all faults and just sprung them on you come review time, pecking away at your confidence and your already-tiny raise with every nasty surprise. I was there for only 2 years, but the effects were long lasting.

    I agree with Allison’s suggestions, but I’d also reserve myself to the fact that some of this will just take time. You have to remind yourself over and over again that you aren’t crazy, your expectations of the manager/employee relationship aren’t too high, that you actually are good at what you do. It took a long time for that to sink in for me under the best of circumstances.

  9. MR*

    This type of post gets me thinking about how many bad manager are out there. I’d like to think that it is like a bell curve: you have a small amount of great managers, a small amount of terrible managers and most managers are in the middle and could be considered ‘average.’

    But most of the time, we here about the bad managers. So does the bell curve tend to skew towards the negative, or is it a fairly even distribution?

    1. Sadsack*

      Good question. From my perspective: I have had nine managers in my 20 year career. Three of them are what I would consider to be good managers. The other six had various issues, or rather I had various issues with them. Three of them were decent people with poor management skills; the other three were just plain despicable human beings.

    2. Positivity Boy*

      I think it definitely skews towards the negative, which I suspect often stems from the “good individual contributor = good manager” fallacy. It is EXTREMELY common for high performing employees to get promoted to management based on their success in their individual role, even though the skills required are completely different. This isn’t to say that a good salesperson or programmer or what-have-you can’t turn out to also be a good manager, but often the transition is very rough while the person adjusts to their new responsibilites, and without someone to guide them the new manager can develop bad habits and methods of dealing with things that never get fixed. I think people put in that situation also get resentful because they’re used to excelling at their job and they get stuck doing something that they have no background in with no guidance, so they get frustrated and it’s ultimately reflected in their management. I was 100% an example of this the first time I was promoted to a leadership role, but fortunately I had a great boss and 2 other strong mentors that were able to redirect me onto the path to being a good manager myself.

    3. NylaW*

      I think it’s similar to what Sadsack said. It skews a little negative because you have managers who are, or might be, nice people – when they are just being themselves outside of a work environment – but have poor managerial skills and really shouldn’t be managers.

    4. Lily*

      The bell curve is probably right. We also hear more about “bad managers” because bad employees are not going to recognize a good manager when they have one and even good managers have bad habits we can complain about.

  10. AnonAthon*

    Congrats on the new (more functional) workplace! I totally was in a situation like this. I had a boss who would go ballistic over even the tiniest mistake, so I would spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing things — long after I was sure that it was all correct. This habit of course carried over into my next job. Silly as this sounds, could you maybe keep a running document of all of your positive interactions with your manager? That way you could refer to something concrete whenever fear strikes.

    1. Carpe Librarium*

      I really like the running document idea. Every time you come out of a meeting with your manager, just write the date and purpose of the meeting in the back of a notebook or something. That gives you an easy reference for your jumpy nerves going forward.
      1/7: Can I help with project X
      1/26: Did well on task Y
      2/19: Need to add C to TPS report

  11. Been There*

    Oh man, this would have been me asking this for either of my two previous jobs! One job was SO toxic that even when coworkers wanted to speak with me, I could cringe with fear and loathing (I affectionately call that former workplace “Hell Job”). The next place wasn’t as bad at first, but eventually, every email from my boss triggered a sick feeling in my stomach.

    When I got a NewJob, I tried to do a few things. (I also suffer from anxiety/depression.)
    1) admitting to myself that I’d be having/was having these feelings for a bit and that was OK. They just couldn’t rule my life or affect my new relationships.
    2) I took a few minutes to do some deep breathing / quick mediation when I’d get an email from NewBoss (“remember, this isn’t OldJob. No panicking. Calm your nerves.”)
    3) I also gave myself a deadline. 3-4 months at New Job and I was no longer allowed to panic when I got emails or feedback that was similar to what I used to get from old boss (not that the content was similar, just that the circumstances were causing these reactions). I would ask for clarification if I didn’t understand something because I was unfamiliar with where New Boss was coming from.

  12. JM in England*

    I feel for you OP and understand fully your situation.

    Like other commenters have said, this reaction has been ingrained Pavlov style and, like yourself, came to associate the boss wanting to talk with being chewed out. At one of my dysfunctional former workplaces, was a temp, so that was an additional stressor on account of having few to no rights at the time. Now when a boss wants to talk, I ask “What about?”, although it would be most helpful if they were upfront with their reasons.

  13. wesgerrr*

    Was the OP at my previous job! Haha. But I’m so happy that he/she finally managed to move forward. It’s scary at first , but it is so worth it.

  14. Robin*

    OP, this is just your basic operant conditioning. I had a similar situation with a boss who was terrible, and would call me at all hours, to the point where I had a panic reaction whenever my phone rang! It will probably mostly just take time. Like Allison said, just do your best to be aware of it, keep it internal, and make sure it doesn’t impact your new work. Honestly, I wouldn’t bring it up with the new boss if you can avoid it, it’s tough to do without treading into dangerous “trashing your old boss” territory.

  15. Purr purr purr*

    I can’t stand toxic workplaces. I think that sometimes companies should look for positives too, not just negatives. I was called into work on the morning of my Grandad’s funeral for an 8-week trip away from home (instead of the usual 4). My manager said I wouldn’t be busy because the project was wrapping up and so sent me away with office work. When I got to my destination, I found that the previous two colleagues hadn’t prepared an important document; it took me weeks and was 240 pages by the end and the info was hard to find since I wasn’t present at the time data was collected. In addition to catching up with their work, I did the office work too. And I did my own work, which was actually enough work for two people (demanding client). I was working 16-17 hour days for 8 weeks while upset about my Grandad, even though my contract stated I’d only get paid for 12 hours. When I got home, the office called me in and complained about one minor part of the work, which was also something I had queried with the office and followed their instructions to the letter, and withheld my promised promotion as a result of me ‘not being ready’ because of the ‘poor quality’ of that bit of work. Of all the work I did well and the time I put in, it was awful to be judged on that one little thing. The company had been really negative leading up to that with a terrible atmosphere so I’d already considered leaving but that was the nail in the coffin.

    I can totally understand OP and her scars. I have them too. Managers need to realise that being constantly negative has an impact on morale and also the confidence of their staff, both of which negatively impact on a company. It’s one of the reasons why, in addition to offering constructive criticisms to my juniors, I also compliment them for jobs well done at other times.

    1. JM in England*

      I agree, Purr Purr Purr!

      The 99 times out of 100 you get things right, it’s invisible to the boss but the one time you get it wrong, it’s like a signal flare and they are down on you like the proverbial ton of bricks!

    2. athek*

      This is a very good point. Managers need to be sure that good performance brings interactions as well.

  16. sapphire*

    My supervisor has taken to adding, “It’s nothing bad!” to those requests. This has helped a LOT.

    1. Jamie*

      I would be wary of taking too much comfort in that. I know it may feel better at the time, knowing there isn’t a negative issue, but it can hurt your reputation to be seen as needing this much reassurance.

      It’s better to approach meetings with a manager as two professionals who have to discuss work – no big deal. I would really recommend faking it until you make it on this. Because I have worked with people who needed that level of reassurance and as nice as they can be, I’m really reluctant to give them lead on important stuff because they are more concerned with “being in trouble” than the task at hand.

      I know it can be tough, but if you stay cocooned in your comfort zone needing this level of reassurance for routine meetings it can really hinder your path.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Well, not if the supervisor says that to everyone as a matter of course.

        To make yet another job/relationship parallel, “we need to talk” has become so ingrained as a prelude to a breakup that I’ve gotten in the habit of telling people “We need to talk AND IT’S NOTHING BAD” (or if it’s mildly bad) “We need to talk BUT IT’S NOT DOOOM!”

        1. Jamie*

          I would find that odd if a manager said that to everyone as a matter of course.

          In fact, if my boss did that to me I’d be somewhat insulted because it would feel like he was presuming I needed this kind of reassurance and I’d wonder what kind of vibe I was giving off that he would read me that way. And if it was to everyone, I’d wonder why I was being reassured despite never indicating I needed it.

          Maybe it’s because I talk with my boss about lots of things that have nothing to do with me – tasks, projects, updates, long term planning, etc. – that the vast majority of times we need to talk are just neutral business conversations – nothing to get upset or joyful about. It seems like notifying someone each time would be optimizing for the rare occurrence and that’s odd to me.

          Again, if I’d worked in a place where the only time someone spoke to me it was negative I’d have the same reaction…but I’d still think the onus would be on me to readjust my mindset rather than accept reassurance that would harm my career.

      2. Anonymous*

        I agree. I have really bad anxiety but I would honestly never want my manager to start coddling me like that or providing extra reassurance. I feel like it would have the sort of consequences you describe – not getting assignments, not being trusted or just not generally being viewed in the most positive light from a professional standpoint. I know it’s a common issue and that many people struggle with it, but I try to keep it under control in the work place.

    2. Anonymous*

      But what happens when she DOESN’T say “it’s nothing bad”? Would the anxiety be worse than if she never added “it’s nothing bad”?

      1. Anon*

        This. Also, for consistency and employee privacy, I always close my office door when I meet with employees, even if it’s a routine check-in, so no one can say, “Oh, A is meeting with B! She must be in trouble!”

  17. Stephanie*

    Oh God, I could have written this. FirstJob was extremely dysfunctional and included former employees suing, something like a 50% two-year turnover rate, and retention bonuses that had to be repaid if you quit early. I wasn’t great at that job and got fired. NextJob was a tad less dysfunctional, but I had this kind of nutty manager who alternated between yelling and passive aggressiveness. The job was similar to FirstJob (it was all I could find) and I wasn’t great at it either. I managed to keep my head above water, but got on a PIP and then successfully got off it. And then I was first in line when layoffs started happening.

    So from all this, I think I have Job PTSD. As batty as this sounds, I’m terrified about whatever my next job will be (currently job searching). I know I should be an asset for whatever my role is, it’s hard believing that NextJob won’t be as terrifying as the past two jobs.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Look at it this way–you survived it. You can handle ANYTHING now. Not only that, but once you’ve been through something, you see it coming a lot sooner and easier if it happens again, so you’d have time to head it off and/or deal.

      1. Stephanie*

        Thanks for this.

        I’ve definitely told myself that. And I know there are people out there who have reasonable jobs with normal bosses. It’s just a continual process to reassure myself that every job isn’t going to end with me walking out the office with my crap in a box and heading home to file unemployment.

  18. Tinker*

    Oddly enough, one thing that I find helps is to have regular meetings with the boss — both as far as building up a stock of experiences that go well (and hence kind of defusing the bomb in one’s head), and also to put something of a cap on the amount of bad news that could possibly be coming. Being as, after all, if my boss was happy with me last week and summed up with “keep up the good work”, he could only at most be one week’s worth of unhappy with me this week, right?

    This might not work quite as well if the issue is specifically with being unable to predict what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, but for the issues I’ve had (which have been more my own critical nature combined with a workplace where the problems came more from the nature of the work than the people) it has helped a lot.

    All of my managers over the past few years have had some sort of system for one-on-one meetings, but there are also ways (I think Manager Tools covers this) of regularly seeking feedback in a productive way even if the manager hasn’t adopted one yet.

  19. LCL*

    For a practical tip, I agree with Jamie’s advice to fake it until you make it. I mean no disrepect to people who have anxiety disorders, I know it’s not as simple as just get over it.
    At a low stress time, think of something in your life that makes you happy and feel good. Picture all aspects of this in your mind-where you are, the scents, what you are doing, the sounds. Memorize it. Then when you get called to a meeting, think about this scene for a few moments until you are ready.

    I am speaking from the other side on this, as someone who has some job responsibilities that would be management in most other workplaces but my classification is NOT management. I am sometimes surprised by how much stress it causes other employees when I ask to speak to them. Even though I have no hiring or firing authority. My style is to talk to people with minimal notice for things which don’t require preparation, which most prefer, but one worker reacted with extreme anger to a short notice meeting.

  20. Bee*

    Not necessarily a suggestion to help the OP now (glad they are in a better workplace!), but I have been trying to avoid managers like this in my next position. At a recent interview I asked the manager how they would describe their management style and provide some examples of how they give feedback. Astonishingly, they said “you won’t hear from me unless you do something wrong or until there’s a problem.” I know that not everyone is so candid or even self-aware, but I think it’s worth asking.

    1. Stephanie*

      Blaaahhhh, that management style drives me crazy. I’m sure it works well for some people, but that was the management style at my last two jobs. I found it horrible. All it did was train me that any contact from the boss was bad contact.

      At LastJob, one boss worked in a different office, so that just added to the whole Scary, Angry Boss Mythos. We talked mostly by phone (I never even met him in person before he resigned), so that boss just became Disembodied Voice that Calls When Angry.

      1. Bee*

        You are not alone! This is not the management style I am looking for, either. I was relieved when I received a quick rejection for that position.

  21. Anonymous*

    You don’t have to be coming from a toxic environment to be worried when your manager wants to see you. I suffer from Impostor Syndrome ( and I’ve been working pretty successfully for a very long time.

    I just accept the fear as a knee-jerk reaction and deal with it and hide it as much as possible.

  22. SBL*

    Just saying that bosses shouldn’t be saying “Stop by my office later.”

    I am a good employee in a good office and I still get that “come to the principal’s office” when they say that.

    How about “I would like to discuss xyz, can you stop by when you get a chance?”

  23. Nelly*

    I’ve been in your position, but I had a really nice manager who would say ‘Let’s go have a coffee’ then say things like ‘we’re going bankrupt, and I’m having to let go 150 people tomorrow’. Hearing a manager say ‘Let’s get coffee’ became a huge trigger. Then coupled with an abusive boss for six months who gave me PTSD, I really had issues.

    Now that I’m a manager, my advice, and only if this works for you with your current boss, would be to be somewhat honest about it. You don’t need to say you were terrorised, but ask if your manager would like to have the occasional catch up session, very informally. Just so you can stay in touch with their needs, get some feedback in a comfortable setting, things like that. Help your new manager to reprogram that fear setting for you.

  24. Kris*

    Not to offend, but it’s really nice to know I’m not the only one who has this problem, or is in this kind of situation.

  25. Certified Professional Coder (CPC)*

    This could not have come at a better time. I have ben following this blog for over a year now. The past 3 years have been really rocky for me, employment-wise. I was laid off from a steady job of five years and had several cycles of unemployment, short stints in horrible working environments, etc… I finally have a good, stable job now. However, I automatically get a pit in my stomach if my manager IM’s me to “Come on over, check this out” or “Let’s set up a 1×1”. It’s an irrational fear because my performance has exceeded their expectations. I’m really trying to overcome the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

  26. Not the OP, but could be*

    I am so glad I am not the only one who has this problem.

    I actually have PTSD from a previous job. I was there for 3 1/2 years, which was 3 1/2 years too long. I should have walked out on the first day, but didn’t, and had a very difficult time finding another job. My review was always a complete surprise list of things I hadn’t been doing correctly (apparently); my boss would sit on projects for weeks, then ask me to complete a 1 week project in less than a day, then have a fit when it wasn’t completed on time and had mistakes; and he would make sweeping generalizations (EVERYONE in the department has complained about you), but couldn’t give me any specifics (like what the complaints were or what the issue was). He wanted me to change, but wouldn’t tell me what he wanted, just something different.**

    In my current job I work remotely, so I have limited interaction with my supervisors and manager, which helps. When I have to be in the office, every time a supervisor glances at me I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s a good job, I like it, and everyone seems sane, including the supervisors/manager. I’ve been here for about 8 months, but I know it’s going to take a long time before I stop salivating when I hear the bell.

    **I acknowledge that by the time I finally managed to get out, the boss had some legitimate complaints about my work. I stopped trying to do my best, since my best and my worst got the same negative reaction. I just stopped caring.

    1. Same Situation*

      This sounds exactly like my current scenario. I have been at this job 8 months, and one of the three supervisors is rude, condescending, a procrastinator, verbally abusive, aggressive, and vindictive, among many other negative adjectives. He does the same thing with projects, waiting until the night before it is due after 5pm to give an assignment. He is inconsiderate of whether you’re working on anything else, and he needs everything “right away.” He is constantly reminding me that he is a “boss” in this place and his time is important, and in not so few words, his time is more valuable than mine.

      I also have stopped trying, and am focusing my efforts on obtaining new employment and avoiding this supervisor. Most days I don’t know if I’m going to make it through the end of the day. I have given myself the talk that if it comes down to it, I can walk away at any given moment (fortunately I have a financial buffer), but this will negatively impact my resume, so I continue to stick it out. This job has taken a physical and mental toll on me, and I need to get out ASAP.

  27. Teacher Recruiter*

    I have this same problem passing cops on the road! That stomach in your throat feeling about getting caught when there is nothing to be caught for. Maybe I’ll steal some of Alison’s tactics for that too. Some days this blog is just helpful in real life.

  28. HAnon*

    I need to work on this! Previously managers have only said “We need to talk” or “See me” when it was something bad. One manager told me I was going to get a raise and a promotion, then said “let’s talk” and fired me (I still don’t know why)! My current boss says “we need to talk” very frequently, and while the info is never bad, my instant reaction is a feeling of fear/panic about my job security, and she’s started saying “it’s not bad” because of the deer in the headlights look that I get. It’s hard to shake those kinds of expectations!

  29. Allie26*

    I definitely have this problem, as well, and sympathize with all in similar positions. I love the work (non-profit – conservation), but hate this aspect of worrying about the next abusive ‘critique’.

    My supervisor always threatens me with – ‘I can always find someone else’ and doesn’t seem to realize how crippling the negativity can be. It’s hard to shake. Note that I am ‘part-time’ and decided to work full-time hours, with half hours being volunteer and the other half being paid (this is legal in a non-profit – different rules than other work places). I doubt my supervisor could find someone who works as much as I do at that stipend.

    If I didn’t absolutely LOVE what we do, I probably wouldn’t stay. Meditating helps me re-center, but it doesn’t change the fact that the way this person communicates is wrong.

    E.G. – Recently, I had asked my supervisor if an expense could be approved for some office supplies (CDs, ink, etc.). This person replied with ‘We don’t have extra funds for that and if you can’t cover it, then that’s pretty scary’. Admittedly, in the past, I would cover expenses like that as a donation when I had the personal funds to do so as an in-kind donation – and I did that because I truly care about out cause and what we do. But, recently, funds have been tight and I am not able to do that at this time. It troubles me that the ‘donations’ are now considered a given instead of simply being appreciated as they come. When I explained the situation, this person said that all of ‘us’ (rest of Staff) have expenses I don’t and I should be able to cover it (I am about half the age of other people here).

    I don’t mean to make this about me, certainly – I just tell that story to say that I truly empathize to others in similar abusive situations and yes, it’s somewhat comforting to know that ‘you’re not alone’. I find things that are positive and healing – meditating, getting outside, etc,. and it helps ease the stress.

  30. Heather*

    I’ve been reading this blog for a long time. This is my first comment.

    I’d actually been contemplating submitting a question to Alison about this. Like the OP, I have that same kicked puppy syndrome other commenters have mentioned. In the past 10 years, I’ve have three awful, mental-illness inducing bosses.

    The most recent was a new job after maternity leave. In less than a week, I felt old patterns starting to replay. Crazy boss. Impossible expectations. Non-existent communication. Gas lighting. I left after three months because while I may have been able to stick out toxic workplaces in the past, I can’t let a job suck out my brain and soul when I have babies in need of a healthy mother. I realize I was lucky to be able to leave.

    I want to work. I’d like to have a job. I’ve had good jobs with nice bosses in the past. I know they exist. I’m smart! I’m creative! I work hard! I’m a great coworker/team member/employee! I’m even funny sometimes!

    But my confidence is shattered. My last experience reignited all the old PTSD, all the baggage, all the self doubt, the anxiety, the frothy internal ocean of awfulness. Now the idea of going back to work, even a job that sounds great, fills me with dread.

    I know I probably need therapy. The comments on this post are, as usual, thoughtful and very helpful. I saw a few recommendations for books, which I will check out. (By the way: Why Is It Always About You? was amazingly helpful in dealing with narcissist bosses and others.)

    Any other book recommendations? Judging from the responses here, many people have had similar experiences. I feel like there ought to be a whole field of psychology aimed at diffusing workplace trauma. Or group therapy. Like, on a beach in the tropics. With nasty old bosses force to deliver pina coladas. That would make me feel better.

  31. Rob*

    I don’t really like talking with my Manager. I was told she wanted to talk to me about a promotion but instead I was yelled at over a misunderstanding on her part. I don’t believe anything that comes out of her mouth anymore.

  32. Eve Romero*

    My manager has been picking on me for two weeks….. I only been working for 2 mouths there….. I made choices she didn’t like. But I was only going by the rules…. My manager said we don’t use them guild lines any more…. I said then why have them posted up….manager didn’t like my respond…. come to find out… Other new Staff had been confronting her on her errsponable actions and miss use of her athority… a manager….not show up on time, adding extra hours, having us do her work, forgetting to do paper work, and alowing her best friend to stay home and collect fouls house and hive other staff do her work, ….. Wow…but all ways write us up for everything…..will I guess I just happens to be first on she took it out on……What I’m asking is what can us staff do about it with out getting in trouble with the big boss…..

  33. Sinno*

    I am relatively new to my job and just this afternoon got a ‘We need to talk’ from my boss when I was expecting a ‘Your report is fine’. I have to reschedule our meeting but I start two weeks holiday tomorrow so now I have two weeks to dwell on the possibilities. I don’t want this ruining my sleep or let it ruin my holiday. Some clarification would be good.

  34. Annon*

    I recently went from a dysfunctional lack of communication job to OMG THE BUILDING WILL FALL APART IF YOU DONT DO X EXACTLY THE WAY I TELL YOU!

    I dread work. My manager seems like a nice person when off the clock but I hate working under her. I lost respect for her when 1} she snapped her fingers in my face when I started moving the boxes she told me to move and put it in the order she told me to and 2} texts me at 8:30am on my day off as an urgent notice to turn off the alarm in the building–thought the place was broken into but no, she wanted me to open the doors for an employee.

    I am already looking for another job. $8/hr isn’t worth the midnight calls and texts over work tasks the next day.

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